What can one expect from an exhibition’s title? The large show this fall at Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm is called The Spiral and the Square: Exercises in translatability. The show gathers twenty artists originating in Brazil or with connections there. An obvious way to approach the exhibition’s selection of works and spatial arrangement would be to begin with the last word in the title: “translatability”. The possibility that things can be translated from one language to another, one dialect to another, one genre to another, one kind of art to another—according to such a reading this would be the exhibition’s “theme”.
Several works in the show support this kind of reading. In the middle of the art center’s large exhibition space there are twenty-five piles with square cement plates on the floor, neatly arranged to form a larger square. According to the work’s creators, the artists Angela Detanico and Rafael Lain, this installation constitutes a “treatment” in which a text, the classic palindrome SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS—which is also the work’s title—is translated into the artists’ own coded alphabet (the number of cement plates in each pile, I would suppose, indicates which letter it refers to). In the art center’s large window facing the street Detanico and Lain have another work, a large, white plate with the words “New Roman Times” written in the typeface Times New Roman. The name of the typeface, meaningless in itself, has been changed: the words have been given a different sequence—or, with a certain degree of good will, they’ve been “translated” into a more suggestive (but not very much more meaningful) expression.
A series of other works also explicitly address translation. In Rivane Neuenschwander’s First Love (2005) a police artist, who is present in the art center during the exhibition, draws portraits from visitors’ descriptions of their first love. And the same artist’s Gastronomic Translations (2005) “translates” products on a buying list Neuenschwander found in a Frankfurt food store (melon, chicken breast, oregano, etc.) into cookery art with the help of two chefs from fine restaurants in Stockholm. One may also mention Haegue Yang’s Three Kinds in Transition (2008): a series of images shown on a screen in standing format, in which various geometric figures—spheres and complex polyhedrons—mutate into each other and are lit in varied ways so that differing surfaces and patterns emerge.
But rather quickly this thematic reading reaches a limit. The mutations and the reversals in Detanico and Lain’s installations and Neuenschwander’s process art can reasonably be connected to the idea of translation. But what can be said about Laura Lima’s Marra (1996), a performance in which two naked men wearing caps that cover their eyes and bind their heads together are engaged in a theatrical but disturbing wrestling match? And what can be gained by claiming that Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg’s Juksa (2006), a two-channel film installation in which one of the screens shows a kind of film essay about a deserted island off North Norway’s coast, is a translation? (Juksa is also the exhibition’s least convincing work: why does one create a two-channel film installation if one of the screens merely shows generic screen-saver images?)
We try another reading. “Translation” can be understood in a broader sense: not merely as the exhibition’s theme, but also as the name of its operation; not merely as what the works and their arrangement actually build upon, deal with or represent, but also as what they do, what they subject the observer to. Haegue Yang’s other work in the exhibition is called Circular Flats (2010) and consists of three simple, white metal structures on which hang, in various colors and materials, such things as light bulbs, streamers, pan holders, chili peppers, etc. It would be difficult to claim that this work is a translation, but it places the viewer in a situation that resembles that of a translation. To translate is to encounter and attempt to understand an object that belongs to one system of signs using another such system. In this encounter there is no third system that guarantees correctness of understanding: the situation is characterized by inescapable uncertainty. Circular Flats creates this kind of hermeneutic uncertainty by placing itself on the border between different systems of objects, between articles of practical use and ornaments: the white metal structures resemble ordinary lamp posts, and the various objects all belong to the sphere of everyday pragmatics—while at the same time their assemblage is unmistakably sculptural.
