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Sometimes we struggle to find the right words. There’s an itch on the tongue, maybe you wave your hands in the air, trying to physically pull the language out. Sometimes I catch myself gesticulating in front of my computer, hands furiously grappling with the thin air dividing me from a multi-syllabic outburst.


Imagine living in a constant state of trying to find the right words. For those who suffer from aphasia, that can sometimes be the case. Aphasia is a disorder which limits the ability to process language. Sometimes it comes about as the result of a stroke or severe brain damage, and for those who suffer, there are varied degrees of loss of comprehension and speech.


Some aphasia sufferers may have more difficulty speaking, others may be less able to write. There are endless permutations of the disorder’s symptoms. And for those who love words and quick-shot discussions, the effects of aphasia are more nightmarish and saddening than many other impediments.


Currently on view at the Tate Modern is a group show titled Stutter. The artists in the exhibition all work on themes of language, miscommunication, and linguistic re-appropriation.  Artists include Anna Barham, Dominique Petitgand, Michael Riedel, Will Stuart, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. One work stood out above the rest, though: a film installation by Belgian filmmaker Sven Augustijnen.


Johan (2001) and François (2003) are both documentary films, each recorded during an aphasia patient’s appointment with a speech therapist. Both patients are affected by the same disorder, though to diverse ends. Viewed together in sequence, the two films create an unsurmountable tension between spoken language and that which is impossible to articulate, forever gestating on the tips of these men’s tongues.


Johan is young, sweet, with kind blue eyes. He speaks very slowly and carefully, paying methodical attention to what limited vocabulary he has at his disposal. When asked to describe a recent holiday in France, he thinks for a long pause. He says he went cycling. When the speech therapist asks what else he did while on holiday, Johan looks up again and says, as if for the first time, “Cycling.” Again and again, he is unable to find more words to describe a week at the seaside. Then, the therapist shows him a series of photographs in which something isn’t quite right: a girl dances in work boots, a boy sits in the tub fully dressed. When shown a photograph of a boy trying to play an LP record in a cassette player, Johan remains totally silent. “What’s wrong with the picture?” he’s asked. It takes nearly a dozen tries for him to find the right words to say. The tension is thick, and the viewer feels deeply for Johan, whispering the right words under their breath like a prayer in the darkened gallery space.


In contrast to Johan, François is a quick, babbling talker, and his mouth seems to move faster than the camera can possibly record in real time. He rambles excitedly, using the words he still has, happy to joke and tell long personal stories to the therapist. She is hardly granted enough  time to speak in which to administer a cringe-inducing examination. After about ten minutes of excited chit-chat, François is finally asked to name things like buildings, school supplies, and types of sport. Only when he is confronted with these specific tasks do we realize just how much he is unable to say. Though he disguises his aphasia with excited talk about the day’s headlines, when asked “What is a building where sick people go?” he looks dumbfounded. The incessant banter was actually salvaged from a very limited vocabulary.


Both films stage a tension, pitting silence and nervous banter against unease. Although both men are afflicted with the same disorder, it has diversely shaped their character and their reactions to their limitations. The difference in both François and Johan’s behavior changes how the viewer perceives their condition. Sometimes we root for them, sometimes we want to quietly beg them to slow down or speed up. More than anything, the tension we feel in watching these men struggle is a result of our inability to comprehend the inability to truly speak.


The aphasia films of Sven Augustijnen are being screened as a part of Stutter at Tate Modern until August 16, 2009.

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