Curated by Gitanjanli Dang
Justin Ponmany Sreshta Rit Premnath
Sheba Chhachhi Vishal K Dar
Simit Raveshia Vivek Vilasini
  October  1 - 24, 2009


Language has been written about and how. But the inexhaustible data that has emerged has demonstrated with devastating ease that we really don’t know nothing for sure. That said. Neither does this bit of knowledge dissuade us from probing this ginormous philosophical phantom nor does it prevent us from plotting out a few language games *appreciative nods for ol’ Wittgenstein* of our own.

Without discombobulating the proceedings any more, we present Dear Jābir

Dear Jābir is an open letter to Jābir Ibn Hayyān, an eight century Persian polymath. Jābir’s many fortes included alchemy, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy etc, etc. But because of the dense and highly technical jargon Jābir frequently unleashed, the majority of his elaborate corpus was incomprehensible to the everyperson. [At this point, we’d like to take a deep breath and follow it up with a self-deprecating sidelong glance at the rarely pellucid discourse that surrounds art.] But let us segue out of these parentheses, urgently.

Put on rewind mode, the term gibberish would take us to its many possible etymologies. But the one that interests us most can be backtracked all the way to our dearest Jābir.

With this show one intends to explore the relentless mutations language undergoes. The nature of these varies vastly, from whimsy through design. For this project, the participant artists have worked with invented words/ gibberish. Alternatively, the artists have also subsumed extant words whose meanings they have wilfully rejigged. Following this, they have shaped works, which respond to these peculiar linguistic creations.

Right then, as a viewer you must wonder as to why we indulge in this fairly de rigeur game of constructed language, which incidentally has conlang as its revealing aka. Without a moment’s hesitation let us pass the buck onto JRR Tolkien.

Although Tolkien himself has created a litany of languages and half-languages – including Sindarin and Quenya, the tongues of the elves in The Lord of the Rings – in 1955, the author proposed that the compound word ‘cellar door’ is one of the most euphonic in the English language. Since this declaration, the word has become a cultural catchphrase in circles that study the as yet unfounded possibilities of phonaesthetics.

Truth be told, at its commencement, this project was a love letter of sorts to Tolkien. But then early bird Loris Gréaud came along, and cellar door was taken by its tail.

So if you can’t beat them, you beat them.

The words proposed by the artists can’t wait to oust cellar door. Will Tolkien’s half-whimsical claim find its match?

Glossary to Dear Jābir

B for Babel, 2008

In this sculptural installation, Simit Raveshia takes his cue from the multimedia artist Stan VanDerBeek. In 1965, VanDerBeek had compared language and cultural semantics to the explosiveness of nuclear energy and had insisted that artists strive towards the invention of “a new...non-verbal international picture-language”.

In this new template for the Tower of Babel, Raveshia slyly combines his preoccupation with ascending global conflicts and language. Raveshia’s Babel begins as a many-stranded, almost-argumentative entity. But as it goes vertical, its many strands begin to interlock and eventually mushroom in a manner reminiscent of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the artist engages most directly with VanDerBeek’s analogy and responds to his call, he also puts a spin on his American counterpart’s thoughts and takes them forward.

Despite language being as unpinnable as it is, the English language appears to be riding roughshod over all opposition. And although with the arrival of conduits such as the Internet through which the possibility of language dissemination has increased manifold, there are strains, which despite all their moxie are finding it difficult to cope with the homogenising umbra of tongues, mostly of Indo-European descent.

B for Babel 0.1, 2009

In this work Raveshia represents the conundrum faced by the denizens of the new, but not necessarily improved, Tower of Babel. The sculpture evokes Ouroboros, the mythical tail-devouring serpent. Although the symbol has been read as a spokesperson for self-reflexivity as found in the process of rejuvenation, in Babel 0.1 Raveshia inverts the established meaning of Ouroboros. He gives it an existential tilt and voila, Ouroboros is now symbolic of the futile chase of the incessantly lengthening shadow of a particular language.

Kristi or Korlai Creole Portuguese illustrates the case in point. Less than a hundred kilometres from Bombay, in the costal town of Korlai, a 1,000 people speak in a dialect that uniquely mixes Portuguese and Marathi. Needless to say, this number is severely threatened, as the deeply-enamoured-of-English youth think that their dialect is naff.

From Ouroboros to a cellular operator.

Intriguingly, the sculptural installation also calls to mind the hugely popular marketing strategy of one cellular phone service provider, wherein the network follows the punter around like a sticky shadow. If one were to extend this analogy to language, then it can be claimed that contemporary English has one of the most elaborate network ranges and this in turn has enabled it to emerge as the most dominant lingua franca. Significantly, China will soon become the number one English speaking country.

C for Cutter, 2009

In this digital animation Vishal K Dar invokes Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962). Alex, protagonist/ antagonist of Burgess’ seminal novel, and his peeps communicate in a trenchant combination of Nadsat – their language for an ultraviolent future – and English. The word Nadsat is the Russian equivalent of the word ‘teenage'. A considerable number of the words that belong to this violent verbiage have Russian roots, some go the French way and fewer still tread the English road. Burgess, a keen linguist, also invented several terms, whose origins have thus far remained unknown. And into this final slot falls the coin of Cutter.

