Slavs and Tatars is a collective of artists who identify “the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China”—a vast landmass where Europe and Asia merge—as the focus of their work. First organized as a reading group in 2006, the group has lived and traveled in the region, which has been realigning itself since the collapse of Soviet Communism and has experienced escalating tensions between Eastern and Western identities—here, populations, allegiances, and languages are all in transition. In exploring the area’s expansive historical narratives and transnational relationships, Slavs and Tatars forgoes a strictly analytical stance for something more associative, intimate, and playful. Their projects stage unlikely combinations of mediums, cultural references, and modes of address; books and printed matter figure prominently in their work, as do contemplative, librarylike installations where visitors may consider their publications. Slavs and Tatars has devoted the past five years to two cycles of works, one celebrating the cultural complexity of the Caucasus, the other the unlikely heritage shared by Poland and Iran. Beyonsense, their piece for Projects 98, is the newest installment in a third cycle, The Faculty of Substitution, on the revolutionary role of the sacred and syncretic.
Beyonsense is named after a translation of zaum, a hybrid word coined by early-twentieth-century Russian poets to describe nonreferential and sensorial verbal expression. Here the collective aims to address the potential of language, in its mystical, spiritual dimensions, to both clarify and complicate communication across cultures, histories, and geographies: “We imagine that language is always revelatory, but it can hide as many meanings as it can reveal or divulge.” The letters ח (Hebrew), Х (Cyrillic), and خ (Arabic)—the foci of the collective’s recent research—are the work’s protagonists: three characters united by the single vocal sound that all of them represent. For the installation, Slavs and Tatars has created a reading room of reversals. The front area contains objects grounded in the group‘s literary interests; passing through hanging carpets, visitors enter a darkened, meditative space featuring its text pieces and printed publications. The suspended light fixture is inspired by a work that the American artist Dan Flavin made for a New York mosque. A selection of the group’s books, including the most recent title, Khhhhhhh, is available to read in seating areas.
The exhibition is organized by Gretchen Wagner, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr., Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.