Norms and Forms of Translation

Ghada Amer

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Some thoughts on seeing the exhibition Référence à Elle at Kukje Gallery, Seoul (May 17 – June 30, 2013).

"The text of pleasure is a sanctioned Babel." —Roland Barthes

When seeking to discuss the work of the artist Gada Amer—who was born in Cairo in 1963, grew up in Paris, and now lives in New York—it's difficult not to use the 'postcolonial hybridity' label. Amer has described herself as feeling "a little French," having lived in Paris for 21 years, but has said of her multicultural background: "You can experience the world as flat or as three-dimensional. I lived in only one world until I was eleven and I thought there was only one truth. This is safer. You learn the norms of a particular place and you abide by them. But then, if you go elsewhere, you see that the norms can be totally different. You realize that each culture has its own norms and you realize this deeply. It's not a question of being tolerant, you feel it in your skin. So you have to be flexible and to be able to shift your norms."

Perhaps hybridity is best understood, in this context, as revealing the fundamentally mixed and unstable nature of language and social relations; a constant state of interaction among cultures that counters any fantasies of cultural purity. In one culture certain experiences may be considered the most interesting for analysis, the most revealing of our basic humanity, the most fruitful to emphasize, while in another they might be considered taboo, or just common and not particularly revealing. But when thrown into a multicultural context we are suddenly more capable of reversing the preference and focusing on what is not normally emphasized in our own native culture, with the result that we may be able to attain quite suddenly a glimpse into the other culture that constitutes a kind of 'paradigm shift'—a transformation of worldview that then feeds back into our own 'native' habitat. The critic Yuri Lotman describes this as entering the "semiosphere," which encompasses "the semiotic space necessary for the existence and functioning of language."  Julia Kristeva calls it the core of the domain of signs itself: "desire in language." It is a liminal space marked, so declares Lotman, by "asymmetry, heterogeneity, and interaction."

One focus of Amer's particular 'semiosphere' is the exploration of the paradoxes that arise between Arabic and Western cultures with regard to the private and the public spheres, and especially, in relationship to the freedom of women and their sexuality. In Private Room (2000), for example, Amer embroidered texts on garment bags suspended in space, taking all the sentences that spoke about women from the Koran and embroidering them in French.

More broadly, the dialectics of hybridity seems to play itself out on two levels in Amer's work—one in relation to formal  considerations, the other in terms of subject matter. In the latter case, Amer grapples with women's sexuality and its subversive relationship to power. Her paintings and sculptures frequently tease the viewer with images of girlie pin-ups shown masturbating or in provocative and confrontational sexual poses. In the recent works on show at Kukje Gallery, however, produced in collaboration with the Iranian-born male artist, Reza Farkhondeh, this imagery has become increasingly veiled or partly concealed by a filigree covering of multi-coloured, embroidered yarn. In her sculptures, meanwhile, viewers are obliged to struggle to work out what is image—a head, lips, breasts, hands, a vagina—and what is empty space, because this imagery is made from the voids rather than from the solid material of the works, thus inverting the normal relationship of figure and ground. Just as with the images in her paintings, which also do not stand out clearly as figures from the background, the sculptures suggest that formally—perceptually—hybridity for Amer signifies the loss of clear and stable patterns of semiotic segregation. We are pushed to the verge of uncomfortable chaos, or perhaps we are invited to feel emancipated from the constraints of language, from the whole business of binary codes, hierarchies, and divisions.

Desire seems to push at the tight bonds of semiosis, forcing it apart. As the writer and psychoanalyst Josefina Ayerza puts it while talking of Amer's earlier paintings, in which the embroidered curtain was less in evidence:

You can also say of the women in the sewn line drawings that they are 'playing with their bodies,' their hands on their erogenous zones... a hand on one breast, the other arm raised touching the hair, her body curled backwards, the expression in her face—mouth open, eyes closed—exhibits ineffable pleasure (in one of the paintings this image repeats itself along three columns), while another woman in the same painting... her arm reaching backwards covers her ass, the fingers reaching into the vagina again, because of the quality of sewn—embroidered—the real image could be the one that is on the reverse side of the painting... and this is what made me think of them as signifiers—empty words (empty images). These images are the ghosts of the real image. Though, which one is the real image? The fact is significant concerning.... desire and where it is, since there is no desire without language.
In her new works on display recently at the Kukje Gallery, Amer has continued to develop her key themes, especially concerning the destabilizing impact of social upheaval on social norms, as relating to women and personal relationships. The Blue Bra Girls (2012) for example, refers to an assault by the police in Egypt during the recent protests there, when an activist was filmed being beaten and stripped of her clothes, leaving her blue bra exposed. The Word I Love the Most (2012) is an egg-shaped and hollow sculpture built out of Arabic sentences related to the feeling of love. Amer says she is interested in the idea that in a culture where there is an understanding that it is forbidden to publicly express love, there are nevertheless many ways to say 'love' that are more coded, elliptical and circumspect, and also clothed in rich traditions of simile and metaphor.

Amer's use of Arabic script foregrounds the visual nature of writing, and undermines its linguistic and discursive content (which is already attenuated, as Arabic script is unlikely to be a language familiar to the viewers of her work in Korea, or anywhere else in the developed or developing world), replacing it by something more 'figural,' in the sense of it being more overtly connected to form, pattern, and gesture. This link between drawing and writing (they share a common root as 'graphic' marks) is also exposed through Amer's paintings, in which once again, 'figural' or indexical marks threaten to overwhelm 'legibility.' But even when she uses a more familiar script, slippages occur. For example, Private Room, though in French, was first exhibited in Spain and then in New York, so the question of translation became complex, as neither the original text nor the language into which it was rendered were the languages of the native audiences. In this sense, language in Amer's work becomes inefficient and inefficacious as discourse. It is rootless language and, as a result, breeds allusiveness and encourages the play of analogy.

But as is always the case with Amer, the new works at Kukje Gallery do not confront the viewer aggressively. Nor do they function in a predominantly deconstructive, conceptual or intellectual register. On the contrary, Amer's work in general is characterized by a remarkable sweetness, even evincing the visual equivalent of a saccharine taste. They deliberately court sentimentality and kitsch, and her rampant aestheticization overwhelms any sense of the subject matter's brutality or controversial nature.

Amer has placed her work firmly in the service of the pleasure principle. As Averza notes: "Amer makes use of images without, in most cases, making use of meaning itself. And this allows for the articulation of truth, without having to deal with the transmission of facts." Or, as Amer herself declares: "I believe that all women should like their bodies and use them as tools of seduction."

More of Ghada Amer's work can be seen here.