How We Speak

Tom Jeffreys
Frieze, January - February 2018

ANGEL­I­CA MESI­TI’s films explore the myr­i­ad ways human communicate

There is more to lan­guage than speech and writ­ing, for the artist Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is always described phys­i­cal­ly – by a liv­ing body or by the form of a mark or the echo of a sound – and it is always reached beyond itself. Across film and instal­la­tion, the artist asks us to bear wit­ness as a rare lan­guage becomes a tourist attrac­tion, a dis­tress sig­nal becomes a dance or move­ment is recalled in short­hand by bod­ies no longer able to per­form. Before becom­ing an artist, Mesi­ti trained as a dancer – both clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary – and dance remains a pow­er­ful influ­ence upon her work. In par­tic­u­lar, she cred­its the body weath­er’ method, con­ceived by Japan­ese dancer and actor Min Tana­ka and intro­duced into the artist’s native Aus­tralia by Tess de Quincey in 1989. Mesi­ti talks of the method’s focus on mus­cle and bone: It is very dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about aes­thet­ics,’ she told me recent­ly, and about the human body.’ Even­tu­al­ly, Mesi­ti felt art to be a more expan­sive future’ than dance. Still, those ear­ly inter­ests in non-ver­bal bod­i­ly means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion remain. Dance has nev­er real­ly left my prac­tice,’ she says. It’s just that I’m not the per­former any more.’ Recent­ly, Mesi­ti has become fas­ci­nat­ed by the way lan­guages die. Some­times, a sin­gle utter­ance is enough to sig­nal the end. Cur­rent­ly tour­ing insti­tu­tions across Aus­tralia, Relay League (2017) is a three-chan­nel video instal­la­tion that takes as its start­ing point the fol­low­ing mes­sage, issued b the French navy on 31 Jan­u­ary 1997: Appel à tous. Ceci est notre dernier cri avant notre silence éter­nel.’ (Call­ing all. This is our final cry before our eter­nal silence.) This short, sur­pris­ing­ly poet­ic announce­ment marked the death of Morse code, the dis­tress-sig­nalling sys­tem orig­i­nal­ly devel­oped in the 1830s but ren­dered redun­dant by the emer­gence of new dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. Relay League sees this cod­ed mes­sage trans­lat­ed first into music, then into dance. A series of hang­ing sculp­tures ren­ders lit­er­al this process of becom­ing arte­fact. Relay League was filmed in the Paris sub­urb of Pan­tin. It opens on an urban rooftop, a place from which mes­sages are broad­cast. Against the hum of traf­fic, we watch and lis­ten as jazz drum­mer Uriel Barthélé­mi taps out a semi-impro­vised drum piece, con­ceived, at Mesiti’s insti­ga­tion, in response to that final Morse code mes­sage. It starts with the gen­tle brush­ing of sym­bols placed atop the drum skin, grad­u­al­ly ris­ing and falling in com­plex­i­ty and in the urgency of its rhythms. The cen­tral screen is per­haps the most intrigu­ing. Two young dancers, a man and a woman, sit close togeth­er on the floor. One, Sin­dri Runud­de, has lim­it­ed vision and is guid­ed by the oth­er, Emil­ia Wibron Vester­lund, with her hands as she whis­pers to him in Swedish – now qui­et­ly, now a lit­tle loud­er. The two are close friends and have devel­oped this sys­tem so that Runud­de might see’ per­for­mances. Mesi­ti tells me that they have nev­er thought of what they do as lan­guage. The scene is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly inti­mate and pow­er­ful: bod­i­ly and beau­ti­ful, close but not sex­u­al. Yet, it is also a scene from which we are par­tial­ly exclud­ed: if this is a lan­guage, then it is one that relies on the phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty and bod­i­ly self-knowl­edge of the expe­ri­enced danced. It is also under­pinned by a mys­tery. It is not until the third and last film that we find out what