Un-Taming the Tongue, Un-Domesticating Meaning at Tinos Quarry Platform

11.08.2018

Amid the hubbub generated by the recent rediscovery of Tinos as a holiday destination worthy of the attention of hip Athenians, Tinos Quarry Platform presents its fourth residency and exhibition on the island, in the historical building of the Cultural Foundation of Tinos. This year, eleven artists partook in an artistic exchange that came in dialogue with the Cycladic island, its histories and its materials. Tinos Quarry Platform is organised by visual artist Petros Touloudis and this year’s exhibition is curated by art historian, curator and director at Kölnischer Kunstverein, Nikola Dietrich.

Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. From left: [a] Anders Clausen, Untitled, 2018. Color on canvas. [b] Olga Balema, Untitled, 2018. Marble, modeling clay, motors, electronics. [c] Emanuel Rossetti, Virtual Bell, 2018. Lambda c-print. Photo by TQP.

The title Oh that I had a thousand tongues refers to the exhibition’s underlying theme of language and how it can “break loose from the constraints set by predominant forms of society”, as well as the possible role of art in that process. The title is in fact a translation of the opening line of a Lutheran hymn and, in its original context, refers to the worshipper’s desire to praise God with “a thousand tongues” and “a thousandfold mouth”. Interestingly, the exhibition doesn’t contain a single written word, which at first seems odd for a show having to deal with language. However, the absence of writing opens up the necessary space for other forms of language that are spoken or gestural, and at the same time brings into play things that are not immediately associated with language. According to the curator, very often language is transferred to something else that might not have to do with language per se, like “a rumour, or a saying, or a slip of the tongue. This is also what art can do: to transfer specific writing or knowledge into something else that at the end is not in written form but an image, a sound, a picture, a sculpture, a gesture.”

This understanding of language not as a fixed thing but as something that is subject to change and transformation permeates the entire exhibition, and in a way celebrates the wealth of unexpected meanings that can emerge through lingual error and play. In fact, language in the exhibition is used only as a backstory, a springboard off which the works have launched themselves into the space and into relationships with each other. Based on the understanding that art’s aspiration is “to turn the rules of the game around so as to free itself from the permanences assigned to meaning” [1], the exhibition indeed occupies a space post language — where a fractured landscape of artistic gestures delineates the inherent ability of language to convey a multitude of meanings. To achieve that, the exhibition brings forth stories of domestic animals and their problematic relationship to man as parables of our own relationship to the earliest domesticated piece of meat: the human tongue.

Unlike written language that evolved parallel to the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals and plants some ten thousand years ago, the origins of spoken language are impossible to trace back in time, although some researchers place its emergence around 100,000 years ago. Consisting entirely of soft tissue, the human vocal apparatus is impossible to trace in fossils, but has evolved together with the rest of our body to perform very specific and highly sophisticated functions. The human tongue specifically is “exceptional” [2] in the sense that it’s the only mammal tongue that has evolved to be used both for feeding and vocalising. In the most poetic sense, we could say that we have domesticated this mass of moist muscle in our mouths to do more than just lick and swallow, in a way that enables us to vocalise in a remarkably nuanced and infinitely creative way.

Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. From left: [a] Maria Georgoula, The Pig Bagpipe Song, 2018. Plaster, rubberised fabric, processed pig's ear. [b] Henrik Olesen and Gerry Bibby, Throat / Tongue, 2018. Wood, paint. [c] Maria Loboda, Smoke heralding the end of the affaire. Maquette of Tinos, incense. Photo by TQP.

Often synonymous to language itself, the tongue takes a central point in the Tinos Quarry Platform exhibition through a sculptural intervention by Henrik Olesen and Gerry Bibby (Throat / Tongue, 2018). The artists have placed a wooden ramp at the door connecting the main exhibition space with the lobby; the longer side of the ramp is projecting into the main space and is painted like a bright red tongue sticking out of a mouth. This little slanted obstacle transforms the doorway itself into a mouth, the threshold that voice has to pass before entering the public space. As long as the door is a mouth, the main exhibition space is at the same time inside (the building) and outside (the fictional body of this mouth-door), and visitors have to both enter (the room) and exit (the mouth-door) as part of their visit. This inside-outside paradox fits the content of the exhibition perfectly, as it allows for the artworks to create a liminal space that is palpable and explorable. This in-between space is of course public, and as such constantly contested; at the same time, it is the zone that reveals the collision between the domestic and the feral, the stratified and the free, the manmade and the natural.

The human domain has been meticulously domesticated for at least ten thousand years. For some scientists, humans were able to dominate the planet exactly because they managed to domesticate plants and animals. At the same time, early communities and tribes that did not move into agriculture and retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyle were displaced and overpowered by communities “armed with domesticated crops” [3]. Domestication has thus enabled humans to exert power (over nature and other humans) and exploit other species. The domestication of nature is a constant process of stratification: selective breeding, the appropriation of wild habitats for farmland and the systematic disregard for the survival of wild animals and plants are gradually turning the planet into one large farm, where a handful of species is artificially thriving to the expense of biodiversity and the overall health of the ecosystem.

