Slavs and Tatars

Mirrors For Princes


After the presentation of their audio-piece «Lektor» from February to August 2014 in the future public library, Kunsthalle Zürich now opens an extensive solo exhibition of the artist group Slavs and Tatars. Focusing on the “area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China”, the artistic and discursive work of Slavs and Tatars engages transcultural as well as transdisciplinary questions of history, politics, religion, and language. Language and its conditions of translation, enactment, and resonance provided the starting point for «Lektor’s» inquiry into the medieval genre called “Mirrors for Princes”. This kind of epic advice literature for rulers also serves as the title for the exhibition. The works on show perform a particular translation of literary tropes as well as vernacular objects, such as religious furniture or cosmetic tools, into art works that create new semantic relations within the realm of art. They further the investigation of speech and sovereignty, initiated by «Lektor’s» selection of verses performed in different languages over the last few months (together with an intensive programme of screening-performances and talks), towards a broader spectrum of aesthetic experiences to contemplate and re-enact.

If princes can be mirrored, princes can be made. Beyond the inheritance of noble entitlement, becoming as well as being a prince proves a complex matter of education, appearance, and belief. Slavs and Tatars’ exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich titled «Mirrors for Princes» takes its cue from the eponymous genre, suffusing it with contemporary as well as transcultural challenges of mediation, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

The interstices between history, literature and politics provide a key reference for the artistic and discursive practice of Slavs and Tatars, and the Mirrors for Princes genre has been the subject of their ongoing inquiry into language, including its politics and performativity. The stakes of this particular genre are twofold: it operates as a poetic form of political critique – both in Christian and Muslim lands, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – as well as carving out a space for statecraft at a time when most scholarship was devoted to religious affairs. If there’s no shortage of political commentary today, why do we suffer from a notable lack of affective and eloquent discourse on the role of faith in relation to nation-building and un-building?

Generosity appears at the core of such critique. While secular versions of critique, including much of Art’s critical attitude, relie on the possibility of an outside and thus antagonism to its object, the poetics of advice articulate a mode of critique based on an intimate entanglement of the thing, person or situation in question, including the one questioning it. The first space of Slavs and Tatars’ «Mirrors for Princes» exhibition thus opens with a gesture of hospitality. A hat and coat rack in full function welcomes the visitors to accommodate themselves in the exhibition space, a space not always meant to be inhabited. Vestiges of headgear invoke the presence of people, and the many ornate ways of covering and uncovering oneself imply a sense of intimacy.

The book – as platform of investigation, as compendium of research, and as talisman – occupies a central place in Slavs and Tatars’ practice in general and in the current work. The sound work «Lektor» is now spread out in a new quadrilingual four-channel installation in the second exhibition space. Excerpts from an influential 11th century Turkic Mirror for Princes, Kutadgu Bilig (Wisdom of Royal Glory), advise on the power and pitfalls of the tongue, in overlapping languages (Uighur, Turkish, German, and Polish), across speakers in the form of holy book stands (rahlés). For it is in contemporary society’s incontinent interest in self-help books, such as How to Marry a Millionaire or How to Lose 15 kgs in 15 Days, where the artist group locates the continuous echo of the Mirrors for Princes genre in the US, Europe and the Middle East several centuries later. Much like the collective’s publications, the original Mirrors for Princes combined seemingly incommensurate genres: instruction with aphorisms, advice with astrology and function with folklore. They did so to shed light on how to self-govern, but also how to govern a people, a nation, an empire even; encompassing its entirety, from economics to etiquette, agriculture to armies.

The third and last “chapter” of the exhibition expands on the matter of ritual. In these newest works of Slavs and Tatars, social and individual procedures of the everyday come to form a hybrid space, made up of peculiar objects. Where the entry space and the sound work request the entanglement of the viewer, these objects demand to be read. They unpack the complex intersection of secular and sacred ritual by employing a specific kind of representation that hinges upon the element of lust, as widely suppressed in illustration.

Hair takes centre stage in these works. Its daily taming is an act of civilization, battling the unruliness of the body. In this sense the rituals of daily existence, such as combing one’s hair, echo as objects to the verbal advices of the Mirrors for Princes. Grooming, the stylization of appearance, once a sacred, ritual practice is often today a mere cosmetic transaction or at most a tribal, gendered belonging. Both relate to a particular projection of a desired state – of minds, of heads, of state affairs – as acts of imagination, of fantasy ultimately, with which Slavs and Tatars highlight the means of guidance and governance. Physical hair remains invisible in this installation, invoked by over-sized glass hair combs placed between tree branches. This metaphorical process of imaginary transference echoes the workings of the fetish, the displacement of desire from a specific subject onto any object. Here, beauty lies at the intersection of what could be identified as the physiognomy of excess versus the wisdom of care, that Slavs and Tatars articulate in a captivating blend of archaic matter and artificial material, and never without a certain satirical slant.

Furthermore, a series of sculptures as votives speak to the unravelling, clipping, cutting, and trimming of hair, eye-brows, linen, or cotton as so many tangled ideas and ideologies of self-governance. Grooming then appears as a crossroads on modernity’s winding path between contemplation and action.

If princes can be mirrored, princesses can be too. Or can they? It is the welded sheikha’s seat (kursi) covered by a long draped high-tech fabric in the middle of the bended round of combs that adds the crucial question of gender to the exhibition’s aesthetical and metaphysical discourse on commitment and control – and keeps this question lingering. Like the coquetry of Marilyn’s skirt, or Medusa’s tantalizing corona, the kursi’s drapery is blown outwards by a fan inside the sculpture.

Where the literary proposals of the Mirrors for Princes contemplate the divisions between one and the other, male and female, sacred and profane, Slavs and Tatars’ poetics of everyday ritualistic exercise activate the pitfalls and possibilities of governance as self-governance – a universe of ambiguities, or in their own words: “the heart and art of politics”.