As Greece defaults on its International Monetary Fund payment, The Pure Tongue group exhibition –curated by Agata Chinowska and running June 19 to August 20 –explores the currency of language in a globalised world at Galeria Arsenał in Białystok, Poland. It’s a show that features the work of eleven artists and collectives, including Piotr Bosacki, Little Warsaw and Ex-artists’ Collective among others, presenting speculative alphabets, a classroom, educational videos and sculptures articulating the complexities of communication and the unresolvable problem of engineering a single, unifying tongue –a “universal (perfect) language” –within that.
Given Białystok’s location at the birthplace of L. L. Zamenhof and thus the international auxiliary language of Esperanto, it’s a rather prescient theme to follow, particularly in terms of the corporatisation and cultural hegemony emergent in a modern Poland with its rapidly growing EU economy. There’s a briefcase full of banknotes in Daniel Salomon’s ‘Sennacia Banko’ (2008) –Esperanto for ‘Bank without Nation’ –installation in one room, Małgorzata Niedzielko’s replica ‘Tower of Babel’ (2015) –as in, the Biblical origins of a single tongue of a united humanity –in another. The accompanying room sheet references the potency of language as a political tool and its capacity for shaping the very way we think.
Perhaps, in an attempt to remedy the Babel myth’s “confusion of languages” that came to humanity as Divine punishment for its sins, Paulina Ołowska attempts an embodied written form in a selection of photos, presented grid-like in a white frame, of the artist posing as letters in ‘Alphabet’ (2005). Except that this very code contains the residue of the Roman Empire. The Slavs and Tatars’ ‘Larry nixed, Trachea trixed’ (2015) draws attention to this by its very presence, nearby and on the same wall, where toothy, seductive red lips screen-printed on steel articulate the Latin letters imposed on the Arabic speakers of Central Asia by the Bolsheviks.
A long-lashed blinking eye moves on a motion sensor in another Slavs and Tatars’ work, ‘Madame MMMorphologie’ (2013), in front of it. It’s embedded in a book named after the Sufi wise man-cum-fool Molla Nəsrəddin. It’s seductive pose stands on a pedestal, the sound of its mechanised movement mingling with Érik Bullot’s ‘Tongue Twisters’ (2011) playing from behind a black curtain in another room. It’s a video of word-games read by native speakers across languages –French, German, Italian, Japanese –that get progressively more difficult as one participant points out the chaos of variant pronunciation depending on the dialect. And while the apparent neutrality of Capital presents an easy answer to the problem of cultural diversity across countries (and their markets), all numbers are not created equal. Société Réaliste’s ‘A Proposal for a New Alphabetical Order Based on the Experanto Writing System and Pegged on the Euro Rates’ (2014) presents currencies in order of their economic value, and thus inequity against the Euro. The British pound, the Euro and Azerbaijiani Manat come up first, the Parguayan Guarani, Lao Kip and “NO CURRENCY” come last on a wall-hung enamel plate.
In a similar attempt at giving new meaning to existing languages, David Salomon also presents two videos on flat screens, one in Esperanto about Esperanto and the sexlife of snails and another about combustion being taught to children, also in Esperanto. Maybe, Ex-artists’ Collective’ ‘Shelter of Hope (Esperanto classroom)’ (2004), can offer an understanding in education. It’s a mixed media installation complete with desks, worksheets and chalk on a blackboard which translates to English as, “We are the future because we believe in the utopian!” If only it were that simple. **
Exhibition photos, top right.