Slavs and Tatars is an art collective whose installations, lecture-performances, sculptures, and publications contemplate otherwise little-known affinities, syncretic ideas, belief systems, and rituals among peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Pursuing an unconventional research-based approach, the group identifies the “area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia” as the focus of their multidisciplinary practice.
In their most recent cycle of work, titled Long Legged Linguistics, the group has investigated language as a source of political, metaphysical, and even sexual emancipation. With their trademark mix of high and low culture, ribald humor, and esoteric discourse, the collective addresses the complex issue of alphabet politics—the attempts by nations, cultures, and ideologies to ascribe a specific set of letters to a given language. The march of alphabets has often accompanied that of empires and religions: the Latin script along with the Roman Catholic faith; Arabic with Islam; and Cyrillic with Orthodox Christianity, and subsequently the USSR. Within this body of work, it is not peoples or nations but rather phonemes (sounds) that are liberated from attempts to restrain them and rein them in.
For Concentrations 57, Slavs and Tatars presents Love Letters, a series of ten carpets based on the drawings of Russian poet, playwright, and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930). Mayakovsky initially worked on behalf of the Bolshevik Revolution, lending his talents to give voice to the Russian people at a time of great social upheaval and reconstruction. But as the revolution changed its course, Mayakovsky—known as the “people’s poet”—became extremely disillusioned and could not forgive himself for being complicit in Joseph Stalin’s ruthless rise to power, ultimately committing suicide at age thirty-seven.
Through caricature, the carpets depict the wrenching experience of having a foreign alphabet imposed on one’s native tongue and the linguistic acrobatics required to negotiate such change. In particular, the carpets tell two parallel stories: that of the Bolsheviks’ forced Latinization and later Cyrillicization of the Arabic-script languages spoken by the Muslim and Turkic-speaking peoples of the Russian Empire, and the 1928 language revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—Turkey’s first president—in which the Turkish language was converted from Arabic to Latin script. The casualties of these linguistic takeovers—lost letters and mistranslations—are given center stage here as a testament to the trauma of modernization.
The Nancy and Tim Hanley Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Dallas Museum of Art
Brochure produced for the exhibition Concentrations 57: Slavs and Tatars on view at the Dallas Museum of Art July 18–December 14, 2014