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With Jankowski, the joke is on all of us

CAMBRIDGE -- Christian Jankowski is the people's prankster. The German conceptual artist seduces all kinds of folks into collaborating with him. The result is a merry collection of short pieces, shot mostly on video, that rethink ideas of authorship without going serious or exploitative on us.

Whether he's passed out during a televangelist's sermon or phoning an Italian psychic hot line, Jankowski takes elements of performance art and empties them of pretentiousness and aggression. He tries to have fun.

For all his accessibility, Jankowski has gone without a major American show. Maybe his pieces, which often rely on cheap video technology, seem too light. In his own way, he's an entertainer, and ''Everything Fell Together," the first US collection of Jankowski's work, at MIT's List Visual Arts Center, is guilt-free entertainment.

The first sight when you enter the List's main gallery is a large wood box (more about that later). The bellowing coming from the back of the space is Jankowski's best-known American piece, 2001's ''The Holy Artwork."

Here, on video, we watch as he passes out onstage during a televangelist's sermon in Texas. With the artist unconscious at his feet clutching a video camera, the pastor Peter Spencer carries on with his message, ultimately about the great religious value of contemporary art. The piece steps right over the obvious target (televangelism) and embraces televangelism's intent, allowing Spencer to conflate lordly creation with the artistic variety.

God, the pastor intones, invented man to serve as an audience that would admire his work. God is the ultimate artist. The ultimate artist is a kind of god. But Spencer is insistent that the artist doesn't create as an act of onanistic folly. He creates for us.

The piece makes more sense in the context of other Jankowski works than it did at 2002's Whitney Biennial, where it was tougher to see the profundity for the prank. When Jankowski is at his most inspired, the profundity is the prank.

Take ''The Matrix Effect," a video short he made four years ago. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum's Matrix series, which showcased auspicious contemporary artists, Jankowski interviewed past participants. Then he filmed a fake promotional video starring a cast of untrained kids who read the words of the artists as well as those of the video's guide, curator Andrea Miller-Keller.

Flubs and awkward silences are everywhere. The childish cheer is rather amazing and the strange blocking merely adds to the fun. The girl playing Miller-Keller has a magic way with walking and talking at the same time: ''Let's go find Adrian Piper!" The girl who plays Jeanne-Claude, of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, manages to deliver a sweet and scathing critique just by tossing a scarf around her neck.

It's pants-wettingly ridiculous -- one of the funniest movies you'll ever see -- and yet as with all of Jankowski's projects, ''The Matrix Effect" is never mean.

The play between artist and participant exists in Jankowski's early work, too. ''Shame Box," which he made in 1992 when he was 24, consists of one two-hour film (or 34 black-and-white photos if you're in a hurry) of ordinary German citizens sitting in the storefront window of Jankowski's apartment. They hold placards with embarrassed self-incriminations: ''I am ashamed of enjoying soap operas;" ''I am ashamed of my body," etc. These individual personal and cultural abasements add up to a sort of lingering national shame that counters Germany's legacy as an overwhelmingly proud nation. It's a deceptively simple project.

Some of the pieces in ''Everything Fell Together" are too facile. In ''Flock," from 2002, a magician turns a group of English gallerygoers into sheep, which are herded through the gallery. ''Director Poodle" is a similar idea, conducted four years earlier, using a German gallery director.

Simply amusing as they are, those pieces are minor compared with that big box in the middle of the gallery. It contains the show's centerpiece, ''The Day We Met," four very short films played in a relatively spacious karaoke room.

Jankowski shot a hilarious quartet of movies starring himself as -- fetish alert -- the lover of four different Asian women. Each segment has a different mood (frolic, heartbreak, and so on), and they're all knowingly cheesy, but no more so than the show one normally sees at karaoke.

The booth contains a functioning disco ball, carpet, water cooler, and working sound system just like a real karaoke den. The films play on a continuous loop, and their full effect (Jankowski in a grass skirt) isn't apparent until you break into song -- at which point ''The Day We Met" becomes its own shame box: ''I am ashamed of my atrocious singing voice." ''I am ashamed that I'm using that atrocious singing voice to sing 'Take on Me.' "

The installation completely captures the generosity of Jankowski's spirit. He's always laughing with you.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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