Chapter 5: Falling for a Text
One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance. (Yip, 99)
Chinese literary critic Wai-lim Yip is not the only commentator to draw a metaphysical connection between the translator and the subject. For example, Lefevere, backgrounding the history of Anglo translation in his essay “Translation: Its Genealogy in the West,” suggests that a translator may simply ‘fall’ for a text in an auto-selecting fashion (14). Likewise, the idea of a mystical external pull influencing the translator’s choice, or an unconscious communication, resonates with Graw’s interpretation of mutual influence. She describes an understanding which recognises that the original material has been granted its own momentum, and the artist is receptive to this (54). Thus, she says, rather than “a process that is controlled by one side only, it can be seen as a process of mutual influence, in which the dynamic of the appropriated material is transferred to the appropriator” (52-54). This conception arguably links to Bourriaud’s description of how translation occurs, a state in which both the sender and the receiver communicate across time and space.
Is translation, therefore, an act of mutual influence?
Mutual influence is characterised as occurring subconsciously between the artist and the source. The translating artist is not, however, submissive to the source. Instead of an uncontrolled one-way response, the source and the artist recognise and respect each other. Thus, the influence works both ways in the act of dual authorship. This idea of mutual influence or exchange is different from philosopher Jacques Derrida’s concept of translation. He views the translator as one who is subjugated by the anterior object, “a subject who finds him/herself immediately indebted by the existence of the original, who must submit to its law and who is duty-bound to do something for the original” (122). The concept of being duty-bound to the source is an inverse of the definition of pure appropriation – an act of taking where the original is submissive to the appropriator. However, while resonating with mutual influence and translation, Derrida’s explanation, in the duty to respect the anterior object without subjugation, does not recognise the connection between the translator and the original as one of equality.
Bourriaud does not directly use the term mutual influence to explain how artists select sources or vice-versa or to characterise how communication and connections occur in the act of translation. However, there is an intersection with Graw’s depiction of mutual influence, which presents a similar action of communication between an original and a new object. Thus, translation and mutual influence seem interchangeable in the way they articulate the artist’s process, expressed in art practice. Both Graw and Bourriaud argue that their terms have a presence outside of linear time and therefore outside art-world doctrines. For instance, Graw disputes the rejection of modernist tendencies within postmodernist appropriation, saying “the modernist conviction that material has its own ambience can be seen productively and in a way that is not mystical” (52). Bourriaud says that within translation, the communication enacted is created outside of the traditional constructs of modernity and postmodernity (The Radicant 43). Within this new construct, the focus is on exchange rather than an imposition of ideas, images and behaviours (22).
The idea of exchange rather than imposition in Bourriaud’s concept also aligns with Graw’s description of mutual influence as dedication. Graw explains how dedication emanates from the original object and is gifted to the appropriator, occurring as a fait accompli between the parties (54). I understand this as similar to what Bourriaud characterises as “intuitive trust.” Verhagen queries whether intuitive trust is a rational component in the action of translation, considering the “radical generosity” extended in granting such trust “bets on meanings before they have become established” (103). Based on Steiner’s literary approach, Verhagen equates translation only with interpretation and suggests that Bourriaud’s translation theory be analysed similarly (107). However, this approach would miss the point of Bourriaud’s concept in which the artist is intentionally doing more than interpreting; the artist/translator in Bourriaud’s scenario is mixing many components to create a new work. They are the author and also the conduit in the process of renewal.
Like translation, mutual influence eschews a need for strategy or close control of the outcome. The action that turns these artists into translators of themselves, says Bourriaud, accepts that no speech bears the seal of authenticity (The Radicant 44). The disavowal of any dominance of the artist’s voice aligns with the translator’s unfixed nature between themselves and their subjects. As arts educationalist Atkinson writes: “The radicant presupposes a subject who is in constant negotiation with his or her environment, preventing any fixed identity, a subject in transit” (149). Thus, the implications of negotiation in translation present a very different position to translation as solely interpretational. Negotiation acknowledges the many possible influences on the artist, including a connected approach to authorship.
