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Divya Mehra and Talk Is Cheap: Our Broken Tongues

The Banff Centre, Banff, February 12 to April 26, 2015

“Between Us” was an exhibition of wordplay. More than that, it was an exhibition of in-betweens: the mediation of language and the transience of its own context. Situated in the Eric Harvie Theatre lobby at the Banff Centre, the show was already positioned at the crux of impermanence: it was about temporary destinations in a temporary destination in a temporary destination—semantic experiments in a foyer within an artist-residency within a tourist town.

Winnipeg-, Dehli- and New York–based artist Divya Mehra’s window painting I appreciate your intentions. (a desire to participate in the construction of its meaning) was immediately obvious even before entering. The window was painted from the inside-out, a method very much at home in commercial storefronts, and bore a large gift box of chocolates emblazoned with the phrase “Be Mine.” The “i” in “Mine” was dotted with a heart. Because I read the exhibition statement a few days ago and, before that, have been both the subject and recipient of heartbreaks, I think of the strange, almost colonial, possessiveness of the phrase. More and more, I am disturbed by the shorthand language we have created to express our affections. Intentionally or not, this image illustrates how far capitalism has ingrained itself into our purportedly personal lives. This is a fair exchange. Something is proffered and something is taken, our budget sheet balances out.

In the lobby, Queens-based collective Talk is Cheap: Unincorporated Language Laboratories plastered screenprints on newspaper broadsheets across the angled wall. The contents of the prints are culturally specific idioms that have been translated across disparate languages. In English, I can make out “speak one’s mind” and “sharp the tongue.” Holding up my iPhone and fiddling with an image-translator app, the Tagalog phrase “magsalitang walang buhok sa dila” becomes “charging no hair purple tongue.” Jacqueline Bell’s excellent curatorial statement defines idioms as “phrase[s] which resist direct translation.” Maybe direct translation is not possible, but we are truly doomed if we give up after only engaging Google Translate’s handling of extrinsic parlance.

Notions of linguistic relativity have always absorbed me. As a privileged Anglophone, I think a lot about English’s construction—its borrowing, cannibalizing and historically syncretized or appropriated aspects. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis more or less posits that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories delineate cognitive abilities. If this is true, I wonder what can be said of my mother tongue’s predilection for polarities and either/or statements. So much of our vernacular revolves around binaries: on/off, right/wrong, and black/white—with only a singular word for the infinite “grey” that comprises the spectrum in between. Does this contribute to Western culture’s long-standing preoccupation with structuralism? Is the history of English anything other than a history of colonialism? “Between Us” reinforces the absence of these greys, the gaps between languages and the incomprehensible notion that there is no such thing as a direct or easy answer.

It is fitting, then, that the exhibition concluded with Mehra’s bowl of sugar hearts, Modernity at Large (othering the Other). A small shelf holds a glass bowl with candies that say “ENJOY DIVERSITY,” as if diversity is a product that could be enjoyed as easily as Coca-Cola. After feeling overwhelmed with questions while working through Talk Is Cheap’s prints, wondering whether or not the underlying newspaper is arbitrary (there is a feature titled “The Backlash Against African Woman” and a full-page ad that describes “travels that excite the curiosity and challenge the mind”) or whether my iPhone has detected the correct source language of the texts, I am almost comforted by the banal absurdity of these candy hearts. In this instant, I realize my search for justification is a by-product of Western structuralist thinking. I take some time to clear my mind—to observe without participating, to be free from the responsibility of having the final say—before it all comes crashing back.

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