In the installation ECHO, artist Karen Ralph ddresses how gender roles are made manifest through language. Specifically, Raph investigates how the female voice is often silenced throught the removal or suppression of speech and how language can be used as an oppressive tool. Ralph’s installation inclues hundreds of colourful, cast wax tongues, fingertips, ears, et cetera. All of these bodily fragments reference the human sense an are adhered directly to the gallery walls in flowing, undulating lines that visually mimic sppech patterns. When a subject’s tongue is being cast, they are rendered silent because it is physically impossible for them to speak. When the mould is removed from the subject’s tongue, his/her senses are restored and may seem heightened. At this instant, the subject realizes that they have the ability to speak again and the relationship between speech and power is amplified.



KAREN RALPH graduated with a Major in Painting with Distinction from the Alberta College of Art (1990). Since then, she has regularly exhibited her work throughout Alberta and British Columbia. Ralph has received awards from the Canada Council for the Arts (1999), the British Columbia Arts Council (1998) and others. Since 1994, she has regularly contributed written work to magazines and Ralph currently publishes the zine Red Wine Tongue and several comics. Her recent work has been reviewed in publications nationally. Karen Ralph resides in Victoria, British Columbia.



Why a multitude of cast wax tongues on the wall of a gallery? One reading is that they are representations of the mute physical memory of things unsaid. The tongues are still but they speak. They speak of the silenced voice in all of us. The voice silenced by fear, modesty, and censure. The stillness of the tongues speak volumes of the undocumented female voice in the history of the world and the missing female voice in the history of Art. The stilled tongues speak of the fear the artist has of not making an authentic or original statement. The tongues speak, not ‘in tongues’ but each intelligibly murmuring a unique interpretation of its own existence. The process of making the cast wax tongues has symbolic connection to the suppression of the female voice in history. Karen Ralph casts her tongue in Geltrate (an act that could silence her for good), then moulds the copies in beeswax. The act of casting the tongue stills it and this ‘stilling’ parallels the systemic silencing of women in most of the world’s cultures through repression, suppression and oppression. Even language has been used to shame women into silence with the use of negative terms like ‘shrew’, ‘scold’ or ‘bitch’. These words attacked the female voice which questioned or spoke up. Women have been literally ‘shut up’ with devices like the ‘scold’s bridle’ which fit over the mouth and held the tongue in a clamp. This image of the stilled tongue gives frightening reminder to the fact that women have been ‘shut up’ from expressing themselves in so many ways (sexually, politically, financially, et cetera) until very recently.

Stilling the artist’s tongue (voice) or stilling our own tongues edits out the possibility of making a derivative or unoriginal statement. Yet it also prevents us from saying anything. And we must speak … so we speak and use the forms and structures available to us in our community: the vernacular (code) of our social milieu. We speak and communicate using a syntax of clichés, allusions and metaphors rarely of our own invention, yet we believe the meaning we communicate is our own. The form (code) may not be our own but the syntax and therefore content is our own. The artist has the added pressure to create an original code as well. Avantgardism has extended the boundaries of what art can be. The ready-mades of Duchamp gave artists permission to abandon talent-based technique, create new idea-based technique (code) and concentrate on explicitly communicating ideas. The art since has been as much about creating entirely new codes as expressing the ideas of the age.

Science, technology, and philosophy appear to be getting the credit for the generation of these ‘ideas of the age’. The artist has been left to comment upon them or illustrate them. Are originality and creation even art’s domain anymore? Non-objective painting seems to have been art’s last gasp attempt at creation of a new code. But alas, it too was just illustrating the big idea of its age: Macluhan’s: The Medium is the Message. Post-Modernism’s reminders of the oppressive role of history punctuated the end of the Avant garde and of originality. So how is the artist to be entirely original when art itself may be incapable of being original (at the code level anyway)? Ralph’s copies of her tongue speak the cut-and-paste language of today’s computer based communication. They speak in a code which is entirely relevant. Computer geeks create the codes now: figuratively and literally. Their codes communicate. Artists’ codes are all too often internal and self-indulgent garble. Ralph sticks out her multiple tongues, nyah-nyahing to the priests of Art History and lords her art’s user-friendly interface over the incoherence of her contemporaries, the last-gasp Neo-Modernists.

In displaying the tongues Ralph is also exploring the idea of the ‘original voice’ by showing the multiplicity of voices directed our way. The wall of tongues also represent the babble (with references to the Tower of Babel) of ‘content’ which blasts us everyday. In that cacophony, is hearing one’s own original voice and speaking it coherently even possible? In interview, Ralph speaks of the fear that she, as an artist, is just recombining and synthesizing existing knowledge, that there is nothing new. But in her work she shows that she really fears that even art is simply ad hoc, knee-jerk reaction, without contemplation, to the massive blast of inputs we must handle today. Why should the artist be any different from the ‘citizen’? The artist does not live in contemplative isolation from the ‘world’. The artist must also handle the noise from millions of Web sites, hundreds of billboards, and thousands of television channels.

Karen Ralph and other artists who have painted and sculpted the human form show that art seeks a vernacular, seeks a code that is in itself unoriginal but fundamentally about communication. Literature is a code which shows that there is originality in arranging words: as great painting shows that there is originality in placing simple brushstrokes on a canvas if enough of them are put down in the right order an in the right places. In addition to her computer-age cut-and-paste vernacular, Ralph’s vernacular is also in casting and in performance. They are codes of her attempt to find meaning, and to speak that meaning in an original voice…while acknowledging the risk of not making an original statement. This is the courage of the artist. The courage of the woman artist is to dare to speak knowing that she speaks collectively for all women. And the gift of the artist is to communicate without having to speak. Karen Ralph has both the courage and the gift.

Greg Olsen



GREG OLSEN was the president of the Alberta College of Art’s Student Association for the years before and after autonomy. He won the college’s Board of Governors Medal for Fine Art (Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking) when he graduated from printmaking in 1987. After art college, Olsen studied Industrial Design at the University of Calgary part time while he designed ergonomic office furniture for a living. In 1995, he graduated with a Masters in Environmental Design. Over the years, Olsen has privately maintained his art practice. Recently he has begun to think about art again, believing that he has, ‘…finally accumulated enough life to begin to have something to say with art”. Grcg Olsen lives in Calgary, Alberta.