Artist Carol Bove does not describe her negotiation with a subject as translation; however, her portrayal of herself in the conduit position underlines the connection. Bove acknowledges her work as appropriation, but this is queried by curator Philipp Kaiser, who describes her practice as one of acknowledgment and empathy with others, suggesting she should use the term empathy to distance her practice from appropriation (30). If appropriation, Bove’s artwork is a remarkably benign form of it, one in which she acknowledges her identification with her sources. She claims she is not a separate entity from her artistic influences; instead, she is connected to them, saying, “I’m creating a space for the appropriated artists, so I’m actually submissive to them, but I am also forcing them into my project, so I’m co-opting them” (qtd. in Kaiser 30). Bove’s relationship to her sources can be described as a historical give and take, a situation in which she claims she is ‘only’ her influences, “I’m always incorporating streams of influence from wherever they come, as an unstable phenomenon” (qtd. in Kaiser 29).
Writer Johanna Burton says of Bove that she brings attention to the complexity of the relations between things (61). Burton uses the example of Bove’s series of ‘shelf’ works, one being Tantra Yoga, 2005. This work comprises the disparate items of Grope magazines and fiction books by Norman Mailer, displayed on George Nelson shelving, connected in rendering the ‘idea’ of a cultural moment in time. Burton goes on to say that Bove brings things together not necessarily to drive unconscious recognition, “but rather to conjure a kind of affective tangle that disrupts any singular, historical reading” (62).
Channelling multiple streams of influence and conjuring a tangle of multiple ideas while working against the specifics of time is very much in line with Bourriaud’s notion of how the nomadic artist works. “Contemporary art shows how lived experience can be reorganised using mechanisms of representation and production that correspond to the emergence of a new subjectivity,” says Bourriaud (The Radicant, 122). He cites artist Doug Aitken as an example of an artist doing that when asking the question: “How can I make time somehow collapse or expand, so it no longer unfolds in one narrow form” (qtd. in The Radicant 122). In Apollo magazine, Bove expresses a similar sentiment in the rejection of the linear time construct, saying, “I’ve taken a strategy of looking at the past as if I am holding a mirror up to it, and I can almost imagine that the past is holding a mirror up to me” (27). This statement suggests that Bove comprehends, like Aitken, an untethering of time between the artist and the past.
Graw defines mutual transference as an artist being subsumed by an object’s emanation; the object infects the artist, and a transfer of some sort occurs in a somewhat parasitic fashion (54). In this mutual transference, the process necessitates the artist bargaining with the object without a defined outcome. These unpredictable consequences, Graw contests, correctly reference how artistic production works in Bove’s style of appropriation – as a complicated interactive relationship (54-55). Similarly, curator Helena Reckitt writes about artist Félix Gonzalez-Torres’s conviction that art resonates beyond the object itself, encompassing recollections and associations in the generation of new works in an expanded concept of authorship – a type of posthumous collaboration (9).
Atkinson expands the idea of collaborative influence by describing Bourriaud’s radicant as creating a dynamic of translation between its original social and cultural origins and the new subject in which the original is retrogressively changed(149). Mutual influence as a concept infers an influence on and a collaboration with the original, but not necessarily one that exerts or suggests a change to the original. In this theory of change to the anterior object’s dynamic, translation defines its difference from mutual influence.
The Impelled Imagination
In an essay titled “Is Modernity our Antiquity?” artsist and filmmaker Mark Lewis contemplates a preocuppation with a small modest apartment building near Stanley Park in Vancouver. He wonders why he suddenly bacame so fixated on this particular building after leaving Vancouver: after all, he must have walked or cycled past it hundreds of times when he lived in the city without noticing it (109). Lewis has several theories as to why – maybe because modernist architecture is less pervasive in London, maybe because the building is in a state of gradual ruin, fulfilling “[t]he idea of a modernist ruin in the making” (110). He worries that his continual photography and videotaping of the building could be interpreted as an elegy to modernism’s forgotten promise – not his intention (110). He thinks maybe his captivation is a recognition of his, of our, “relationship to these recently past forms, a question of what is to be done as the artistic signs and images of emerging and developing modernity are rapidly becoming historical” (110).
