Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

More Than Words Can Say: 'Mute'

by Scott Wark

02 Dec 2011

798 Art Bridge Gallery, Beijing, August 21 – September 15 2011

Mute: the condition of speechlessness. A dual condition, of not being able or not wanting to speak, both “a noun and a verb”[1]. Curated by Nicholas Tsoutas, Mute at 798 Art Bridge Gallery is about what happens when communication fails.

I walk in to an annex. There’s a raised white platform shaped like it’s oozed a little. Spotlit, its crystalline surface scintillates with the subdued glamour of imitation snow. On it are naked pink forms. I don’t notice at first. They’re skinned animals. The effect is piercing. They cower as though from my gaze. I think the one that gets me most is a cat, its whiskers intact. It seems so graceless without its fur, so exposed.

It’s this exposure that makes Shen Shaomin’s I sleep on my own body so terrifying for me. It’s also the key to the work’s politics. I sleep… is an allegory for environmental catastrophe. As an allegory, it uses symbols to express complex concepts. The cat’s condition articulates the threat of global warming – of incontrovertible change to our shared environment.

The skin is like a membrane that mediates between atmosphere and body. It isn’t obvious that a creature literally lives in its skin until its atmosphere becomes hostile to its very existence. I sleep… is terrifying because it imagines a future in which this intimate relation can no longer be taken for granted.

I walk around the work a little longer – a few minutes. Looking at the cat I’m drawn up short again. Its heart is beating. I look closer. Most of the animals shake with this subtle but unmistakeable motion.

Shaomin’s allegory is doubled by the exhibition’s theme. I sleep… probes the failure of words. Both his creatures’ power and their condition are grounded in powerlessness, in being unable to speak. Simultaneously, it’s about the power of showing as opposed to speaking. It exploits art’s uncanny ability to make us look twice. A skinned cat, its whiskers intact.

A glowing red neon sign, Eugenia Raskopoulos’s To be read, adorns a wall. It’s a translation of a Czech revolutionary slogan into Mandarin. Translations are never transparent: meaning drifts as it moves between languages. When we translate, we cede our agency to this principle.

In Words are not hard, the words “sixty nine” drip like liquid from two mouths set across from one another on a screen, appearing in different languages before dissolving into nothing. To see it, you have to peer, voyeuristically, through gaps in a cell-like structure made of cinder blocks.

Taboos still exist around the articulation of desire, so that phrases like “sixty nine” are spoken with transgressive pleasure. Desire is intimately related to limits: it always exceeds articulation, but its very articulation is also enjoyable. In Words… language’s limits both configure and enable desire. And we are complicit: we police our taboos, but we also choose to peep inside.

To be read and Words… turn language’s limits back against themselves. The imperfection of translation becomes a neon “sign” advertising this fact. There’s agency, here, after all – the artist saying, with a glowing red rag, that language isn’t just a prison-house. Language’s disintegration opens onto something other, something more than words can say: the uncanny, desire, affect, maybe even art itself.

Scott Wark is an emerging writer. He completed an Honours thesis on the early art and writing of Wyndham Lewis at the University of Sydney in 2010. 

[1] Mute wall text. 798 Art Bridge Gallery,Beijing. 2011.