Installation view of Slavs and Tatars: Mirrors for Princes at Blaffer Art Museum.
Slavs and Tatars at the Blaffer
Since 2006, the research-driven arts collective Slavs and Tatars has gained a reputation for its cycles of art-making, combining high and low, new and old cultural material. Described 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,” the collective bases its practice on three activities: Exhibitions, books, and lecture-performances. Their intellectual pursuits are made enticingly tangible in Mirrors for Princes, an exhibition that takes its title from a genre of ancient advice literature of Christian and Muslim lands during the Middle Ages.
The Transliterative Tease, the first of the lectures presented by the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts as part of the INTERSECTIONS initiative and CounterCurrent 2016, took place just an hour prior to the exhibition’s opening reception. Payam Sharifi of Slavs and Tatars guided the audience through a generous contextualization of the collective’s cycles of research and art-making. He spoke of speech patterns, marching alphabets, and rising empires destroying native languages; illustrated the splits of meanings that occur when far flung tongues are pieced back together; and magically worked rap icon Biggie Smalls into the conversation.
Just inside the museum’s campus courtyard entrance is the Mirrors for Princes tea and reading room, lit with red lights and stocked with artists’ books and source materials from the University of Houston library (most likely a nod to Slavs and Tatars’ early days as a reading group). At the main exhibition entrance is Kitab Kebab, wherein a metal kebab pierces a stack of intentionally selected books (kitab in Arabic means “book”). As a literal take on digesting and balancing information, these two areas preface the cross-cultural exhibition.
The multi-channel audio installation Lektor dominates the front gallery. Audio emanates from shin-height, X-shaped mirrored speakers, equally spaced along one side of an expansive Turkoman “Bokhara” rug from the villages of Central Asia. Each speaker is constructed so that it tilts slightly upward, as if looking/speaking to the heavens. Male and female voices recite from the 11th century Turkic mirror for princes epic Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory) in Uighur, Polish, Arabic, and other languages, in (arguably disrespectful) round-robin sequence.
A metal object resembling a podium stands on the other side of the rug, in the shape of a large open book, a split plane that remains wordless, imageless, authorless. With the mirrored speakers reflecting the room and the voices continuing without end, the resulting language politics are disorienting. Where to look while listening? How to listen while looking? Who has the floor?
Mystical Protest, a silk-screened fabric banner hangs high and fills a concave corner of the gallery. Vertical green fluorescent tube lights create a security bar-like obstruction over the banner’s self-fulfilling prophetic phrase: “It is of the utmost importance that we repeat our mistakes as a reminder to future generations of the depths of our stupidity.” Effective irony.
Wrapped around the wall that divides the front and back galleries is a two-part piece, How to Hoopoe and The Squares and Circurls of Justice. Turbans and hats hang on a singular railing, conflating traditions of dress in terms of donning or removing head coverings in places of worship, and as markers of age, occupation, or similar. For whom is the museum a sacred space?
The exhibition continues in the museum’s back gallery with, amongst others, Hung and Tart, a glass heart that morphs into a tongue; Zulf, an illustration of the rituals of seduction and grooming; and Dil be Del, a jumble of body parts. More than flippant tongue-in-cheek references, these mash-ups speak volumes about how Slavs and Tatars ingeniously take to task the producers and harbingers of language, whether governing bodies or human organs.