Elements for the quest of a perfect non-verbal language
Palais de Tokyo, 20 February – 12 May 2019
The Palais de Tokyo presents a number of videos by Angelica Mesiti, an Australian artist born in 1976 who currently works in Paris and Sydney, and whose work is supported in Paris by Galerie Allen. These works could just as well be described as performances, as they are actually filming events or performances which stem from collective or individual practices, and directly or indirectly relate to the realm of non-verbal communication in society.
For instance, in The Colour of Saying (2015) which is projected on three independent screens, the focus is on silence : a chorus performs a composition by way of gestures rather than using their voices, interrupted by two men clapping their hands face to face on a second screen; two sitting ex-ballet dancers perform a pas de deux from Swan Lake with their hands only, while they listen to the music which we do not perceive on their head-sets. Silence is made present and powerful by the very paradox of a silent choir, or of dancers moving without any perceptible sound and without actually using their legs. By removing what we would think was not removable from song or dance, the music itself, the artist makes us discover through the gesture and attitudes now made visible the intensity of a “non-hearable speech” otherwise hidden to our senses. And this non-hearable speech is both before and after the musical expression, in the sense that it is a means through which the performer conveys the music to the public, and the related emotions, and a result of the metamorphosis operated by music on the performer.
In Mother Tongue (2017), Angelica Mesiti explores the ways in which different communities in a city of Denmark, which include a local church choir, school children, boy scouts of different origins, a Somali family, a group of Palestinian dancers and others, each perform their own traditional music, dance or chant and thereby maintain a deep relationship with their specific culture and roots in an environment which, for some of them, is very different from the one the originate from. The most moving and achieved of these videos is that of a young woman sitting by a window overlooking the harbour, in the vast room of some modern building, probably at dusk. She sits alone, and gently plays a percussion instrument not unlike a bendir or a daf ; her face cannot be seen in any detail as the camera is face to the window, and she is filmed at an angle approximately three quarters from behind. Her gestures are elegant. The camera starts from very far in this empty space, and moves closer to her. The music can be heard now.
In an interview with the curator, Daria de Beauvais, the artist explains that she made this piece during the refugee crisis asking herself: “how are we all going to live together ?”. Strangely, the overall impression one gets from that work is perhaps the reverse of the utopian expectation; it is that we are not, that each community will live its own life with minimal commonality of purpose as original cultures are stronger, ultimately, than any promise of a shared community. The player of bendir (or whichever is the proper name of this instrument) exudes a form of nostalgic estrangement as if she were calling in another world. Her playing in front of this Danish harbour, just as the dancing under a grey sky of these young Palestinians on the drab yard of some social housings, or this man of performing a kind of headstand on the desk of the chairman of the municipal assembly between two portraits of what we assume are previous mayors, all feel odd, while this grey-haired man, this pretty young woman singing in a choir seem perfectly one with their environment and filled with a form of joyful peace. Interestingly, good art tends to reveal the essence of man and society despite its own hopes or intents.
In Citizens Band (2012), four screens organised as the four walls of a square space in the middle of which the viewer stands show in a sequence the performance of four emigrated musicians: a woman from Cameroun performing akutuk – a form of hand percussions on water – in a Paris swimming pool, an Algerian singing raï in the metro, a Sudanese whistling sufi-inspired melodies in his taxi in Brisbane, a man singing these throat-originated songs of Mongolia using the khöömii technique in a street of Sydney. After the last performance, the four music sources are intertwined while waves, bubbles and vortices of colour appear on the screens. Here again, we are confronted with cultural expressions which are transplanted in the country of immigration; they create opportunities of communication with the performer, mediated by the music, and trigger a natural curiosity for such practices. But, in reverse, they expose a total lack of communication between the cultures; there is no cultural blending, the performer could be playing or singing anywhere on the planet irrespective of where he actually is and seems indifferent to his environment, no interaction is perceptible with anyone. The sheer incongruity of these practices which chance, history, or some rational economic choice has placed in these alien, probably unwanted environments, is self-evident.
There is of course no need to elaborate on this ultimate banality that there exist many forms of non-verbal communication, and that these forms are either substitutes for the verbal language, or complements thereof, or actually express what the verbal language would be unable to convey with the same precision or emotional power. What is here at play is of much greater interest: to what extent is there a possibility – or at least a plausible hope – to translate non-verbal languages one into the other, or to blend them so as to forge a new form or language, or to discover behind these non-verbal languages an underlying universal language which would remove or lessen the barriers which exist among people ? And would this universal language be a perfect language in the sense that it is perfectly adequate to thoughts and realities ?
The quest for the perfect verbal language was explored with great talent and in great detail by Umberto Eco in a famous book, La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea. In a letter to Paul Demeny dated 1871, Arthur Rimbaud writes “…every word being an idea, the times of a universal language will come ! …this language will be a soul for the soul, summarizing everything, perfumes, sounds, colours…”. The myth of the Babel tower illustrates the intuition of a single original language of humanity at its outset, and the longing for a paradise regained through the regaining of this unity. In Genesis 11, we read:
And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land
of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, « Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. » And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, « Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. »
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.
