Found in Translation at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Globalization has brought the world closer together than ever before, a fact that has turned translation into an everyday matter of increasing importance. This forms the departure point for the current exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim: the videos, installations, and photographs by international artists on view in “Found in Translation” demonstrate that this seemingly simple linguistic task says far more about our understanding of our own and foreign cultures than we know.
||If language means power, then surely the former slave Friday is powerless. Robinson Crusoe’s companion has had his tongue cut out, possibly by Crusoe personally. And so Robinson not only speaks for himself, but also for the mute Friday. In J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, Friday embodies the quintessential victim of colonialism—the savage without his own voice. In a video titled Foe after the book, Brendan Fernandes links the novel to his own biography. The artist, born in Nairobi to a family from Goa, grew up in Toronto with a multicultural background of a kind that characterizes the lives of more and more people in an age of growing migration. In Foe (2008), Fernandes reads a passage from Coetzee’s novel using the accents typical of the countries that have played a role in his life: Kenya, India, and Canada. This is not, however, as easy as it sounds. Time and again, an off-camera voice coach corrects his "translation." Fernandes stammers, begins again, even tries pulling his lips apart with his teeth to make the sound the coach wants to hear. His absurdly amusing performance demonstrates how even the mere act of speaking can play into ethnic stereotypes.
The idea of translation as a model and metaphor is the point of departure for the exhibition Found in Translation, in which the Deutsche Guggenheim presents videos, installations, and photographs by nine young international artists for whom translation opens up a vast discursive field in which various factors that determine our identity—politics, class, background, religion, sexuality—are examined. The show was conceived by Nat Trotman, Associate Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where it was presented in the framework of the "Deutsche Bank Series at the Guggenheim." The series presents commissioned works made for Deutsche Bank and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as well as thematic exhibitions that were shown both at the Berlin and New York Guggenheim museums.
While Lisa Oppenheim’s double projection Cathay (2010) juxtaposes the American poet Ezra Pound's reading of a Chinese poem with a linguist’s literal translation, Patty Chang’s The Product Love (2009) is based on a text by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin about his encounter with the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Two alternating projections cast light on the relationship between Benjamin and Wong from very different perspectives. The first shows translators translating the text from German into English. Gradually, it becomes clear how differently they interpret Benjamin’s complex thoughts. The second projection shows Chang’s reconstruction of an imaginary erotic tryst between Benjamin and Wong as well as interviews with the actors regarding their roles. Chang’s work is a subtle reflection of a romanticized Western notion of Eastern culture and the role of text as a medium for transmitting a longing for the exotic other.
Keren Cytter’s video Something Happened (2007) is about the translation of a text into the medium of film: a man and a woman, a room, and a revolver, to the sound of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concert. Cytter uses these basic ingredients of a conventional drama as a basis for a complex work about the end of a relationship and the medium of film in and of itself. The Israeli artist, who also participated in Globe—the 2011 art and performance program celebrating the reopening of the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt—took Natalia Ginzburg’s 1947 novel È stato così (The Dry Heart) as the point of departure for the piece. Ginzburg portrays a deteriorating marriage. In contast, Cytter has the quarreling couple not only talk to one another, but also with the audience. Certain scenes repeat themselves, and the sound is not always synchronized with the images. By means of artificial dialogue and an improvised visual style, Cytter presents the film adaption of the novel as a form of translation that adds new layers of meaning to the original story.
In her slide projection In the Near Future (2009), Sharon Hayes, who also has works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, stages herself as an activist. Her game with agitprop slogans, some of which are out of date, amounts to more than a mere reference to political movements of the past. Hayes is also pointing to our role in current political discourses as mere onlookers or activists. O Zhang’s photographic series The World is Yours (But Also Ours), produced shortly before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, also operates with slogans. The artist, who lives in New York, portrays young people posing in front of landmarks in the Chinese capital wearing T-shirts bearing messages in "Chinglish"—a pidgin English often completely devoid of meaning. In Zhang’s work, the T-shirt slogans become biting commentaries on recent Chinese history; a T-shirt reading "It’s All Good in the Hood," for instance, is shot before the Gate of Tiananmen Square, which carries the admonition "Salute the Patriots". Not the slightest trace of the student protests of 1989 can be found in the square; peace reigns once again in the land, and its citizens are obedient consumers. Or are they?
In her series, O Zhang causes a variety of cultural influences to collide. She not only reflects her own, as she formulates it, “profound ambivalence” regarding her homeland, which she left in 2004; at the same time, she also portrays “the economic and political conflicts in modern day Chinese culture, among them the identity crisis facing Chinese youth.” Whether Siemon Allen addresses the Palestinian conflict in The Land of Black Gold (2004) using various different versions of Hergé’s comic Tintin au pays de l’or noir, or Matt Keegan, in his video installation ‘N’ as in Nancy (2011), investigates how language is used to establish power structures, the artists of Found in Translation navigate the boundaries between language, history, politics, and imagination to examine cultural differences. In the process, translation—in both a linguistic and figurative sense—becomes a basic tool for understanding reality.
Found in Translation
1/28 – 4/9/2012
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin