Thursday, 29 January 2015

Chinese Whispers from art to translation

Hidden faces

In the game Chinese Whispers, a message is passed from ear to ear. The message gets more and more distorted with each whisper. The more ears in the line, the greater the final distortion. London's Fine Art Society is currently displaying a fascinating art collection called Chinese Whispers. The traditional view of translation is glaringly obvious, but all is not that simple.

Art after Warhol
Rob and Nick Carter based their pictures on the works of pop artist, Andy Warhol. The Carters chose some 20 Warhol artworks. They commissioned small reproductions by professional Chinese artists. A second Chinese artist then copied the picture again in a different workshop. The process continued over and over again. Each new picture after Warhol is formed from 30 such pictures. In the case of Warhol's Last Supper, there are no fewer than 50 black and white replicas.

This "photocopying" leads to small changes from picture to picture. If you compare picture 1 in the top left corner to picture 30 in the bottom right, the original after Warhol is sometimes totally unrecognisable.

The Carters' Last Supper begs the question about distortions in the Bible. The Bible's stories were passed down by word of mouth after all. Certainly, Christ's features were already lost in picture 4. The table survived longer. I couldn't help wondering if culture played a part. Would a Western artist have done a more exact replica?

The Five Dollar Bill in the gallery window seemed good from a distance, but poor on closer inspection.  The Won Ton lettering on Campbell's Soup Can reproduced fairly well. The Studebaker Silver Hawk passed relatively unscathed. It just had a bit of a fender bender. The Still Life two jugs with glasses and fruits after Warhol had seen better days. Some overindulgence by the Chinese artists maybe?

Translator, traitor?
The Chinese Whispers exhibition cries out that famous Italian saying "Translator, Traitor" (Traduttore, tradittore). It suggests an inevitable loss of meaning and culture from the author's original work. Individual features may well be lost in the transfer of meaning from one language to another. The Carters' have created a fascinating new collection of artwork after Warhol. A professional translator creates a new work, respecting the original's meaning, style and tone.

Art of translation
If anything professional translators get a bad press. Many commercial translations are improvements on the original. Chinese Whispers in reverse? Now how could the Carters' depict that? 

Invisible contributors
One final thought: Warhol and the Carters are credited. The individual Chinese artists remain unnamed and invisible... just like translators.

Karen Andrews runs
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