On Translation

Mark Prince analyses the language of objects

It is now relatively quick and affordable to ship objects far and wide. The exhibition industry depends on it. Physical transplantation is almost as fluent as data transmission, a fluency to which we are so habituated that it takes some imagination to appreciate the strangeness of having an object in the room that was on the other side of the world until a day or two ago. The cultural transformation of a found object into a constituent of an artwork is a parallel process to which we are equally inured. It introduces a reference that is also a trace – an access onto a historical and geographical narrative – while, at the same time, masking the object’s past by generalising it as a symbol of itself. Separated from function and history, it becomes a representation of the role it once had. This process of artifice derived from contingency might be described as a smuggling of content from one realm to another, requiring concealment, subterfuge, the donning of disguises.

These are metaphors familiar as descriptions of linguistic translation. The British/German poet/translator Michael Hofmann writes of the necessity of being able to ‘slip into costume’. In ‘The Task of the Translator’, 1923, Walter Benjamin also offers us translation through metaphors of clothing and disguise: ‘While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelopes its content like a royal robe with ample folds.’ To extend the spectrum of conceits, translation and transplantation are metaphors for each other, the distinction between languages implying that between the locations from which they stem.

Consider Samuel Beckett’s emigration from Ireland to France in the 1930s, and his subsequent adoption of French as the first language of his writing, often to be translated by himself back into English. The French language was an eluding of the assumptions, prescriptions and facilities inherited from his home culture, as the somewhat later English translations of his French texts were a smuggling back of material to the place in which it can be said to have originated. This back-and-forth emphasises cultural difference. Translation, ironing out otherness, is founded on the otherness that requires it. Theoretically, it is a process which would be rendered increasingly unnecessary by a fully evolved ‘information age’, in which distance and difference are neutralised by the speed and convenience with which data – and the experience it supposedly conveys – would be transmitted in fewer languages (ie English, Chinese) with their ever-increasing hegemony. In the meantime, translation would be a necessary tool, bridging divides and facilitating ‘access’. This vision was recently summarised in a lecture given by Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google, when he asked us to imagine the populations of remote villages, presently disconnected from ‘news’ and ‘information’, being given a single shared computer: ‘They will have access to everything in the world in their own language.’ The hubris tendentiously elides the distinctions it proposes to blur. Benjamin, however, sees translation as a lens through which likeness can be perceived within difference: ‘The kinship of languages is brought out by a translation far more clearly than in the superficial and indefinable similarity of two works of literature.’ Languages ‘are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express’. Bridging difference allows broader structural semblances to become visible. Difference also implies causality, as an original text produces a foreign version of itself, or a recontextualised object acts as a trace of its previous contexts. Space is polarised and temporalised, and the consequent tensions are inherently political.

Boris Groys, in his essay ‘The Politics of Installation’, 2008, polarises cultural space. The 20th century’s expansion of the ‘ground’ of the artwork (in the sense that a canvas – a painting’s support – is described as its ground) is interpreted as a ‘privatising’ of the space against which art defines itself. Installations, therefore, activate the gallery as their support. What used to be ‘public space’ – the gallery or institution – is appropriated by the artist as the ‘private space’ of the artwork, a space in which it is understood that the artist is free to establish all the rules, as the painter does within the parameters of the canvas. Space, and with it authority, is effectively ceded to the artist, but ceded from what? Groys’s ‘public space’ is generic, the geographically interchangeable art ‘mall’. It is the abstract territory of the international white cube. In such a gallery, let’s say one located in Germany, if you happened upon an artwork by a Mexican artist, it would seem unremarkable that it should be titled in Spanish and convey a content, contingent on its Mexican source, which makes no concessions to its current context. As Groys implies, art entrains its own assumptions, and the frame of reference in which those assumptions play out. If, however, we imagine this hypothetical work as a public sculpture to be placed in a provincial community, public space becomes culturally specific and the work’s categorical self-determination begins to look beleaguered. Translation parallels transplantation, language being an outward sign for the displacement of the objects it names. As art carries its context with it, like a protective aura separating it from the contingencies of its placement, the process of translation becomes correspondingly unnecessary.

