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From the Berlin Wall to the Great Wall of China

Through an exhibition playing with translation, transliteration, and dichotomies, the Slavs and Tatars artist collective sticks out its pierced tongue at shibboleths of art and language.

by Dani Smotrich-Barr 28 November 2018

Before walking through the door of the exhibition “Made in Dschermany,” at the Albertinum museum in Dresden, one passes by a table topped by a stack of books of various sizes, pierced right through by a kebab skewer.

 

At first glance the piece might seem arbitrary, but this violent, vertical cut through “traditionally-inclined forms of knowledge” is a good introduction to the provocative, quietly subversive, and deeply thoughtful approach of the “Slavs and Tatars” artist collective. The group is behind the project and that creative way of describing, yes, books.

 

Slavs and Tatars describe themselves as “a faction of polemics and intimacies devoted to an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China.” The group notes that they focus on Eurasia because they “are drawn to edges of empires, the limits of ideologies, and the margins of belief systems: this is often where syncretism takes place.”  

 

The Berlin-based collective was started by a Texas-raised Iranian living in Moscow and a Pole living in London. With artists from around the world joining, the collective has expanded, but anonymously, in an attempt to focus attention not on “how [they] were raised or [their] experience growing up” but on their work itself and the multi-faceted, diasporic worlds on which they focus, according to Culture.pl.

 

The collective can’t be described without hybridization. The Slavs and Tatars collective itself describes its origins as a reading group of “Attila meets Oprah.” In a philosophy inspired by moments as diverse as Moses shattering the tablets of the Ten Commandments and the “intellectual breakage” presented by the advent of transgender theory, Slavs and Tatars aim to dissect and challenge their sources. As they say in their new publication Wripped Scripped: “it’s equally important to disrespect your sources as it is to respect them … [But] to disrespect does not in any way mean to dismiss or reject your source; rather the contrary: to disrespect something, truly, you must respect it … know it intimately … And conversely, to truly know something … You must break it.”

 

'Dresdener Gitter.' Photo by Klemens Renner.

 

This concept of disassembly appears throughout the exhibit. In “Dresdener Gitter,” the Hamburger Grid [Hamburger Gitter], a fence-like structure traditionally used to hold back protesting crowds,, is re-imagined as a bar with stools where visitors can sit and read books – as a demonstration of how to take historical texts that were traditionally exclusive, elitist, or censored, and turn them into something that can be consumed and critiqued.

 

The exhibition consists of artwork from the group’s eight work cycles, accompanied by their publication Wripped Scripped, which is particularly focused on language politics, lecture-performances, and a symposium that they held entitled “Sum, ergo Cogito,” which focuses on “acts of language and reading which resist the pitfalls of anthromorphy.”

 

Appropriation, Mistranslation, Ghosts of Languages

 

“Made in Dschermany” manages to inhabit spaces that are at once culturally specific and emotionally liminal. The [dsch] is a German transliteration used to represent letters in Arabic and other Eurasian languages, which Slavs and Tatars believe is inherently a marker of Otherness. “Why does one write Dschihad [jihad], Dschungel [jungle], and Dschingis Khan [Genghis Khan] in German with the tetragraph [dsch], yet not the similarly pronounced gin or jeans?” asks the exhibition catalogue.

 

One of the moments in which we most poignantly experience this linguistic disconnect is in the piece “Lektor (specularum linguarum)” [language watch-towers]. This immersive auditory piece uses the technique called Gavriolov translation: simultaneous voice-over in a different language, a phenomenon familiar to those who watch films in Poland and Russia. The piece plays the text “Kutadgu Blijig,” central to the Turkish literary canon, in Uighur, with voice-overs in the languages of the countries where this piece has been shown since its creation in 2014. Standing under this digital Tower of Babel, the visitor experiences translation not as an act of convenience, but as an agent of disorientation. Perhaps, the collective implies, it is a well-meaning act, but nevertheless it can cause violence.

 

In the Language Arts cycle, central to the philosophy of the exhibit, 10 tufted carpets (“Love Letters”) feature adaptations of drawings by the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose writing was hailed by the leaders of the Russian Revolution, but whose eventual disillusionment and suicide are often touted as a turning point in the march towards Stalinist terror.

 

Examining the tongue as a “source of man’s greatest achievements and yet a cause of his tragic failures,” the Love Letters series “turns to the throat as a source of mystical language – as opposed to the tongue’s more profane, transactional role.”

 

'Mother Tongues and Father Throats.' Photo by Klemens Renner.

 

The piece “Mother Tongues and Father Throats” features the letters for corresponding guttural phonemes in Arabic, Hebrew, and Cyrillic, thus “connecting the practices of Russian Futurism, Kabbalah, and Shi’a Hurufism and Sufi exegesis” through their dependence on a fundamentally bodily experience, that of making the [kh/gh] noise with one’s throat.

