Commonwealth and Council

Whistling and Language Transfiguration

Gala Porras-Kim


Commonwealth & Council extends its dialogue about cooperative knowledge and the shared experience of art with Whistling and Language Transfiguration (WaLT), Gala Porras-Kim’s second solo exhibition with the space.

 Porras-Kim makes work that questions how knowledge is acquired, tests the potential of the art object to function as an epistemological tool outside of its traditional, art historical context, and challenges the possibilities and limits of learning about the cultures that surround us. Her work can be perceived as both aesthetic and utilitarian, capable of serving as a means for an outsider to access information about an unfamiliar culture. WaLT examines the ultimate and literal signifier of culture, language, particularly its sounds. Specifically, WaLT is an interdisciplinary project involving the translation of a minority language, Zapotec, and the political and linguistic implications of the language’s deterioration.

Zapotec, originating in Oaxaca, Mexico, is a tonal language where the content of the words is partly contained within the intonation of speech. Because meaning can be communicated through tones alone, the words can be emulated by whistling. And while Zapotec is not the only whistled language in the world, it is unique in that it evolved as a strategy of resistance against Spanish colonizers. By communicating through whistling, the indigenous population disguised their conversations as musical diversions. Zapotec is now an endangered language which until recently was transmitted through an oral tradition, without written records. 

The works in WaLT (a vinyl record edition of a translation of Zapotec into whistling, sheet music of the transcription of the whistles into musical notes, and a linguistic abacus to help mark verbal variations in the recorded translation) represent Porras-Kim’s effort to maintain the viability of the Zapotec language by pointing out its unique qualities, and contribute to the preservation of a language that was and is the cultural heritage of the Zapotec people. 

Gala Porras-Kim was born in Bogotá, Colombia and lives and works in Los Angeles. She received her BA from UCLA (2007), MFA from the California Institute of the Arts (2009), and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2010). Her work has been included in exhibitions at Vincent Price Art Museum, Monterey Park, CA; La Central, Bogotá, Colombia; REDCAT, Los Angeles, CA; Tompkins Projects, New York, NY; FOXRIVER, Singapore; and Dobaebacsa HQ, Seoul, Korea.