Nathan Coley’s Bandstand public art project is, as yet, a concept and a model, which should be realised next year in Rieselfeld, a suburb of the city of Freiburg in southern Germany. It will be a sculpture conflating and overwriting the concepts two cultures – the British and the German – have of an open platform for public performance located in a communal area, such as a park or a seaside promenade. The concept of a bandstand objectifies public space. Open to everyone in principle, the limits of its accessibility are synonymous with the actual limits of what is understood as public space, which are inevitably local. In the UK, a bandstand is a common traditional platform, usually raised and circular, open at the sides, with decorative features and a covering roof. Coley’s version draws on an international modern design language, like a homogenising camouflage, to translate the traditional object the title evokes and the constellation of cultural assumptions surrounding it, into a foreign environment. The title will remain in English, although Germany has its own version, far less ubiquitous and broadly emblematic of a formalising of communal space than its English counterpart. In fact, many German Konzertpavillon were built after 1945, in a German neubau style superficially similar to Coley’s modernistic design, its clean-cut planes and right angles stemming, however indirectly, from the German Bauhaus aesthetic of the 1930s. What appears to be a cosmopolitan sign, transcending provincial tastes, proves to be a qualified assimilation. Private space – the British social heritage embedded in the title – is superimposed onto, or comprehended by, a sculpture which must, by definition, be German public space. This makes the sculpture a contested ground, a translation of national assumptions which acts as a cue to question exactly how much the foreign and host contexts might share, and how the sculpture’s ‘alien’ material will alter the host context, but also, perhaps, infect it, corrupt it, and be infected in turn.

What, after all, does an artwork bring with it, perhaps unwittingly? Coley’s Bandstand will not be a found object, but its form will be invested with values which derive from elsewhere. Could the effect of such a work resemble that of a virulent foreign strain of plantlife, or species of animal, let loose irresponsibly but surreptitiously – the more invisible the import, the more successful the translation – into a culture in which it could have detrimental effects, for example bringing with it the sting of foreign critique, or a historical slur? Miroslaw Balka’s use of found objects questions the assumption that they may be taken as causal traces of their previous contexts. The opacity he confers on his objects is also their discreteness as carriers of narrative information. If titles may be politically charged in terms of how they plant art into the space it occupies – exposing or assimilating its otherness – Balka’s titling of works by their measurements is a minimalist device, a closing down of reference and, at the same time, a designation of them as artworks rather than found objects by attesting to a set of overall dimensions which refer to assemblages of various elements unconnected until they are assembled as art. A work’s nominal condition of artifice is akin to the assimilating ‘costume’ of the translation. The found objects, grouped into a new order, surrender to their gallery foil as art. This infiltration is the antithesis of Groys’s conception of an installation subsuming the public space of the gallery.

Balka’s 120x80x15/DB, 2008, is a weathered but modern industrial palette branded – in the midst of other marks of age and usage – with the DB logo of the Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway system. The object was installed earlier this year on the floor of a Berlin gallery, threaded with fairy lights alternately winking on and off, or left constantly on. An absurdly festive note (on/off) ceded to the air of a memorial (constantly on); conversely, the spatially specific formalism of the palette (ignoring its function, it might have been a generic minimalist module, physically realising a set of pure dimensions) was animated into temporality. Or alternatively again, the past was shunted into the present by the flashing lights, punctuating time. The palette’s original function implies transport, and, moreover, industrial-scale transport. For a Polish artist to install this sculpture in Berlin insinuates an evocation – less than a reference – of the mass train deportations into Poland during the Second World War; but the palette is modern, and its air, suggested by the battered surface, of functioning as a trace – at least as a trace of these particular historical events – can only be symbolic. Balka’s denial of the trace liberates the object from a role as a relic (which would have been an explicit accusation) and allows it to be absorbed by its new environment. Content is imparted stealthily, passive-aggressively, as it were. The object becomes the absence of the trace it hints at, or a reminder of its absence.

Language has a crucial, but ambivalent, role here. It translates Balka’s mute object for us at the same time as designating it as untranslatable. By refusing to name the artwork, the title – reduced to numbers and letters – refuses it the contextual bedding that language provides. And yet, it is language – in the form of the DB logo – that is given the job of clothing the piece conceptually in a web of associations which politically charges its relation to the space it occupies and, furthermore, charges that space as being more than Groys’s neutral public ground by defining it, nationally and historically, against the art object. For all its out-of-placeness, the palette was not a Second World War remnant but a modern object, wearing its modernity like a passport to legitimate itself or insinuate itself into a new context. If its linguistic brand was a legitimation (designating it as German), it was also the key unlocking its potential critique, as well as a seal preserving the autonomy of its ‘private space’, its function as a conveyor of that critique. The logo translates the palette for us, rather as subtitles translate a soundtrack, facilitating the transmission of a film’s images which would otherwise remain resistant to interpretation.

