Love Letters

The Love Letters carpets are based on the drawings of Russian poet, playwright, and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930). Mayakovsky initially worked on behalf of the Bolshevik Revolution, lending his talents to give voice to the Russian people at a time of great social upheaval and reconstruction. But as the revolution changed its course, Mayakovsky—known as the “people’s poet”—became extremely disillusioned and could not forgive himself for being complicit in Joseph Stalin’s ruthless rise to power, ultimately committing suicide at age thirty-seven. Through caricature, the carpets depict the wrenching experience of having a foreign alphabet imposed on one’s native tongue and the linguistic acrobatics required to negotiate such change. In particular, the carpets tell two parallel stories: that of the Bolsheviks’ forced Latinization and later Cyrillicization of the Arabic script languages spoken by the Muslim and Turkic-speaking peoples of the Russian Empire, and the 1928 language revolution of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—Turkey’s first president—in which the Turkish language was converted from Arabic to Latin script. The casualties of these linguistic takeovers—lost letters and mistranslations—are given center stage here as a testament to the trauma of modernization.

Texts and image captions by Gabriel Ritter, the Nancy and Tim Hanley Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art

Trondheim Kunstmuseum (installation view).
Dallas Museum of Art (installation view).
Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork (installation view)
Love Letters No.1, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2013.

Soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks found themselves inheritors to a Russian Empire with sizeable territories of largely Muslim, Turkic- speaking populations. Vladimir Lenin believed the Revolution of the East— meaning the modernization and political emancipation of Muslims—required the Latinization of their Arabic-script languages. This work takes an original Vladimir Mayakovsky drawing and features several failed attempts to assign Cyrillic letters— or graphemes—to phonemes—or specific sounds—that did not previously exist in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Love Letters No.2, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2013.

Here the tongue—the central organ of language—has taken on the role of enemy of the state. Locked-up behind bars, the tongue writhes in protest, resisting the urge to place graphemes (letters) onto phonemes (sounds). For Slavs and Tatars, the tongue—and by extension, language—harbors the potential for multiple forms of resistance, whether it be sensual, political, or metaphysical. Letters are likened to shackles, keeping the tongue in check and placing restrictions on its movements. Alphabets impose an ordering system on the tongue, forcing it to comply with the larger program of empire-building.
Love Letters No.3, 2013, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2013.

In this work, the tongue is split to symbolize the acrobatics required for it to ’juggle’ multiple languages. Four tongues accommodate the four phonemes found in the Persian language that are absent from the original Arabic alphabet. Given the role of Arabic as the sacred language of Islam, these distinct phonemes—پ (p), چ (ch), ژ(zh) and گ (g)—are closely tied with Persian cultural identity. For some Iranians, they are a means of nation-building, representing pride, nationalism and a distinction within or from Islam.
Love Letters No.4, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

Here a peasant woman is pictured kissing a hand—possibly genuflecting, or bending in obedience, to a figure of power. Upon closer inspection, however, there are Arabic letters hidden or camouflaged in the knuckles that are the subject of her adoration. These letters represent the inevitable loss of phonemes (sounds) when any language conversion takes place. The image refers specifically to the conversion of the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin script that took place in 1928 at the behest of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey.
Love Letters No.5, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

One of the principal arguments of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for changing the Turkish script from Arabic to Latin was the abundance of vowels (eight in all) in the Turkish language that could not be appropriately accommodated by the three vowels of the Arabic alphabet. The words pictured here, ωXXX! (meaning “oops!” in Greek) and ööps! (meaning “kiss” in Turkish) are purposefully and playfully punned against one another, poking fun at how the discourse of sexuality—power, submission, domination, and resistance—is surprisingly similar to that of language politics. In the process, the work points to the shortcoming of such language reforms that were touted as resounding successes.
Love Letters No.6, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

This work takes up the highly contested subject of language and its relationship with religion. Instead of a bolt of lightning coming down from the heavens, God is pictured taming a wild tongue that dares to speak the Turkish words Ezan Çılgınları. This term was used to refer to those who defied the authorities’ enforcement of the Turkish ezan (call to prayer). Enforced from 1932 to 1950, the call to prayer was translated from Arabic to Turkish during the Turkish language revolution, known as Dil Devrimi. As part of this controversial policy, even the word ’Allah’ was translated to ’Tanri’—a powerful display of language’s ability to cut to the core of one’s faith and identity.
Love Letters No.7, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

The nose’s role in language is routinely overlooked, often overshadowed by the tongue and throat. Here a series of nasal letters from Arabic, Cyrillic, and Latin that have been lost to language conversion are shown falling by the side of the road. Like breadcrumbs, the trail of forgotten letters maps out the course of modernization, which is synonymous with progress—always moving forward while leaving a path of upheaval and change in its wake. For example, ڭ is an Arabic letter that sounds like “ng,” but disappeared from the Turkish alphabet when it was Romanized in 1928.
Love Letters No.8, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

Throughout the history of language reform—be it in the USSR or Turkey, Yugoslavia or Iran—it is rarely qualified linguists who are tasked with the delicate job. Instead it is politicians, nationalists and amateur philologists who dare alter the complex, living system that is language. The organization responsible for enacting language reforms in Turkey is called Türk Dil Kurumu, or Turkish Language Institute, parodied here as ’Kurumumsu’ or ’institutionish’. Here a peasant woman is run over by the force of institutional change, another casualty of language modernization and ’progress’.
Love Letters No.9, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

After the USSR Latinized the largely Turkic languages of its Muslim subjects, a decision was made in 1939 to change their alphabets once again, this time to Cyrillic. When these languages were Cyrillicized, each was done so in a slightly different manner. Thus, the various languages could not be mutually intelligible, an example of the linguistic equivalent of ’divide and conquer’. The figure here cries out in pain and alliterative exhaustion, exclaiming the same sound /dʒ/ written five different ways.
Love Letters No.10, woolen yarn, 250 × 250 cm, 2014.

Here a man looks into the mirror and sees the letter “Ҧ” from the Abkhaz language. Pronounced with the lips, this letter has since come to be used as short-hand for the word пиздец [pizdéc], the Russian equivalent of “fuck.” The Abkhaz language has an incredibly convoluted past, following the twists and turns of Russia’s imperial conquests. As a result, the Abkhaz alphabet has nearly fifty-seven letters and has undergone several changes over the course of the last century. It is no wonder then that the figure’s reflection in the mirror is not more forgiving.

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