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Anri Sala Làk-kat 2004 film still a film’s images which would otherwise remain resistant to interpretation.
The indispensability of translating subtitles to the realisation of a virtual ‘access to everything in the world’ – as envisaged by Schmidt – makes them useful tools for deconstructing presumptuous globalist rhetoric. A means of bridging cultures can be used to reveal their essential unknowability, their local autonomy, or their historical exploitation. The white text scrolling across the black screen of Susan Hiller’s film The Last Silent Movie, 2007, names the language – and designates it as either ‘seriously endangered’ or ‘extinct’ – in which the plaintive voices on the soundtrack are speaking, or singing. These translations are suffused with a sense of their own futility. They make us eerily conscious not only of the contingency of languages, but also of the contingency of the cultures they serve. Human communication is shown from an unfamiliar vantage, as though we were looking down at the teeming earth from the darkness of outer space. Irreducible localness submits to the all-encompassing global vantage point of a conceptual archiving process, but in order not to fuse the terms but to preserve and exploit the paradox. Itemising unfamiliar words which would have been familiar to the cultures from which the languages hail – for example, the names of indigenous birds – the translations offer access to an exoticism which they simultanously define as an illusion, in that the medium which is revealing these word-images is as defunct as the worlds they testify to. The convention of subtitles as a mere expedient, distracting filter, unlocking the content of images, is turned on its head: the screen is all dark; the subtitles are its image, like concrete poems evoking a location which cannot be envisaged because it no longer exists. ‘Public space’ is the blank screen, a no-man’s-land of erased – or indeed rased – locality.
In Anri Sala’s 2004 film Làk-kat, this void is framed as a Conradian metaphor for colonialism, which remains a subtext of Hiller’s piece. White subtitles emerge from darkness, translating what appears to be a language lesson taking place in a windowless room weakly lit by a single neon strip. Moths fizz against the light. Two young Sengalese boys are repeating words rapidly intoned by a male teacher in the Wolof language of the region. The brief white details – the boys eyes moving against their dark skin, the flutter of a moth’s brilliant wings, the single-word subtitles – are almost engulfed by the reigning darkness. Half-way through the ten-minute film the teacher’s voice lowers to a surreptitious, prompting whisper, as though the material had become clandestine. Expressions of light – ‘shining’, ‘bright’ – begin to refer more overtly to skin-colour and race: ‘Whitey, Pale, Dark-skinned, Alien, Outlandish.’ The fact that the Wolof word for ‘alien’ refers to even darker-skinned Africans than the Senagalese is a warning against too quickly presuming what any of these translated phrases might signify. The final frames of the film show the subtitled words ‘Pure White’ hovering in parallel with the white neon strip, as though cleansing the phrase of its racist connotations by objectifying the word as nothing but light. The strip suggests a striking out of the word, and word becomes thing, momentarily relinquishing its political designs on us, its freightedness with implications of Senegal’s colonial past. The word/strip is rendered local and inaccessible, as aggressively anti-associative as a minimalist object, which of course it is, at least when it figures as a constituent module within a Dan Flavin sculpture.
Làk-kat appears to conform to one prevalent cliché of art video-making that often relies on the use of subtitles: the empirical documentary, in which an artist worthily provides us with access to some exotic or arcane phenomenon. At worst, this is cultural tourism. The artist is the privileged, jetsetting plunderer, the video camera master of all it surveys. The form recalls William Empson’s caveat: ‘The idea that the theorist is not part of the world he examines is one of the deepest sources of error.’ Sala, however, satirises this convention by casting language – and the location it embodies – as impenetrable. The assumption that an artwork’s content – its ‘private space’ – is randomly transmittable and assimilable is subjected to intense scrutiny. The tool of this critique is a performative act of translation that is so introspective it renders the language it processes into an opaque material. Temporarily released from servitude to local agendas and foreign prejudices, words are also symbolically divested of their amenability to transparent translation. Like Balka’s found objects, they come to represent their own inability to signify and to travel. Activating a forcefield of cultural difference, Sala is not stressing divisions so much as registering cultural specificity.
Translation is deployed as a corrective to the pitching of words and objects as entities separable from their contexts, and context itself as virtual – both everywhere and nowhere. ❚
MARK PRINCE is an artist based in Berlin.
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OCT 11 | ART MONTHLY | 350 | Features 02 |
Laura McLean-Ferris on the internet, sculpture and the body in pieces
Emily Wardill The Pips 2011 film still
OCT 11 | ART MONTHLY | 350
Astylish woman sits on the shore of an island. Her eyes, framed by the dusky eyeshadow and thick mascara popular in the 1970s, look out to sea as the sun sets. A man is watching her: from afar he has fallen in love with her melancholic attitude and beautiful face. He tries to talk to her, but she ignores him. It is the same every day. Eventually he realises that she is a recording, and that this is the last day of her life, replayed over and over again. The scanning process that recorded her proved fatal – her body disintegrated. This scene is from an Italian film, directed by Emidio Greco in 1974, entitled L’invenzione di Morel (The Invention of Morel), based on the 1940 novel La invención de Morel by the Argentinean writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. More layers, more copies: Casares based his novel on HG Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Dr Moreau (Borges would surely have approved of this layering). Our protagonist, the male observer, eventually decides to undergo the same recording process so that he can insert himself into this eternal recording at sunset. After undergoing the process, his body begins to fall apart. The film ends as he peels away parts of his own face, tears streaming down his cheeks.
Selected scenes from this film were informally presented at Chisenhale Gallery in December of last year, during a performative exchange by artist Mark Leckey and the novelist Tom McCarthy, a conversation that they titled A kind of god with artificial limbs, after Freud’s famous quote regarding technology and prosthesis. In what was, essentially, a sharing of interests and materials – a curated set of texts, films and images presented as thoughts and connections, a work-inchatty-progress, which covered a cluster of examples of a kind of technological sublime – the Morel film stood out as another example of a moment that one often sees in Leckey’s performances and lectures: namely, one in which the human is unhooked from the confines of the body and enters an ecstatic, dissolving world of broadcasts, projections and digital imagery. Mark Leckey in the Long Tail, 2009 (Reviews AM324), a lecture in which the artist performs his own take on the economic theory of digital consumerism popularised by Chris Anderson via Leckey’s own fascination with Felix the Cat, ends with the artist rhapsodising
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