By Codie Barry
The Dallas Museum of Art is currently exhibiting “Concentrations 57: Slavs and Tatars,” featuring the complete “Love Letters” series. Slavs and Tatars is an art collective that combines performances, sculptures and installations that synchronize, describe and celebrate the art and ideas of the peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia.
The collection represents part of the ongoing debate over “alphabet politics,” the complex issues surrounding the relationship between letters and politics. To provide some background, Russia considers Eurasia to be part of itself, claiming that the area has roots older than Europe, and that the land was part of imperial Russia in 1914. The area was also under the control of the Soviet Union at that time. Language was one imposition that was forced on the peoples of this region. Vladimir Lenin forced the Romanization of the Arabic-script languages spoken by the Muslim, Turkish-speaking people of the Russian Empire. In 1928, under Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish language was converted from Arabic to Latin script. Suddenly the form of communication most integral to the unity of a people was taken away. The series “Love Letters” illustrates the horror, frustration and ambiguity a culture experiences when its language is taken away and a new one is forced upon it. Consequently, the manipulation of language becomes a vehicle of social, sexual and political emancipation.
According to a DMA press release, “Love Letters” is a series of 10 rugs based on the drawings of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian poet, playwright and artist. Mayakovsky initially was involved in the Bolshevik Revolution, but as the revolution began to change shape, Mayakovsky became overwhelmed with regret for aiding Joseph Stalin’s rise to power, and he committed suicide at the age of 37.
Playing in the room at the “Concentrations 57” exhibit is an audio piece called “Lost Letters to Vladimir,” which consists of 15 odes to letters that are no longer in use. In a glass case at the center of the room is a glass sculpture of a many-pronged tongue. In a second case is a stack of Russian literature with a sword piercing the works together. The rugs, done with white background and black detailing, illustrate the anguish of alphabet politics. One rug, “Number 2,” depicts a giant tongue imprisoned behind the bars of a cell: the enslavement of language. Another rug, “Number 9,” is a portrayal of a bald, eyeless man screaming. Five different letters issue from his mouth: all the same sounds, but now written in five different ways, in five different alphabets. His scream is one of illiterate frustration and exhaustion. He is incapable of communication. Rug “Number 5” depicts a large man, one fist clenched, the other wielding a large tongue grasping the letters “XXX!” written above him. Behind the man is a bed, with a screaming woman laying on her stomach, skirt raised, hands holding the sides of her face as she looks at her back in horror of the anticipation of the strike of the tongue. Below the man’s feet is written “ööps!” The words pictured are “XXX!” meaning “oops!” in Greek, and “ööps!” meaning “kiss” in Turkish. The words are a pun against each other, illustrating the sexual themes of power, submission, domination and resistance, the same themes at work in the suppression of language.
These language politics were all occurrences of the last century. But this exhibit is also pertinent in our time, especially with the situation in Ukraine and the Russian presence in the Baltic. The exhibit reminds us that more than lives and property are lost in war; cultures are broken apart at the intrinsic foundations of communication. “Concentrations 57” is on display through Dec. 14, and admission to the exhibit, along with admission to the DMA, is free.