Sited on the harbour of Pythagorio – the ancient capital of the Greek island of Samos and birthplace of both Pythagoras and Epicurus – Art Space Pythagorion has a strong claim to being the most easterly exhibition venue in the Western world. Look out of the picture window that dominates its main gallery, beyond the holiday-makers bobbing in the Aegean, and you will glimpse the parched hills of the Turkish mainland, two kilometres away. It is appropriate, then, that Art Space Pythagorion’s second annual summer exhibition (last year’s was by Harun Farocki) showcases Slavs and Tatars, a collective who 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 known as Eurasia’. Anybody foolhardy enough to swim the treacherous channel that separates Samos from its eastern neighbour (symbolic, so locals joke, of the parlous state of Greco-Turkish relations) would fetch up on Eurasian sands.
Curated by Marina Fokidis, Slavs and Tatars’ show, ‘Long Legged Linguistics’, explored what the collective dubbed ‘alphabet politics’, which is to say attempts by nations, cultures and ideologies to ascribe graphemes to phonemes, a specific set of letters to a given tongue. Perched on a plinth at the exhibition’s entrance, Madame MMMorphologie (2013) took the form of a leather-bound book, anthropomorphized into the proprietor of a lexical bordello by the addition of winking eye and a beckoning hand. Emblazoned with the words ‘Molla Nasreddin’, the volume recalled the name of a Sufi trickster hero, a fixture of Slavs and Tatars’ iconography, and the title of an Azeri-Turkish satirical magazine read widely across the Islamic world in the early decades of the 20th century. Pages from this forgotten gem were anthologized, contextualized and translated by the collective in their excellent 2011 publication MOLLA NASREDDIN: the magazine that would’ve could’ve should’ve, which was available to read on a vernacular Persian ‘riverbed’, or seating platform, on the gallery’s sun-bleached terrace. Strikingly, three distinct scripts accompanied MOLLA NASREDDIN’s witty, beautifully drawn cartoons. Written with Arabic characters for over a millennium, the Azeri alphabet was Latinized by Lenin in 1928, Cyrillicized by Stalin a decade later, and re-Latinized after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In these shifts, we might read a whole history of political shapings and re-shapings, the braiding and unbraiding of Communism, Islam and the idea of the nation state.
If Slavs and Tatars’ freewheeling, frequently astonishing research into language and identity finds perfect expression in their publications and public lectures (one of which, taking in everything from a Dan Flavin-designed mosque in downtown New York to the rhyme schemes of Biggie Smalls’ 1994 track ‘Juicy’, was delivered in Pythagorio), then their sculptures are sometimes less successful. While the collective’s stated desire to emphasize language’s ‘potential to be affective and sensual, concealing as much as it reveals’ is intriguing, works such as Qit Qat Qa (2013) sell it short. Here, the Cyrillic rendering of the Arabic letter qaf becomes a mirror-plated sculpture of a ‘kicking K’, complete with a mannequin’s leg that suggests an ‘exotic dancer’ at a tawdry knockoff of the Folies Bergère. The queasy equation of semantic slipperiness, sensuality and the sex industry continued in Tongue Twist Her (2013), in which a giant disembodied tongue, all rubbery taste-buds and quivering flesh, wraps itself around a stripper’s pole. Is this, as the collective claim, a work about ‘the dizzying, delicious swings […] of phonemes, graphemes and organs’ through Eurasian history, or ultimately a cheap gag, the sculptural equivalent of a sleazy polyglot boasting that he’s ‘a cunning linguist’.
Much better was Reverse Joy (2013), a fountain set on a tiled pedestal that spouts gouts of red liquid, surrounded by printed Arabic, Cyrillic and Hebrew variants on the phoneme ‘/kh/’ (used to pronounce, among other words, ‘Qur’an’), which are linked by black Mickey Mouse arms. While the work references an incarnadined geyser erected as a memorial to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, it might easily be mistaken for a soda pop fountain from some Willy Wonka-ish fantasy. The tongue, here, is invited to momentarily forget the fretful business of language, and taste what might be the metallic tang of human blood, or something infinitely sweeter.