It was not an ordinary exhibition to begin with. It was not held within the white cube of a gallery or in a crumbling warehouse or deconsecrated church or any other of those distressed locations that so often figure as the venue of off-off-Biennale art festivals. It was held in bedrooms.
To be more specific: the rooms on the fifth floor of a luxury hotel downtown. Each of the two dozen artists in the show had been given a room in which to exhibit, and permission to retain or remove whatever furniture suited or impeded their work. Many had chosen to leave the room as is and to incorporate the bed in their work as proscenium or altar or to use it to as the locus of a crime of passion or act of desperation. There was one bed strewn with wildflowers before an open balcony door, and another with puppets of the political figures that presided over the dismantlement of the country’s social welfare system, and yet another was crowned with a gigantic copper-plated pincer and four-pronged claw.
The particular room I was in now, however, was missing the bed and most of the furniture. There was a television set, though, set on a small table facing the window. The curtains were drawn and the only light came from the TV screen and a wall sconce, which cast its cautious creamy light in a corner of the room. Below the lamp a shelf extended from the wall. On it rested a single sheet of paper, a letter to a woman with instructions “to burn the negatives”. The bathroom, which one passed on the left to enter the bedroom, was entirely taken over by a thicket of crisscrossing thick ropes. If there had been someone or something in the bathtub, I wouldn’t have noticed.
The TV played three video clips of a woman on a chair—the same chair that was set in front of the TV—trying to escape from the coils of rope in which her assistant (or was it her lover?) had tied her. I know there were three clips. I had watched them all.
Her struggle become mine as she hopped in her chair and wriggled her limbs—expertly, it seemed to me—to loosen the knots in the rope that bound her. At times she’d pause to catch her breath. I sat on my haunches next to the chair watching her, transfixed. I could have sat on the chair, I suppose, but I didn’t. It didn’t seem right, somehow. I couldn’t tell where the artist’s work ended and public space began. I could imagine the artist smiling at my bonds of indenture to propriety.
I don’t know how long I sat squatting in front of the TV oblivious to the man who was standing at the threshold to the room observing me. So absorbed was I in the struggle of the woman Houdini on screen that I didn’t even notice him approach me until he said to me, “Excuse me for staring. I thought you were part of the installation.”
I didn’t say anything at first. It wasn’t the most natural of encounters, given that I was squatting eye-level with his crotch. I got up slowly and awkwardly and said “No, I’m not. Or at least I don’t think I am.”
He smiled, fast enough to suggest that his pleasure was immediate and unforced. He was a thin, attractive man, with a shock of unruly hair that couldn’t decide to fully commit to grey, a well-groomed beard, and heavy-rimmed black glasses. He was well-dressed in layers of expensive and subtly patterned fabrics in hues of charcoal and smoke. He could have been a guest at the hotel. Or the partner of the elegantly dressed woman in the video.
“I’m not sure what I make of it,” I said, “but it is certainly engrossing.”
He laughed. “That it certainly is,” he said.
I wasn’t sure that the Greek word I had used was appropriate for the situation. I hoped I hadn’t made an unintentional bad pun, hoped it wasn’t a word you would use with rope. I wanted ‘transfix’, not ‘immobilize’. I didn’t want this man to think I was intrigued by scenes of bondage. Not that I have a problem with fetishes. It’s just that this particular one wasn’t one of mine.
Maybe it was the subject—there’s always a risk of sounding pretentious when talking about conceptual art—or the setting (all those ropes in the bathroom) but I found it more difficult to talk to this man here in the hotel room than it would have been in a bar. There was a curious tension in the room between intimacy and revelation, the way it served as a backstage for the private rehearsal of the public and dramatized act of escape, a stage on which something may have gone very wrong (“destroy the negatives!”). And there was the sex. Despite the political and social implications of the work, this was a bedroom, after all, a room in which thousands of sexual acts had taken place. And some of them had involved bondage, of that I am sure.
I wanted to say, “You’ll see. You’ll want to watch it to the end. It’s impossible to watch this without imagining yourself tied up in and to this chair.” But instead I said “What do you think of the ropes in the bathroom?” Simple and unmistakable, but much less than what I was thinking. I always say less than what I am thinking when I speak a language other than my own.
Ortega y Gasset said that translators are often shy creatures who fail to respond to the rebellion in the texts they translate. Unable to free themselves from the linguistic norms of their native language, they wind up making safe choices and in the end imprison the writer in “normal language”.
To write well is to make continual incursions into grammar, into established usage, and into accepted linguistic norms. It is an act of permanent rebellion against the social environs, a subversion. To write well is to employ a certain radical courage. Fine, but the translator is usually a shy character. […]
He finds himself facing an enormous controlling apparatus, composed of grammar and common usage. What will he do with the rebellious text? Isn’t it too much to ask that he also be rebellious, particularly since the text is someone else’s? He will be ruled by cowardice […] he will betray him. Traduttore, traditore. (Ortega y Gasset, The Misery and Splendor of Translation)
I often feel that that is precisely how I sound when I speak a foreign language: bound up in the prosaic, safe but dull. I am—or, rather, the complexity of my thought and language is—in a way, lost in translation. I know it wasn’t the artist’s intention but I couldn’t help seeing a man in a bathtub hidden behind a mesh of rope.
In his review of the newly published German translation of the first volume of Beckett’s correspondence, Andreas Isenschmid notes that the Jewish references in Waiting for Godot—the allusions to circumcision, Jewish schools and French anti-Semitic laws—were often lost in the German translation, rendered into something that transcended time and place. He uses an intriguing word—wegübersetzen—to describe this process („In der deutschen Übersetzung sind sie allerdings oft ins Überzeitliche wegübersetzt“).
We don’t have a cognate in English. To translate off or away would be a literal translation, but an unsatisfactory one; it calls to mind words like clear away, get rid of, wipe away. Words with intention.
The translator’s failure is not always or even often a deliberate act of betrayal. We assume the translator is honorable and possessed of certain awe before the craft they are engaged in. Such an honorable translator does not deliberately whisk away the awkward particularities of the text, as the perpetrator does the evidence of his crime or the unfaithful spouse the traces of his illicit encounter. The translator does not purposefully seek to scratch or smooth away the particularities of a text, those scabs of recondite history and bumps of inner rhyme. No, it’s more often a matter of not paying close enough attention. Or perhaps, to recall Gasset, it is simply timidity, a failure of will that arises from a fear of failure. It is a fear that every performer, translator and magician alike, and every speaker of a foreign language, has known.
Later over coffee my new-found acquaintance told me how he was struck by my description of the video as engrossing. How apt it was, he said. Witty, in fact.
I realized later that evening that the word I had used can mean both ‘mesmerize’ and ‘prevent from leaving.’ Either would have been appropriate for a work with such obvious references to Houdini. To suggest both at once with the same word would have indeed been wit had I been its conscious author. But I make no claim to it. Sometimes you just get lucky.
Eva Marathaki’s video installation, ‘The next Harry Houdini’, is one of 30 works on exhibit (until February 10, 2013) at the St. George Lycabettus Hotel and the Kappatos Gallery in the framework of the Rooms 2013 exhibition.