New game, new languages

Christine Nicholls

In correct syntax brings together the work of 3 artists, Melbourne writer Mammad Aidani, Singapore based installation artist Matthew Ngui, who sometimes lives in Perth, and Tasmanian textile artist Greg Leong, currently Launceston based. The curators, Niki Vouis and Mehmet Adil, presented the artists with a series of artistic challenges.

First, the artists were asked to engage thoughtfully and deeply with the work of the others. In the next stage they worked collaboratively to make new installation work in which they incorporated visual and other textual references to each other’s artistic oeuvre. Spatiality, space sharing and attendant questions of power were related issues with which the artists had to contend, since the new work commissioned had to be site specific. The resulting installation work was custom-made for Adelaide’s tiny and rather idiosyncratic Nexus Gallery space.

In response to this curatorial brief, Hong Kong-born Greg Leong chose to incorporate an ancient Persian motif, the boteh symbol, into his work. The boteh apparently originated in Persia then traversed India, Central Asia, the Caucasus and Asia Minor before winding up in Scotland where eventually it morphed into the well known and relatively contemporary paisley design. Leong’s mixed media quilts, suspended from the ceiling of this small gallery, speak eloquently to the possibilities of a borderless world based on globalised kinship systems where identities are neither singular nor monolithic but are routinely and complexly intersecting and hyphenated. In rich red Chinese silk and brocade, inscribed with texts of different verses by poet Mammad Aidani, the works look for all the world like gorgeous inverted seahorses floating and bobbing underwater.

The entire exhibition gave me the feeling of finding myself below sea level, encountering treasures rich and rare in a dark and quiet space. The aquarium-like feel of the space and the exhibition itself was reinforced by the continuous flickering presence of the live video installation by Matthew Ngui projecting Mammad Aidani’s elegantly hand-written ink-on-paper poems in Farsi script. I loved the work that Ngui and Iranian-born Aidani jointly created. Aidani’s Poem in Persian (2001, ink on paper), reconfigured by Ngui and projected on to the wall of the gallery, was ethereal, memorable and moving. The fleeting, sensual qualities of their installation contrasted interestingly with the other more literally material works.

All of the works here show that migration, late capitalism and personal markers including gender, ethnicity, ‘race’ and sexuality combine to produce complex identities at the nexus of a set of sometimes contradictory elements. If art is about transcending the spaces into which one is born, both physical and metaphorical, and embarking upon aesthetic adventures of identity, this exhibition succeeds par excellence.

This is a thinking person’s exhibition. The curators have consciously drawn an analogy between visual images and other kinds of texts, especially linguistic ones. Specifically, the exhibition conveys the idea that all artistic traditions (for example, ‘Chinese’, ‘Persian’, ‘European’) have an underlying grammar or ‘syntax’. Just as there are rules governing spoken and written expression, the structure and visual patterns or possible arrangements in any given ‘visual language’ are subject to certain cultural parameters.

While this is a challengeable assertion, as there are limitations with respect to how far such a linguistic analogy can be extended to visual media, the idea raises a plethora of fascinating, supplementary questions. For instance, are these new, hybrid artistic works akin to linguistic pidgins and creoles? If the latter, each of these works could be understood as greater than the sum of its component parts, regarded as unique transcultural creations. Or are they simply arbitrary agglutinations of various visual and cultural signs and symbols, the artistic equivalent of, say, broken English? There is a suggestion in the accompanying brochure that this may be the case, and that lying in the interstices and cracks of seemingly inadequate spoken language are unappreciated riches. Or are the works on display here merely tricksy, along the lines of Pig Latin, for example?

Thanks to Adil and Vouis throwing down the curatorial gauntlet, these culturally diverse artists have created installations that give us a good deal to look at and think through with no instant gratification to be had, visually or in other ways! Of course, there’s nothing new about artists ‘pinching’ or appropriating visual patterns, ideas and styles from other cultures and traditions in the course of cultural contact. What is different about In correct syntax is that the artists were actually directed to do so for the purposes of this exhibition. Now that’s a different ball game.

In correct syntax, curated by Mehmet Adil & Niki Vouis, artists Matthew Ngui, Mammad Aidani, Greg Leong, Nexus Gallery, Lions Arts Centre, Adelaide, Sept 6 – Oct 7

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 30

© Christine Nicholls; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001