Thursday, 22 November 2018

Lost in Translation

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1904

In summer 2014 I was invited to hold a solo exhibition and a ten-day residency in Innsbruck, Austria. At the time, despite my genetic distrust of good fortune, it felt like the beginning of an exciting new phase in my life; there seemed no reason not to believe that a round of similar exhibitions, opening-night parties, spots on TV and in the newspapers, and all the varieties of charmed bewilderment that attend the moderately-successful artist would not continue to be my lot, now that I was retiring from wage-slavery and free to be "at home" to any muse that cared to call on me. I know better now, of course, despite my unexpected success at the 2017 Royal Academy Summer Show. If that kind of "result" is not to be a random, once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck, it's simply not enough to make good work and wait and hope for a fair wind: it requires persistent and time-consuming effort put into self-promotion, backed up by unwavering self-belief. This reality had been forcefully pointed out to me in Innsbruck by Rupert Larl, the gallery owner who had invited me, but acknowledging the truth of it is not the same as acting on it. I, like so many self-motivated "practitioners", simply do not have it in my personality [1] to make myself into the kind of needy, squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

Talking of personalities, the other thing I discovered in Innsbruck was how easy it is to offend well-meaning people when dealing across ostensibly similar cultures. Especially, I should probably add, for me. I have a tendency to mistake the bludgeon for the rapier, when it comes to humour. However I may come across in these considered, much-polished written pieces, in person I can be oafishly blunt. I can't help it: it's who I am. Now, I don't know whether Austrians are particularly vulnerable to personal slights of a sort that pass unremarked as friendly banter in Britain, but I was appalled when I discovered that the man who had helped me get my opening-night remarks into serviceable German had been mortally offended by an exchange in the comments to a  blog post I had made at the time. Specifically, in my little speech I had quoted George Clinton of Funkadelic ("Free your mind, and your ass will follow") and a commenter had wondered how on earth that, as well as some very idiomatic British expressions, could have been translated into German. It's a good question: how can you possibly convey the mingled notes of psychedelia and "ebonics" that, for a native speaker, flavour that particular philosophical nugget? In my reply to the comment, I said,
Well, luckily a local photographer who is also an English teacher went over my text to iron out the bumpier bits...  "Your ass will follow", obviously, is "dein Esel wird folgen".  Seriously, though, folks... We went for "Befreien Sie ihren Geist, und der Hintern wird folgen!" Kinda politer, but talk about lost in translation.
Ah, now, "lost in translation"... Again, for a native speaker, that is a thing. You might not get the precise reference (Robert Frost: "I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation") but you know what's going on there; you may not have bought the T-shirt, but you may well have seen the film. However, it seems "lost in translation" was not a thing for my native guide, and he was deeply pissed off: he thought I meant his translation was not up to much. I tried to explain, but the damage was done: I get the impression that Austrians love to hold a grudge [2].

I was reminded of this when reading a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Stuart Walton of a catalogue, Kerouac: Beat Painting, derived from an exhibition of Jack Kerouac's paintings at the MAGA Gallery [3] in Italy. The review opens with a quote from a letter Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg while travelling in Mexico in 1956:
Only good thing is I started to paint — I use house paint mixed with glue. I use brush and fingertip both, in a few years I can be topflight painter if I want — maybe then I can sell paintings and buy a piano and compose music too — for life is a bore.
Now, there's a lot of concentrated flavour in that extract. Even allowing for the fact this is a letter, the syntax and choice of words is idiosyncratic: there's a voice at work there, a voice that knows its audience well, and is playing with tone and register. "For life is a bore"? That world-weary, Noël Coward-ish inflection is ironic but, I suspect, far from self-deprecating; no-one who can claim on such slender evidence that "I can be [a] topflight painter if I want" is capable of self-deprecation. Out of curiosity, I looked at the MAGA Gallery's website, and found this translation of the same passage:
Dipingo solo belle cose. Uso vernici da pareti e colla, uso il pennello e le punte delle dita. In pochi anni potrei diventare un pittore di primo piano. Se lo voglio.
E quando potrò vendere i mie dipinti potrò comperarmi un pianoforte e comporre musica. Perché la vita è una noia.
Now, my Italian is pretty poor, and I have no idea whether this translation is from a published edition of Kerouac's correspondence or some local volunteer's brave attempt, but it's interesting how the meanings and subtexts appear to have been changed. "Dipingo solo belle cose" surely does not convey the deeply theatrical sigh of "Only good thing is I started to paint", and that oh-so-casual, coat-trailing "if I want" has become an emphatic sentence in its own right: "Se lo voglio." Similarly, the grace(less) note of "too" in "maybe then I can sell paintings and buy a piano and compose music too" has gone missing. Maybe the Italian does convey the irritating smugness of Kerouac's self-satisfaction, but I don't get that impression. Lost in translation? Decidi tu!