In the exhibition Oh that I had a thousand tongues there are many traces of how domestication exerts its dominance over nature, although it is never explicitly expressed by the curator and the artists. Sheep, cats, pigs, birds and dogs are present in the exhibition, either as direct depictions or as mentions in the accompanying texts. They all have stories to say, some fractured, other sinister, other simply queer and tongue-in-cheek. What all these animals have in common is the fact that their lives have been shaped by human intervention and control into a twisted relationship of mutual dependence. In Maria Georgoula’s two wall-mounted works (The Pig Bagpipe Song and The Number Four, both 2018) processed animal parts are cast in concrete together with other leather objects. The cruel irony of a pig’s ear trapped in concrete together with a bagpipe is particularly scorching in this case, as the domesticated pig not only offers its skin for the entertainment and culture of its exploiters but is also symbolically forced to listen to their song. In a similar act of confinement, Gerry Bibby (Flock, 2018) has filled the exhibition space with furniture whose legs are tied together with rope — referencing the local practice of farmers tying the legs of their sheep together so that they can’t jump over their fences.

Anna Lascari, Left of the Parthenon, 2015. 3D video animation, sound, 2 min. loop. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.

The exhibition space resounds with the sound of a distressed cat, coming from the video work of Anna Lascari Left of the Parthenon (2015) showing a 3D-animated feline trapped on a typical Athenian balcony. Created as a depiction of “the social and political environment experienced by the Greek population resulting from the ongoing crisis and austerity” [4], the work indeed evokes a sense of entrapment and stress that culminates with the cat attacking the camera (and the viewer) in one last attempt to escape. This desperate act of rebellion against its human domesticators is a violent moment of breaking with the power structure laid out by humans to control nature; at the same time it is the only instance in the exhibition where a reaction to this oppression is actually voiced, as all but one of the other works simply stand silent. On a much more discreet scale, the two sonorous sculptures by Olga Balema (Untitled, 2018) are made of locally sourced marble slabs that have been incised with a small groove, into which tiny rods of epoxy clay have been placed containing vibrating mobile phone motors. The faint vibrations of the dry clay make the entire rock hum with a new voice generated by a foreign body, which finds a new home inside the tiny grooves like a mollusk silently evolving inside a rock.

Similar to Laskari’s rebellious cat, the work Bella (2018) by Petros Touloudis is a 3D-printed model of an impossible creature: a sheep with a dog’s tail. This miniature monument on a pedestal is referring to an anecdotal story of a local sheep called Bella, who one day decided to join a pack of stray dogs and become one of them. The story goes that Bella lived with the dogs, started barking and even ate meat, but eventually dies because she can’t really adapt to her new diet. This improbable scenario of a domesticated animal re-domesticating itself becomes a story of queering one’s identity as a way to resist the imposed stratification of domestication over one’s body — even if this leads eventually to self-destruction.

Language is as much a stratified realm as the domesticated world, since it depends on strict rules and a fixed structure in order to make sense. However, the rigidity of language is constantly compromised by the softness of its perpetrators — throats, tongues, minds, memes, poetry — as the constant mutations and subversions of language reveal. This constant breaking of language gives rise to new meanings; what Oh that I had a thousand tongues achieves is to convey this exact realm of queering language and capture the very moment of new meanings being born. It also comes to show that in an otherwise orderly domain erected to accommodate human life and hegemony, there is an inherent grain of imperfection, a queering seed that keeps growing roots and throws language off its tracks unexpectedly. The teetering balance of this well-established domestic environment is present throughout the exhibition through objects meant for daily human use that are indeed mutated — and which in some cases expose the human-centric view of the world and our need to appropriate nature in order to make it suitable for human consumption.

Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. On the wall: Emanuel Rossetti, Virtual Bell, 2018. Lambda c-print. On the floot: Gerry Bibby, Flock, 2018. Chairs, tables, rope. Photo by TQP.

In the digital drawings of Emanuel Rossetti, everyday objects and architectural spaces are reimagined and transformed into abstract studies of form and volume. An image of a pair of scissors (Pair, 2018) perfectly embodies a world made by humans for humans, as this instrument is impossible to be used by any other creature properly. Just across the room, an actual toilet illuminated by LED lamps has been installed in the space by Juliette Blightman (Oh shit, 2018) as if monumentalising the most abject of bodily functions; just over the toilet, a guache painting (Day 193, 2016) depicts the same toilet with a lush tropical plant growing out of it, in a way reminiscent of the entropy that befalls every human activity and the way nature simply reclaims the domesticated domain once humans stop defending it.

