It was the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who first understood how the boundaries of vocabulary might also obstruct our grasp on the past and present. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” Wittgenstein wrote in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” (Latin for “Logico-Philosophical Treatise”). Two decades later, George Orwell, writing in 1984, coined the term “newspeak” to mean essentially the same thing: “language... designed to diminish the range of thought.” Only the barest functions of language were permitted in newspeak, in which not only words of revolution were taken away but also any words that might allow for critical analysis — anything that would permit someone to think through the truth and the information they were being given to see that they were being fed falsehoods. Without a fertile language, we’re rendered helpless when being lied to and oppressed.
Born in South Korea in 1975, the French-naturalized artist Daphne Le Sergent questions this interaction between language and memory with her new exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. Curated by Agnes Violeau, an independent French curator, the exhibition, called “Geopolitics of Oblivion” and on until September 23, is broken into three parts, which reflect Orwell’s three rungs of newspeak: domestic language, public speaking, and technical language. Using drawings, videos, photographic diptychs, and bits of text, Le Sergent wields these Orwellian concepts as means to look at contemporary forms of “newspeak.” Language today, her exhibition shows, is being shifted in a variety of ways, from being reduced on word-count-bounded platforms like Twitter, to being recreated with neologisms like “Brexit,” to being, more generally and more dauntingly, moved further from the truth with ideas like “alternative facts.”
In order to bring these concepts to experimental life, Le Sergent has imagined two made-up “retro-futurist” communities that she calls the SUM and the MAY, in which alphabets have been created with the idea of reinventing — and destroying — language and thus memory at its most fundamental level. The first, SUM, is a form of cuneiform, the early Sumerian alphabet that goes back to 3000 B.C.E. Although perhaps best known for Hammurabi’s Code, which allowed the Babylonians to codify a set of brutal laws, and for “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” perhaps the first written-down story, cuneiform was originally invented as a way to keep track of debts and payments — a building block of any economy. From this perspective, cuneiform is still used today — a way of keeping track of the past as it applies to the present. The second alphabet Le Sergent uses, MAY, is a form of Mayan script, a language that lasted between the sixth and ninth centuries C.E., which was used not for looking at the past — debts, etc. — but rather as a means for recording the movements of planets and stars: a cosmological map for future generations. Here, these alphabets and their backward-and forward-facing implications are illustrated with videos and documents in the atmospheric, colonnaded Jeu de Paume (constructed by Napoleon III for a sport close to tennis).
Le Sergent is known best for her work on criticizing systems — systems that construct identity, that enact and enforce geographic borders, that make any attempt to alter perceptions of the world. She lectures frequently at the University of Paris 8-Vincennes-Saint Denis, where she works in the photography and arts department. And her previous exhibition, “Revers du geste” (“Reversal of the Gesture”) at the Metropolis Gallery in Paris, used the political partition of the two Korean nations as a lens onto the partitioning of memory, especially on how sensation and made-up constructions like borders can fundamentally rewire a person’s perception of reality. For Le Sergent, the notion of the self and what the self can or is allowed to perceive is that which determines reality and thus splits the world into its seemingly infinite number of perceptions.
In “Geopolitics of Oblivion,” Le Sergent has achieved something similar but she sees writing not exclusively as a way of recording memories but rather, similar to as the Mayans used it, as a means for prediction. She is also more pessimistic about the future than she’s ever been before. Today, communications have been sheared down, arguably past even their essentials, to animations and emojis and quickly snapped photographs. What will come from this apparent sea change in language? Have we already gone too far? Are our critical capacities harmed? Is our ability to keep ourselves from being oppressed and from being lied to on the brink? If Wittgenstein and Orwell are right, as Le Sergent exhibition shows, much has already been lost.
“The Geopolitics of Oblivion,” by Daphne Le Sergent is on view at the Jeu de Paume in Paris through September 23. More information: www.jeudepaume.org
Founder: Louise Blouin