CEAAC Centre Europeen d'Actions Artistiques Contemporaines


17 Mar - 20 May 2012

17 March - 20 May, 2012

Médiathèque André Malraux
1, Presqu’île André Malraux, Strasbourg

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’: Mladen Stilinović used this Wittgenstein quote as the title of a talk he held as part of last year’s Summer Academy at Fortress Hohensalzburg. In 1992 he painted the slogan ‘An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist’ onto a banner –; a statement which may have seemed ironic against the background of the changes in former Yugoslavia, but which at the same time presented a bitter truth for artists on the international art market. Stilinović went on to create several versions of this work, among others a T-shirt which was handed out to exhibition visitors. Although it originated from a distinct historical situation, it is still relevant today –; a fact which can be put down to the growing awareness of the hegemony of English in a globalised world.

The two middle-aged men in Katarina Zdjelar’s video Shoum are struggling with this very hegemony, as they try to transcribe and sing the lyrics of Tears for Fears’ 1980s anthem Shout. As occasional musicians in a bar in Belgrade, they have no choice but to include English pop songs in their repertoire if they want to make a living –; despite the fact that they don’t understand the language. Beneath a farcical surface lies the social and economic hardship these two men share with many others of their generation, who were forced to abandon school prematurely as a consequence of the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

The video Dance no.3 by Céline Trouillet shows a young hearing-impaired woman interpreting the well-known French pop song C’est la ouate in sign language. The girl’s heavy make-up and suggestive choreography reference and mock the conventions of pop videos. The polysemic structure of sign language combined with dancing provides an open form of simultaneous translation of text and music.

The large gallery space at CEAAC hosts an ensemble of enigmatic works by the Welsh artist Bethan Huws. Entitled simply The Plant, her mint plant on a pedestal is a readymade which requires visitors to understand Welsh if they want to grasp its full significance. Indeed, ‘plant’ in Welsh means ‘children’, a word which in combination with the image of fresh, young mint creates a semantic field reserved for a minority of viewers fluent in both English and Welsh. Similarly, the word LLWYNCELYN appearing in white letters on a black background in one of the artist’s ‘word vitrines’, is the Welsh translation of ‘Hollywood’ (‘celyn’ = ‘holly’, ‘llwyn’ = ‘wood’), an English word replete with references and associations –; unlike its cryptic Welsh equivalent. A curtain with large letters spelling CERTAIN, partly hidden in the folds of the cloth, points to the fundamental ambiguity or uncertainty of language. Huws’s work could thus be described as an attempt to reveal the hidden meanings and associations beneath the surface of words and objects.

The delicate column Albrecht Schäfer has constructed from letter blocks seems to assist the numerous pillars in the exhibition space as a further structural element. The letters on the pinewood dice were chosen so as to form the first sentences of Francis Ponge’s Notebook of the Pine Forest 1. They were then shuffled and formed into a column in what appears to be a material illustration of the French writer’s method, which consists of approaching the subject of one’s writing through ever changing variations: ‘Their gathering/while alive/RECTIFIED these trees/to supply dead wood. Their gathering/to supply dead wood/while alive/RECTIFIED these trees...’ 2

In the 1970s Gary Hill also experimented with the visual translation of texts. In his video work Around & About syllables of a text are each paired with a still image. The text, which was written by the artist after a break-up, is read aloud off-screen and aimed at a hypothetical listener.Images showing the interior of a room file past, sometimes in quick succession, sometimes appearing one by one in the direction of reading and filling the screen row by row. The combination of images and text produces an inner monologue which is directed at another person but remains unanswered.

The triptych LastResort by Lidia Sigle is a relief consisting of acrylic boards with a laser-engraved text written in the system font Last Resort. Fallback fonts such as Last Resort are reserve typefaces used to display symbols or characters that are not available in any other font. Whilst normally invisible to the user, they here materialise into a sculptural object vaguely reminiscent of a printing plate, whose seemingly abstract (as it is unreadable for us), subtle pattern gives it an ornamental quality.

Since he moved to Germany, the Swedish artist Erik Bünger has been intrigued by the local habit of dubbing films for cinema and TV. In The Allens he simultaneously appropriates and derides this practice, which is largely unknown in Scandinavia. His video shows a sequence from a film with Woody Allen, whose original voice was substituted with his foreign dubbing voices rapidly succeeding each other to create a truly Babylonian mixture of languages. Gesturing wildly, Allen, like Salvatore, the monk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, seems to speak “with thousand tongues”. The languages of the world are here condensed into the voices of a single person.

Albrecht Schäfer has in turn condensed an entire edition of the French daily Le Monde into a small globe. Die Zeit, 29.05.2007, a series of monochrome paintings in different shades of grey, borrows its title from the eponymous German weekly. The pages of one edition were transformed into colour pastes, which the artist then applied onto canvases shaped to the size of the newspaper’s pages. The hanging of the paintings reprises the various sections of the newspaper (politics, economy, culture etc.).

For his video installation ohne Titel (Simultan), Christoph Keller has turned his camera onto someone who normally works behind the scenes. Based on an interview with Sebastian Weitemeier, an interpreter born in Berlin but living in France, the artist edited a video in which Weitemeier talks about his profession, bilingualism and semantic nuances in the two languages he masters. Weitemeier himself subsequently translated the footage into French. Exhibition goers can listen to the German or French version on two separate channels. This installation, which was produced specifically for the exhibition, is an extension of Keller’s previous work Interpreters (2008). Similarly to the main protagonist in Ingeborg Bachmann’s collection of short stories Simultan, from which this exhibition takes its title, interpreters must constantly negotiate between different languages and cultures: ‘What a strange mechanism she was, she lived without a single thought of her own, immersed in the sentences of others, like a sleepwalker, furnishing the same but different-sounding sentences an instant later; she could make machen, faire, fare, hacer and delat’ out of “to make”, she could spin each word to six different positions on a wheel, she just had to keep from thinking that “to make” really meant to make, faire faire, fare fare, delat’ delat’, that might put her head out of commission, and she did have to be careful not to get snowed under by an avalanche of words.’ 2

Bettina Klein

1) Monika Schmitz-Emans has described the Notebook as ‘a place where the worlds of objects and language meet’, in Orpheus und das Wörterbuch – Poetische Sprachreflexion und Sprachexploration bei Francis Ponge (Acta Litterarum, 2010).
2) Quoted from Ingeborg Bachmann, Three Paths to the Lake (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989), translated by Mary Fran Gilbert, p. 14. The English translation of Simultan was named after the story ‘Drei Wege zum See’.

Tags: Erik Bünger, Gary Hill, Bethan Huws, Christoph Keller, Albrecht Schäfer, Mladen Stilinovic, Katarina Zdjelar