Antoni Muntadas and Translation

Starting in 1971, Antoni Muntadas, a native of Barcelona, Spain born in 1942, has made furtive if memorable appearances in New York with arresting video and television-based projects. On Translation: El Aplauso, from 1999, one of his early translation pieces, featured a video installation on three adjacent screens. While violent and gory black-and-white TV images silently filed by on the center screen, including the sight of a mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb explosion, large clapping hands directed toward these images could be seen on the two surrounding screens in color and with loud applause as sound.

Antoni Muntadas, “On Translation: La mesa de negociación,” 1998. Photographer: Sascha Dressler. © Muntadas.

In showing the disconnect between the message of fear being sent out by the media and the joyful reception of it by the public, Muntadas not only addressed the issue of numbed perceptions resulting from watching too much violence on TV, but he gave a new dimension to the word translation, the word which precedes the title of many of his art projects.

As I reflected on how to deal with the theme of translation launched by Mary Ann Caws, I recalled my interaction with Antoni Muntadas in 2005. I interviewed him a few weeks before he took over the Spanish pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005. I also reviewed his New York show at Kent Gallery in ARTnews that spring. This peripatetic artist has long maintained a residence in New York where I met him, and he told me about his epiphany in 1989 when he was commissioned by the Spanish national television channel to create a work on the history of the channel for a program called Metropolis. The piece, TVE: Primer intento, was never aired, without explanation.

That experience with censorship caused him to start The File Room, an Internet archive on the history of censorship, focused his attention on the issue of perception, and made him ask how much of what happens in the course of translation—not in a literal but a cultural sense—escapes the control of artist, viewer, and consumer. “Since 1995,” he told me, “I have been working in different countries and projects on the idea of translation. I am not talking about translation in a literal sense, but in a cultural sense. How the world we live in is a totally translated world; everything is always filtered by some social, political, cultural, and economic factor, by the media, of course by context and by history.”

In the lines that follow, I look at three different projects of Muntadas that best translate his views on translation. Often ephemeral or only visible for a certain period of time, Muntadas’s public projects can be very loud—announced by enormous red posters with succinct words imprinted on them in large letters. One of the best known ones, “WARNING: PERCEPTION REQUIRES INVOLVEMENT,” has been seen in many venues and languages including in Seoul, Korea where a show of his opened this past August entitled Asian Protocols. But they are also very reticent and require time and patience. Seats and chairs are often provided for viewing his work. Once seated you must let your eyes and mind glide over several TV monitors and other stimuli before the message comes through.

At the 2005 Venice Biennale, Muntadas showed details of his research on the history of the pavilions in the Giardini, the lovely grounds of the Biennale. His intention was to make perceptible the fact that the “Giardini” in 2005 looked quite different from what they had looked like earlier, especially during the era of Mussolini when, for example, the Italian pavilion was reconstructed to suit the Duce’s taste, and then rebuilt again after World War II. Much had been lost in translation since the first Venice Biennale, much had been added, but it took a Spaniard to unveil the less than transparent history of an Italian landmark. The project was named On Translation: I Giardini.

In São Paulo, Brazil, Muntadas and the architect Paula Santoro investigated the disastrous effect of the city’s urban renewal master plan. He then translated this research into a series of pseudo-celebratory wall plaques—replicas of traditional commemorative ones—and installed them in their relevant public location throughout the city. These plaques gave the names and facts about the mayors and governors in charge of the projects, dating back 40 years. Images of the plaques along with the spaces they marked were then made into postcards, each with a brief blurb detailing the disastrous consequences of the original plan. The commemorative plaques and the postcards symbolized the mis-translation of a master plan of urbanization. The work was titled Translation: Urban commemorations.

In the Cibachrome image entitled “On Translation: The Bank” (1997 – 2002), a rare collectible in this artist’s oeuvre, Muntadas evokes an economic aspect of translation. He suggests that as a one thousand dollar bill (like the one at the top of his image) gets exchanged for—read translated into—its counterpart in another currency and the process continues through many “translations,” (illustrated by the logos of different nations) the value of the bill can eventually shrink to zero. The vagaries of the exchange rate, here illustrated by a currency chart like those found in exchange bureaus, can cause this to happen as a widely traded currency is exchanged for an obscure one. Hence the words in big letters at the center of the image: “How long will it take for $1000 to disappear through a series of foreign exchanges?”

Although it is tempting to read “Translation: The Bank” as anti-capitalist, and to call Muntadas’s overall oeuvre a form of social critique, Muntadas claims a more poetic disengaged stance:

My work is not so much a critique. My work is a contribution to the questioning of contemporary phenomena through a process and production of work. I am basically curious and I use my work to understand and to know more. Furthermore, it is by perceiving things afresh that I can expose situations that the locals themselves sometimes do not see.

Contributor

Michèle C. Cone

MICHÈLE C. CONE has worked as an art reviewer and cultural critic for American, Italian, French, and Spanish publications over more than 30 years, most recently for Art in America, and the American Historical Review. She was a long-time faculty member at the School of Visual Arts. She received a Ph.D. in French Studies from NYU in 1988; her books on the arts of the Vichy era have been published by Princeton and Cambridge University Press. A longtime board member of AICA/USA, she is currently a Fellow for the Humanities at NYU, and is finishing a book on her early youth in France during the Holocaust, the fate of her family and her discovery of America as a teenager.

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