Turn on the Tongue
The stranger permits you to be yourself,
while transforming you into a stranger.
Eugenia Raskopoulosʼ intriguing installation Turn on the tongue is a fine example of her continuing multifaceted interests in the border zones of post-colonial identity, difference, language and hybridity. Characteristic of recent Australian second-migration art, Turn on the tongue, concerns itself with the aesthetic, cultural and linguistic complexities of diasporic identity, marginality, and space. However, it is necessary at this early juncture, to note that Raskopoulosʼs art transcends the tiresome limits of mainstream curatorial thinking that wishes to automatically categorise it as “ multicultural” or “ethnic” art. Clearly, given the numerous significant critical and formal ideas and concerns of the artistʼs installation as an example of her notable oeuvre , it demands to be spoken as art that belongs to any “white cube space” context next to any example from any artist who happens to be “non-ethnic.”
Let us now put aside this polemical thought and proceed with the main business of discussing Turn on the tongue as an arresting work that invokes certain traditions and genres of international video in the context of Raskopoulosʼ onging concern with art that challenges our preconceived ideas about language, translation and slippage in the mutating multiple and nomadic worlds of the modern metropolis.
Turn on the tongue, with its playful Lacanian title suggestion of linguistic experimentation, consists of a large wall that diagonally cuts across the gallery room which acts as a screen for a video piece. In one section of the wall there is a gap that is filled with a stack of salt blocks which is set back from the facade of a brick wall. Some of the projected video images are located across the wallʼs gap. The videotape itself comprises of several interrelated scenes where we first encounter a hand writing on a blackboard the Greek letter “alpha” and in the concluding shot of the video we see the letter “beta” being drawn on the blackboard as well. Both letters function like book ends in the videoʼs overall imagetrack. And both letters as we know, are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet and the origin of the word “alphabet”. Not only do we see the two letters being written, but we hear them being inscribed into the black expanse of the blackboardʼs surface. The letters are carefully written and partly erased and in conjunction with their resonant aural characteristics these two letter images evoke the opening shot of a jet planeʼs jet vapour trail across the ocean blue sky of Godardʼs essay film Scenario du Passion. Or, closer to experimental video, they point to the “renga” poetics of Shuji Terayama and Shuntaro Tanikawaʼs jointly conceived moving Video Letter.
What we see next is a mouth, perhaps female, repeating a number of lines from the famous theme song from Michael Curtizʼs Casablanca, perhaps the cult film of all cult films, the movie that – to echo Umberto Ecoʼs observation – symbolically represents the cinema. The lines from Casablanca are spoken in Greek, English and Japanese. (The latter language becoming, for this artist, a growing interest of hers in more recent years.) Each different spoken image focuses a close-up of the relevant mouth. In each case, the image is shot slightly out of focus giving it a chimerical texture indicating the timeless complex origins of human language and its centrality to human identity and culture. In a Barthesian sense, the spoken texts gradually reveal themselves: we make sense of the foreign words in a fragmentary intuitive sense: we can critically hear the carnality of the words, “the grain of the throat”, in each given image. 1
Raskopoulosʼ deft ability to construct an atmospheric and subtle installation around a cluster of important interrlocking themes that deal with the slippage of significance that is anchored in the articulation of difference across culture, time and geography is clearly evident throughout the installationʼs appealing reflexive image, acoustic and sculptural configurations. Turn on the tongue, aptly named, given its pronounced artistic and intellectual concerns also (indicative of the artistʼs past work) has been inspired by mythic narrative, icons and figures. In this case, the installationʼs wall was inspired by an ancient Persian myth (as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses) that concerns Pyramus and Thisbe and their forbidden love for each other whispered through a small chink in a wall between their two houses. The mythic elements of Turn on the tongue characteristically suggest Raskopoulosʼ underlying paradoxical objective of producing art that interrogates (in an imaginative and non-didactic fashion) our “prison-house “ language of Western representation by using myths as a protean source of critique and storytelling to put into critical relief the cultural fictions of everyday life.
