Holy books and chewing gum vaginas7/16/2014
“From Speaker to Receiver,” the Des Moines Art Center’s big summer exhibition, takes its title from linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson’s writings on semiotics and language. Curator Gilbert Vicario explains its purpose is to explore “how contemporary artists use language as a platform for the examination and critique of authoritative and dogmatic structures that have shaped the world around them.” That’s the point of this show — one needs considerable context to appreciate it.
For example, the first display one sees upon entering includes a Bible printed in 1537 by John Rogers, under the pseudonym Thomas Mattheus. It’s open to Jeremiah 49-50, in which the prophet suggests that the Lord is about to send the Israelites out to smite the Esau, Ammonites, Edomites, Syrians, Sabeans, Babylonians, and the people of Hazur. A note explains that Rogers was burned at the stake for his deed, by Queen “Bloody” Mary, and that translator William Tyndale was strangled.
Next to the Bible is a 12th century Koran open to the Al Imran, the third Surah, which proclaims Muhammad as Prophet. These two historic books changed the world more than any politician who ever lived. Their words were delivered to a non-priest class for the first time. Jeremiah is a frightening riff of hatred for nearly every tribe in the Middle East. Everybody in the pre-Islamic Middle East pretty much hated everybody outside his tribe.
Today, as authoritarians are deposed across the Middle East, and tribal chaos resurfaces, it’s stunning to contemplate the good these books did before their readers started arguing about what the words meant. Together they provide an arresting introduction to a show full of gestures and language meant to make viewers challenge the status quo.
“Marxism & Art: Beware of Fascist Feminism” by Hannah Wilke is shown with an explanation that Wilke (ironically best known for being Claes Oldenburg’s lover) greeted guests to her exhibitions with sticks of chewing gum. She would then demand the chewed gum be returned to her so she could sculpt them into images of vaginas, which she would then stick to her face and body. Those “Stratification” self-portraits were her most famous artwork.
Argentine artist Amalia Pica’s “Switchboard” is an installation of tin cans and string. It looks like a nostalgic take on childhood games until one realizes how complicated the lines of string are. Then it becomes a statement about communication and censorship informed by the artist’s childhood during the suppression of the Argentine junta. Albanian artist Anri Sala presents “Lak-kat” (gibberish in Wolof), a looped film of Senegalese children practicing a language lesson. Given context, we learn that in modern Wolof, French words have been incorporated for the colors of the spectrum, but aboriginal words remain for black and white. Then the film becomes a statement about post-colonial survival.
Every piece in this show is similarly challenging. A free catalogue and excellent notes posted by the art help a viewer glean the meanings intended by these artist-semiologists. Through Aug. 24. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.