the pair are respond­ing to. This final reveal is not only one of nar­ra­tive but also of envi­ron­ment. Sep­a­rat­ing each film, and guid­ing the visitor’s move­ment through the gallery, is a series of screens made from trans­par­ent polyurethane. The flick­er­ing light of each film leads view­ers from one space to the next Mesi­ti cites the French work par­cours – a route or jour­ney – describ­ing the expe­ri­ence as lantern-esque’. In the final film, it is revealed that Vester­lund and Runud­de are also shown respond­ing in con­text to Barthélé­mi in real time: Mesi­ti describes it as a real, actu­al trans­la­tion’. The result is a range of trans­for­ma­tions: from lan­guage to code to music and dance. What is lost is a spe­cif­ic, know­able mean­ing. But much stands to be gained: rich­ness of sound and move­ment, com­plex human embod­i­ments stem­ming from the most min­i­mal of codes.  Relay League marks the sched­uled end of a planned lan­guage; yet, such a demise can, by con­trast, take gen­er­a­tions to occur of its own accord. In The Call­ing (201314), an ear­li­er three-chan­nel video instal­la­tion, Mesi­ti pro­vides a mul­ti-lay­ered doc­u­ment of the chang­ing sta­tus of anoth­er spe­cial­ist means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion: whistling. Some remote rur­al com­mu­ni­ties – includ­ing the vil­lage of Kuskoy in north­ern Turkey, La Gomera in the Canary Islands and the Greek island of Evia – uti­lize a high­light spe­cialised form of whistling to com­mu­ni­cate with pre­ci­sion across dis­tances. In this qui­et, beau­ti­ful film, a woman on a tea plan­ta­tion whis­tles to announce the arrival of the tea truck a man paus­es from chop­ping kin­dling to whis­tle to his wife to come in for lunch. Whistling may still be used in dai­ly life but it is fast becom­ing a rel­ic. Wind tur­bines, pylons and elec­tric­i­ty cables show us the wider con­text of modernity’s encroach­ment upon ancient agrar­i­an lifestyles. The Call­ing includes scene of chil­dren learn­ing to whis­tle in school and locals enter­tain­ing tourists in a restau­rant. The old ways are dying, only to be res­ur­rect­ed as a kind of per­for­mance. I want­ed to doc­u­ment the life cycle of the lan­guage,’ says Mesi­ti, from a use­ful every­day tool to some­thing main­tained as a kind of arte­fact, char­ac­ter­is­tic of com­mu­ni­ty iden­ti­ty, but now a per­formed ele­ment of the cul­ture.’ Mesi­ti men­tions that the whistling sys­tem (which, like Morse code, is not strict­ly a lan­guage), has been includ­ed on UNESCO’s list of Intan­gi­ble Cul­tur­al Her­itage. What kind o change hap­pens when that takes place?’ she asks. It reminds me of cer­tain 19th-cen­tu­ry ethno­g­ra­phers attempt­ing to save’ indige­nous oral cul­tures by fix­ing their flu­id utter­ances into writ­ten doc­u­ments. It also recalls how the words of an artist giv­ing face-to-face inter­view seem so dif­fer­ent on the print­ed page. Longevi­ty may be gained, but some­thing is tak­en away in the process. A lan­guage becomes like an arte­fact in a muse­um,’ says Mesi­ti. Like Relay League, The Call­ing opens on an urban rooftop, but this time the sounds of bird­song are audi­ble about the traf­fic. A lit­tle lat­er, we see an old woman farmer chat­ting reas­sur­ing­ly to her goats. I like to see these lit­tle moments as a gen­tle push towards an expand­ed def­i­n­i­tion of lan­guage that includes the non-human. The film crys­tal­lizes in its clos­ing moments. A white-haired man paus­es for a moment from gath­er­ing branch­es. He gazes down the val­ley and whis­tles a warn­ing to his grand­son play­ing near the road as it weaves around the moun­tain­side: Ancor! Don’t go too close to the edge.’ Ancor looks up. OK,’ he replies, but in Span­ish. He under­stands the whistling but can­not, or sim­ply does not, respond in kind.  