• Summary

    For its second exhibition, The NYUAD Art Gallery opened a major exhibition of the art collective Slavs and Tatars, titled Mirrors for Princes: Both Sides of the Tongue, in spring of 2015.

    The exhibition and accompanying book traced the contemporary obsession with self-help to a medieval genre of political science, “mirrors for princes,” shared among Christian and Muslim lands, with Machiavelli’s The Prince being the most famous example. At The NYUAD Art Gallery the artists looked to these texts as an urgent precedent of generosity and critique, and as a case study of the balance between faith and state, issues that continue to resonate today across the Middle East, North America, and Europe.

  • Read the essay

    Curator’s essay, excerpt:

    SLAVS AND TATARS is an art collective whose creative process cycles from research to art production, performances, and lectures. Each new “cycle” culminates in a book.

    The exhibition on view in the NYUAD Art Gallery belongs to their newest cycle, Mirrors for Princes, and the related book launches alongside this exhibition.

    “Mirrors for Princes” refers to a medieval genre of literature. Considered an early form of secular (as opposed to religious) scholarship, it raised state craft to a level of religious jurisprudence or theology. This type of text existed in both Christian and Muslim lands, with Machiavelli’s The Prince being the most famous example. Both praising and advising, these books were written to groom princes for leadership.

    The artists consider the genre a precursor to modern self-help books, in addition to its more conventional understanding as a form of political commentary. For this exhibition, the artists have focused on a particularly literary Muslim mirror, Kutadgu Bilig (“Wisdom of Royal Glory”). A foundational text of Turkic literature, Kutadgu Bilig was written in the eleventh century for the prince of Kashgar by Yūsuf Khāṣṣ Ḥājib.

    The sounds of Kutadgu Bilig can be heard even from the gallery entrance, but its source is mysterious. First, a hatrack invites the visitor into the exhibition. Departing from typical museum formality, the hospitality of a hatrack suggests a threshold between the public and the private spheres, where we leave our hats at the door. The turbans and hats themselves further connote religious, scholarly activity by those who have already entered and removed their hats.

    Entering the bright, welcoming space of the first gallery, the visitor encounters the Lektor installation: a series of mirrored speakers shaped like book-stands. These play excerpts of Kutadgu Bilig simultaneously in Uighur (its original language of composition), as well as Turkish, Polish, German, and finally Arabic. Every region where this work is shown the artists add the language of the exhibition site. The artists recorded the Arabic portion here in Abu Dhabi, working with a young scholar trained in tajwid and Arabic recitation practices. The audio excerpts make frequent reference to grooming the tongue and the heart, as in the following passage:

    Two organs — the tongue and the heart — distinguish man’s body; and He created both for the sake of speech that is straight and true. If a man’s words are straight, he will reap great profit from them; if they are bent, he will be cursed in this life and burned in the next. So let your tongue bring forth your words if they are straight; but if they are crooked, then keep them hidden.

    A series of sculptures explores this tongue-heart image in visual form. In Stonguei the “straight and true” tongue emerges from an anatomically correct heart, while in Hung and Tart, the two organs merge seamlessly into a new form.

    Throughout the current cycle of work, the artists highlight the text’s underlying tensions with respect to language. To control the tongue is to control one’s speech, to curb language, and to recognize that words are themselves actions, with consequences.

    The tongue is interpreter to intellect and wisdom. Know that an eloquent tongue causes a man to shine. It is the tongue that brings a man esteem, so that he finds fortune, and it is the tongue that brings a man dishonour, so that he loses his head. The tongue is a lion crouching on the threshold — householder, take care, or it will bite off your head!

    A deep concern with linguistics runs through much of Slavs and Tatars work. Artworks from previous cycles re-appear in this exhibition, implicitly linking Kutadgu Bilig’s concern with the tongue to regional linguistic history.

    [the essay continues, read the full essay here]