Slavs and Tatars present their latest solo exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle until 19 February 2017.
Through Slavs and Tatars’ explorations of the contradictions and complexities of identity, “Mouth to Mouth” features a range of works created over the past decade.
In his 1962 treatise How to Do Things With Words, the British philosopher of language, J.L. Austin defined a performative utterance as statements that do not describe nor report, and are neither true nor false but induce an action itself in their utterance. For Austin, these “speech acts” ranged from the ceremonial (weddings) to the legal (bequeathing in wills) to the transactional (betting).
Slavs and Tatar’s mid-career survey at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, entitled “Mouth to Mouth”, subverts the idea of a speech act to its logical extremes through a studied visual lexicon. The artist collective, founded in 2006, operates in the artistic freedom offered by trading in the contradictions and complexity of identity, using the geopolitical area “east of the former Berlin Wall and West of the Great Wall of China” as their launching pad.
The exhibition at CCA tracks a range of the group’s work over the past decade, including sculptures, publications and performative lectures. This is the first time that works from various cycles of research are shown together. They are developed along themes including The Faculty of Substitution, Friendship of Nations, Kidnapping Mountains and Pickle Politics, as well as works from other series. The exhibition will travel later in 2017 to other venues, including Pejman Foundation in Tehran, Salt Galata in Istanbul, CAC Vilnius, Albertinum in Dresden and MOCA in Belgrade.
Playfulness and humour are the most deployed tools in Slavs and Tatars’ expansive arsenal and the works that constitute the research cycle Régions d’être are a clear example of how these tools are presented literally, although the sculpture is not in the current exhibition. Borrowing from the architecture of children’s playgrounds, Régions d’être – literally translated as “regions of being” – offers a candy-coloured jungle gym with the show’s title as its component bars. Here, we see language in its utilitarian form: in the bars of the climbing structure and in its more sensational allure as advertising. The collective’s tactic of defamiliarising and re-framing the geopolitics of the Caucasus and Central Asian nations via a system of play – one in which the audience can engage directly, with children climbing onto the metal structure – posits international relations as game theory in its most literal sense.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, geopolitics takes the form of commercial advertisement and tourism, with vacuum-formed plastic signs entitled Tranny Tease (pour Marcel) alternatively in Arabic, Turkish, English and others displayed on walls like a collection of license plates. Drawing from work conducted for their 2013 exhibition “Long Legged Linguistics” at Art Space Pythagorion in Greece, works such as ωXXX (“ekh”) (2013) render the complex history of regional linguistic politics in Greece and Turkey into larger-than-life slogans by adopting the aesthetics of commercial advertising.
In the exhibition spaces, ωXXX (read as “oops” in Greek) and it’s Turkish-inflected counterpart ÖÖPS! are rendered on large cream-coloured canvases with caricatures of political figures, a jocular nod to the political cartoons that are ubiquitous in newspapers across the languages, but take on particular import in the geopolitical space of the Mediterranean. In his modernisation of the nascent republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk changed the script of the national language from the Arabic alphabet to its Latin counterpart. Slavs and Tatars’ work, in turn, contextualises this history and adapts it to comment on the complexity of its current political climate.
The success of Slavs and Tatars’ work, which does not distinguish between the aesthetic and the political, hinges on their ability to highlight regional specificity without ghettoising it, teasing out historical connections to comment on the current conditions of globalisation and multiculturalism. Their “Kitab Kebab” series, for instance, takes the traditional apparatus of köfte kebab skewers to pierce through texts – in English, Arabic, Turkish, Russian, etc. – from and about Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.
These works operate, again, on a visual pun: the “digestive” or gustatory manner of consuming knowledge is largely contingent on the production of texts that are canonised and circulated within and across cultures. Applying the region-specific instrument of the köfte skewer through the centres of these different texts is Slavs and Tatars’ way of making the punchiest statement: the best way to a person’s mind is through their stomach.
Regional specificity takes another humorous turn in the group’s repeated trope of Mollah Nasreddin, a Sufi figure who appears as a stock character in folktales and fables across regions ranging from Russia and Serbia to China, India and Iran. Nasreddin’s wide-ranging distribution as an alternately humorous and wise character embedded in the folk culture of so many nations makes him the perfect mascot for Slavs and Tatars’ playful politicised gestures. He appears as a shiny fibreglass sculpture sitting backwards astride a donkey, a nod to his whimsical appearances in folktales and also an indication of the collective’s general approach to the art world: whether or not we are looking forwards or backwards depends on where we intend to go.
If the figure of Mollah Nasruddin is a unifying force across national divides, then the six-channel audio installation Lektor (2014), from the exhibition “Mirrors for Princes” – previously exhibited in Houston, Zurich, Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi and Brisbane – celebrates dissensus in the form of cacophony. Comprising mirrored rehels, stands used to hold prayer books, that are fitted with speakers, listeners are subject to excerpts from the Kutadgu Billiga, an 11th century Turkic text from the Karakhanid Empire that was intended to distill wisdom to royalty.
In Slavs and Tatars’ interpretation, the speech is translated into six languages: Uighur, Polish, German, Arabic, Gaelic and Spanish. If the selection of these particular languages seems incongruent with the content of the speech that emanates from the speakers, it is to highlight the inherent disconnect in the act of translation. In this particular iteration, Slavs and Tatars’ manipulation of language demonstrates the idea of estrangement that the unfamiliar is not only a relative position, it is constantly being formed and re-formed.
Accompanying the exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle are a series of three performative lectures, held in English, but addressing various aspects of language politics. The second in the series, entitled I Utter Other, addresses the origins of Slavic Orientalism and its spread across the Russian Empire and USSR. This eclectic format, situated somewhere between entertainment and didacticism, captures the ethos of their work as a whole, in that one is able to walk away having learned something without the impression that the lesson was forced or overstated. The form also encapsulates the inherent tension embedded within language games, that between the act of speaking and its resultant impacts. Like speech acts themselves, the significance of Slavs and Tatars’ work can be measured by effects they have on their surrounding environments.
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