What I Found in Translation at the Guggenheim

I really wish I hadn’t been too busy to write up this blog entry sooner, because the Guggenheim’s current show “Found in Translation” is a truly challenging and compelling collection of works, and now you have only another two days to go see it. If you’re in the NYC area and can squeeze in a visit, do. Curated by Nat Trotman, the show presents works that critically engage the notion of translation on a number of thematic levels. Video works predominate. Here are a few of my favorites.
• “Once Upon a Time” by Steve McQueen (2002) presents images borrowed from the “Golden Record” sent into space in 1977 aboard the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft. The soundtrack spliced together out of samples of glossolalia (babble spoken in a trance-like state of religious fervor) underscores the incomprehensibility-out-of-context of these cultural and scientific artifacts of life on Earth (images depicting everything from the Great Wall of China to the fertilization of an egg cell).
• Patty Chang, “The Product Love” (2009) – This one is so surprising! In the first part of this video, Chang has three different translators spontaneously translating for the camera an essay Walter Benjamin wrote in 1928 about Chinese silent film star Anna May Wong; in the second, we see two actors being made up meticulously to play Benjamin and Wong in a sex scene that we then watch them film. Fascinating and strange. The makeup scenes are unexpectedly riveting. (The competing Benjamin translations produce a sort of translation slam, much as you can experience live at the Bowery Poetry Club tonight, by the way.)
• Brendan Fernandes, “Foe” (2008). I saw this stunning video piece at the EFA Project Space last year and was delighted to see it again. Fernandes, who was born in Nairobi to Goan parents but raised in Toronto, films himself being guided by a speech coach (offscreen) in speaking with African, Indian and Canadian accents as he reads from J.M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, whose main character is the Friday of Robinson Crusoe fame. We hear Fernandes practicing over and over the phrases “They cut out his tongue” and “That is why he does not speak” as the camera focusses on his teeth and lips. Spooky.
• “Cathay” by Lisa Oppenheim (2010). This is the most overtly beautiful work in the show. Oppenheim uses a pair of syncronized projectors to show filmic “slides” of a poem by Li Bai about moonlight in plum trees that Ezra Pound adapted in his 1915 volume Cathay. Each word or phrase is accompanied by an iconic image that correlates with it either directly or indirectly (images all shot in Chinatown); e.g. the image for “snow falls” is a snowglobe; and that for “appears” is a pile of stirring crabs. As the poem and its images are repeated over and over, Oppenheim gradually replaces the words of Pound’s version with those of a contemporary translation of the Li Bai poem, and adjusts the images accordingly. Eventually the entire poem has been transformed.
• The show’s most disjunctive work is “Godville” by Omer Fast, who radically edited taped interviews with actors who impersonate the original residents of Colonial Williamsburg for the benefit of tourists. This jarring collage of voice and image (using snippets often only a single word long) makes the speakers appear to comment on social issues while their images morph before our eyes, such that e.g. the one woman Fast interviews appears to oscillate between wearing gloves and holding them in her lap.
Some of the works in the show treat overtly political themes more directly (I am thinking of the pieces by Paul Chan, Carlos Motta and Sharon Hayes), but I was most fascinated by the ones that used the theme of translation to conflate language and image with questions of personal identity. The results are often poetic in the best sense.
The show runs through May 1, and the associated Guggenheim Forum feature Word for Word (which I blogged about two weeks ago) should remain accessible online for the foreseeable future.

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  1. Alas, when I was chatting with my translator friend Esther Allen about the show, which she also enjoyed, we realized that in both the instances where actual translation is featured – in the pieces by Patty Chang and Lisa Oppenheim – the translators themselves are not credited. How unfortunate, particularly in the context of a show that takes translation as its theme.

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