How do we acquire language? In her filmic oeuvre Eva Giolo explores the acquired use of language with an explicitly feminine interpretation.

If one is to believe Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his first main work, “Tractatus logico-philosophicus”, language can only be used to form meaningful, meaningless, or nonsensical sentences. Thus, a sentence is meaningful if it correctly describes the thing in the world (“this is a tree”), and by contrast meaningless if it contradicts itself (“a married bachelor”). Essentially, language cannot be used to express anything else. Sentences such as “you’re your neighbor like yourself” are, Wittgenstein suggested, meaningless, as they do not reflect anything that actually exists in reality, but merely assert things that cannot be verified. In his late work, the “Philosophical Investigations”, however, he proceeded seemingly to completely refute his own proposal and proclaimed: “The meaning of a word is its use in language.”

Eva Giolo, A Tongue Called Mother, 2019, film still © the artist

The meaning of a word is its use in language.

Ludwig Witt­gen­stein

In light of this, how does one in fact learn language and its usage? In her film “A Tongue Called Mother” (2019) Belgian artist Eva Giolo gives us an idea. Her piece begins with calm still images: Warm, friendly light shimmers through the windows und affords us a view of empty classrooms and school corridors. The colorful pictures on the walls as well as the joyful chatter of children already indicate that we must be seeing an elementary school even before the corridors start to fill up with children.

The camera then leads us from public into private rooms or, to be more precise, into a garden in which one child is playing. While the pupils are busy trying to learn words by means of the alphabet and trying them out phonetically, the girl in the garden is, with her grandmother and mother, constantly repeating words, learning language, and at the same time experiencing their meaning in her own surroundings. Eva Giolo subdivides her film roughly in different sections each of which is marked out by different colored panels. The colors determine not only the composition of the film images but also with their respective first letters denote the words that the children will learn in what then follows.

Eva Giolo, A Tongue Called Mother, 2019, film still © the artist


How do we learn languages?


Giolo shot “A Tongue Called Mother” on grainy 16mm film material, which imbues the images with a decidedly sensual, almost haptic quality. The title refers not just to the concept of mother tongue, with its explicitly female connotation in countless languages, as we quite vividly experience here the mother’s tongue: Language is passed on across three generations (grandmother, mother, child) and the three fill it with meaning in line with their own particular experiences.

In other works she has made, and they include audiovisual media and installations, Eva Giolo focuses on worlds of female experience. In “The Taste of Tangerines” (2020) a grandmother lets her grandchildren (and the viewers) participate after a longer period of separation in memories about her home, a small Japanese island. The multi-award-winning film “Flowers blooming in our throats” (2020), shot during the first Covid lockdown, relies on multi-faceted montage to address, among other things, issues of domestic violence, a topic that precisely during the pandemic, as the statistics on violence show, became clearly more explosive.

Eva Giolo, A Tongue Called Mother, 2019, film still © the artist

Eva Giolo, Flowers bloo­m­ing in out throats, 2020, film still, Image via


For the DOUBLE FEATURE in the SCHIRN, Eva Giolo chose as the second film “Liberty: an ephemeral statute” (2020) by artist Rebecca Jane Arthur, a native of Scotland with whom together with two other female filmmakers she runs the Brussel production and distribution platform Elephy. In the essay-like film the director portrays her mother Irene Arthur, who left Scotland in the early 1970s for a few years for the United States. By means of personal descriptions and sound recordings that back then the family members sent to her in her new home, we receive an intimate view of the lifeworld of the temporary emigrant. She had traveled West out of a yearning for and hopes of an emancipated life as her hometown in Scotland offered her little prospect of being able to determine her own path through life.

In her accounts, Irene Arthur tussles to find a language capable of reflecting her lived reality. A lifeworld that could stand pars pro toto for that of innumerable other women of her generation. In her effort to find words in both written and verbal form that correspond to her own reality, and which can thus be filled with meaning in the first place, we can see a link to Giolo’s own “A Tongue Called Mother”: the description of women explicitly making use of language such as was not heard for most of recorded time.  


Discover more exciting video art in the program of the SCHIRN.