Zulf (blond), oak wood, hair, 30 x 70 x 30 cm,
and Zulf (brunette), oak wood, hair, 82 x 60 x 30 cm
AN INTERVIEW WITH SLAVS AND TATARS, PART II
Slavs and Tatars is an art collective that deals with issues of language, identity, and culture in the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. As it engages with the region’s polemics, the collective works across disciplines and media. As artists-in-residence hosted by the NYUAD Art Gallery during Spring 2015, Slavs and Tatars will temporarily shift operations from Berlin to Abu Dhabi. Slavs and Tatars were able to set aside some time to chat in the collective’s studio to discuss its practice. In Part I of the interview, I spoke to the collective about its origins as well as the nature of its work and the conversations sparked by its installations. (I spoke to one member of the collective who speaks for the group; individual members of the collective do not give their names to the public.) Here, in Part II of the interview, we focus on the collective’s current work and its plans for the residency at the NYUAD Art Gallery.
Diana Gluck: What are you planning for your residency at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery this Spring?
Slavs and Tatars: When we do a residency, a lot of the research that we’ll do at the residency won’t result in work that you’ll see at the venue, it’ll be for the next chapter. With our research we generally work in a cycle of roughly 3 years. We do a couple years of bibliographic research bookended by field research. For this current project, Mirrors for Princes, we went to Xinjiang in western China, the Muslim region of China, [and then there was] about a year of production work to form or give shape to those ideas. Then the series of works that result from this research and production travels to different venues, adding new elements at each stop, by accretion. It was unveiled at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the next iteration will be at the GfZK Leipzig, and the iteration after that is in Abu Dhabi. In each iteration it will accumulate.
For the residency, we’ll have a seminar that will pursue the editorial direction of mirrors for princes by combining the macro and micro scales and registers of the millennial genre and its contemporary stakes by looking at self-presentation as a form of governance. Identifying the individual as a polity, the self as an assembly of multiples will allow for an effectively multidisciplinary research as well best leverage the expertise of the diverse faculty. It will be run like a salon, we’ll meet once every week or two, with three or four faculty members, four or five students — on a different component of these “mirrors for princes.”
DG: Can you talk more about the larger themes present in this current project, Mirrors for Princes?
ST: Essentially, mirrors for princes were guides for future rulers in the tenth to twelvth [sic] centuries. The most-famous one is Machiavelli’s The Prince, which was later of course and during the Renaissance, but actually, they first arrived in and most of them happened during medieval times. It was a first attempt by scholars to put statecraft on the same level as religious jurisprudence and theology, because until the tenth/eleventh century, most scholars either wrote about religion, or they didn’t write. It wasn’t considered worthy to talk about secular matters. Today, what’s interesting is that a thousand years later or a millennium later, we have a completely different situation. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, because now everybody and their grandma is a political pundit of some sort, and there’s very little intelligent writing about faith in the public realm. Basically if you’re an intellectual, you don’t talk about religion. You can talk about it sort of with gloves on and say something anthropologically, but religion is the kiss of death for an intellectual or professional person today.
So what we’re looking at is, in a way, the latter day version of mirrors for princes: self help books. Like, How to Lose 15 kilos in 10 Days or How to Marry a Millionaire …
We’re thinking about how we can re-invest this genre that’s become sort of individually focused — self betterment — into the question of self-presentation, but as one would imagine oneself as a multitude or as a corpus of pluralities. So thinking of oneself as a nation of many. The different factions within yourself. Different belongings, different allegiances, different affinities. Take the example of one of our own — a Russophile from the United States who’s originally from Iran. Those are three areas or spheres of influence that are in complete conflict.
