On ViewGuggenheim Museum
February 11 – May 1, 2011
The Guggenheim’s current survey of film and video-based installation art, Found in Translation, features a series of darkened rooms off the main rotunda. Each room houses the work of one of the 11 artists in the show, some of the very best working in this format. Even if you can find a bench, don’t be fooled into thinking you can sit and relax, passively taking in the light from the screen. Each of these works demands time, endurance, and reflection.
Taking its cues from movies, television, and theater, this work challenges the assumption that the medium of the moving image will make passive spectators of us all.
In fact, no spectatorship is passive. Omer Fast’s “Godville” (2005) is a case in point—though it addresses issues of history rather than the exhibition’s expressed theme of translation. Fast offers a heavily manipulated rendition of Colonial Williamsburg, the township turned historical reenactment museum, through a soundtrack and two separate film projections. A screen divides the room. One side features shots of the new-fangled suburbs on the outskirts of Williamsburg, as well as silent footage of the museum itself—kids marching with historical re-enactors and cannons firing for the tourist crowds. The sound of voices, however, lures us deeper into the room.
On the other side of the screen, three actors playing a female plantation owner, a male slave, and a white militiaman, respectively, are interviewed. The sound is continuous, but the actors’ twitchy, near-poltergeist movements alert us that their words have been hijacked by the artist as raw material for an obsessively edited commentary on religion, race, class, gender, and war that blurs history with the present. The plantation owner, in the locker room where she does her daily wardrobe change, describes the role she plays of wife and mother as schizophrenic; the man who plays the slave speaks with evangelical fervor about God and how it feels to inhabit his skin color in America; the white militiaman, who in a “past life” fought in Desert Storm, talks about patriotism and fear. At a certain point in each of the interviews, they attack the artist’s manipulations and the dissimulation of the film in which they have agreed to participate. Their attack, which is fabricated by the artist himself, implicates us too. Our judgment of the colonial history project as anti-modern and nostalgic is met by their judgments on the chaos of modern times and the elitism of the art world, whose dark corner we are at that moment inhabiting.
Also on this floor is a gallery so filled with projectors that the viewer has to shimmy by to walk around the room. Images projected on the four walls show the artist Sharon Hayes sporting signs in a protest of one: “Never Forgetting” in Stadtpark, Vienna; “Who Approved the War in Vietnam?” in Central Park; “Votes for Women” at Hyde Park, London; “I AM A MAN,” resurrected from the Civil Rights movement, in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; “Lesbijka na prezydenta” (“Lesbian for President”) in Warsaw; “Rien ne Sera Comme Avant” (“Nothing Will Be as Before”), in Paris. Hayes’s protest performance “In The Near Future” (2009) is both a remembrance of bygone political movements and a placeholder for their imagined future. By activating the floor space where we stand, her installation implicates our presence as a potential act of political agency or, conversely, as the passive role of bystander. Her solitary demonstrations leave the efficacy of political action up to us to evaluate.
Did she succeed in “making a difference”? Is she calling us to action or simply heightening our awareness of our failure to act? The premise of translation seems to touch Hayes’s politically engaged artwork, with its multilingual signs, only superficially, which is also an issue with several other installations further up the spiral, although they are no less conceptually potent on their own terms. Of these, Sharif Waked’s “To Be Continued....” (2009)is particularly forceful. If Fast and Hayes assert that we are, or at least should be, more than unwitting bystanders, Waked takes the political possibilities of installation even further. The artist plays a suicide bomber reciting a video testimonial. Playing on the visual form of this all too prevalent expression of political extremism, Waked substitutes the expected manifesto or last will and testament with stories from The 1001 Nights. He assumes Queen Scheherazade’s tenuous negotiation to buy time through storytelling to suggest renewed possibilities of political grace for the contemporary Arab world.
Farther upstairs, you can don headphones and watch six performances of Colombian street actors on individual monitors, left-wing political speeches staged by Carlos Motta during Colombia’s 2010 elections. Similarly, “Act II” of “Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice” (2010), Dubián Gallego’s reading of the assassinated Jorge Eliécer Gaitán’s 1948 “Prayer for Peace,” is especially arresting. These speeches don’t so much translate as displace history, weighing on the present and echoing across today’s public spaces.
On the same floor, Paul Chan’s “Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, the Law, and Poetry” (2006) introduces us to the lawyer disbarred, tried, and convicted on charges of providing material support to terrorists. Stewart’s crime was delivering a press release to Reuters Cairo News Service on behalf of her client, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was imprisoned as a terrorist by the U.S. government. In the video portrait, Stewart recites poems that were touchstones for her legal practice, and which she voiced to the jury to expose the ethical crux of a troubling case. Far from didactic, Chan employs pleasing colorscapes to score Stewart’s reading. These interludes allow us to contemplate the poetry as counterpoint to the broad implications of her ruling on our own civil rights.
One of the artists who explicitly employs translation is Patty Chang. Her installation, “The Product Love”(2009), depicts with hilarious awkwardness the behind-the-scenes antics of a film production portraying the revered intellectual and translator Walter Benjamin in his romance with silent film actress Anna May Wong. The fact that Benjamin is played by a Chinese actor outfitted in full moustache, wavy-hair wig, and glasses strikes us as a gag in the spirit of Groucho Marx. Benjamin gropes awkwardly at Wong, the beautiful icon of the Orient. Chang then cuts to interviews from two young Chinese directors (unknown to American audiences) who are creating the film of Benjamin and Wong. Europe’s flirtation with the East is compared by one director to Benjamin’s trying to touch Wong’s “G-spot.” Since the directors are critical of Benjamin’s infatuation, Chang accommodates the reciprocal criticism of our contemporary globalized culture within her own film. After the romance has ended, a film begins on the opposite wall, in which three translators, varying in ethnicity and gender, attempt to translate Benjamin’s writings on Wong. As they search for the best proxy, they affirm the intellectual’s observation that translation, like Chang’s recounting of his pathetic wooing of Anna May Wong, is at best a modest attempt at a linguistic embrace, touching the original only tangentially.
Found in Translation asserts a cohesive and far-reaching concept, but it is easy to get lost if we cling to this diffuse idea to unify the survey. Since translation does not necessarily illuminate each artist’s idiosyncratic project, a more strategic attempt to forge a progressive sequence rather than leaving the arrangement as a random array might assist our understanding as we move up to the top floor.
In fact, what we discover is a loosely bound, eclectic and engrossing series of works that should indeed be seen—and be seen without the burden of added intellectual scaffolding. They stand on their own conceptual terms: each artist pursues a highly individualized idea within the fairly standardized format of film installation. While the exhibition’s premise is an overreach, it presents remarkable examples of this contemporary genre, each singularly captivating. The light of the screen leaves us transfixed, but the ideas press us onward and upward.