I resonate with Lewis’s musing on how he developed a relationship with that specific apartment building. I can ask similar questions about the architecture I use as source material: why that particular diving platform, or that window well design? These sources have an intense hold, often spawning many artworks. Like Lewis, I have realised that the hold is to the ingrained semiotic cues the architecture provokes in defining my relationship to the recent past. A past that, as he says, is rapidly diminishing.
As in Canada, modernist architecture is part of the historical fabric of Aotearoa, and, as Lewis notes, much more prevalent than in the long-established European territories because of the relative youth of our countries. Like Lewis, I am concerned that my choice of modernist architecture as the subject matter may be mispresented as nostalgia. Although I am confident that is not what drives my intention, I attempt to deflect and fracture the notion of nostalgic impulse by retaining a sense of ambiguity. The artworks operate as stand-ins, a semiotic reminder of modernist civic architecture, in which the original function is negated. The aim is for the sculptural realisation to provoke an aesthetic response, a physical reminder of these forms, and perhaps a renewed attention to what still exists. These artworks are not in reverence to the faux modernism of some contemporary architecture. Instead, the sources are selected because they visually remind me of the aesthetic values of what is, or was, commonplace.
Lewis recognises that artists’ attraction to a specific object or structure, although often subliminal, is anchored in psychological and aesthetical contexts. He observes that aesthetic impulse motivates his selection – he utilises the compositional opportunities presented in the juxtaposition of modernist shapes against the Vancouver skyline to tell a visual story. The aesthetic disconnect of modernist forms against a contemporary city create, what he calls, a “compelling and vital montage” (109).
In considering why I choose specific structures, I note that I am looking for ubiquitous modernist examples that incorporate an aesthetic symbolism that is not necessarily writ large. Lewis uses the medium of photography and video to contrast the aesthetics of the historic with the new; they are composed to generate an atmosphere of dislocation, which is the only way for the reader to approach them. My artworks, in contrast, defamiliarise the architectural reference in direct physical relation to the urban or organic environment. A viewer who encounters my public works, for example, can approach or circumnavigate them from many directions on their own terms. The view is not singular; there is not a set perspective engineering a specific response.
Finally, I have found it intriguing that despite Lewis’s focus on one particular apartment building, and he said he had taken hundreds of photos and videos, I could not find a digital trace of it. However, I came to understand that his written description of the building was enough to encompass the universal relationship that perhaps we all feel to our recent history. Not having an image compels me to imagine and recall many such buildings, and perhaps that is sufficient. Arcitecture is a potent and constant keeper of social memory, and I find it is the element of propelled imagination stirred by his essay that I relaise I am trying to capture in my sculptures.
an excerpt from Translation in the Language of Sculpture, Natalie Guy, 2022
Atkinson, Dennis. Arts Equality and Learning: Pedagogies Against the State. Sense Publishers, 2011.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. The Radicant. Translated by James Gussen and Lilli Porten, Lukas & Sternberg, 2009.
Bove, Carol. “It’s Hard to Figure Out Why Giacometti Is so Good.” Apollo, vol. 185, no. 652, 2017, pp. 27-28, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/its-hard-to-figure-out-why-giacometti-is-so-Burton, Johanna. Carol Bove: Polka Dots. David Zwirner Books, 2016.
Derrida, Jacques and Christie V. McDonald. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Translated by Peggy Kamut, Nebraska UP, 1985.
Graw, Isabelle. “Dedication Replacing Appropriation: Fascination, Subversion, and Dispossession in Appropriation Art.” Louise Lawler and Others, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2004, pp. 45-67. Exhibition catalogue.
Kaiser, Philipp, editor. “Substitutions, Carol Bove in Conversation with Philipp Kaiser.” Women of Venice: Carol Bove, Teresa Hubbard/Alexander Birchler,Scheidegger & Spiess, 2017, pp. 29-57.
Lewis, Mark. “Is Modernity our Antiquity?” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 14, 2006, pp. 109-117.
Verhagen, Marcus. “Translation’s Gradient.” Flows and Counterflows; Globalisation in Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, 2017, pp. 94-111.
Yip, Wai-lim. Ezra Pound’s “Cathay.” Princeton UP, 1969.
Atkinson here refers the reader to Zizek’s Introduction in Rothenberg 2009