‘Do you know languages? What’s the French for fiddle-de-dee?’
‘Fiddle-de-dee’s not English,’ Alice replied gravely.
‘Who ever said it was?’ said the Red Queen.
Alice thought she saw a way out of the difficulty this time. ‘If you’ll tell me what language
“fiddle-de-dee” is, I’ll tell you the French for it!’
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Language can be described as a method or system used to communicate. Wordis an exhibition that touches on several aspects of human discourse, including how language and writing have morphed over time, ways of understanding culture, literature, methods of conveying meaning, contemporary slang, and electronic communication.
According to John McWhorter (The Power of Babel, W. H. Freeman, 2002) there are six thousand languages spoken today and they have been developing for over 100,000 years, but we won’t go quite that far back in time with this exhibition. In his series of prints referencing theBabylonian Talmud, Sameeh Alderazi explores how over the course of over two millennia exile shaped the language of the Jewish population in Iraq, from Hebrew to Aramaic and modern-day Arabic. Text messaging and emails are now the norm, but in the not-so-distant past a handwritten note or card was the way we dashed off a quick hello to our aunts, boasted about our adventures, or professed our love. Carrie Cooperider collects old postcards not so much for the pictures on the front as for the handwriting on the back. In her new series of drawings, Carrie pays homage to the highly individual and often beautiful handwriting of others.
Trying to learn a new language seems like an insurmountable undertaking to me at times. I have been attempting to learn Italian for several years – DIY audio programs, workbooks, college classes, private tutors, watching Italian movies – I’ve tried them all. Being in Italy, surrounded by Italians, is by far the most effective and certainly the most enjoyable method I’ve tried! The collaborative drawings Giuseppe Di Lelio and I have included in Word are in part the fruits of a month-long, two-way language lesson. Yolanda Gonzalez, on the other hand, grew up bilingually. While navigating the waters between Spanish and English she finds that body language in fact plays a large role in her understanding. Her elegant portraits portray the subtle and informative nuance of gesture. In an even more tactile approach to language comprehension, Dennis Buonagura invites the viewer to read quotes “by people who were in darkness but saw much more than I ever will” on his hand-punched Braille pieces.
When experiencing a new culture or language we tend to grasp onto the familiar. Cecile Chong presents a series of encaustic paintings called Common Dictionary about finding linguistic touchstones common in the three languages that she grew up with: Spanish, Cantonese, and English. While Marie A. Roberts is a born and bred Brooklynite she hails from Coney Island, where her family spoke Carnie – the private language of circus people and sideshow performers – at home around the dinner table. Marie, now the artist-in-residence at Coney Island, USA, has the job of enticing viewers of all ages into the show with her brightly painted banners. Working with text from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Glenn Ligon challenges us to see race, and to see beyond it. Ligon states “There are a lot of things in our culture that seem clear, but I think what the paintings are trying to do is to slow down reading, to present a difficulty, to present something that is not so easily consumed and clear.”
Printed matter is a useful way to convey a message. Gabriel Pacheco uses newspaper clippings about Haiti as the literal and conceptual base for his mixed media work exploring immigration, transformation, and relocation. Compelled by the nuance of how words look on a page, Hawley Hussey has painted and collaged her own pirate tale, using text from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island,in her series of shadow boxes. Designers are challenged to artfully communicate meaning as a matter of course. John Casey has designed the print materials for this exhibition and has created an interactive block project for our viewers. Of course, there are messages of a more mystical nature. In her text drawings Meg Hitchcock-Steger deconstructs the word of God by cutting from the holy books of all religions letter by letter, and then reconstructing passages from other holy texts in the form of elegant, meditative collages. Equally steeped in a spiritual content, David Camacho considers his sculpture La Semilla (The Seed) an offering or communication to the spirit realm.
I selected the title for this exhibition because it resonates on many levels, including vernacular speech. Damond Haynes’s audio-sculpture Word? is in fact a form of tutorial. Damond explains: “Slang, although informal, has rules and the intent of the originators should be respected. When adopted by Hip Hop cultural tourists it is usually massacred.” Like slang, technology informs how we communicate today. Iviva Olenick’s embroidered blog, Were I So Besotted, is about the search for human connection in the digital age. By slowly embroidering her messages, Iviva aims to create a sense of permanence lacking in contemporary interactions and communication.
Ernest Concepcion’s Big Quote Marks bring a humorous conceptual element to this exhibition. Placing quotation marks around an entire group show in a gallery is in effect saying that the show itself is a statement that can be read. Ernest gleefully adds, “It is like saying, ‘THIS IS AN ART SHOW.’” Well, fiddle-de-dee, it is – it’s about language, and I hope you enjoy it!
Word will be used as a teaching tool for Rush Education Programs and will support the 2012/13 Rush Education Year of Language.
—Meridith McNeal, Curator