There is a par­al­lel here with Mesiti’s own child­hood as the daugh­ter of Ital­ian-speak­ing par­ents liv­ing in Syd­ney. She is now based in Paris, where she has become famil­iar with the sense of liv­ing as an out­sider – lin­guis­ti­cal­ly at least. This comes through strong­ly in works such as Cit­i­zens Band (2012), a film por­trait of singers and musi­cians per­form­ing alone: a Cameroon­ian water drum­mer in a Paris swim­ming pool, a Sudanese whistler in a parked taxi in Bris­bane and an Alger­ian singer on the Paris metro. None of the per­form­ers lives in the place where they were born; instead, their music acts as a form of cul­tur­al memen­to. Tossed by Waves (2017) – titled after the Latin mot­to of the city of Paris, Fluc­tu­at nec mer­gi­tur (Tossed by the waves but nev­er sunk) – was pro­duced dur­ing Paris’s extend­ed state of emer­gency. A silent, lin­ger­ing close-up of the French capital’s famous mon­u­ment at the cen­tre of the Place de la République – where two mil­lion peo­ple gath­ered in a show of uni­ty after the Char­lie Heb­do mas­sacre in 2015 – it is Mesiti’s most overt­ly polit­i­cal work to date. Her lat­est film is Moth­er Tongue (2017) – a new com­mis­sion for the 2017 Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture, Aarhus – for which the artist worked close­ly with com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing as out­siders in a failed utopi­an hous­ing project. Fea­tur­ing office work­ers, school chil­dren, a Soma­li fam­i­ly and oth­ers, Moth­er Tongue explores how peo­ple con­nect with their cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties through music and dance. The work was shown at O’ Space – an old indus­tri­al build­ing in the port area of Aarhus.  Where The Call­ing scans the land­scape, most of Mesiti’s work is more tight­ly framed. Con­text is care­ful­ly con­trolled even elim­i­nat­ed alto­geth­er. Rap­ture (Silent Anthem) (2009) com­pris­es close-up footage of a group of young peo­ple danc­ing, sweaty-haired and ecsta­t­ic. In Nakh Removed (2015), a group of women from the Alge­ria-Tunisia bor­der per­form a rit­u­al­is­tic hair dance’. Both works are por­traits of the psy­cho­log­i­cal states of their sub­jects, based sole­ly on their faces and bod­ies. Both are tight­ly cropped, with no sense of wider space. Both are also silent. Sim­i­lar­ly focused is The Colour of Say­ing (2015), one part of which shows a seat­ed pair of retired dancers enact­ing a pas de deux from Tchaikovcky’s bal­let Swan Lake (187576) using only their hands and upper bod­ies. Flut­ter­ings of the fin­gers trans­late cer­tain move­ments that they are no longer able to per­form: the fin­gers of the woman’s right hand brush across those of her left as the strings strike up. It’s inex­plic­a­bly heartbreaking.  Such ten­der moments lie at the hear of Mesiti’s work Each piece evokes the com­plex sim­plic­i­ty of an encounter between liv­ing beings. The moun­tain­side exchange between grand­fa­ther and grand­son; the tac­tile com­mu­ni­ca­tion between Vester­lund and Runud­de; the body mem­o­ries of the two retired dancers; an old lady and her goats: every instance is an eth­i­cal imper­a­tive to look or lis­ten and attempt to under­stand the expe­ri­ences of a fel­low being. __________ TOM JEF­FREYS is a writer based in Paris, France. His first book, Sig­nal Fail­ure: Lon­don to Birm­ing­ham, HS2 on Foot, was pub­lished by Influx Press in 2017. ANGEL­I­CA MESI­TI lives in Paris, France. In 2017, she had solo exhi­bi­tions at Art­space, Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, and O’ Space, Aarhus, Den­mark. Her sur­vey show at the Nation­al Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­ber­ra, runs until April and her film Relay League is tour­ing five gal­leries across Aus­tralia until 2019. Her solo exhi­bi­tion at Art Son­je Cen­ter, Seoul, South Korea, runs until February.
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