The Garden of Forked Tongues
Each of the 59 polygons on the wall in The Garden of Forked Tongues represents an endangered language spoken in Queens—languages that are rapidly or slowly disappearing from the world, but which are still being spoken in this remarkably polyglot borough. The word that appears inside each polygon is the word for “tongue” in each language—a word which, in many languages, also means “language.”
The project includes a brochure, a series of four public programs, and an interactive website. The website includes a longer essay about the ideas behind the work, diagrams that break down how the visualization was mapped to the wall, the full project credits, a place for speakers of endangered languages to upload samples of their speech, and an interactive SVG of the forked tongues map, which allows the visualization to be both decoded into the data used to create it, and matched with samples of the languages being spoken and images of the places where they are spoken.
The Garden of Forked Tongues was commissioned by the Queens Museum of Art for Nonstop Metropolis: The Remix, a series of projects and programs leading up to the launch of Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s Nonstop Metropolis: A New York Atlas. It was produced in collaboration with the Endangered Language Alliance, Josh Begley, Effi Ibok, and Social Practice Queens, with research by Raquel du Toit.
In 2018, a new site-specific installation in the same series was commissioned for the second Yinchuan Biennale. This work focused on the minority languages of China and in particular of the Northwest region around Yinchuan. An elaborated large-scale map of linguistic diversity in the region as of 1987, based on the well-known Language Atlas of China published in that year, was realized on an extended blackboard in the precarious material of colored chalk. Over the course of the three-month exhibition, this fragile map will be gradually blurred and partially erased, paralleling the gradual erosion of linguistic diversity in China and across the world since 1987 – due, among other things, to the increased networking of formerly isolated places. The impossibility of making accurate copies in chalk, and its inherent ephemerality, deliberately allude to the transient nature of the notions that usually drive mapping, such as history, identity, culture, language, and borders. The map is instead subjected to the same processes as the territory: swept away by wind and friable as sand.
The title of the work is taken from a Uighur proverb, “Keslenqük yilan bolmighi ming yilqilik,” which translates to “It takes a thousand years for a lizard to become a snake,” alluding to both the pressures placed on minority populations to assimilate and resistance to those pressures.