The Language Problem

The Language Problem

Frustration and a sense of humor pervade pieces like these by Andre Bradley MFA 15 PH, on view through October 11 in LANGUAGE VS. LANGUAGE at Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery.

The irony of the curator’s statement Maya Krinsky MFA 14 PH wrote for Language vs. Language, a show on view through October 11 at Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery, is that it’s crystal clear. The exhibition presents an interrogation of “the complexity of communication between and across languages,” writes the recent alum, who teaches a course called Studio Languages in Graduate Studies. She set out to consider language through the lens of visual practice, a method of communication with an especially complicated relationship to linguistic modes of speech and writing. “Languages,” she concludes, “are perpetually in motion and in flux. Let’s meet them where they are.”

The works included in Language vs. Language provide multiple staging grounds for such a meeting, challenging the hegemony of language – and English in particular – with sharp humor and stark seriousness, and through deft abstraction and direct confrontation.

Krinsky, whose mother is from Morocco via France, grew up among multiple languages and struggled to varying degrees with issues of fluency. She also taught English as a Second Language to beginner-level immigrants and Spanish to English-speaking Americans. Seeing how students in both classes mirrored her own struggles, she resolved to actively explore how learners of non-native languages inhabit a space between verbal systems.

Lost in translation
“I’m interested in verbal language between people and how that manifests in an infinite feeling of trying and misunderstanding, and a back-and-forth between meaning and translation, whether that surfaces in the studio, the classroom or the landscape,” says Krinsky, who spends most of each week in New York City participating in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney.

Endless Typing, a video she selected for the show by Ziyang Wu MFA 16 PT, crosscuts between words on a monitor screen, written in scriptura continua, and 90-degree high angle shots of hands on a keyboard typing slowly, then with a deliberate musical rhythm, and then at a frenetic pace that renders – in stark black and white – what Krinsky calls an infinite feeling of trying. Another work of endless effort, OTL by Yu-Jung Kim MFA 16 CR, presents Triple Canopy’s essay on International Art English heavily annotated in both English and Korean, illustrating how the artist attempts to work within an institutional language governed by English rules and conventions.

Untitled Work on Paper, No. 4 by M. Benjamin Herndon MFA 16 PR, a malleable lead scroll that he ran through a printing press with inked paper, subverts standard printmaking techniques in order to obscure and abstract language onto a sheet of illegible metal that spills onto the gallery floor. Herndon’s unruly abstraction finds an aesthetic opposite in Spoons (mom & dad, my boyfriend is a foreigner) by Ling Chun MFA 16 CR, an exceedingly orderly arrangement of Asian soup spoons mounted on the gallery wall, with a small number at the center displaying Chinese characters. Krinsky notes that the piece represents the difficulty certain families have during mealtime conversations – when some members are essentially forced to “eat their own words.”

List by Andre Bradley MFA 15 PH illustrates how language frames what society takes seriously and what it dismisses out of hand – literally framing the list items “Real” and “Power” together while concealing the items above and below. Whether words of affirmation or despair, his placement of a wooden frame around powerful strokes of painted words conveys the real, silencing power of sacrificing the verbal to the visual.

Linguistic struggles
Krinsky also includes contributions by visiting artists Karlo Andrei Ibarra and Rainer Ganahl, whose respective portrayals of laboring through translation address the geopolitical power of language by decidedly different means. Ibarra’s video Crossover depicts Puerto Ricans sing-reading the American national anthem from printed lyrics as cars and pedestrians pass by. The playful, laughing attempts to sing the anthem belie the role of English linguistic structures – such as US Federal Law – in the everyday life of Puerto Ricans, who are subject to US rule but denied coverage by the Bill of Rights and the right to vote in federal elections.

Ganahl, who has pursued the personal struggle with learning unfamiliar languages as an ongoing project, presents Two days – four hours a day – Basic Chinese, which documents in dense, handwritten notes his crash course in Chinese while in residence at RISD. Pieces of lined paper rest under glass, filled with Chinese words and characters coupled with the English words capitalism, philosophy – and his declaration of utter exhaustion: “every language is hard.”

With Language vs. Language, Krinsky has extended her intellectual and creative inquiry into people’s personal, pedagogical and artistic struggles with language, both in translation and the “incomplete command [that] exists even when speaking in one’s primary language.” She argues that there is an inherent insufficiency in language that challenges a speaker’s ability to convey ideas, especially when trying to translate visual practice into words. Toward that end,Language vs. Language ties linguistic struggle together in an act of lucid communication that invites viewers to persevere and try harder to communicate across languages.

Robert Albanese

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