This negotiation of allegiances, of multiplicities, of identities, of behaviors, is a necessarily urgent practice — it’s quite relevant to what we found at NYU Abu Dhabi, from the student body to the curriculum itself. It was the first time we’ve seen a school that has a truly global student body in the sense that diversity isn’t a token. [In one of our experiences] as an undergrad at Columbia, there were the international students, but then the bulk is American. If you’re at Sorbonne, the bulk is French; if you’re at Oxbridge, it’s British; if you’re in Heidelberg it’s German. And [at NYUAD] it’s … everybody’s from everywhere. And perversely, the tabula rasa that the [United Arab] Emirates is often misconstrued as, actually works to its benefit.
DG: So you’re looking to write the same sort of self-help mirror for princes texts but for the Emirates, or as individuals with multiple identities?
ST: The idea is to present the exhibition that would address these themes of self-presentation.
In the works from Zurich there are a lot of different elements about grooming. Grooming of course has a double meaning in English. How to present oneself, in terms of hair and hair-care, but also grooming in that you groom a child — not for paedophilic reasons — but more to prepare, to raise, to elevate, to guide. Hair in a sense is a perfect example of de-sacralization, because hair used to be, until 200 years ago, always a sacred, ritualistic thing, and today it’s purely aesthetic or at best tribal. The question is how to de-profanize or re-sacralize or reconsider these. One chapter is grooming, and in Abu Dhabi we’ll think about perhaps another chapter … possibly “reading’, as kind of sacred activity. Reading used to be a group activity. You didn’t have a book per person, you had a book for fifty people, a hundred people, a thousand people. Books were precious objects. So it can re-activate some of these ideas.
Hirsute happily with hairless (white), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
and Hirsute happily with hairless (green), dichroic glass, tinned copper, 25 x 10 x 8 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin
DG: Interesting – on that topic, the Qur’an is constantly recited over Sheikh Zayed’s tomb at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
ST: The reciting, the orality, of language is super interesting because the Muslim world came relatively late to print, actually, around the late nineteenth/early-twentieth century. Not because it didn’t have access to it — it was a decision that dates back to the fifteenth/sixteenth century. All religions were very suspicious about print because there’s a loss of authority with print, of interpretation.
And ironically our Not Moscow, Not Mecca [show / book] project looked at this idea of how normally people think that Islam needs to be “modern” or needs to be “modernized.” You hear it a lot, “Oh, Islam needs a reform movement and needs to be modernized” — which is actually quite islamophobic. In fact, it is counterintuitive – it was Islam’s modernization which contributed to its radicalism. Meaning that it’s only since print arrived in Islam that someone can decide who is Muslim, who is not or what Islam is or isn’t — because before, it was completely communitarian and largely ritual-based.
Each village, each town, would have its oral tradition of Islam, and few in Bukhara or Samarkand cared what someone in Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo said. There wasn’t this type of dialogue. So ironically, in Central Asia and the Soviet Union, they missed out on modernization — because print arrived during Communism and nothing could be printed that was religious — Jewish, Christian, Muslim — nothing. So they strangely maintained that ritualistic, oral approach to Islam, which has maintained quite a Sufi, almost more esoteric approach that’s been relatively resilient to things like Saudi attempts to radicalize or Wahhabi funding.
DG: In addition to thinking of a new chapter for Abu Dhabi, you mentioned that your work accumulates, and that some previous work from Zurich will be shown in the iteration for the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. So far, are there any pieces that are part of Mirrors for Princes that you will add to or somehow alter in Abu Dhabi?
ST: In particular there’s a large sound installation in Zurich that had an excerpt from a mirror for prince being read. You have a 4-channel video, and there is an excerpt from this mirror for prince from the eleventh century, and each time it’s presented in a different venue, there’s a new language added for that venue. So the original was Uighur, then it was shown in Turkey, so Turkish, and then Polish, German, and now it’ll be Arabic.
Speculum linguarum (installation view), 4 channel sound installation (in Uighur, Turkish, Polish, and German),
16 mirrored plexiglass rahlé with speakers, each 30 x 30 x 50 cm, 2014
Courtesy Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin
DG: Will it loop first in one language then in another language?
