30 April 2014
Language Arts at The Third Line
Language Arts (17 March – April 17, 2014) at The Third Line, Dubai, was Slavs and Tatars’ first solo exhibition in the Middle East. In this interview, Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey talks to Slavs and Tatars about the group’s interest in language, its history and humour, and the central role that language plays in the research, development and manifestation of their artwork.
Anthony Downey: We are here today with Slavs and Tatars at their first solo show in the Middle East, which is taking place at The Third Line gallery in Dubai. I want to talk a little to one of the members of Slavs and Tatars about the research behind this show. Payam, I understand your practice is very research-led, although what we’re looking at presently is the manifestation of that in term of objects. I also understand that you do a lot of research into language, the performativity of language, but equally the humour around transliteration and mistakes in language. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Slavs and Tatars: I think our interest in language is very natural in the sense that we started off as a book club, and so if anybody wanted to engage with our work for the first two or three years of our practice, they had to pick up a book or read something in two dimensions. As you mentioned, now there are works that are sculptural installations (like the vacuum forms behind us) and these works look at language and language politics in an effort to, in some ways, emancipate language – the sounds of language – from the shackles that graphemes, letters, and alphabet politics sometimes are. They’re things that essentially are accompanying empires, whether it’s Arabic with Islam, Latin with the rise of Christianity, or Cyrillic with the rise of the Orthodox faith in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
AD: There’s a lot of humour behind this, it is about the performativity of language and how language is spoken, but a lot of humour comes into the work too. Could you talk a little bit about the way in which you explore the politics of language through humour itself?
ST: Humour for us is a strategy but also a performative practice; it’s almost a way of life in the sense that it’s a way to address difficult, complex or controversial subject matter. When you’re devoted to an area of the world as we are, which is east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China, you have to understand that for most people – whether they’re in the Middle East or in the west – it’s an area that strikes them as obscure and remote. Humour is a way – in the same way that celebration, hospitality and sometimes pop culture are – to meet our audience half way, so it’s a generosity.
Humour is a way to deliver a critique but in a disarming way. I think when we’re devoted to a region or a geography, it’s as much about redeeming a sense of behaviour as well as thought processes about this geography, and one of the ways in which to do that is the delivery of critique through humour, Molla Nasreddin being the best example. In fact, some of the best, most effective critique is delivered through the biting satire of Mullah Nasr al-Din, or as George Orwell said, ‘every joke is a tiny revolution’.
AD: You spoke a little bit about the region, and the region that Slavs and Tatars look at is very specific. Could you talk about why that specific region; what comes out of that specific region in terms of language? You mentioned, for example, the performativity of language, the way languages are submerged but equally re-emerge. The regional context is very important.
ST: The reason why we’re devoted to this region – and I should say of course it’s a geography which is as imaginary as it is political and real – is that if we’re going to believe the nonsense that all too often passes as wisdom these days, which is that the east and the west are somehow on a collision course, or that Islam has an issue being integrated with modernity (which we don’t believe in at all), the best thing we can do is to look to this region where the opposite has been the case. It’s a counter-argument; whether you look at the Balkans – let’s look at the long history, forget the Balkans in the past 25 years, but the Balkans of 500 years – or whether you look at Central Asia where you have synchronistic Islam, or the Caucasus where you have the mountain of languages.
Our region, whether it’s the former Soviet sphere or even Turkey itself, largely the Turkic languages have undergone devastating changes in alphabets. It’s almost quite schizophrenic in the former Soviet sphere; you had Lenin who believed that the revolution of the east was to Latinize all the Muslim subjects of the Russian empire, so in ’29 they were all Latinized. That means everybody from Kazakhstan all the way to Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, everybody who was Muslim – never the Christians, never the Armenians or the Georgians, for example, because Lenin, like Atatürk, believed that the way to push the Muslims of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union into modernity was to separate them from their Islamic, Arabic past.