Slavs and Tatars: Beyonsense
Museum of Modern Art
August 15–December 10, 2012
Legend has it that during his tenure as curator of the Museum of Natural History in New York, the anthropologist Franz Boas liked to chain hefty catalogs to the displays. There was no other labeling — if you wanted to find out what you were looking at, you had to find the relevant entry in the book and read up on it. Imperiously academic, perhaps, but it did offer the viewer a clear choice between a primarily visual experience and one based on reading and looking in equal measures. The Museum of Modern Art, however, has never demanded much reading of its audience, hewing close to a history of modernism that privileges looking over reading even when the work’s medium is text. But several recent MoMA shows have smuggled language out of the library and into the gallery, through projects that demand understanding of their textual basis if one is to grasp their contours. Beyonsense, the Slavs and Tatars’ first solo show at a US institution, attempts just such a balancing act.
Form is still an important lure, and the objects that make up Beyonsense have a punchy appeal of their own. The installation is divided into two areas by a curtain of rugs, with a museum-style display outside and a darkened reading room within. The three glass cases outside hold bizarre juxtapositions that could easily hold their own in the Surrealist galleries: a wooden cucumber on an bookstand draped with embroidery (A Dear for the Dear), a turban made of wheat placed next to a brick (Wheat Mollah), and a row of neatly skewered books (Kitab Kebab, all 2012). The book titles (on mystical Islam and Russian folklore) give clues as to the collective’s interests, while a striped branch hanging near the ceiling, covered like a shrine relic with cloth ties, adds another: Long Live the Syncretics refers to the history of religious melding that informs the research at the heart of the show. The exhibition’s name, Beyonsense, is a playful translation of the Russian Futurist concept of zaum, or the transrational. And so, Slavs and Tatars offer up a poetic approach that aims to reveal the sensory, incommensurable aspects of language.
Beyond the wall of carpets is the dark room they have elsewhere referred to as a “psychedelic Muslim library.” The subject here is a single letter, or more accurately, a phoneme (which also forms the title of their 2012 book): Khhhhhh, that throat-constricting sound common to a number of languages, among them Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic. The letters are cartoonishly drawn hands on a white-tiled platform (Kha-Kha-Kha) with a fountain spurting murky red liquid (Reverse Joy) surrounded by carpeted benches where the artist books are chained, Boas-style, to the seats. Two large mirrors decorate the space, one announcing “MOTHER TONGUES & FATHER THROATS” (Kha Giveth), the other featuring a diagram of a mouth inscribed with letters based on their pronunciation (Kha Taketh Away, all 2012).
The effect of the dim room is relaxing, disarming even. But once you squint through the lurid light and begin to read the books, a more strident argument takes shape. The disparate objects create a visual constellation of ideas, a mise-en-scène for an alternative history of modernity that drew its inspiration from mysticism rather than rational utopianism. The green neon light that suffuses the space, for example, is an installation inspired by a minimalist installation by Dan Flavin created for the Masjid al-Farah (known as “the Dia mosque”; see Bidoun #23), one of the many “mystical episodes” within canonical modernity that footnotes these objects.
It is tempting to give in to the circuitous byways offered by Slavs and Tatars’ texts — to understand their work through the funhouse of hidden histories, etymological coincidences, and sociopolitical texts and subtexts that dot their somewhat attention-deficit narratives. Stories form the body of the work and its many manifestations: books, multiples, lecture-performances, guest presentations, and even, in this case, a children’s drawing session organized by the art space Forever & Today, which featured a tiny installation of melon-shaped lamps (Never Give Up the Fruit) in their downtown storefront, a point of departure for another story involving fruits, kidnapped princesses, and even political Islam.
It is also tempting to fault their work for failing to be either research or art proper — for raising serious sociopolitical questions without doing the academic spadework needed to support them. (This charge is frequently made upon the “research-based” art of the past decade.) But neither definition can truly fit Slavs and Tatars’ multi-tentacled approach: ultimately, the goal of Beyonsense is neither argument nor commentary nor interpretation. Strewn like so many exhibits in a modernist-Oriental murder mystery (say, Alain Robbe-Grillet meets Orhan Pamuk), the quasi-coherent juxtapositions of historic fact and chatty trivia are organized not for clarity but for a perverse poetic truth. Research is less driven by a hypothesis than by curiosity, and that voracious curiosity is what lingers after the details have been forgotten.
There are dangers, of course, to open-ended curiosity. The wooden cucumber of A Dear for the Dea may aspire to invoke Eastern hospitality and fructiferous myth (explained extensively and hilariously in one of their books), but it also looks like a dildo on a Quran stand. The risk is less blasphemy than easy access: the work could be dismissed as another exotic sound bite, the artists’ insistence on the dark and subversive side of their strategically lowbrow means notwithstanding. Misunderstanding is clearly a strategy they have embraced in its productive as well as perilous possibilities. You might say what they lose in clarity they gain in agility, a nimble scrambling through histories that might not be reconcilable through conventional means.
Taken as an experiential whole, the knowledge offered by Beyonsense is less a linear study of causes and effects than a proposition for a more intuitive understanding of the world: an invitation to learning that winks from a place just beyond the limits of our comprehension, all the more seductive for its combination of enthusiasm and inaccessibility. Texts, images, and objects entice the viewer toward an unforeseen, if not entirely unlikely, place where minimalism and mysticism just might make sense together, where a guttural khhhhh connects disparate histories of art, faith, and politics. The most hospitable home for these oblique statements may well be an art gallery, where the emphasis on seeing over reading means that they can be taken together or independently, as visual or verbal poetry. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that Beyonsense pulls off, not through the persuasiveness of its arguments, but through its faith in the intuition and interest of its audience.