ST: It’s actually interesting; in Poland and Russia they have this phenomena of Gavrilov translation [which we utilize in this piece], which is basically, instead of dubbing where they would turn off the original and just dub, like in Germany or France, they would instead speak over the original voice. So this is Pulp Fiction [Plays excerpt from Pulp Fiction with Gavrilov translation, one voice dubbed over the original].
All one voice. It is an interesting phenomenon. One, that it’s maximalism of means, meaning that it’s cheaper obviously to do that — that’s the origin of the practice. But it’s also maximal in the sense that the audience gets to listen to the original and yet understand. So instead of canceling the original, which is normally done, where you don’t get to see the original acting — you just have some new person’s voice on top of it, you get the best of both worlds. But it’s schizophrenic, right? Where you have to split your brain basically.
What we like about it is that there’s a respect and disrespect of the material, meaning that you’re respecting the original source because you’re translating it, but you’re also disrespecting it because you’re speaking over it. If you’re reading poetry and I am tasked with translating, usually what happens is you read a line, a verse, and then I translate. And then you read. And then I translate. But here, you’re reading and I’m translating over your voice. So it’s a very strange push and pull of both [respect and disrespect].
DG: Under the umbrella of themes explored by Mirrors for Princes, in addition to the changing associations held with regards to grooming, the connection to modern day self-help books, and the mix of respect/disrepect present in Gavrilov translation, earlier you mentioned briefly the role of faith in law. What are you particularly interested in concerning the role of faith in law in the Emirates?
ST: From what we understand NYU has a status of being able to discuss anything. There’s a real freedom of discussion and expression within the university. The question is can it then be broadcast outwards to the larger community. For us it’s crucial to make the exhibition relevant not only to the student body and faculty but to the larger community. This exhibition is not really a commentary on the Emirates, just like it’s not a commentary on Swiss law. There’s just as much to object to with Swiss law as there is with Emirati law. Especially recently, whether it’s the prohibition on foreigners being able to work in Switzerland, or the ban on minarets being constructed.
Our work doesn’t really prescribe anything but it’s more a reflection that allows for other questions to bubble to the surface. We don’t take a singular position. For us, the real interesting moments happen when you work on a subject matter or exhibition for a couple of years, and you still don’t really know where you stand on it. That resistance to your own determination is interesting because it confounds you, and if it confounds you after so much time spent on it, then there’s a chance there that it has layers of complexity that can’t be reduced to a polemical statement.
Regarding the question of faith in government – we’re somewhat suspicious of this very modernist rhetoric or what Charles de Foucauld, a Catholic scholar and monk, called ‘secular rage’ which you see among elites in Western society. It’s the natural extension of Cartesian thought, of modernity, of homo modernicus, who has survived homo sovieticus. The idea, according to Marx, Weber or Durkheim, that there is a new man that no longer has tradition, that no longer has religion or faith, and that no longer has a need for these – because now the world is industrial, it’s secular, it’s rational. We’re suspicious of this break.
We don’t obviously believe in throwing one out or the other. We’re not suspicious of technology or rationalism, but we equally don’t ascribe to the philosophy of either one. Also we believe that … if you look at the most successful acts of civil disobedience over the past century, they’ve always been led by people for whom faith played an extremely important role. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Solidarność in Poland against Communism — the Catholic church played a huge role.
But now, we as intellectuals appropriate these people as secular individuals. We whitewash them of their religious role, we claim Martin Luther King as a civil rights leader, Gandhi as a human rights leader, but actually you can’t disassociate the role that faith played in any of these struggles — and it would go a long way towards creating a cohesive society. In Turkey, today in America, same thing – you have this partisanship of people yelling at each other but not listening at all to each other. It’s because, “We believe everybody who is religious is stupid” and they believe, “Anybody who is secular is godless and sinning.” We’re maximalists. We believe it’s a question of “and” and not a question of “or,” you know?