BY Tom Jeffreys in Features | 05 DEC 17
Featured in
Issue 192

How We Speak

Angelica Mesiti’s films explore the myriad ways humans communicate

BY Tom Jeffreys in Features | 05 DEC 17

There is more to language than speech and writing. For the artist Angelica Mesiti, communication is always inscribed physically – by a living body or by the form of a mark or the echo of a sound – and it is always reaching beyond itself. Across film and installation, the artist asks us to bear witness as a rare language becomes a tourist attraction, a distress signal becomes a dance or movement is recalled in shorthand by bodies no longer able to perform.

Before becoming an artist, Mesiti trained as a dancer – both classical and contemporary – and dance remains a powerful influence upon her work. In particular, she credits the ‘body weather’ method, conceived by Japanese dancer and actor Min Tanaka and introduced into the artist’s native Australia by Tess de Quincey in 1989. Mesiti talks of the method’s focus on muscle and bone: ‘It is a very different way of thinking about aesthetics,’ she told me recently, ‘and about the human body.’ Eventually, Mesiti felt art to be ‘a more expansive future’ than dance. Still, those early interests in non-verbal, bodily means of communication remain. ‘Dance has never really left my practice,’ she says. ‘It’s just that I’m not the performer any more.’

Angelica Mesiti, Relay League, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

Recently, Mesiti has become fascinated by the way languages die. Sometimes, a single utterance is enough to signal the end. Currently touring institutions across Australia, Relay League (2017) is a three-channel video installation that takes as its starting point the following message, issued by the French navy on 31 January 1997: ‘Appel à tous. Ceci est notre dernier cri avant notre silence éternel.’ (Calling all. This is our final cry before our eternal silence.) This short, surprisingly poetic announcement marked the death of Morse code, the distress-signalling system originally developed in the 1830s but rendered redundant by the emergence of new digital technologies. Relay League sees this coded message translated first into music, then into dance. A series of hanging sculptures renders literal this process of becoming artefact.

Relay League was filmed in the Paris suburb of Pantin. It opens on an urban rooftop, a place from which messages are broadcast. Against the hum of traffic, we watch and listen as jazz drummer Uriel Barthélémi taps out a semi-improvised drum piece, conceived, at Mesiti’s instigation, in response to that final Morse code message. It starts with the gentle brushing of symbols placed atop the drum skin, gradually rising and falling in complexity and in the urgency of its rhythms.

Angelica Mesiti, Relay League, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

The central screen is perhaps the most intriguing. Two young dancers, a man and a woman, sit close together on the floor. One, Sindri Runudde, has limited vision and is guided by the other, Emilia Wibron Vesterlund, with her hands as she whispers to him in Swedish – now quietly, now a little louder. The two are close friends and have developed this system so that Runudde might ‘see’ performances. Mesiti tells me that they have never thought of what they do as a language. The scene is extraordinarily intimate and powerful: bodily and beautiful, close but not sexual. Yet, it is also a scene from which we are partially excluded: if this is a language, then it is one that relies on the physical proximity and bodily self-knowledge of the experienced dancer. It is also underpinned by a mystery. It is not until the third and last film that we find out what the pair are responding to.

This final reveal is not only one of narrative but also of environment. Separating each film, and guiding the visitor’s movement through the gallery, is a series of screens made from transparent polyurethane. The flickering light of each film leads viewers from one space to the next. Mesiti cites the French word parcours – a route or journey – describing the experience as ‘lantern-esque’. In the final film, it is revealed that Vesterlund and Runudde are reacting to another dancer, Filipe Lourenço, whose own light-limbed, circling movements are a response to Barthélémi’s percussion. Vesterlund and Runudde are also shownresponding in context to Barthélémi in real time: Mesiti describes it as a ‘real, actual translation’. The result is a range of transformations: from language to code to music and dance. What is lost is a specific, knowable meaning. But much stands to be gained: richness of sound and movement, complex human embodiments stemming from the most minimal of codes.

Angelica Mesiti, The Calling, 2013–14, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

Relay League marks the scheduled end of a planned language; yet, such a demise can, by contrast, take generations to occur of its own accord. In The Calling (2013–14), an earlier three-channel video installation, Mesiti provides a multi-layered document of the changing status of another specialist means of communication: whistling. Someremote rural communities – including the village of Kuskoy in northern Turkey, La Gomera in the Canary Islands and the Greek island of Evia – utilize a highly specialized form of whistling to communicate with precision across distances. In this quiet, beautiful film, a woman on a tea plantation whistles to announce the arrival of the tea truck; a man pauses from chopping kindling to whistle to his wife to come in for lunch.

