In 1983, Czech writer Milan Kundera defined Central Europe as those
states that historically and culturally belonged to the West, but had been
politically assigned to the Eastern Bloc in the geopolitical wrangling of
the Cold War. His notable essay "The Stolen West" (1983) accentuated the
shared cultural heritage of the countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain
and held a strategic value in defying communism. Today, over two decades
after the fall of Berlin Wall and almost a decade after the European
Union's border shifted eastward, such designations sound woefully outdated.
Yet the artistic collective Slavs and Tatars locate their geographical
interest "east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of
China." Their first solo show in Warsaw is dedicated to linguistic
complexities and what is lost (or gained) in translation. But what
strategies lurk behind their approach?
In the center of the
gallery stands a peculiar structure made of wood, a takhit, a type
of furniture found in tea houses, kiosks, or restaurants across Central
Asia. It resembles a bed, but lacks a mattress or upholstery and is covered
instead with patterned rugs. Here it acts as a reading platform, with Slavs
and Tatars's publications placed casually on it. In their practice
takhits, tent-like tea salons, small shrines, or flying carpets
(like PrayWay (2012) at the New Museum's Triennial in New York this
year) are meant to bring in an impression of public space, hospitality, and
But they're less known for their lounges, I suppose,
than for research that finds form through lectures, books, and various
types of artifacts. Steeped in geographically specific humor, their works
go against constructing a homogenous picture of the East, emphasizing
rather the idiosyncrasies and curiosities. The superficial similarities
they uncover lead to crackpot theories, bilingual puns, and pure
absurdities. Take the globe Slavs and Tatars fashioned, for instance, in
which the Earth is substituted with an enlarged quince. The word
dunya is the Arabic and Turkish word for "world" which, in turn,
sounds similar to dunja (quince) in Serbo-Croatian. (The work is
meant to bury a hatchet between the Turks and Serbs.) The exhibition's
title "Too Much Tłumacz" includes a homophonic translation too. "Too much"
sounds like the Polish word for "translator." So the title, if you can read
both languages, would read "too much translating." In the work Dig the
Booty (2012) the aphorism "Dig the booty of the monoglots, but marry,
my child, a polyglot" is transliterated into Latin, Cyrillic and Farsi, in
homage to the circuitous paths of Azeri language, which in the twentieth
century went through three transliterations imposed by various authorities.
Consequently, generations of Azeris speak the same language, but read books
written in three different alphabets.
While the artists'
statement disapproves of the power of translation, they themselves employ
it incessantly. The walls around the takhit are hung with rugs,
carpets, and prints, all using texts (at least bilingual, if not more)
contributing to an incomprehensible linguistic brew. In the adjacent room,
large-scale mirrors are painted over with short paraphrases of idioms and
titles of popular books, referring to the countries or cities of the
regions Slavs and Tatars are interested in. Looking at my own reflection, I
learned for instance that "Men are from Murmansk / Women are from Vilnius,"
or "Once a Tease, Always a Kyrgyz." Let's call the whole thing off!
As most of the works in the show are remnants of previous larger
projects of the collective, they all needed extended captions (which were,
unfortunately, missing). While a globe-quince is funny, to reach the deeper
meaning one needs to plow through the collective's books on the
takhit (in this case Not Moscow Not Mecca) or attend their
lectures. While the research results in books, the artworks turn out to be
merely its by-products. What remains is an aura of luring exoticism: Sinbad
the Sailor meets accretions of unfathomable convoluted oriental
In their project comparing Iranian Revolution of 1979
and the breakdown of communism in Poland in 1989 (Friendship of Nations:
Polish Shi'ite Showbiz, 2011), Slavs and Tatars delved even deeper into
the past, referring to Sarmatism, a cultural formation in Baroque-era
Poland, based on the conviction that Polish nobility descended from a
long-lost Iranian tribe of the Black Sea, the Sarmatians. Supposedly, the
Polish inherited their "national characteristics"—such as their love
of freedom, hospitality, and courage—from them. But Slavs and Tatars
themselves concoct similar myths. In Poland, their quixotic work serves
almost as a reminder of these forgotten Eastern ties, served up as an
exotic remnant proffering both wisdom and colorful decoration. In other
words: intriguing—but also a little superficial.
exhibition at Raster opened during Warsaw Gallery Weekend, which aimed to
galvanize a fledgling Polish art market and bring it into the broader
Western spectrum. Paradoxically, no artist or collective suits this goal
better than Slavs and Tatars. But to escape the dense cobweb they spin,
let's quote the Gershwins: Potato, potahto!
Sienkiewicz is a writer and art historian based in Warsaw.
by Karol Sienkiewicz
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