BLAFFER ART MUSEUM | JANUARY 16 – MARCH 19, 2016
“It is not a question of speaking a language as if one was a foreigner, it is a question of being a foreigner in one’s own language.”
—Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues II (1977)
Here is the scene: in the middle of the space, a giant, untouched Persian rug. Hexagonal patterns in maroons, reds, and blacks across the carpet’s surface area. To the left, twelve low-lying speakers housed in mirrored Plexiglas shells constructed in the shape of what look almost like small crosses resting on their sides. Opposite the sound installation on the other side of the rug, an empty music stand with heavy steel leaves. High up on the wall behind the stand, another rug—this time with the following text woven into it: “It is of utmost importance that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depth of our stupidity.” The text, however, is difficult to read, obscured by a series of fourteen pale green fluorescent lights that line the work vertically, covering bits of language here and there and casting a soft glow across the room. Finally, on the far side of the room, opposite the entrance, a sculptural work consisting of hats and turbans hanging from a horizontal steel rod at eye-level wrapping around the corner into the next room.
Everything about the main room of Slavs and Tatars’s new show Mirrors for Princes,at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston, Texas occupies a particular kind of linguistic space. Take for instance the multi-channel sound installation Lektor (speculum linguarum) (2014). The piece features a polyphony of voices in different languages reading short segments from the eleventh-century Turkic text Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory). Strangely calming in their interlaced pronouncements, the monotonous voices loop continuously, weaving in and out of each other, pausing occasionally between pronouncements. This text heralds from a body of political writing for future rulers in the Christian and Muslim worlds during the Middle Ages called “mirrors for princes.” This genre, the most famous of which is Machiavelli’s The Prince, is essentially advice literature blending the secular and spiritual, offering up wisdom in statecraft and faith. Voices deliver the epigrammatic text in its original Uyghur as well as in several other languages. Wandering through the auditory collage, the viewer finds herself suspended between legibility and incomprehensibility—between acquiring knowledge and forfeiting it, concurrently knowing more and less.
Translation has a lot to with this. The concurrent voice-overs in the piece stem from a translation practice called Gavrilov translation (often used in Poland and Russia) where the source language is audible alongside the target language, resulting in a voice-over where both can be heard simultaneously, albeit one more softly than the other. What results is a flurried space between tongues, a layered language that seems neither one thing nor the other. So much of the work in Mirrors for Princes. including a series of hand-blown glass pieces in the second large room, has this liminal quality. Hung and Tart (full cyan) (2014) looks a bit like a heart with a thin tongue growing out of it as well as a twisted phallus attached to a uterine cavity. Preserved in a perfectly hermaphroditic state, this pristine glass object full of frozen cyans and yellows serves as a potent talisman for the multi-lingual state of things in the exhibition. The viewer has access to the original object, text or idea, but only through the screen of its being “tongue-twisted.”
In the eponymous book accompanying the exhibition, Slavs and Tatars speak to editor Anthony Downey and curator Beatrix Ruf about language, acts of translation, making words objects, and their process of “going behind the word.” “What does it mean,” they write, “to go behind the concept and sneak up on it?” Indeed much of this exhibition (like much of Slavs and Tatars’s previous work) “sneaks up” on things. One might argue this is not simply for sneaking’s sake, but to sound out layers and question legibility by proposing a sort of multilingualism of the object. They write, “But really even just the idea—when thinking about the name Mirrors for Princes—we chant, like the process of dhikr in Sufism where you ecstatically chant, repeating words so many times that at some point princes starts to sound like princesses. We often think of this practice as going behind the word. The idea of going behind something is very threatening, not only in terms of posing a threat to the normativity of heterosexuality, like ‘from behind’, but it also has this connotation of ‘through the back door.’” What’s behind the word? Behind each word? How many other forgotten words lurk there?
Simply put, looking at the remarkable work in this show is like looking at the word and behind it at the same time. The objects arrive behind the word by opening up a gap spanning the object, title, and various mental and visual associations between the two. Sheikha (2014),for example, consists of a large, hard-edged steel structure with shiny silver textiles hanging from the metal cubes. Draped over the sides of the structure, the shiny textile moves constantly as one catches a glimpse of two fans hiding inside the frame. Keeping the drapes in motion, they allow the viewer a peek inside the structure. The tension between the materials coupled with the constant movement of the shiny textile positions the work in, around, between, and behind language at once full of incredible specificity and openness: a very generous space permitting viewers to abdicate the false certainty of things. Althoughtitled after the honorific given to a royal female at birth, Sheikha— like Hung and Tart (full cyan)—has a distinctly hermaphroditic feel, a characteristic slipperiness that threatens reckless political certitude.
In an age where statecraft and stagecraft seem evermore intertwined, “going behind the word” as a means of discovering and uncovering buried stories and histories seems more important than ever. Not that showmanship is anything new to politics. In fact, the fragments from the Kutadgu Bilig in the sound installation often speak to effective comportment in the public arena: “guard your speech lest you lose your head, and guard your tongue lest you break your teeth.” But nonetheless the current kind of “faith” in one’s own truth extolled endlessly as a form of fact-making (e.g. Donald Trump’s recourse to “exactly what [he] said” when asked to defend his anti-Islamic comments) is faith of a very different sort than that discussed in the “mirror for princes” genre. If a new premium has been placed on “truth-telling” regardless of objective fact as observed by others in person, on camera or on public record—be it in American party politics, extremism of all kinds, or the denial of systemic racism and police brutality— then “going behind the word” asks us to create another kind of language, something more playful and astute where, to quote Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Claire Parnet, one becomes “a foreigner in one’s own language.”