Of course, what the Kerouac exhibition really shows (pace Stuart Walton in his LARB review) is that, despite his own estimation, Jack was never a great painter. The work is noteworthy because of who he was, who he painted, and what he achieved as a writer and cultural player, but negligible, in the same way that the earnest efforts of Chrissie Hynde or Bob Dylan are of no great account as paintings in their own right [4]. In our celebrity-obsessed culture the fast track to getting some prime-time attention to what you might consider to be your real work is to become prominent in some other field first; you can then wow the world with the multi-faceted magnificence of your talents. Celebrity Sunday painters are not uncommon, but any number of celebs seem to fancy themselves as writers – Sean Penn, Russell Brand, Madonna, and even Frank Lampard come to mind (children's books seem to be the nursery slope of choice) – and publishers, understandably but shamefully, are not as quick as they might be to disabuse them. Remember Morrissey's instant Penguin Modern Classic?

This kind of promotional brand diversification is what celebrity "side projects" are all about. Having achieved peak visibility, your name and your endorsement, all by themselves, can become a key source of revenue. Isn't it striking, then, how few household-name visual artists or novelists seem to have considered diversifying into clothing lines, cosmetics, and the like? I mean, wouldn't you want to sport a pair of Hockney™ glasses? Or invest in some HirstWear™ aquarium accessories? Or maybe glam it up this Christmas in a Grayson Perry ™ ensemble? Or evoke the inscrutable allure of Ai Weiwei™ with an underarm deodorant, or sleep the profound sleep of genius between Tracey Emin™ sheets? Well, perhaps not, especially that last one. But it's clear these serious-minded people just don't get the importance of leveraging their brand; when did you ever see them on the chat-show sofa, or debasing themselves to appear in a TV advert? Oh... Really? Are you sure? On the Graham Norton Show? For a high-street department store? OK: point taken.

So, I concede what has been obvious from the start: working and waiting and hoping truly doesn't work as a strategy. Visibility – the optics – and shameless self-promotion are everything. That is, of course, if some measure of worldly success is the aim of your gig. It's easy to get confused about that, though, and I sometimes need to remind myself of what I really think. Or what I like to think I really think. Or what I make a virtue out of thinking because, frankly, I don't have much choice in the matter. But, just out of curiosity, to whom should I address my letter of self-aggrandising puff? If I were to write one. Just asking...

Innsbruck 2014, going on 1954

1. Best diagnosis: sociopath introvert with high-functioning anxiety.
2. I'm also aware that this may be an example of "Black Sheep Syndrome" (see the footnotes to this post), but, sadly, he wasn't the only one I managed to leave nursing a mysterious grievance. As I say, I can't help it...
3. MAGA?? No, srsly! Some things really do get lost in translation...
4. It doesn't automatically follow that "celebrity art" is bad. The work of Viggo Mortensen (an actor, m'lud) is worth checking out, for example. I'm not sure what I make of Joni Mitchell's paintings, but I definitely prefer the best of them to the work of Joan Mitchell, an accredited A-list painter.


Poetry24 said...

Can't believe that exhibition was four years ago. Glad you've been keeping yourself busy. The galleries' loss is our gain.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Martin. The time does seem to have slipped away alarmingly fast, doesn't it? My main regret is not having a record of my literal 15 minutes of fame (well, 5 maybe) -- my interview on the TV. The buggers didn't keep it up long enough for me to record it when I got back home, and don't keep backfiles of such ephemeral stuff!


Poetry24 said...

Argh, that's a shame. In the early 80s, I was invited on to the Afternoon Sou' West programme (BBC Radio Devon and Cornwall), as 'guest of the day'. I arrived frozen, due to my old banger not having a functioning heater. Maybe that would account for the sluggishness and hesitation on my part throughout most of the 40 minute interview, which was broadcast live. Either that, or the fact that I was overwhelmed, following the actress, Nyree Dawn Porter from the previous day, and just ahead of Sir Anthony Parsons, Ambassador to Iran at the time of the Iranian Revolution and Permanent Representative to the UN at the time of the Falklands War.

I still have the programme, in surprisingly good nick, considering it was recorded on a knackered portable cassette machine, and has since been preserved in various more reliable formats. You can probably guess though, it rarely, if ever, gets played now.

Mike C. said...


Now there's something to entertain the grandchildren with... "Just a minute, I know it's in here somewhere ... Now, where's that tape recorder? ... Won't be long now ..."

Actually, my regret is qualified by the fact I've (deliberately) lost 16+ kilos since then, and cut a far finer figure now!


Martyn Cornell said...

“Austrians love to hold a grudge” - yeah, there was this guy called Schicklegruber, what a grouch ...

Mike C. said...


I believe it also all kicked off when another one called Franz Ferdinand or something got himself killed. Someone needs to give those guys some anger management sessions...