Whistling may still be used in daily life but it is fast becoming a relic. Wind turbines, pylons and electricity cables show us the wider context of modernity’s encroachment upon ancient agrarian lifestyles. The Calling includes scenes of children learning to whistle in school and locals entertaining tourists in a restaurant. The old ways are dying, only to be resurrected as a kind of performance. ‘I wanted to document the life cycle of the language,’ says Mesiti, ‘from a useful everyday tool to something maintained as a kind of artefact, characteristic of community identity, but now a performed element of the culture.’

Angelica Mesiti, The Calling, 2013–14, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

Mesiti mentions that the whistling system (which, like Morse code, is not strictly a language), has been included on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. ‘What kind of change happens when that takes place?’ she asks. It reminds me of certain 19th-century ethnographersattempting to ‘save’ indigenous oral cultures by fixing their fluid utterances into written documents. It also recalls how the words of an artist giving a face-to-face interview seem so different on the printed page. Longevity may be gained, but something is taken away in the process. ‘A language becomes like an artefact in a museum,’ says Mesiti.

Like Relay League, The Calling opens on an urban rooftop, but this time the sounds of birdsong are audible above the traffic. A little later, we see an old woman farmer chatting reassuringly to her goats. I like to see these little moments as a gentle push towards an expanded definition of language that includes the non-human. The film crystallizes in its closing moments. A white-haired man pauses for a moment from gathering branches. He gazes down the valley and whistles a warning to his grandson playing near the road as it weaves around the mountainside: ‘Ancor! Don’t go too close to the edge.’ Ancor looks up. ‘OK,’ he replies, but in Spanish. He understands the whistling but cannot, or simply does not, respond in kind.

Angelica Mesiti, Citizen’s Band, 2012, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

There is a parallel here with Mesiti’s own childhood as the daughter of Italian-speaking parents living in Sydney. She is now based in Paris, where she has become familiar with the sense of living as an outsider – linguistically at least. This comes through strongly in works such as Citizens Band (2012), a film portrait of singers and musicians performing alone: a Cameroonian water drummer in a Paris swimming pool, a Sudanese whistler in a parked taxi in Brisbane and an Algerian singer on the Paris metro. None of the performers lives in the place where they were born; instead, their music acts as a form of cultural memento. Tossed by Waves (2017) – titled after the Latin motto of the city of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur (Tossed by the waves but never sunk) – was produced during Paris’s extended state of emergency. A silent, lingering close-up of the French capital’s famous monument at the centre of the Place de la République – where two million people gathered in a show of unity after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 – it is Mesiti’s most overtly political work to date. Her latest film is Mother Tongue (2017) – a new commission for the 2017 European Capital of Culture, Aarhus – for which the artist worked closely with communities living as outsiders in a failed utopian housing project. Featuring office workers, school children, a Somali family and others, Mother Tongue explores how people connect with their cultural identities through music and dance. The work was shown at ‘O’ Space – an old industrial building in the port area of Aarhus.

Angelica Mesiti, The Colour of Saying, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris   

Where The Calling scans the landscape, most of Mesiti’s work is more tightly framed. Context is carefully controlled, even eliminated altogether. Rapture (Silent Anthem) (2009) comprises close-up footage of a group of young people dancing, sweaty-haired and ecstatic. In Nakh Removed (2015), a group of women from the Algeria–Tunisia border perform a ritualistic ‘hair dance’. Both works are portraits of the psychological states of their subjects, based solely on their faces and bodies. Both are tightly cropped, with no sense of wider place. Both are also silent.

Similarly focused is The Colour of Saying (2015), one part of which shows a seated pair of retired dancers enacting a pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1875–76) using only their hands and upper bodies. Flutterings of the fingers translate certain movements that they are no longer able to perform: the fingers of the woman’s right hand brush across those of her left as the strings strike up. It’s inexplicably heartbreaking.

Such tender moments lie at the heart of Mesiti’s work. Each piece evokes the complex simplicity of an encounter between living beings. The mountainside exchange between grandfather and grandson; the tactile communicationbetween Vesterlund and Runudde; the body memories of the two retired dancers; an old lady and her goats: everyinstance is an ethical imperative to look or listen and attempt to understand the experiences of a fellow being.

Angelica Mesiti lives in Paris, France. In 2017, she had solo exhibitions at Artspace, Sydney, Australia, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, Australia, and ‘O’ Space, Aarhus, Denmark. Her survey show at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, runs until April and her film Relay League is touring five galleries across Australia until 2019. Her solo exhibition at Artsonje Center, Seoul, South Korea, runs until February.

Main image: Angelica Mesiti , Nakh Removed (detail), 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne and Galerie Allen, Paris  

Tom Jeffreys is a writer based in Edinburgh. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot (Influx Press, 2017).