Cutter = Money

In the book, ultra-violence is occasioned by components such as cutter, vacuity, ennui and misanthropy. By using the word Cutter as the title of this nuttily anthropomorphic Rs 500 banknote, Dar produces undeniable tensions between the ultra-violence as engendered by cutter and the incommensurable pacifism of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It is a given that the Father of the Nation would not have been terribly approving of the many posthumous honours that have been uneasily placed in the lap of his legacy. Needless to say, his image on the Indian banknotes and coins would never have gone down well with him.

In this animation piece, Gandhi takes it upon himself to call the bluff of the Republic of India.

E for Evocuate, 2009

Not long after one leaves McLeod Ganj, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, bang in the middle of the resplendent Dhauladhar Range, is a defunct water/ theme park, complete with faucets that have run dry. About a 10-hour-ride away, in Delhi, one encounters anomalous landscapes that have been similarly evacuated of any and all sentiment.

By bringing together the words, evoke and evacuate, Sheba Chhachhi has created a neologism, Evocuate, which is reminiscent of something that the German poet Paul Celan would have enunciated. In this work, Chhachhi presents us with a scenario that despite its everydayness is ghoulish, comical and sombre.

S for Seventy Times Seven, 2009

The projection hits the viewer the moment they enter the exhibition space. The startled viewer walks away and then turns around to examine as to what it was that hit them to begin with. Having distanced themselves they can now observe constellation ‘forgive’ being projected on the main door of the gallery. The title Seventy Times Seven is synonymous with forgive. In the Bible, in an interaction with Peter, Jesus tells him that in order to express his solidarity with notion of forgiveness he must display fortitude and forgive those who wrong him up to seventy times seven.

Vivek Vilasini’s contention is that with its fast depleting meaning and significance, the word forgive is getting rapidly recruited into the upper echelons of gibberish. The term forgive and its Biblical backstory are the key to countervailing crises across the world. 

Vilasini, with his slap-bang installation strategy, dramatically alters the vector of his work. Instead of waiting around for viewers to make the time and engage, the work confronts them.  

Since the word socks the viewer in the face, another possible reading could be that the work is apologising for its seemingly transgressive aggression. In a climate where artworks are every so often are preceded and succeeded by their hubris, atonement of any register can indeed seem unprecedented.

To infuse the work with a sense of fragile ephemerality, the projector has been tutored such that the image beamed onto the door is reminiscent of the transience of the Matrix’s digital rain.

W for Whose Responsible This?, 2009

In this new work Justin Ponmany approaches the curatorial premise with enticing obliquity.  Having scoured the Internet, Ponmany highlights a potential meme that is so hot off the press that it has yet to find itself a Wikipedia entry.

Although ‘whose responsible this?’ hasn’t gone completely viral yet, chances are that in a few days time it will out there hitting the jackpot and possibly overtaking lolcats, Downfall parodies and the hilarious take offs that rip right through Kanye West’s ‘I’mma let you finish’ thingamajig.

By catching this pecularism in its birthing stages, the artist allows himself and the viewer the opportunity to sit and watch Internet memes, as they fly off in trajectories that would give shooting stars a complex.

The majority of these memes first appear on blogs and then hoof it from there. Internet memes are chameleon like and their vocabularies, visual and otherwise, are prone to morphing in unprecedented ways. The same hold true for ‘whose responsible this?’.  Early reports on sites that track the movements of memes have credited the meme in question to the Topless Robot website. And already the yoda-like syntax of this phrase has endorsed images of the ravaged Buddhas of Bamyan.

Ponmany inquires into the emergence of these online phenomena and the blogosphere, by employing the meme as a titular question. He then provides an answer to this question in the folds of his work. ‘Whatever’, is the thumping reply that emanates from the delicate wall-mounted paper structures that also save chunks of text reeled in from an assortment of blogs. Although these memes have inaugurated a gigantic paradigm – which in turn mobilises language, politics, the whole shebang really – they are still regarded subaltern, as opposed to viral / found art of a new cultural sphere.

'Alif for  , 2009

In this beautifully unostentatious work Sreshta Rit Premnath plays interlocutor to a lustful, albeit fictional, dialogue between Jābir Ibn Hayyān, the man of the hour, and Abū-Nuwās, widely known as one of the minds that shaped classical Persian and Arabic poetry. The interaction between the alchemist and the poet lover is documented in A Catalogue of Curls.

The work emphasises the import of chance and instinct in the creation of language. And in doing so, it makes a case for the innateness of language as popularised by Noam Chomsky. Once instructed by Jābir, Nuwās takes on the challenge of creating a lexicon of pubic hairs that are reminders of their lovemaking. Bearing in mind the premise of the show, it is most ironic that Jābir offers poetic yet stringent instruction to his lover to create an inscrutable lexicon of passion.

With Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code getting its cage rattled, the book’s engagement with homosexuality could not have been timelier.

____ for ___, 2009

In this video, again Premnath engages with chance as a determining factor in the formulation of a language.

'Alif, the first letter and number in Arabic is a single line (a scratch, a score, a strike, a stroke)

It is as if written language is generated from this most basic symbol - a line, like a hair

Through a process of chance defined within certain parameters of possibility (coins on a carrom board/ the poets pubic hair) a lexicon comes into being.

In both cases we are provided with a lexicon and the parameters, but not the key.  

Excerpted from Gitanjali Dang’s essay for the exhibition catalogue


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