 

“If there is a home for Turkic languages,” Slavs and Tatars write, “[it] is an internal one, even physiologically: firmly ensconced in the soft palate at the back of the mouth where the tongue, the nose, and the throat meet.”

 

In tune with Slav and Tatars’ fascination with parallel histories, the “Love Letters” series explores both the Bolshevik forcing of Latin and later Cyrillic alphabets onto the Turkic people, and Ataturk’s 1928 revolution, in which Turkish was transliterated into Latin script. The pieces position language as one of the most vital tools of a culture or body politic. They suggest that language can be spiritual, violent, political. When a language is severed, the people speaking it are deprived of political and cultural autonomy.

 

The Modern and the Anti-Modern

 

Slavs and Tatars also criticize the false dichotomies of Islam/Communism, East/West, past/future. In “Not Moscow Not Mecca,” the collective sweeps away the “grand hegemonic narratives” of the Soviet “To Moscow not Mecca” campaign, and instead suggests a future marked by syncretism rather than ideological dominance. In its text on this cycle, the group cites Antoine Compagnon’s  argument that true modernists are not utopianists like the Italian Futurists, but rather “anti-modernists,” in the strain of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History,” who are blown toward the future but with a deliberate eye on the mistakes and successes of the past.

 

“It is of the utmost importance,” reads a banner of fluorescent paint written on Muharram fabric, “that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depths of our stupidity.” That the group went so far as to screen-print “Nous Sommes Les Antimodernes” onto shirts for a collaboration between fashion brands Uniqlo and Colette in 2005 might seem awfully capitalist or essentialist for a group that claims such a syncretic approach to history. Perhaps it is. But one also has to appreciate the chutzpah not only of putting Baudelaire on a t-shirt, but of daring, in a cultural world defined by challenging the status quo, to position a highly intellectual and far-from-flashy argument in a fashion world defined by a fetish for novelty.

 

Another notable theme of “Made in Dschermany” is the subversion of heteropatriarchal symbolism within specific political contexts. Slavs and Tatars cite one source of this connection as the ways in which the dichotomy of Communism and Islam has often intersected with those of male/female, of public/private spheres, and of East/West. Thus, their work is imbued with the publicizing of this private sphere, and the personalizing of this public sphere.

 

'Bicephalic.' Photo by Klemens Renner.

 

The piece “Bicephalic” positions the double-headed eagle of the Russian coat of arms on a pink, purple, and blue bi-sexual flag. In doing so, Slavs and Tatars compare “Russia’s particular position as Europe and Asia, self and other” with bi-sexuality, a sexual orientation that is often rendered invisible because of its positionality in two different communities. The work is particularly subversive in the context of Russia – known for its persecution of the LGBTQ+ population.

 

In this way, Slavs and Tatars turn the complexity of sexual orientation, or of political and cultural history, into an advantage, rather than something to be erased through normative representation.

 

Power Politics All In a Ferment

 

On a similar note, the cycle with perhaps the most tongue-in-cheek name – “Pickle Politics” – is a profound reflection on “the practices and symbolism of fermentation.”

 

'Pickle Tits.'

 

Continuing the collective’s tradition of creating printed matter, a 2018 printed piece that is a part of this cycle, entitled “Pickle Tits,” cites a Polish verse that reads, in part: “Soured rule, no mother’s best/Curd milk oozing from her breast,” with the words oozing from two pickle-like breasts. By repurposing a traditionally phallic symbol as a feminine one, Slavs and Tatars stage a “feminist appropriation of the gherkin … asking us to reconsider the soured relationship between rulers and public, often characterized as a nourishing one.”

 

The idea of a “motherland” whose leadership ostensibly has its people’s best interests at heart is portrayed as a facade, with the process of fermentation, or chemical breakdown, representing a destructive ideology presented as beneficial. Substitution, in all its forms – translation, transliteration, so-called comparative politics and comparative literature – is at the core of the collective’s work. “Substitution,” Slavs and Tatars write, “requires us to cultivate the agility, coordination, and balance necessary to tell one tale through another … in an effort to challenge the very notion of distance as the shortest length between two points.” In Dresden, “Made in Dschermany” examines distances temporal, physical, linguistic, and emotional.

 

The context of the exhibition, in Germany, is important, too.

 

“Germany’s self-image as a Western, Enlightenment nation or culture is fraught with several omissions,” say Slavs and Tatars, in an interview with the curator. The collective is “interested in redeeming and reactivating a progressive and complex understanding of Germany also as Eastern, in a factual but also poetic sense.”

 

Where is the [dsch]? Perhaps east of the Berlin Wall, but also in the throats of foreigners and Dsch-ermans alike, if only they will allow themselves to utter it.

 

Slavs and Tatars’ last solo exhibition of the year, “Sauer Power,” is at the Kunstverein Hannover from 16 November 2018 - 27 January 2019.

Dani Smotrich-Barr is studying English and History at Wesleyan University. She is an editorial intern at TOL this semester. 

 

All images reprinted with permission. 

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