Meanwhile, the domestic must be protected both inside and outside. Using video and a series of prints, Morag Keil introduces images from social media and security cameras to make a comment on how the domestic realm is under constant control, as well as how post-capitalist human behaviour — exemplified in the use of social media and the generation of online content — is cluttering the world with excess data that is both banal and unsustainable. Meanwhile, in the lobby, Anders Clausen has installed a bronze copy of a 19th-century Urmeter that adopts a fraction of the Paris meridian as a universal measuring unit. Scattered around the room are real bird feathers (Untitled (feathers), 2016-2018) that Clausen has discoloured, spay-painted or covered with nickel. Both the Urmeter and the feathers appropriate a small token of nature for human use; they also reflect man’s obsession with transforming nature according to his own will, and extending his dominance into the realm of birds and gods: the sky.

In the middle of the room adorned by Clausen’s feathers, a small replica of the island of Tinos is emitting a thin stream of smoke. In this work by Maria Loboda (Smoke heralding the end of the affaire, 2018) the ancient tradition of communicating with smoke signals is combined with an exaggerated cast-model of the island hosting the exhibition, to create an almost ritualistic object that emanates the aura of a revered fetish. Meanwhile, not far from the exhibition venue, in the church of Virgin Mary, pilgrims bring votives made of silver to pray and ask the saint to protect them and what is important to them. A quick glance in the endless rows of silver and gold tamata hanging in the temple one will find houses, human limbs, ships, cars and many other domestic treasures. But one of the larger votives is actually in the shape of the island of Cyprus, and we can assume that it was accompanied by a deep-felt prayer for the protection of national interests. In away, we can trace Loboda’s act of turning an entire island into a fetish back to the darkest crevices of religion and spiritualism, where an image of the world enables humans to understand it better and control it more efficiently. (Think of the connection between the practice of cartography and empire.) In the case of Loboda’s miniature Tinos, the object is filled with personal, intimate emotion, as the island becomes a censer that signals the end of what we can guess was a personal relationship.

Maria Loboda, Smoke heralding the end of the affaire. Maquette of Tinos, concrete, incenses. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.

At the same time, Loboda’s work becomes a symbol of land in general, as in the biblical sense of the realm separated from the waters and inherited to mankind for their prosperity. It is a fetish worshipped as the world of man, where language needs to be distilled into an abstraction that rises skywards like smoke to announce the end of an era. It could well be the final image of a film, the penultimate mirage of a story about how the world was donated to humans, but then it decided to simply reject the names humans gave to it. This idea of nature abandoning us (or even punishing us) is a spectre of overhanging doom that haunts every new chapter of the Anthropocene, and stirs a deep, pagan instinct to repent and ask for forgiveness. Only in our case, perhaps not even a thousand tongues could make any difference, and not even a mouth with a thousand folds could compensate for the damage already done. As long as meaning and life is expected to make sense only to humans, their wonders will always remain shrouded in fog and their future will definitely exclude us and our words.

Notes
[1] Curator’s programme notes.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_speech
[3] Diamond, Jared (1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. London: Chatto and Windus.
[4] Curator’s programme notes.

Maria Loboda, Smoke heralding the end of the affaire. Maquette of Tinos, concrete, incenses. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. On the floor: Maria Loboda, Smoke heralding the end of the affaire. On the wall left: Anders Clausen, Untitled [feathers], 2016 – 2018. Right: Morag Keil, Alexa, 2018. Video, 3,5 min. loop. Photo by TQP.
Anders Clausen, Untitled [feathers], 2016 – 2018. Bird feathers, paint, airbrush, chlorine bleach, or nickel galvanized. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Anders Clausen, Untitled [Urmeter X-Profil], 2018. Messing. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. From left: Petros Touloudis, Bella, 2018. 3D print model. Morag Keil, You, Me and CCTV - posters from my Instagram, 2018. Julitte Blightman, oh shit, 2018. Toilet, light. On the wall: Juliet Blightman, Day 193, 2016. By the window: Gerry Bibby, Flock, 2018. Photo by TQP.
Petros Touloudis, Bella, 2018. 3D print model. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Maria Georgoula, The Pig Bagpipe Song, 2018. Plaster, rubberised fabric, processed pig's ear. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Installation view of Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Foreground: Gerry Bibby, Flock, 2018. Chairs, tables, rope. Far wall: Anders Clausen, Untitled, 2018. Color on canvas. On the wall right: Emanuel Rossetti, Virtual Bell, 2018. Lambda c-print. Photo by TQP.
Olga Balema, Untitled, 2018. Marble, modeling clay, motors, electronics. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.
Juliette Blightman, Day 193, 2016. Gouache on linen. Oh that I had a thousand tongues, Tinos Quarry Platform. Photo by TQP.

Info
Oh that I had a thousand tongues
Curated by Nikola Dietrich
27 May - 15 Sep 2018

Cultural Foundation of Tinos
Khora, Tinos, Greece
Mon-Thu 09:00-15:00
Fri-Sat 10:30-14:00
Official website

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