And the Lord said, « Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech. »
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
This text, which belongs to the Yahwist tradition, is written during the exile of the Hebrews in Babylon, a moment when they strive to maintain their unity and specificity. What is condemned here is both the ambition of political power to unify humanity in one “people” – probably with the Persian empire in mind – that will crush the diversity wanted by God in the first place, as we read in Genesis 10, and the willingness of humanity to challenge God or otherwise to reach by their own forces the heavens by the means of the tower, meaning the illusion of achieving divinity without faith, and without the help of God. The word Babel means indeed the “gate to God”. It is in a sense another form of the myth of Prometheus.
Without pretending to conduct here a detailed commentary of a very complex myth, the point is that Yahweh viewed with pleasure the diversity of the peoples on the earth, and their many customs and languages as we can infer from the immediately preceding chapter of the Genesis, in 10,5: “From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the descendants of Japheth in their lands, with their own language, by their families, in their nations.” or 10,31: “These are the descendants of Shem, by their families, their languages, their lands, and their nations.”. What therefore seems original and harmonious is precisely the existence of these many peoples each one in their own lands, and with their own language. A harmony destroyed by the pretence of combining forces to reach the sky, meaning doing away with the Spirit, if one will, or more precisely establishing themselves as their own source and their own destiny, in a manner of self-reference. And what the destruction of Babel achieves is not the restoration of the plurality of languages, but their confusion.
The dream of a common language that would also be a perfect language has repeatedly resurfaced as an answer to political or religious conflicts. Inevitably, a language implies a certain worldview as it organises in a particular manner what may be said and thought of the world, using particular categories and particular ways to relate them to each other. Hence the quest of a perfect correspondence between signs and concepts or reality, and of a language that is omnieffable, i.e. capable of expressing all aspects of human experience. Under such conditions lies the idea that there would be no misunderstandings, because there could be no plurality of worldviews, or of apprehensions of reality.
Language does not need to be defined by the presence of sounds or words, but rather as what makes it possible that something becomes apparent, that allows to move “something” out of its state of occultation. Language is the “house of the being”, to reflect Heidegger’s words. We may therefore feel authorized, by extension, to define art as a language, although it is so polysemic that it cannot perform the most obvious function of a language which is to convey information or ideas with some stability of meaning. Because of this polysemic nature, and while excluding the bluntest messages of propaganda, art tends to elude violent confrontation. It leaves ways out to its meaning, and to the projection of the viewers’ prejudices.
Art, whether or not it was conceived as “art” which is a relatively recent phenomena, can be construed as having features of a universal, non-verbal, language. Indeed, when you look at paleolithic art from a time when languages as we understand them either did not exist, or we cannot remotely imagine, we are all equal in front of this expression which is also an enigma, we cannot agree or disagree with what it states, we feel moved by signs and forms which in some inscrutable manner expressed the meaning and structure of the world to humans like us who had most probably not yet devised and organised the mental and verbal categories with which to convey this meaning and thus exploit it or transmit it. And the same could be said of an icon or a Matisse: you do not require a thorough knowledge of theology to perceive what the former expresses, or any deep analysis of the “cutting of the form” through colour to feel the presence of the latter. It is easier to enjoy music or dance from far-away parts of the world than to master foreign languages to the degree necessary for a meaningful linguistic interaction. This has certainly emboldened artists to feel better able to forge harmony in society, and between societies, than ordinary people using their vernacular languages. However, art is clearly not a perfect language in the sense that it would perfectly mirror the world: any image can convey many meanings, and therefore the oppositions are blurred, rather than resolved, by image or sound as a language.
The word language deserves to be specified, and Dante will help us here. In is small treaty, the De vulgari eloquentia, he writes: “Hac forma locutionis locutus est Adam: hac forma locutionis locuti sunt homines posteri ejus usque ad edificationem turris Babel, quae “turris confusionis” interpretatur…” ; “…It is thanks to this linguistic form that Adam spoke. It is thanks to this linguistic form that all his descendants spoke until the construction of the tower of Babel, which is interpreted as the tower of confusion”. So this “linguistic form” preceding Babel which Dante mentions is neither the faculty of language, nor any language in particular as they were destroyed; it is the principles of a universal grammar which underlies natural languages, as suggested by the XIIIth century grammarian Boethius of Dacia, a matrix similar to the Agent Intellect of Averroes which undoubtedly permeates the thoughts of Dante, and is conceived as the “form” which allows actual forms to exist.
Now let us have a look again at the characters in Angelica Mesiti’s videos; each one of them seems to be immersed in a specific culture, despite the sometimes odd environment, this culture visually establishing a bubble, and even more so when sounds cannot be heard.
