The title, a quote from the late writer Stuart Morgan, is taken from the essay Homage to the Half Truth. In the essay, Morgan compares the process of art criticism to that of translation. The writer’s task is to shift from one experience into another, to turn feeling into thinking and objects into words. Art is a slippery bugger and Morgan was better than most at conveying the inexhaustibility of artworks. Of course, in the process of translation, images and objects become twisted, words can obfuscate or explicate, dismantle and build upon the artist’s work. For Morgan, art can never really be explained, only evoked and paralleled.
The British born and Rotterdam based artist Hannah James’ work reminds me of this essay, and although she is not an art critic, her work is similarly involved in acts of translation. So how does this text operate? A Chinese whisper spoken in the wind? A literary Russian Doll? James’ work negotiates the slipperiness between haptic response and its subsequent translation through cognitive and linguistic apparatus. Her work relies on strategies of negotiation and translation across audio, installation, film and performance. The persistent thread through much of James’ practice is a form of synaesthesia yet it is one that is imbued by the possibility of errors; that moment when our eyes show us one thing and our ears tell us something else.
Witness Piranesi Sense, 2014, a film that takes the polemical rhetoric of a Sergei Eisenstein text and literally and metaphorically smothers it in a procession of radically disjunctive materials. Batteries, peanuts, paper clips, bananas, and pencil shavings. The work takes Eisenstein’s interest in montage to its logical extreme. Operating as an aesthetic hectoring, the film pushes the text to a point of somatic, rather than semiotic resonance. One can draw parallels here to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of minor literature. For the authors, a minor literature (a language of the margins) can foreground an affective and asignifying presence. Similarly, the film is like a stutter or hiccup that creates a noise, ultimately undermining the assumed clarity of the original text.
Typically James’ installations are provisional and mobile, incorporating soft materials including fabrics that are often hung in space that create architectural divisions. The sculptural works expand on the films as a form of spatial montage. In work such as Crab Bekleidung, 2014, the spectator encounters both cognitive (vocal) and haptic (material) registers. The voice of a male and female character emanate from suspended speakers framed by two screens, the sizes of which mimic door ways. One screen is covered in clean gauze while the other is smothered in a range of organic materials including shells, fruit, nuts and soil. Somewhere between the sculptural and audio elements is what Roland Barthes would describe as a third meaning. For Barthes, between the informational layer (what it is) and the symbolic level (what it refers to) is something more evasive, resisting easy assimilation. Ultimately, it is this in-betweenness that James’ work attempts to continually place us.
James’ use of fabrics and soft plastics provides a liminality, recalling clothing or curtains. As garments they suggest protection and containment, as curtains they invoke concealment. In both instances, fabric creates a barrier between exterior and interior. It is both contingent to the environment and relational in its yielding to the body. Fabric holds the intimacy of frequent touch. Many of James’ works feel indeterminable, holding the instability of the uncategorable, the voice is divorced from the body and images start to misbehave. We could look towards her recent use of yellow. The colour has both optimistic and cowardly connotations, it is the colour of visibility and caution, light and reason. Symbolically overburdened and dislocated, in James’ work yellow becomes a material and a point of conceptual rupture. I’m reminded of Robert Venturi’s wish for an architecture of implied, rather than explicit function that is workable in multiple ways at once. Similarly, James’ work is radically de-centred, offering multiple ways of physically and conceptually negotiating it.
James’ work reminds me of a couple of recurring dreams I had as a child. In the first, I looked down at a fire station. The building was split in half so that the innards of the building were on show. Firemen ran around in circles within. A fire raged just out of sight, and although the signal bell rang, the firemen ran endlessly up and down stairs, trapped in a ceaseless loop. At around the age of 10 this dream was replaced with another. This time my disembodied and elevated gaze shifted to an embodied first-person perspective. I would be crawling around in an underground maze. Each corner I turned, I would be confronted by an identical corridor. The network of tunnels seemed to shift as often as I crawled forward. I wasn’t quite sure whether I was running towards or away from something. In both scenarios the body was fixed inside a loop with no narrative resolution, faced only with endless repetition.
Writing from my current perspective, it is clear that these are both standard anxiety dreams articulated via differing experiences of the body. In the first, my elevated God’s-eye position rendered me paralysed and although I could see what needed to happen, I was powerless to act. In the second dream the first-person perspective produced the same affective response but through my inability to see anything or understand what needed to change. In the first, I had a total view and in the second I only had a fragmented position yet each situation disabled my bodily agency. This scenario is a common trope within Horror films. The protagonist’s vision maybe impeded (we can see what they can’t) but ultimately our own elevated position is dramatised through our immobility in front of the screen.
I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as one of the great examples of dismantling the privilege of visual access to horrific ends. Jack Nicolson’s character moves to the ‘Overlook’ Hotel during the winter with his family to withdraw from everyday pressures so that he can write his new novel. The film shows Nicolson descend into a psychosis, ultimately turning violently on his own family. The most significant architectural aspect of the hotel is the maze, in which Nicolson’s character meets his perilous end. We encounter the maze in four guises: first-person embodied, third-person elevated, as diagram and as a model. From the ‘Overlook hotel’ (high on a hill top) to the scene where Nicolson’s character is crouched over the model maze in the hotel foyer (which cuts to a God’s-eye view), aspects of elevated visuality are constantly upended in Kubrick’s film. We should remember that the term visuality comes from the battle field in 18th century. The visualiser was an overseer (or general) whose elevated position on the hill side enabled a gestalt visual that gave privileged and strategic access. Nicolson is unable to turn this privileged visual access into his advantage, he is both high up on the hill side and crawling around in the dark.
Within the film, the model of the maze exists as an inactive pure space, a gestalt architecture unsullied by lived experience. It is Nicolson’s character (who is the white patriarch and the historical overseer) who becomes trapped inside the maze (both mental and actual) by the end of the film. Kubrick continually undermines the space of privileged visual access, the female voice is the stable one adding perspective to Nicolson’s quick descent. Nicolson’s loss of perspective is conflated with the architectural, as both start to metaphorically and physically fracture. The body becomes transposed onto the building and visa verser. Ultimately this is what I think is happening in the work of Hannah James . Translation offers a rupture that dislocates fixed meaning and renews the inexhaustibility of our own bodies.
We can see The Shining, in part, as a working methodology for James’ work. There is a similar obsession with a dialectical tension between gestalt and peripatetic vision, balance and vertigo; holism and fragmentation, first to third person, male and female, combining to form a third meaning. Like Morgan’s art critic and Nicolson’s failed writer, it is the space of translation that serves as the battle ground for meaning in James’ practice.