Acoording to a
you are here but she is
sisting of the plan
True story. And while we’re still perplexed, let us ask: What do rusty metal fountains, stretched leggings, and elongated latex hands have to do with translation? For that, I direct you to Olga Balema, whose cryptic solo show Body of Work is currently installed in Galerie Fons Welters.
If it sounds like I’m being snarky, I’m not. The work, which centers on notions of (mis)translation, fragmentation, and impermanence, is puzzling by design. A sense of false recognition haunts the exhibition and little is as it seems. Initially the installation appears somewhat austere, but Minimalism is an illusion, a visual language into which Balema has translated a generous tangle of inspirations. Up close we find letters, texts, clothing. Rusting steel shapes arch into shells on the floor, punctured by 3D printed replicas of twisted textiles. Plastic washtubs are bubbling fountains that corrode both their metal armatures and the printed fabrics draped around them.
Olga Balema, How it feels I and II, 2013, plastic box, steel, hose, water pump, textile, 101 x 47 x 80 cm; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
These fountains and curved metal forms – not to mention disembodied arms that suggest the coupling of a latex glove and a fire hose – make a striking first impression. But it is awkwardly translated texts, found in a series of paintings and also on printed textiles incorporated throughout the exhibition, that set a conceptual tone. Balema first encountered these types of translations printed on items like t-shirts in Shanghai. The indelicately named phenomenon “Engrish” – Chinese to English texts seemingly put through an unsophisticated translation program – isn’t new, but Balema has picked up on a unique vein of melancholy and loneliness found in some of its modified phrases.
The combination of texts and objects almost shouldn’t work, but it does. There is an uncanny weirdness in the installation that gets to the heart of what these “non-functional loaded texts” are about. Whatever sense you think you can make from Balema’s artworks dissolves as you look at them. Digitally printed canvases masquerade as painterly watercolors, reproducing poetic-seeming texts that are actually gloomy phrases in broken English. In the fountain works, words cut into metal are not neatly laser cut, but crudely formed with a shaky hand.
Olga Balema, Body of Work, 2013, installation view, Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam; Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.
Translation – both linguistic and of ideas into forms – is at once a creative and destructive process. Body of Work (a title that, conversely, suggests a tidy whole) focuses on its fragments. The exhibition is full of incomplete, ambiguous texts, but also abbreviated shapes and partial bodies. The latex arms find no corporeal comforts while a pair of leggings – one leg bunched up around one of the arms, the other dangling sadly in air – is pulled taut over a metal frame, an inhuman skeleton. The grammatically incomplete sentences are also disembodied; as much as their words have any symbolic meaning, they are equally decorative. Indeed, translation’s effects are wrought on meaning and material alike. Is the decay of meaning found in shifting letters and repurposed objects reflected by the material decay of metal and fabric in Balema’s fountains?
As an exercise, I pasted this text into Google translate, translated it to Dutch, copied the Dutch translation, and reverted the whole thing back to English. So, let me ask again: What do rusty metal fountains stretched leggings, and make elongated latex hands with the translation? Yes, that.
(Image on top: Olga Balema, You Are My Sunshine, 2013, print on canvas, 80 x 120 cm.; Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Fons Welters, Amsterdam / Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.)