Listening to Katy Siegel’s talk on ‘The Luxury of Incommensurability’ at Frieze ’11 caused me to ponder a little further on acts of translation (the ‘t’ element of a/r/tography to followers of this blog).
The mainspring of Katy’s fascinating and informed lecture was the relationship between material and representation. Katy argued for an analysis of art history that embraced the influence of politics and social cultures; such that defenders of a dichotomy between material and representation were themselves products of the dichotomous Cold War era (think good/bad, black/white, them/us, material/representation). She argued that the ‘Luxury of Incommensurability’ was the (post?) postmodern ability to hold “two thoughts in mind at the same time” (i.e. to listen to the materiality of paint, canvas et cetera, whilst at the same time comprehending the represented). She argued that contemporary greats such as Richter, Freud and Twombly were masters of this luxury, and that this demonstrated a separation between art and the political and social spheres.
I found myself disagreeing on a few points. To take the latter first, I think it rather more likely that contemporary artists are still reflecting political and social influences in their works (how could they not?). It’s just that the politics of our day is diverse, post-structural, multi-perspectival, eclectic and a tad more unmasked. This is what is reflected in Richter’s appropriation of the photographic and its disruption, and in Freud’s and Twombly’s communication of the qualities of the represented through materiality.
Secondly, I’m not convinced that there ever really was a dichotomy between material and representation in the eyes of anyone other than a few art critics and theorists. Confronted with a Michelangelo, despite his uncanny mimetic abilities, has anyone ever been duped into forgetting the material of what is represented? And there are many examples of more ‘unfinished’ or deliberately imperfect pre-Modernist artworks which would seem to be intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the ‘incommensurability’ of both material and representation, and deny the restriction of art to mimesis.
Surely the popularity of contemporary art is premised on an enjoyment of the suspension of disbelief (which the artist must persuade is worth the effort), and/or the marvel of the mechanics of the artist’s technical achievement, and/or play on contrary positions, as in Found Art. It is this latter move that demonstrates the more sophisticated, multi-perspectival position that is reflective of our socio-economic times.
Siegel is right to refer to this as a luxury, since I’m not sure this postmodern turn has been so wholeheartedly understood by other audiences. Take the case of languages/linguistics. Since the 1950’s linguists such as J.L. Austin, Searle and their followers have argued for an understanding of the gaps between material and representation (the signified and the signifier if you’re a fan of Saussure). These gaps are vital to an appreciation of what may be lost and gained in communication, and more so in translation. Yet not a decade ago I prompted a storm of protest by referencing these gaps in a paper presented to a conference of legal translators and interpreters at the United Nations. One woman screamed at me that there were of course direct equivalents between languages; that water was l’eau was agua et cetera, and that consequently the act of translation was as pure as a mountain stream. (And these are the professionals!)
Of course, at one level, water is eau, but at many others it is not. When I think of water, it is British water. It comes from a tap, is a certain chilly temperature, it is derived from the limestone hills around where I lived as a child and has a slightly chlorinated taste. This is my prototypical water. When I encounter the word, this is what I taste. My prototypical eau is salty, comes from a bottle that has been purchased and is quaffed in the dusty, yellow-infused heat of France. I’m sure both your water and your eau differ from mine.
Language, and therefore translation, simultaneously represent and can never account for all these personal understandings and nuances. Yet I think the vast majority of people expect them to, and naively believe that they do. They are unaware of the materiality of the representation. Even in our multi-lingual, multi-cultural (post) postmodern society. But an understanding and acknowledgement of the lacks, gaps and unintended gains inherent in communication and in processes of translation are necessary in order to move towards the luxurious position of embracing and understanding the incommensurability of language.
This is why I recently entered the InsideArts poetry translation competition, with a translation of a sign language poem into written English. My interest is in the huge discrepancy between material and re-presentation in this case. The materialities of source and target texts are so different that the gaps, cracks and additions inherent in the act of translation cannot be smoothed over (even by a UN translator), and we are forced to address incommensurability head on.
What emerges? More in the next blog……