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The Art of Translation

01 Aug 2009 21:10No Comments

shahrak gharb

Solmaz Shahbazi, Still from "Persepolis," 2005, Single Channel Video, 1 projection, 17 minutes. Courtesy of the Artist. Image from arteeast.org.
"Tarjama/Translation" at the Queens Museum of Art

[TEHRAN BUREAU] In the outer boundaries of New York City, amid the decaying World's Fair monuments that dot Flushing Meadow Park, a modest but timely art exhibit showcases the work of 27 contemporary Middle Eastern and Central Asian artists at the Queens Museum of Art. "Tarjama/Translation" brings artistic "processes of critical and cultural translation" to the sci-fi ruins of Flushing Meadow. The venue holds a rich place in 20th century history, having been home for many years to the UN General Assembly; Palestine was partitioned here, as was Korea. The many international art exhibitions at the QMA respond to those knotty legacies, and to an immigrant population that reportedly speaks more than 100 different languages. Translation is no doubt an integral part of local life.

translate allah

At the museum's main entrance, Emily Jacir's billboard invites viewers to Translate Allah. The confusion of possibilities is what Jacir has in mind: which language to translate Allah from? Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hebrew? Or English? The exhibition continues inside with another wall piece, Sharif Waked's large green blow-up of an ancient royal seal. The classical Ottoman proportions of the arabesque mask the cruelty of its new contents -- the phrases yelled at Palestinians as they attempt to cross Israeli checkpoints. Hence its title: Get Out of Here. A refreshing shock for viewers entering an exhibition; despite the blanket invocation of "ethnic diversity" so often rehearsed for such museum shows (usually shorthand for crowd-pleasing and PC) this one has moments of surprising critical boldness.

There is a great deal of narrating through the medium of video, such as Michael Rakowitz's 2009 Return, documentation of the temporary date import-export business he set up in a Brooklyn storefront in 2006. Rakowitz intended to use the commercial enterprise as lens for current politics. But as shipment after shipment died en route, his story turns to the relationships unfolding inside the "business" with no merchandise, and becomes a historic tale relived in the present tense.

Solmaz Shahbazi's Persepolis also recounts a layered history, through sparsely composed interior shots of the Tehran housing complex from which the work takes its name. Views of each home play back against the voice of the owners, as they discuss their lives in Shahrak-e Gharb and its place in the city of Tehran, always returning to the "before" and "after" of the Islamic Revolution. As doors slide open to reveal astonishing personal tableaux of period furniture and flower arrangements, the speaker mournfully notes, "Tehran really has no identity, its lives have no identity...." Shabazi's video begs to differ.

Other offerings are more brash and bouncy, from Guelsuen Karamustafa's The City of Panther Fashion, which unfortunately doesn't go beyond its engaging premise (a clandestine women's club of leopard-print aficionados), to Almagul Menlibayeva's Queens, a work especially commissioned for the exhibition. Dancing girls wander the streets of Queens in spangled costumes, ballerinas pirouette on the 7 train, and the artist breaks bread with the local Uzbek immigrant community -- pleasingly ethnic scenarios that translate nicely into video.

Her work stands in contrast to the understated strength of Rahraw Omarzad's group of short vignettes, produced in collaboration with university students at the CCAA in Kabul. In Sympathy, for example, a shovel digs up a handful of earth, only to have it immediately thrown back in, over and over again. For this museum visitor at least, the ghost of Duchamp's ready-made shovel hovers anxiously in the background: Omarzad's videos, displayed in a re-purposed security booth, construct a very different fable about how the museum frames its subjects and objects.


But the notion of art as an ethnic consumable is not ignored. Pouran Jinchi's Alef Series looks particularly yummy: the small shiny blocks are printed with Persian letters, displayed under glass like oversized petit-fours. Now the work may have been intended as a delicate formal experiment, but it has taken on a definitive critical edge installed next to Farhad Moshiri's Chocline. Moshiri's painting is laid on the ground, frosted like a cake and decorated with sparkly little cupcakes. But the cupcakes trace a "chalk line" -- the detective movie cliche of the dead body found on the street. The murder-in-the-pastry-shop scenario suggests a sugarcoated critique of the crimes of cultural consumption -- where the less you understand, the more thrilling the exoticism, and mistranslation is just the icing on the cake.

Not all translations span cultures: Nazgol Ansarinia's NSS Book Series reorders Homeland Security documents from 2005 and 2006 into revealing indexes. The words of each document have been sorted into alphabetical lists, producing a telling index of America's anxieties and preoccupations at that moment in time. On the cover of one book, the U.S. presidential seal is neatly dismantled; the eagle's wings plucked and placed side by side, its quiver of arrows stacked next to them. Translation is used as a subjective strategy to break apart the shiny veneer of objectivity that packages much of the "information" we consume daily.

man praying

Moving further into the show, the works speak less about translation than about media representations of the Middle East. Mitra Tabrizian's The Predator is a subtle short story of film that probes the psyche of an ideological mercenary from a "fictional" Islamic country (one that shares its alphabet, names and references with Iran). Wael Shawky's Cave addresses the intersection of ideology and the media with a very different aesthetic: the video has the mise-en-scene of a news program filmed in the aisles of a supermarket, yet the newscaster's crisply-delivered report is in fact a full recitation of The Cave, the Qoran parable of the Seven Sleepers. In place of the most media-worthy events at your local Whole Foods, the "news" concerns an ancient band of religious Rip van Winkles. Shawky's tale is prefaced, of course, with God's own words, "We narrate to you their history, truthfully."

In the final view, it is the notion of truth itself that may lie at the heart of "Tarjama/Translation." Not all is what it seems, the artists caution us. And there may be no final truth to be translated from one place to another; no definitive notions to be lost, or even found, in translation. The stories, scenarios and objects each stand at the intersection of different worldviews. Each draws its theme or plotline from a different newspaper headline, and each cancels out the simplified accounts of those headlines in its own way. The exhibition capably allows the artworks enough space to construct their worlds, leaving the viewer with a vivid glimpse of lives lived at the intersection of multiple, contradictory truths.

On view through September 27, 2009

Photo credits:

Emily Jacir, TRANSLATE ALLAH, 2003, Billboard, 107 x 236 inches. Produced by the A.M. Qattan Foundation. Courtesy of the Artist and Alexander and Bonin Gallery, New York, USA. Image from arteeast.org.

Farhad Moshiri, "Chocline", 2007, Installation of 130 acrylic pastries, 7ft x 4.5 ft. Courtesy of Josh Fink. Image from arteeast.org.

Mitra Tabrizian, still from Predator, 2004. Film. Image from www.queensmuseum.org.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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