In such a context one may also mention Cinthia Marcelle’s series of photo-diptychs, which creates a similar uncertainty by suggesting sequences of events and playing with the conventions of pictorial presentation. The pairs of pictures display fragmentary sequences from hypothetical narratives: a construction worker plays pick-up sticks with a bundle of iron bars, a man in a suit carrying a briefcase filled with sand tries to make his way through a desert landscape at night, etc. The titles of the diptychs contribute to the suggestive atmosphere: The Cosmopolitan, O Colecionador (The Collector) (both 2011), etc. The calculated scarcity of information gives cause for a sort of anecdotal montage that appeals to interpretation. Though not an original concept, it is relatively effective (that this would have something to do with concrete poetry, however, which is asserted repeatedly in the wall texts accompanying the presentations, seems odd). Cildo Meireles’ Casos de sacos (1976) also creates an uncertainty on the border between systems of signs. The work consists of a row of brown paper sacks hung on a cord stretched above and across the art center’s exhibition space. The volume measurement of each bag has been stamped on it, and each bag contains identical copies of all the other bags, the result being that all have exactly the same weight. Thus Mereiles creates a play between variation and repetition that leads to the collision of differing systems of calculation.
One could continue describing art works in the exhibition in approximately the same terms. Roderigo Matheus’s installations with trees, a fence, and paint create uncertainty about the boundary between nature and culture; Dora Longo Bahia’s scenographic space places us in an uncertain position between fiction and reality; and so on. But somewhere here the concept of “translation” begins to be exhausted and becomes so widespread it is emptied of meaning. This is confirmed by the list that the curators Daniela Castro and Jochen Volz have put together in the exhibition program: “Works in the exhibition explore questions of translation… / As a story told of a century of no-ones (Fabio Moraes) / As imprisonment (Eugenio Dittborn) / As blind and violent strife (Laura Lima) […] As music (Arto Lindsay) / As a model of the world (Öyvind Fahlström)”.
So this reading also reaches a boundary. How then should we understand this exhibition? We return to the title: The Spiral and the Square: Excercises in translatability. The curators explain that the first phrase in this title, “The Spiral and the Square”, is taken from the Brazilian cult author Osman Lin’s novel Avalovara (1973). In the novel, they continue, the spiral and the square are the names of two models: the “Cartesian”, in which the world is arranged according to a strict, linear system of coordinates, and the “incommensurable”, in which can be found neither beginning nor end, and in which no dichotomies can gain a foothold. Consequently, the exhibition would also take an interest in exploring the conflict between these models or tendencies: the square and the spiral, structure and chaos, Apollo and Dionysus…
And it is evident that with these concepts one can read a number of the exhibition’s works. Laura Lima’s naked wrestling match is difficult to interpret as an expression for any kind of translation but does stage in a clear way a conflict between destructive chaos (naked, blind violence) and dominating structure (the combatants’ interlocking). Cinthia Marcelle’s other work in the exhibition, the film Ao Plano (2010/2011), also clearly illustrates the conflict between “the spiral” and “the square”: the film shows four trucks which time after time try to park in a rectangle that exactly agrees with the measures of the image frame. And the exhibition’s most unassuming work, João Modé’s Vanish (2005), can be understood in a similar way: the neat arrangement of spiraling incense can quickly be reduced to formless ashes.
Presumably this reading also would reach a boundary. But these exercises in understanding could continue: one could try further readings, with starting points in other conceptions; they would be more or less successful, do justice to more or fewer of the exhibition’s works. On the one hand, it’s my understanding that this is an important task: one must try to interpret the large group exhibition as a strict intellectual form; one must take its assertions and proposals seriously, read its statements literally, use the discursive tools it offers to attempt to win meanings from its large gathering of objects, images, actions, and texts—meanings which are not merely derived from its constitutive elements. On the other hand, of course, one should ask what type of coherence can be demanded or expected from a wide-ranging group exhibition with twenty participating artists. The Spiral and the Square is a gathering of what are, on the whole, excellent works of art. It calls upon a series of important philosophical, esthetic, and political concepts, and it makes possible a series of somewhat divergent interpretations. It is painstakingly carried out and installed well. And almost all of the artists come from Brazil. Isn’t that enough?
Translation from the Swedish by Richard Simpson.