Curated by Emma Wilcox and Evonne Davis
Your comprehension of the marks on this page is not voluntary. Gallery Aferro asked 30 artists based worldwide if the breakdown of language makes it more visible. Glossolalia presents selections from bodies of work that can be read as the answer to this question. This examination of the struggle to exchange ideas with words and sounds did not yield Babel, but a coherent and engaging survey of strategies employed by contemporary artists to understand and relate the world around them.
The function of language both written and spoken is an automatic and thus often invisible process. As Steven Pinker writes in The Language Instinct, “Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other’s minds.”
Utilizing everything from pidgin to academic jargon to cocktail chatter, each artwork in Glossolalia has to be approached with a fresh eye, as the artist may be attempting to invent a new language, commenting on or refusing to participate in an existing mode of speech, or exploring the creative possibilities of nonsensical tones or marks. Many artists are working in a language that is not their mother tongue, or working simultaneously in several languages. The significance of wordplay to radical political movements worldwide, like the religious/scientific phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” are interpreted differently depending on one’s perspective.
Perhaps only visual artists can approach language this freely. Some examples:
The Gallery’s front window has been filled with 4,000 hand-cut vellum letters: the entire text of Gallery Aferro’s call for submissions, and the artist’s response to the call. Two monitors run a code that gives displayed words a kind of nervous system that responds to sound. Responding to ambient noise or the speech of the viewer, the letters deform until they are both illegible and expressive. A man writes calligraphy in five different languages with an ink dipped beef tongue held in his mouth. A man walks into a bar, and stoppeth one of three…
You are reading this text, interpreting it, and judging it.