TRCH Full Monty

Art Review: Mountain of Tongues at Backlit Studios

25 July 18 words: Adrian Shaw

Our Adrian went to Backlit to find that although Mountain of Tongues has just finished, but nothing stops him from a good review. Better late than never, he says...

Transliterative Tease. image: Slavs and Tatars

I was very disappointed to discover, on a recent visit to Backlit, that this excellent show of work from the East-West diaspora was on the point of being taken down. I decided to write something nevertheless, in order to document the exhibition.  

There is, too, a personal angle to this Raj Anglo-Indian, I also have Armenian ancestry: the East-West diaspora, and much of the art, and writing, thereof fascinates me. So better late than never!

The areas covered by this exhibition included Slavs and Tartars – from out of the Caucasus – plus Armenian people, contributed in history – and also within the exhibition in visual and spoken/sung art. However, although much has been made, and remade, much has been destroyed by the vicissitudes of Time and Man.

What struck me were the parallels between use of language for political struggle, such as in deconstructive feminism. Several of the works explored the sliding of meaning when a single letter change is made, for example a single letter-change in some celebratory text –"Long live Georgia", becomes "Long live Kurdistan!" – means identity shifts between two of the Eurasian peoples, and languages, or tongues, are disputing in this region in the Caucasus mountains. It is also an ancient feature, such has been the situation since Alexander/Iskander. Slippage on a slippery slope?

Also on offer is the use and adaptation of song-to-identity discourse: Samson Young investigates the overlap between war, identity and literature in a filmed rendition of We Are The World, with the HK Federation of Trade Unions Chorus whispering (in an almost threatening manner; similar to something out of The Omen) rather than singing the words. His earlier work (Liquid Borders, 2012-14) also explored identity issues in the Frontier Closed Area between Hong-Kong and Mainland China, using transcription of sounds from that area.

Young has journeyed along a path in For Whom The Bell Tolls, to enter historic realms of sonic-conflict, transcribing the bells across the five continents. These define territorial boundaries and their links with war and religion: the effect of war on identity is central to his work.

Leila Al Yousuf employs textural painting to explore her identity formation in the Caucus mountains, in large gestural, brightly-coloured brush strokes.

The paintings leap out at one, like towering semi-abstract creatures or plants. The shapes feed off and enhance each other.

Taus Makhacheva (Moscow, Russia) applies video and installation investigating her multi-ethnicity from pre-sovietisation to post-communist times against the backdrop of the wider struggle to find a national identity.

The overlapping processes of mixing, borrowing and assimilation all have roles to play in this struggle, especially given the rich mix of peoples in the former Soviet Union.

The overlapping processes of mixing, borrowing and assimilation all have roles to play in this struggle, especially given the rich mix of peoples in the former Soviet Union.

Lastly, it's the seminal work of Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, who operate in a collectivist manner in their testimony of changing times.

Apart from their own struggle to discover and celebrate their Armenian identity, one would think that they – as with all "collective painters" – would find it a hard enough struggle to establish their own individual identities, given the normal tensions, ongoing in any case, between couples and individuals in cooperative painting, and verbal practice. The work reflects their individual concerns, differing styles and approaches: they apply an immersive, low– and high–brow-influenced resource approach. Their individual styles, and political viewpoints, become merged in an inherently subversive reflective vision. It is estranging, amusing, threatening and alienating in differing degrees. They abhor sentiment, but celebrate a distancing between viewer and emotion; astonishment not empathy. Thus, a critical analytical distancing is on offer to the viewer... Especially apparent when viewing cartoon-like artwork, or videos portraying images of characterised fundamentalist, iconoclastic destruction of ancient art and religious objects...

Also featured, is a work – Diglessia by Ryan Heath, resident at Backlit – which portrays stylistic, semi-abstract, sculpted symbols taken from documentation of the city, and deconstruction of his surroundings: a visual language describing territory and movement.  Situated at the end of the show, it creates and adds to a feeling of further displacement.

Backlit website

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