It is not easy to separate, extract or blend elements of a culture, as one would do of some chemical substance, as cultures are similar to symbolic ecosystems : they are coherent wholes, constantly evolving through the contribution of all its members, and in a more or less intense state of interaction with other symbolic ecosystems. Occasionally, like any system, they are overwhelmed and disappear; some other times, they prosper and extend. Juxtaposed on adjacent screens, they would seem to entertain a dialogue among themselves, and with the public. But can the living individual cross the distance which separates these screens, or us from the screens ? And how, with what expectations and what outcome ?
In practice, a displaced individual – whether voluntarily or not – is faced with three broad options: remain in the bubble of his original culture, but isolated from its living source, in which case he will not thrive in the context of the host cultural surrounding and will suffer from his severance from the living source ; mimic or borrow certain traits of the surrounding culture, such as consuming or preparing local food, and permanently negotiate his way through life in the host culture, probably at the cost of his internal harmony as a victim of the well-known dilemma of “neither from here, nor from there”; or actively participate as a co-creator in this host culture, as so many have done, with the fulfilling sentiment of having satisfied his creative impulses and perhaps contributed through his differences to new cultural blends or forms, at the cost of a much neater severance from his origins. Each individual will employ the strategy which he feels capable of implementing, or is led to implement by his social network. A place where all cultures peacefully coexist and live side by side, and borrow some traits or behaviours from each other is not itself a culture. It is merely a place, and we are likely to see more such places appear. I can already think of an existing one, without naming it.
This is merely to say that the quest for cultural harmony probably is and remains a quest, an aspiration, but the possibility to use art – in its broadest sense – as a common language as seems metonymically established by the work of Angelica Mesiti, may be re-read as the intuition that art is a forma locutionis which precedes, or stands on the side of, natural language. Like in the myth of Babel, it is preferable to have many different cultures in a state of dialogue with each other via the forma locutionis of art, rather than to attempt some improbable mergers that will result in the confusion of all and the death of each. Although art cannot establish a bijection between the sign, or modi significandi to use the categories of Thomist semiotics, and the signified or modi intelligendi (the way in which what exists in its own right exists in the mind), it can sometimes penetrate deeper the essence of things, the modus essendi, the unspeakable, the ineffable. Now the identity between modi significandi and modi essendi is precisely what defines the perfect language which Dante identifies with the ante-Babelian forma locutionis.
Non-verbal languages such the visual arts or music, and very much so the latter, constitute the very fabric of cultures; they are also bricks of human ingenuity which can be used in new cultural constructs. A good example is Blues, a music genre which was originated by African Americans from a variety of African and European musical traditions ,including inter alia folk songs, spirituals, and folk music. It then contributed to the birth of jazz, itself a mix of blues, ragtime, classical music… And although Blues is also the flower of a tragic story, there is no doubt that it has been part of a language which built innumerable bridges among individuals, and which many in the world can share in. Are visual arts capable of the same feat ? Most certainly, as long as they are true to the expression of the modus essendi of reality, and do not attempt to compete with natural languages by merely chatting, or commenting reality, or illustrating verbal concepts.
Although I do not believe for a moment that observing or bringing together non-verbal practices from different horizons will bring by themselves greater harmony, as they stress difference in equal measure as they raise interest or trigger emotions, as they have for millennia, I find in the work of Angelica Mesiti – who is herself a double “cultural immigrant” from Italy to Australia, and from Australia into the French culture where she is occasionally immersed, a moving pleading which calls us to resort to this forma locutionis that art can be, when at its best, so that the tissue of humanity may remain untorn.
We apologize with readers, but we will keep clear from the ever-repeated nonsense of “appropriation”, possibly the most overused word in the vocabulary of art criticism and curatorship today, the meaning of which is probably ignored by its users but which sounds “cross-cultural” and therefore good to hear or prudent to say. Depending on the writers or their inspiration, it either suggests that if you eat pizza you become a little Italian and if you sing Gregorian a little Byzantine, or that by playing the mbira or the calabash you heroically maintain your own identity within some (obviously) oppressive context. We will also graciously leave aside the second most loved word of art criticism which is “emancipation”, as there is no obvious emancipation involved in singing while you drive your taxi, or even in showing a man singing while he drives his taxi.
But we will not fail to stress that the work of Angelica Mesiti is fundamentally conveyed by human bodies in motion. We can relate to these persons through the fragility, beauty, charm, strength, ageing, or other visible qualities of their bodies, and their movement invites us to step into their world, at least to consider it; I would go as far as saying that it creates an element of hypnotic “relationship” as you are attracted into these otherwise separates spheres. The body itself has an expressive capability which movement transforms into a spoken language of its own which is quite close to the idea of a forma locutionis previously explored. When the person is not involved in a social ritual, this language requires no dictionary to be felt. The body is therefore the perfect medium to explore the possibilities of art as a path to a higher degree of sympathy (σῠμπᾰ́θειᾰ: to suffer with, to share feelings with).