There is something deeply frustrating about Slavs and Tatars’s show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Titled “Afteur Pasteur,” the show is loosely about fermented foods in Eurasia, an area that the Berlin-based collective defines as being anything between the former Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. I suspect, however, that the show is really about cultural ferment in a part of the globe where ideas are continually translated and re-translated. If certain jokes and objects aren’t understood by viewers, Slavs and Tatars may be mirroring the experience of two neighboring peoples trying to communicate in different languages.
That explains Slavs and Tatars’s penchant for puns. But as with any wordplay, these jokes sometimes run the risk of being too clever. Consider Figa (2016), a reflective steel sculpture of a fist, with a thumb firmly lodged between the pointer and middle fingers. The title refers to how, in countries like Turkey, this gesture has the same connotation as a middle finger. In other countries, however, it can mean “good luck” or “got your nose.” To confuse matters even more, the thumb is replaced with a pickle, to refer to an Egyptian proverb about cucumbers.
This is a lot of information for anyone to absorb, so good luck with the rest of the first half of the show. Supposedly, this group of work, titled “Pickle Politics,” focuses on hospitality, which explains the U.S. Army cots and a drink stand that serves ayran, a Turkish yoghurt beverage. But why take fermentation as a subject? Despite being extremely specific, the first half of this show never coheres because its overarching topic is too vague.
Upstairs, the show perks up. A series of advertisement-like vacuum-formed plastic signs are a joy. They refer to similar-looking Marcel Broodthaers works, but whether viewers know that or not, they are intriguing statements about the transfer of ideas between the West, the Middle East, and Asia. In particular, I love Made in Germany (2015), a sign that says its title in Arabic script—a sly, complex way of showing how ideas are rarely ever tethered to one place.
Even more compelling are two “Kitab Kebab” sculptures, in which stacks of books are speared together like meat skewers and displayed on wood blocks. (This is one of the show’s better puns—“kitab” is the Arabic word for “book.”) One sculpture titled Kitab Kebab (The Dairy Horde), 2016, concisely sums up the show, evoking the flow of ideas through a series of tomes about bacteriology. Concepts spread across cultures like bacteria, after all—they mutate and re-mutate endlessly, frequently shifting form in the process.