Consequently, the installation invites us as we interact with its spectal spatial architectonics of otherness to negotiate the intricate phenomenological decentering of the Western rationalist subject as the classical Cartesian site of fixed privileged knowledge, being and truth. 2 Time and again, Turn on the tongue asks us to produce new possibilities of culture, language and spaces; to rethink the fundamental “dominants” (Eisenstein) of art, culture and language that colour our thought horizons: learning to go beyond the orthodoxies of post-industrial society , seeking to dwell within languages, histories, identities, and spaces and being familiar with the criss-crossing turbulence of ambiguity, displacement and heterogeneity.
Knowledge, as the various speaking images illustrate, is produced (as Chambers points out) through language that is constantly redefined, rewritten, resited and recited. 3 This Nietzchean view of the world as one of our own making is rooted in the realisation that its existence depends on our activity and language. Further, to experience other worlds, other peoples, other places, is to understand that the accumulating diasporas of (post)modernity denote that homelessness is rapidly becoming one of the essential metaphorical facets of our contemporary condition. Today we are all nomads of one kind or another. The installation shares Kristevaʼs perceptive remarks concerning the stranger (inside and outside of us) as a key figure who questions our urgent concerns with alterity and hybridity and represents “the symptom that renders our ʻselvesʼ problematic , perhaps impossible, the stranger commences with the emergence of the awareness of my difference and concludes when we all recognise ourselves as strangers.” 4 Kristevaʼs words acutely point to the wisdom of seeing oneʼs encounter with the other as a continuous open-ended relationship that refuses to assimilate the other to our world but instead endeavours to criticise the closures and transparencies of Cartesian subjectivity by seeing otherness as being predicated on the open web of language (Levinas).
Turn on the tongue’s preoccupation with language in terms of difference, landscape and myth may be seen as a continuation of a fairly well established aspect of Euro-American video in the last three decades. Video as a remarkably pliable time-based medium, with its complex genealogy of ideas, forms and techniques that can be traced back to the historical avant garde, is ideal for experimenting with intricate and personal concepts such as cultural identity, space , memory and time. Raskopoulosʼ mouth / language imagery is rich for its precursive importance: video artists like Vito Acconci, Jamie Daidovich, Gary Hill, Antonio Muntadas, and Lydia Schouten, come to mind, amongst many others.
As a photographer/videomaker Raskopoulos works within a fertile poetic “inbetween” zone of the two camera-based art forms. Turn on the tongue is a lyrical testament to this. However, cinema is also phantasmatically invoked in the installation, and in this vital sense, Raskopoulos exacavates “unspeakable images “(Raymond Bellour) that ensue with the collision of the three camera-based arts ( film, video and photography). In this age of post film media , artists are now embracing the intertextual creativity that can be facilitated by the convergence of the three arts. 5 Video itself has become the medium (via the computer) for the passage of these “inbetween” images, and as Bellour maintains and is abundantly discernible in Raskopoulosʼ installation, it is rapidly becoming difficult (thanks to televison) to speak about “the image” without acknowledging how it is becoming marked by language and voice.
Raskopoulosʼ uncompromising art is a constant questioning, a light-text space writing, of our existential dwelling in language. It is graphically cognisant of how our understanding of identity, exile, migrancy and place is realised as we travel through our languages, histories and worlds and how we always need to be open to the risks of being-in-the world (Heideggerʼs Dasein). What is called for by Raskopoulos is nothing less than art as a language of becoming, art as self-translation, an ethics of being. In a word, Raskopoulosʼ art is intimately connected with the continuing drama of the other.
1. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, New York, Hill, 1975, pp.66-67
2. Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity, London : Routledge, 1994, p.7
3. ibid., p.33
4. Quoted in ibid., pp.6-7
5. Raymond Bellour, “The Power of Words, The Power Of Images,” Camera Obscura, No 24
September 1990, pp.7-9