The indispensability of translating subtitles to the realisation of a virtual ‘access to everything in the world’ – as envisaged by Schmidt – makes them useful tools for deconstructing presumptuous globalist rhetoric. A means of bridging cultures can be used to reveal their essential unknowability, their local autonomy, or their historical exploitation. The white text scrolling across the black screen of Susan Hiller’s film The Last Silent Movie, 2007, names the language – and designates it as either ‘seriously endangered’ or ‘extinct’ – in which the plaintive voices on the soundtrack are speaking, or singing. These translations are suffused with a sense of their own futility. They make us eerily conscious not only of the contingency of languages, but also of the contingency of the cultures they serve. Human communication is shown from an unfamiliar vantage, as though we were looking down at the teeming earth from the darkness of outer space. Irreducible localness submits to the all-encompassing global vantage point of a conceptual archiving process, but in order not to fuse the terms but to preserve and exploit the paradox. Itemising unfamiliar words which would have been familiar to the cultures from which the languages hail – for example, the names of indigenous birds – the translations offer access to an exoticism which they simultanously define as an illusion, in that the medium which is revealing these word-images is as defunct as the worlds they testify to. The convention of subtitles as a mere expedient, distracting filter, unlocking the content of images, is turned on its head: the screen is all dark; the subtitles are its image, like concrete poems evoking a location which cannot be envisaged because it no longer exists. ‘Public space’ is the blank screen, a no-man’s-land of erased – or indeed rased – locality.

In Anri Sala’s 2004 film Làk-kat, this void is framed as a Conradian metaphor for colonialism, which remains a subtext of Hiller’s piece. White subtitles emerge from darkness, translating what appears to be a language lesson taking place in a windowless room weakly lit by a single neon strip. Moths fizz against the light. Two young Sengalese boys are repeating words rapidly intoned by a male teacher in the Wolof language of the region. The brief white details – the boys’ eyes moving against their dark skin, the flutter of a moth’s brilliant wings, the single-word subtitles – are almost engulfed by the reigning darkness. Half-way through the ten-minute film the teacher’s voice lowers to a surreptitious, prompting whisper, as though the material had become clandestine. Expressions of light – ‘shining’, ‘bright’ – begin to refer more overtly to skin-colour and race: ‘Whitey, Pale, Dark-skinned, Alien, Outlandish.’ The fact that the Wolof word for ‘alien’ refers to even darker-skinned Africans than the Senagalese is a warning against too quickly presuming what any of these translated phrases might signify. The final frames of the film show the subtitled words ‘Pure White’ hovering in parallel with the white neon strip, as though cleansing the phrase of its racist connotations by objectifying the word as nothing but light. The strip suggests a striking out of the word, and word becomes thing, momentarily relinquishing its political designs on us, its freightedness with implications of Senegal’s colonial past. The word/strip is rendered local and inaccessible, as aggressively anti-associative as a minimalist object, which of course it is, at least when it figures as a constituent module within a Dan Flavin sculpture.

Làk-kat appears to conform to one prevalent cliché of art video-making that often relies on the use of subtitles: the empirical documentary, in which an artist worthily provides us with access to some exotic or arcane phenomenon. At worst, this is cultural tourism. The artist is the privileged, jetsetting plunderer, the video camera master of all it surveys. The form recalls William Empson’s caveat: ‘The idea that the theorist is not part of the world he examines is one of the deepest sources of error.’ Sala, however, satirises this convention by casting language – and the location it embodies – as impenetrable. The assumption that an artwork’s content – its ‘private space’ – is randomly transmittable and assimilable is subjected to intense scrutiny. The tool of this critique is a performative act of translation that is so introspective it renders the language it processes into an opaque material. Temporarily released from servitude to local agendas and foreign prejudices, words are also symbolically divested of their amenability to transparent translation. Like Balka’s found objects, they come to represent their own inability to signify and to travel. Activating a forcefield of cultural difference, Sala is not stressing divisions so much as registering cultural specificity.

Translation is deployed as a corrective to the pitching of words and objects as entities separable from their contexts, and context itself as virtual – both everywhere and nowhere.

Mark Prince is an artist based in Berlin.

First published in Art Monthly 350: October 2011.

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