April 2012

Found in Translation, Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 28 January- 9 April 


O Zhang Salute to the Patriots, 2008 vinyl banner, 200 x 250 cm. 

Here in Berlin, a local school is now teaching the kids Mandarin: a sign of the times. The recent logarithmic success of the Chinese economy necessitates better communication, improved translation. And yet problems persist. The old arguments around verisimilitude versus sense/poetry were rehearsed in the duel between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over the former’s 1964 literal translation and notes on Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (1833), and these difficulties with translation both specifically and generally were recently revisited in David Bellos’s brilliant Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011).  Misconceptions about translation abound – that’s what this show is about.

O Zhang’s photographs, such as Salute to the Patriots (2008), have their titles in large Chinese characters on the print under each shot.  A model wearing a T-shirt sporting the slogan (in English) ‘It’s all good in the hood’ stands in front of the Tiananmen gate tower with its huge portrait
of Mao and accompanying police tape restricting entry; the phrase takes on an obviously ironic tone. Another picture alludes to the famously
misspelled David Beckham tattoo that reads ‘Vihctoria’; yet another shows a nipper with a tomorrow-belongs-to-me look wearing a T-shirt that tells the Tibetans (whose prayer flags flap behind her) unambiguously in English, ‘Don’t fuck with us we play hard’.

Patty Chang’s The Product Love (2009) is a two-screen videowork based on a 1928 article printed in Die Literarische Welt by Walter Benjamin on his meeting with actress Anna May Wong. One section shows the fearsomely knowledgeable Chinese translators of the piece who can still, humorously, come unstuck. We witness their scrabbling for the words to express ‘erogenous zone’: they settle for ‘G-spot’. We see the makeup artists ‘translating’ the Chinese actress and actor into versions of Wong and Benjamin. There follows a scene of filming an imagined, albeit uncomfortably shy, erotic interlude between the two. One wishes that poor Walt was doing this rather than vainly humping his battered suitcase over the Pyrenees. Are they acting uncomfortably or are they really uncomfortably uncomfortable? We may remember that Anna May Wong was actually born Wong Liu Tsong, which intriguingly translates as ‘frosted yellow willows’; that she was American, not Chinese. Then there was her much-gossiped-about friendship with Marlene Dietrich. Then, too, the odious antimiscegenation laws that banned any onscreen kiss even if a white man was playing a Chinese character. Chang is clearly toying with an inversion of this. Poor Wong: rejected by the Chinese for being too American and by Americans for being too Chinese, her life a parable of communication breakdown.

In another reshaped narrative, Brendan Fernandes’s Foe (2008), the artist is filmed being coached in accents in order to read from J.M. Coetzee’s revamped Robinson Crusoe story, Foe(1986), of how Man Friday had his tongue removed. We return to China with Lisa Oppenheim’s Cathay (2010), a double projection that features a found fragment of a poem by Ezra Pound based on pictograms from a Li Bai work of the eighth century. Pound couldn’t speak Chinese, so Oppenheim sends his version to an expert linguist and then has key words translated into corresponding visual images appropriated 

from sights from New York’s Chinatown. Effectively she reverses Pound’s approach: another oblique strategy typical of this thoughtfully constructed show.