Border Patrol

Stephanie Bailey on a Slavs and Tatars opening at Art Space Pythagorion

Left: Slavs and Tatars' Payam Sharifi and FRAC Champagne-Ardenne director Florence Derieux. Right: Slavs and Tatars' Krzysztof Pyda with Art Space Pythagorion chief curator Marina Fokidis and Slavs and Tatars' Kasia Korczak. (Except where noted, all photos: Stephanie Bailey)

“YOU SEE THAT?” my taxi driver Vasili asks, pointing out a piece of Samian mountain-road graffiti. BORDERS ARE SCARS ON THE PLANET’S BODY. Indeed, borders are on everyone’s minds at this time of year in Samos, a little Greek island in the Aegean separated from Turkey by the narrow Mycale strait. With only 2,500 feet between the two countries at the closest point, the strait’s currents form a natural division between Europe and Asia, and every August, in the city’s ancient port of Pythagorio, this border is affirmed with a reenactment of the 1824 battle between the Ottomans and the Samians, who gained semiautonomy from the Empire in 1834.

“Greece’s history seems to be composed of battles against the odds,” mused dealer Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany, as we were told the story on the roof of Samos’s only contemporary art space, Art Space Pythagorion, founded last year by Dr. Kurt Schwarz and Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz. A motley crew––including Florence Derieux, director at FRAC Champagne-Ardenne in Reims and Meriç Özgünes of the Greek League for Human Rights––had gathered to watch the commemoration of this historical 1824 battle. It was a veritable spectacle: A chain of boats paraded around Pythagorio’s harbor accompanied by dramatic music, loudspeakers piped the booming narrative, and fireworks reached higher and higher into the sky until the event’s climax. “A lot of fireworks for a small island,” someone said. “But better fireworks than bombs.”

Left: Nicholas Yatromanolakis, cofounder of Xombli, at the temple of Hera, Samos. (Photo: Fivos Sakalis) Right: Art Space Pythagorion cofounder Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz, Florence Derieux, and artist Andreas Angelidakis.

And better love than war, as “Long Legged Linguistics,” ASP’s summer offering by Slavs and Tatars, seems to suggest. Presented in collaboration with Gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, and marking the latest installment in a cycle of works the artists call “The Faculty of Substitution,” it was the reason we were all here. To explore the mingling of linguistics and politics through an examination of the Turkic language and a view toward language as a source of political, metaphysical, and sexual emancipation. To this end, there are sculptures that include a giant tongue wrapped around a stripper’s pole (Tongue Twist Her), and a number of books skewered by a long blade (Kitab Kebab). The latter was the only work whose title the artists translated into Greek (Biblio-Souvlaki), and it reminded us that Greek contains words that originated in Turkey, a result of some four hundred years of Ottoman rule. As the artists noted, Samos’s proximity to Turkey, a nation with “one of the most successful cases of language conversions in the world,” holds particular relevance to “Long Legged Lingustics.” (Famously, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk latinized Turkish in 1928 because Arabic script couldn’t accommodate the language, and certain “Turkish” sounds were lost in the process.)

In many ways, just as Slavs and Tatars view their publications as the “real” artworks, the Samos exhibition was a pretext for intentional discussion, which flowed as easily as the island’s chilled white wine. The problem of the Turkic languages, for example, was encapsulated in a series of covers from the satirical Azeri publication Molla Nasreddin (1906–1930), projected onto the ASP building during a Slavs and Tatars lecture delivered on the exhibition’s opening night over drinks and hors d’œuvres. We were told how Molla Nasreddin was read all over the Muslim world, and many of the covers depicted three historic versions of the Turkic script (Latin, Arabic, and Cyrillic). The publication was named after a popular Sufi sage–cum-fool of the Middle Ages, and earlier that day during an exhibition tour, ASP chief curator Marina Fokidis noted how “Molla Nasreddin” was also known in Greece as “Nasreddin Hodja,” a connection that attests to the long-term, historical relationship between Greece and Turkey. Much later that night (or what is known in Greece as “dinner time”), the discussions continued, with Xombli cofounder Nicholas Yatromanolakis pointing out how Greece also underwent its own process of language conversion in the twentieth century.

Left: Art Space Pythagorion assistant curators Elisavet Mandoulidou and Yannis Arvanitis. Right: Fivos Sakalis, Anna Wichmann, Kimberly Bradley, and Payam Sharifi during a tour of “Long Legged Linguistics.”

Debates remained jovial, even hopeful, among this eclectic group of art-world aficionados—which was as diverse as the ancient site of Ephesus, only three hours by boat and bus via Kusadasi, Turkey (and the only place in the world where taking one’s passport is somehow “legal”). During the Q&A session of a panel held on the occasion of the show, Chiona Xanthopoulou-Schwarz reflected on the separation enacted when a language is standardized or nationalized, reminding us of the inherent tie the spoken word––the utterance––has to personal relationships. She was responding to discussions among artist Payam Sharifi (the Tatar?), Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz, and scholars Ilker Aytürk and Konstantinos Tsitselikis, each of who argued that the instrumentalization of language for nation building was a homogenizing force—after all, standardization is achieved at the expense of less-favored dialects. As Tsitselikis explained, the entire Mediterranean region was once a multilingual, multicultural and relatively harmonious place: “There were Armenians, Turks, Greeks. Even Slavs and Tatars.”

This kind of interpersonal relation extended into events that took place after the exhibition opening, including a tour of the island by archaeologist Irene Haralambakis. We visited the largest temple in the ancient world dedicated to the female goddess of fertility, Hera, and the incredible Tunnel of Eupalinos, a three-thousand-foot-long underground aqueduct system designed in the sixth century BC, built with teams of diggers who started from either side of Samos’s Mount Kastro with the intention of meeting in the middle. (They were only one meter off in their rendezvous, apparently.) The idea of digging blindly from either side of a mountain to (almost) come together makes for a neat allegory for the kind of off-center reconciliation or mutual discovery that seems at the heart of Slavs and Tatars’s project.

In fact, on Samos, there were plenty of object lessons for “Long Legged Linguistics.” Christian Schwarm, one of the founders of Independent Collectors, observed an absurd juxtaposition looking out the landscape window of Art Space Pythagorion: “a holiday foreground” with bathers on the beach outside and “a political background” with Turkey, so close yet so far. (There were also plenty of occasions to reflect on Greece’s six-year struggle with austerity—and the Eurozone crisis in general.) But even in the most challenging periods in this ancient island’s history, Samos was, as Haralambakis put it, “a happening place.” As we looked out over the sea toward the coast of Asia Minor, she added: “And it always will be.”

Left: Scholar Konstantinos Tsitselikis. Right: The Tsitselikis children with Lupo.

Left: Curator Didem Yazici on Samiopoula island. Right: Independent Collectors cofounder Christian Schwarm with dealers Nadine Ziedler and Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany.

Left: Writer Kimberly Bradely with artist Angelo Plessas. Right: Kasia Korczak with Künstlerhaus Stuttgart’s Adnan Yildiz.