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Installation views of Slavs and Tatars’ exhibition “Beyonsense” at MoMA.
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“Slavs and Tatars is 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. The collective’s work spans several media, disciplines, and a broad spectrum of cultural registers (high and low) focusing on an oft-forgotten sphere of influence between Slavs, Caucasians and Central Asians.”
This is the mission statement of the art collective Slavs and Tatars, a group focused on representing Eurasian relations through various mediums and languages. Each of the collective’s past exhibitions have dealt in one way or another with its mainly Slavic heritage, but its current exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art explicitly takes on the discussion of intercultural relations, using the nearly extinct Zaum movement to expand its collective scope, raising the larger question: How do we bridge the language gap between cultures to better understand our shared heritage?
Although Slavs and Tatars has been exhibiting work since 2006, this most recent show at MoMA, called “Beyonsense: Beyond Berlin, Beyond Belgrade, Beyond Bukhara,” is its first solo exhibition in the United States. The collective jokes in a blog post on the MoMA website that “Beyonsense brings together the high highs and low lows that are the hallmark of Russia, the avant-garde of the early 20th century, and the promises of modernity itself [...] But perhaps most importantly, Beyonsense brings together Beyoncé and nonsense in all of 10 letters.”
Those disappointed to find Beyoncé completely absent from the exhibition itself will soon forget her name when confronted with the history threaded through the project. The word “Beyonsense” is synonymous with the word “Zaum,” a Russian Futurist movement of the early 20th century, which peaked in prominence between 1916 and 1920. The term “Zaum” was coined by Futurist poet Aleksei Kruchenykh to describe his rather nonsensical poem, “Dyr buhl shchyl” and became the umbrella term for a series of linguistic experiments by poets of similar inclination. Paying homage to the Zaum tradition, Slavs and Tatars devised Beyonsense as a reading room in which an audience of varied linguistic backgrounds can explore the universality of palatal consonants and glottal stops.
Beyonsense, which falls under MoMA’s Project 98, is difficult to locate. Tucked away in the museum’s Projects Gallery, it begs to be experienced as if in a vacuum. There is an unspoken expectation that the viewer should not be thinking of Haring or Van Gogh while flipping through the enigmatic magazines provided by Slavs and Tatars for his or her linguistic enjoyment.
One walks into the exhibit through sheer curtains to discover a neon-lit rectangular room, its walls lined with cushioned benches, atop which sit other patrons reading magazines designed specifically for the exhibit. The magazines have the look of political propaganda from afar and are juxtaposed, in an off-kilter way, with the textiles draped from the walls. The East-meets-West idea is in no way lost on the viewer. The neon light against the drapery suggests Slavs and Tatars’s belief that the West has imposed itself on the East in some way, although the specific thesis of the exhibition is not entirely clear.
In the middle of the room is a fountain—a bowl bubbling with water that is either dyed dark red or is made to look red through some trick of the neon lights above (it’s difficult to tell). The bowl has a sacrificial, almost holy feel to it, based on its placement at the room’s center, and it has an alienating effect on the museum patrons, who unconsciously avoid the middle of the room, sticking instead to the cushioned benches or the two mirrors at the room’s end.
Arguably the centerpiece of the entire exhibit is this display of the decorated mirrors. One reads “MOTHER TONGUES & FATHER THROATS,” and another depicts an open mouth with letters from various scripts placed in specific locations on the mouth’s tongue. The viewer can see his or her reflection in either mirror, suggesting that the message of the exhibition—at a very elementary level—may have something to do with seeing oneself in language.
If this feels too vague, a look inside a few of the magazines scattered about the room sheds more light on the second mirror in particular. The magazines are dense, and immediately upon opening one, the English-speaking viewer may feel at a bit of a loss, assaulted by paragraphs of Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian—to name a few of the languages that fill the pages. After a moment or two of flipping through, however, one notices the keys to understanding the exhibit. Nested between scholarly articles about linguistics is the same drawing of the tongue that appears on the second mirror, accompanied only by an explanatory caption: “A diagram of the various phonemes and their respective source of articulation.”
The mirror literally provides a map of language for the viewer, and in seeing his or her own reflection in the map, the goal of the exhibition becomes clearer: “Beyonsense” shows us how language is a universal right in which we are all entitled to engage, even those of us who only speak English.
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