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The Limits of Language 

click to enlarge _Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache_, K. Rakoll, limited edition digital print, 2007.
  • _Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache_, K. Rakoll, limited edition digital print, 2007.


According to the Book of Genesis, all of humanity originally shared one language, and all people lived in one city, Babel, where they gathered to build a tower that would reach heaven. God prevented them, however, by “confounding” their language, and scattering them over the earth.

“The Secret Tongues of Babel” at the BeGallery in High Falls, is a response to this story. The artist K. Rakoll has created a phonetic alphabet that can express every human language. His writing, which is also his art, appears in silkscreens, digital prints, paintings ,and sculpture—and a large sliding tile puzzle. (We all played with sliding tile puzzles when we were eight years old. They are small handheld squares with eight movable tiles, where you must place the numbers in order.) Night Cube is a black cube with illuminated letters from K. Rakoll’s alphabet, installed on the porch of the gallery.

There are quotations from Shakespeare and from Jorge Luis Borges in Rakoll’s work. One large print, 5’ x 4’, quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.” The words are written in a circle. Another says, “In the beginning was the Word,” in German. Of course, you can’t read any of these writings. The alphabet looks like the notation of hyper-intelligent space aliens in a 1950s comic book. (A pamphlet instructs you how to translate each symbol into a sound.)

K. Rakoll’s alphabet was born in 1994, when Rakoll was visiting a friend in Esopus. He had recently bought a 600-year-old Moorish house in southern Spain, and had become fascinated with its arches. K. Rakoll laid out many drawings of the arches on the floor of the house in Esopus. The writer Sid Hite looked down at the drawings from a balcony, and asked: “So what is this, some kind of alphabet?”

K. Rakoll took this as a sign. He commenced a year of study of phonetics and geometry. At the same time he took his new name, based on the Spanish word caracol, which means “snail.” Then he began creating his alphabet, influenced by the Islamic designs in the Alhambra.

The number of letters in the alphabet is constantly expanding. At this point it’s 114, Rakoll told me, but he expects the number to rise to 140 by the end of 2008. Each time he discovers a new sound, he adds a letter. Most recently, he’s been researching Korean with a friend who speaks the language.

The artist himself is fluent in German, English, Russian, French, and Spanish. These tongues reflect his personal history. Born in Germany, he dropped out of art school in Berlin, and moved to New York City in 1989. After a year, he relocated to New Zealand, and later to Moscow. He has also lived in France and Holland. Currently, K. Rakoll resides in Madrid.

Every alphabet has a politics. English—written in the “Roman alphabet”—has become the universal language because the English conquered the world. K. Rakoll presents an alphabet promoted by a global artist, not an army or navy.

Using K. Rakoll’s alphabet, builders and laborers from around the earth could erect a new Tower of Babel. And this time, perhaps, they will reach heaven.

“K. Rakoll: The Secret Tongues of Babel” is at BeGallery, 11 Mohonk Road in High Falls, through January 15. (845) 687-0660; www.begallery.com.

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