Artists: Thomas Locher, Katarina Zdjelar
The exhibition and in between investigates the structural space of language, questioning its referential capacity, its possibilities of representation, and to an even greater extent, its unfathomable dimensions, supposed certainties, and semantic grey zones. The works of Thomas Locher and Katarina Zdjelar point to the unstable field of difference, a space where language/naming and reality/the world of objects do not coincide. In the work of both artists language is revealed as an exemplary construct and social institution. However, in terms of their medial approach to language the two demonstrate opposing aesthetic practices. Whereas Lochner interrogates language in relation to writing and the visualization of writing, Zdjelar focuses on spoken language and the act of speech as embodying language.
Both Locher and Zdjelar focus on forms of difference, the failed and irredeemable coincidence of the signifier and the signified. The medium of language itself appears to be a contradiction; mistakes, aberrations, and incongruities become the actual "material" basis of the works. With an attitude of playful earnest, both positions make moments of semantic shift and transfer visible. Countering notions of singular meaning and sharp distinctions in word and concept, the artists' works open up a field of multi-valance and polysemy.
Katarina Zdjelar's videos deal with attempts at language acquisition, the physical manifestation of language. Her works focus on moments of failed appropriation and translation. She addresses the space between (two) languages, which is configured as a realm of the non-transmissable and non-translatable. In the video There Is No Is the viewer is confronted with a documentation of an Asian woman who repeatedly tries to pronounce the name of the artist “correctly”, as in a speech exercise. The speaker consistently fails to say the name properly due to the, for her language use, unaccustomed sequence of sounds. With substantial difficulty—for example, by noting the appropriate sequence of sounds and syllables on her hand as an aid—she tries to match the tone of Zdjelar's correcting voice, who is speaking from off-screen. The name of the artist thus becomes the “object” of the exercise, which increasingly seems to lose its purpose.
For Zdjelar, the medium of language is largely dictated by the body. The limitations inherent to the acquisition of language seem to represent an incapacity to automatically physically enact the sound. Language patterns are thereby made evident as deeply rooted physical codes. In the attempt to achieve the “right” pronunciation, the protagonist of There Is No Is indirectly demonstrates how not only the body forms language (or pronunciation) but also how language shapes the body. The voice is shown as a fundamental cultural medium, which is intrinsically socially and politically coded.
Without a conscious intention, Zdjelar's protagonist opens up a space of difference in linguistic signification, which is configured by the discrepancies between what is intended, said, and understood. What she hears while practicing does not correspond to what she says, and she repeatedly generates new kinds of discrepancies or deformations. Although she apparently fails to achieve the aim of mimetically adapting her speech to the given pronunciation, in Zdjelar's video the protagonist's “mistakes” point to language as a living medium, which is shaped by usage. The video demonstrates that the acquisition of language is always an approximation and that there is no such thing as having a “command” of a language, since language itself is not reliable, and it ultimately functions to question itself as unambiguous cultural signifier.
Through the performance of the increasingly embarrassed protagonist, the power relationships of linguistic authority as well as their political implications are revealed as a central theme of the work. The focus thus shifts towards the social relationships that are reflected in the medium of language—in particular in the body as the medium of language. Correcting the protagonist from off-screen, the impatient teacher in Zdjelar's video, the artist herself, becomes a stand-in for an authoritative figure, or even a culture, which instructs the protagonist to adapt her body in accordance with the “correct” predominant language, to “calibrate” herself, so to speak. This reading of the scene makes it prototypical of the situation of an immigrant, who must come to terms with a new environment and a regulated speech and communications system, and thus the work is also exemplary of the experience of cultural dislocation per se.
In Either-Or/More Or Less Thomas Locher confronts the viewer with a four-part text-image structured by regularly spaced horizontal lines. Whereas the two middle squares contain opposites terms—for example “in/out” is framed by “true/untrue” and “true/untrue” by “maybe/maybe not"—the outer fields relativize the absolute nature of each pair of opposites by suggesting semantic alternatives.
Working against the evidently strict opposition of the terms, the visually independent segments of the image begin to interact, reciprocally semanticizing one another. The delineations of the individual fields become porous, osmotic. The words implode or stray beyond their “boundaries”, penetrating one another. Locher's apparent dialectic openly demonstrates the constructed nature of its own textual choreography. If Locher's text-images are viewed in an iconic sense, then the white of the background as well as the white of the wall become projection surfaces, the “ground” of the image: the intervals between the text/image fields form an analogue component to the differential spaces of the active layering and transcription of terms. The (seemingly) dialectical opposition of the words is carried forward in differences and syntheses that are enacted beyond what is seen, whereby precisely the invisible, uncontrolled dynamics of the reciprocal inscription and semantization of terms determine how the work actually unfolds.
Locher's text-images serve as a link between the pictorial and the written, between image and text. They function as models of variable references, of spontaneous oscillation between reading and looking. Word and image thus merge into a common “resonating” space. The initial distance experienced towards the words and terms “relegated” to language begins to disappear. The text-images condition the combined and simultaneous experience of looking and reading. The viewer enters into a realm of reference and difference, an imaginary visual world of activated language.
The authority of the grid- or list-like structure of Locher's text-images, the suggestion of logical relationships, and even the order of knowledge are veritably subverted and dispelled by the viewer through the act of looking. By exploring systems of classification, Locher makes visual and linguistic systems of order transparent as conventions of reason and, to an even greater extent, as hegemonized orders of knowledge. The simulated organization and feigned rationality of Either-Or/More Or Less implodes would-be antinomies such as image vs. text, matter vs. mind/idea, or aesthetic perception vs. reading comprehension. Instead of being presented with an either-or, the viewer is brought into a space of the "approximate and imprecise, a place where language has the power to overstep its own boundaries” (Locher).
Both Katarina Zdjelar and Thomas Locher work with forms of meta-linguistic doubling, with the signification of the signified. Deconstructing the immediacy of language, both works address language not only as a construct but also as an imperative framework and an instrumentalization of power. From the standpoint of linguistic critique, the works of Locher and Zdjelar serve as attempts to counter the regulative and representative function of language. According to both positions, a clearly defined “I” as a “master” of language and as opposed to a clearly defined “you” or externalized world of objects becomes questionable. The artists deconstruct the phantasm of the subject, which views itself as the unique center of language, and in their works they articulate how language is always an approximation of reality, which it neither depicts nor communicates but instead fundamentally helps produce through its own constructs.
David Komary, Translation: Laura Schleussner