Alejandro Cesarco and Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.
Samuel Johnson, 1776
The story within a story, as a quasi-metafictional convention, is familiar to anyone reading this. Not that it's a new tool or that it ever was. But, on the assumption that it might have been, lets say something odd will do long.
And so, once upon a time, if you were about to begin reading Italo Calvino's 1979 novel If On A Winters Night A Traveler, relaxing, concentrating, dispelling every other thought, soon you would find not a novel within a novel, but rather, a novel without one.
And so it likewise came to pass with the Alejandro Cesarco and Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro collaboration at testsite, Laurence Miller's residence/project space in Austin.
Cesarco titled this project Based on a True Story (Exercises in Reading and Writing). The room is elegant, stripped almost bare. A centered seating arrangement is pretty much all that is left of what was once a living room. Framed on the walls are archival inkjet prints—open book views of the first page from ten different translations of Dante's Inferno, Canto I. In addition, a credenza offers up documentation of some other recent Cesarco projects including an unauthorized translation of Uruguayan poet Idea Vilario's Poemas de amor (Love Poems).
Alejandro Cesarco & Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
Installation view, testsite, 2004
Cesarco's discovery that Vilario has not been translated into English was the initial spark for his testsite project. The translation, published as a chapbook, will be distributed via the conduit of collaborator Pérez-Barreiro’s activities as Curator of Latin American Art at the Blanton Museum.
The selected page from the Inferno tells the story of a pilgrim who awakes and escapes a valley of fear. Each translation is accompanied by chapter titles from the aforementioned Calvino book; each numbered chapter is followed by a titled chapter.
The chapter titles, in the order in which they appear in the novel and as they accompany the Dante texts, are as follows:
If on a winters night a traveler
Outside the town of Malbork
Leaning from the steep slope
Without fear of wind or vertigo
Looks down in the gathering shadow
In a network of lines that enlace
In a network of lines that intersect
On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon
Around an empty grave
What story down there awaits its end?
And here, from the Inferno, Canto I, the second line from each translated page:
I woke to find myself in some dark woods.
I woke in wonder in a sunless wood.
I came to myself in a dark wood.
I woke to find myself in a dark wood.
I found I was in a dark forest.
I came to myself in a dark forest.
I found myself in dark woods.
I found me in a gloomy wood.
I came to in a gloomy wood.
I found myself within a forest dark.
The exhibition is accompanied by a small booklet written by Cesarco [and edited by Pérez-Barreiro via strikethroughs and bracketed additions]. Notes on The Task of The Translator Every Word Was Once A Poem, as this text is called, is really more a conversation than essay, just as Cesarco and Pérez-Barreiro are respectively more translator than artist and more editor/distributor than curator in this project.
Some examples from Notes:
In other words [nice irony!], the text is shaped after a previous text, that once reflected, becomes its own narration [although by using previous, you are assuming a chronology when it could be argued that the texts exist together, or are even simultaneously implicit in each other].
Later, these fragmentary notes become an allegory of completion.
To organize reality not to represent it. [by using a readymade]
The textual presence of the translator. [the contextual absence of the author]
An intention to stay close to the clich, to that which repeats, while forming.
[Solaris. Again: memory and forgetting and formation]
Cesarco’s conceptualism, specific to this exhibition is a reflection, on the construction of narrative, the complicity between reading and writing, translation practices and the impossibility of a faithful repetition. He also treads (and retreads) other ground, as can be seen in his previous work in evidence, such as:
1) A book comprised of dedication pages culled from books in his personal library.
2) An index for a book he hasnt written.
[These two inversions seem to invent the same absence.][Interesting how the notion of familiarity comes up in dedications. One can visualize the books they go with—Raymond Carver, Vladimir Nabokov, Dave Hickey...]
3) A video of the artist giving a deadpan recitation of lyrics to The Beatles Help! [check out Todd Rundgrens Faithful]
4) The thirteenth bar graph from a series accounting the frequency of words on albums such as Morrissey's Viva Hate.
[You and me win out as the two most common words in pop music. See above: three wokes, four founds and three came tos][Frequency bears a curious relation to incidence and increment]
5) Photographs of the insides of envelopes bear titles correspondent to the given salutation for each, such as Sincerely, I miss you, Best Wishes, etc.
[The implied personal message is triangulated by the generic twins of pattern and salutation]
Which brings us to the crux: is the personal text ever unique?
I say yes, you say no (perhaps).
The ground of melancholy in Cesarco's work teeters right on this precipice, but he brings you back from the abject into just how fucking great it is to be alive, as Frank Zappa used to say.
Alejandro Cesarco & Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
Detail, testsite, 2004
I'm also reminded, in the midst of all this animated furniture, of Bert the chimney sweep, partner to Mary Poppins, who, referring to his own art, said, it's all me own work from me own memory.
So that's what were talking about here: to be or not to be, I guess. Or how to love not being sure. That's it, really. The song Barbara Allen has been serially translated for at least four centuries each time someone sings it. What happened, I wonder, the first time it was ever sung? But everybody has a first time...
Andrew Hultkrans, in Same Old Song? (December/January 2005 BOOKFORUM review of The Rose and The Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in The American Ballad) states that the Bob Dylan song Man in The Long Black Coat is a parody of the ballad. I would say it's no parody but rather a song in a long line of songs that go back through countless others such as The Long Black Veil, and I would claim the same for Alejandro Cesarco's project. It extends the narrative more than it stands outside it.
The practice of writing around, as opposed to writing about, is usually cast as a critique of the straight-up narrative and the philosophical suppositions that go with it. I contend that this post position—this Flatland—exists in a different locale of storytelling and that its pleasures are the same as with any tale.
Remember this: a translation is a just kiss, truly a loss of the author. How glorious. It takes us back to the place where the generic is lost in the obscure, where each translation, each kiss, like all the others it so closely resembles, is unique. So go now, stack them up, ten words upon one word, as if to weigh down meaning. And turn, just as each kiss attempts to rediscover the gravity of that kiss.
*"It's easily done, just pick anyone, and pretend that you never have meta**
[A smile may help here.]
**Bob Dylan lyrics quoted in The Unbiographical Authorization, Vanity Fair, October 2004.