What lies behind the title of the exhibition by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian. And why humor is sometimes the best criticism.

“Either he’s dead, or my watch has stopped,” Groucho Marx (while taking the patient’s pulse). This is the somewhat cryptic title that artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian have consciously chosen for their exhibition at the Schirn. The title is a quote from the seventh film by the Marx Brothers, “A Day at the Races”, from 1937.

Groucho Marx, alias Hugo Z. Hackenbush, is actually a veterinary surgeon according to the plot, but here he poses as a doctor and is hired by a sanatorium frequented primarily by more affluent members of society. Each time he is called upon to demonstrate his expertise as a doctor, he employs absurd maneuvers in an attempt to avoid doing so and ultimately throws everything into turmoil. When he nevertheless has to take a patient’s pulse at one point, even that goes wrong. He cannot recognize any signs of life and concludes with the comment: “Either he’s dead, or my watch has stopped.”

Connoisseurs of the Marx Brothers will recognize the wry humor inherent in all their performances. Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo Marx began their careers at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA in vaudeville shows. This form of entertainment theater generally consisted of a compilation of different acts – similar to cabaret – in which music, dance, theater and show fillers were combined without a rigid plotline. American vaudeville enjoyed huge popularity around 1900, before it experienced a gradual demise in the 1920s with the rise of the “talkies”.

Harper und Chico, Pressebild für den "A Day at the Races", 1937, Image via WikiCommons

During this time the Marx Brothers likewise shifted from the stage to film, and here they developed their tried-and-tested characters into trademarks. Groucho with glasses, a painted-on moustache and a cigar was the fast-talking cynic. Harpo, with his red or in films blond curly wig, was a proficient harp-player and considered a klutz who communicated by blowing a horn and whistling. Chico, with his pointed hat, put on an Italian accent and was always chasing the ladies, while Zeppo remained without any defining characteristics and soon retreated behind the scenes, just as the fifth brother, Gummo Marx, had done before him.

The Marx Brothers remain among the most influential comedians of the 20th century

The Marx Brothers signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, with whom they released their first film “The Cocoanuts” (1929). By 1937, when “A Day at the Races” was released (now under contract with the American film production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), they had already racked up notable successes with their concept of “social satire”, and to this day they remain among the most successful and influential comedians of the 20th century. In 1977, they were inducted into the Motion Picture Hall of Fame.

Marx Brothers, 1931, Image via WikiCommons

If you ask artists Ramin, Rokni and Hesam to explain why they chose this quote as the title for their exhibition, they refer you to the various levels of interpretation the wording permits: “A grip on reality (death) is playfully disrupted creating a fleeting disassociation (stopped watch),” says a statement from the artists. “The quote is a humorous way of dealing with and experiencing time. Taking time as an intensive variation of the present.”

They trace numerous aspects of the world around them

Questioning the present day and reinterpreting it is all part of the approach taken by the Iranian artists’ collective. They trace numerous aspects of the world around them – politics and popular culture, history and current events – and combine it all in their space-consuming works with surprisingly new and complex results. They create “alternative landscapes”, as they call them. In the process, they also combine varied media and art forms, and from this perspective it slots perfectly into their strategy to use a film quote as an exhibition title: It “fits into our process of allowing seepage of one artform into another. The title is a migration from the impure form of cinema to visual art,” as they themselves describe it.

RAMIN HAERIZADEH, ROKNI HAERIZADEH UND HESAM RAHMANIAN, Exhibition view © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2020, Photo: Marc Krause

Viewing the Marx Brothers’ films as an “impure” art form may not go down too well with a lot of movie buffs, but the Marx Brothers might even have agreed. Their films show a clear link to the theatrical form of the Commedia dell’arte, in which a loose plot takes shape generally from the interaction of fixed character types to criticize the existing order. With their physical and quite anarchic performances in their fixed roles, the Marx Brothers honed in on all aspects of American life at that time, including politics, war and capitalism. The profession of comedian is the artistry rather than the art here, as film scholar Simon Born has pointed out, and the Brothers took it to unparalleled lengths with their virtuous performances.

Risk of confusion with the Marx Brothers

As adopted by Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, the Marx Brothers’ acting is nevertheless shifted into the realm of fine art. Links between the works by the two collectives are not hard to find, and Ramin, Rokni and Hesam have sometimes themselves been compared with the Marx Brothers, as they recall with a twinkle in their eyes. The link shouldn’t be taken too seriously, however. The Iranian artists have this to say in conclusion: “The title is part of the exhibition rather than giving a direction in defining it. It coexists with the nature of the exhibition in that it contributes to the alternative landscape we have shared in the show.”

One of the oldest images of the Commedia dell´arte: A scene played in France before a noble audience, School of Frans Floris, ca. 1570/71, Image via WikiCommons