I think my friend has PTSD. He told me about hearing a loud bang near where he works in downtown Chicago that prompted him to start running—unsure where, unsure why. He tried to catch his breath through gusts of wind and eventually took shelter in an alcove. Gradually I begin to connect these responses to his childhood, revealed to me in slivers. Partly these stories are idyllic tales of preteens wandering the streets of Belgrade, memories of favorite teachers, his mother. But sometimes I learn terrible things, like the biology instructor holdover from the communist period who required total silence in his classroom and graded his students solely based on grueling oral exams he expected to be flawlessly delivered. I hear about a friend killed by shrapnel. Growing up amid the carnage of the Yugoslav Wars, my friend turned his westward. When his mother asked him what he wanted from the United States before she went for the first time, he requested “anything about Aaliyah” and received upon her return a book about the R&B singer. He tells me about spending time in online chat rooms as a queer child. To this day, he has a dog-tag necklace sent to him by a member of an online Madonna community upon which the singer’s visage hovers in ghostly outline.
I meet up with this friend in the small park in front of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art before going inside. We’re attending a dinner hosted by Michael Rakowitz, an artist whose Backstroke of the West is currently on view. This dinner, Enemy Kitchen, is also a work of art. Rakowitz himself and veterans of the Iraq War serve us Iraqi dishes. An Iraqi-American Jewish artist whose family fled Iraq, Rakowitz is uniquely sensitive to what happens when culture crosses national borders. Backstroke of the West references a mistranslation of Revenge of the Sith for a Chinese bootleg version of the film. Although China isn’t especially present in the exhibition, there are plenty of surprising connections drawn between the Stars Wars franchise and Iraq, such as vitrines that display Darth Vader helmets alongside gas masks and Fedayeen uniforms, the official costume of the paramilitary organization of Saddam Hussein’s government. I learn from a comic book Rakowitz created entitled Strike the Empire Back that Uday, Hussein’s eldest son, presented his father with a prototypical helmet for the uniform, a replica of Darth Vader’s.
But this isn’t the only Star Wars reference. Consider The worst condition is to pass under a sword which is not one’s own (2009). The sentence comes from an invitation sent by Hussein for the inauguration of the Victory Arch, a pair of triumphal arches in Baghdad. The arches frame the entrances to the Great Celebrations Square, the main square for public celebrations in Baghdad. Giant bronze casts of Hussein’s hands wield the Swords of Qādisīyah, the legendary blades of Saʿd ibn Abī Waqqās, who led the conquest of Persia in 636 CE. The blades were forged from the molten steel of the weapons of slain Iraqis, rising above the helmets of the vanquished Iranians. The form of the monument replicates that of another Darth Vader, who crosses two lightsabers in his hands on a promotional poster for The Empire Strikes Back.
Backstroke of the West is fundamentally about translation, though not as we usually mean the term. Translation is primarily understood as a linguistic activity, whereby one language is converted into another. As such, translation is intimately caught up with meaning. We judge how good a translation is by how well it recreates the meaning expressed in one language in another. Accordingly, we almost immediately run into a problem. Is the best translation the one that reproduces the original meaning most literally or the one that captures the more diffuse “spirit” of the original meaning? Within the subtleties of language, we can easily imagine these two imperatives coming into conflict. In “The Task of the Translator,” the introduction to his translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens, Walter Benjamin asks us to expand our conception of translation: “Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”
If translation is indeed not about attempting to fit one language into another, certain issues fall away, such as the potential tension between the literal and the figurative. But then it becomes entirely unclear what translation aims for. What does it mean for translation to watch over “the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own”? Benjamin responds, “The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect…upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original.” This answer shifts our attention to a higher level. Rather than merely translating text from one language to another, for Benjamin, every act of translation must take into account the entirety of the two languages. Of course, much of a language lies dormant when we translate. Nevertheless, we must always have a language as a whole in mind during translation because the text is never just a text. A text is always written within a language and, in this way, does not consist merely of what is on the page—the entirety of a language is present in every utterance, if only negatively. The translator’s chosen words are fished out of a sea of possibilities, and the choice of a word is always the passing over of others. Meaning resides both within and outside of a text.
Rakowitz’s translations, however, have a playful character at odds with the solemnity of the Benjaminian translator, such as in May the Arrogant Not Prevail (2010), a replica of the Ishtar Gate, the famous eighth gate of Babylon constructed by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II circa 575 BCE. The sculpture was created by a team of assistants out of Arabic food packaging and installed at the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt in Berlin. (A 1930 reconstruction using the original bricks is now shown at the Pergamon Museum, also in Berlin.) While May the Arrogant Not Prevail is a translation of the Ishtar Gates, the Ishtar Gates are also themselves a translation. Had the Ishtar Gates been reconstructed in the Middle East, they may well have become a symbol of the ancient civilization to which the region is heir, analogous to the Acropolis of Athens or the Colosseum of Rome. But the presence of the Gates in Berlin produces a very different effect; rather than connecting the Middle East to its pasts, the Gates perform “Arabness” for a mostly Western audience.
As a translation of a translation, May the Arrogant Not Prevail potentially has a higher degree of significatory freedom. Rather than faithfully reconstructing a historical past, May the Arrogant Not Prevail calls our attention to the inherent artificiality of history. Just as for Benjamin, the choice of one word requires the non-choice of others, so too does the choice of one narrative require the non-choice of others. For the past several millennia, these narratives have centered a world known as “Western,” initially limited to Europe but eventually encompassing the settler colonies of Oceania and the Americas. This Western World was and is predominantly white and Christian, while the non-West was everything else—“the West and the rest.” Due to centuries of colonial and imperial expansion, the West has been able to tell history in its own terms, not only due to an extreme power imbalance, but also due to its possession of much of the world’s cultural wealth. As a play requires props, so too does history require artifacts. But the transfer of antiquities to Western museums has prevented non-Western societies from telling their histories. For Rakowitz, this cultural transfer is exemplified by the looting of the National Museum of Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of the items stolen during this period still haven’t been located. In an ongoing project entitled The invisible enemy should not exist, Rakowitz attempts to reconstruct the over 7,000 objects missing from the National Museum.
On some level, The invisible enemy should not exist is an exercise in Sisyphean absurdism. How much time and effort would it actually take to reproduce all of these, even with the help of a team of assistants? Can we be sure there aren’t others? Even if the collection were exhaustive, these recreations aren’t the real deal, a fact Rakowitz draws attention to through the makeshift character of these reconstructions. Perhaps the failure of this work to reapproximate reality is part of its power, calling our attention to a break in the chain of history that cannot be repaired completely, just as how The invisible enemy should not exist is only a shadow of what was once a robust collection. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first cultural causality of war. Another “Other” of the US was Germany during World War II, which also suffered a great deal of cultural destruction. For example, a fire in the Fridericianum museum in Kassel incinerated state library books during a bombing by the British Air Force on September 9, 1941. For What Dust Will Rise (2012), Rakowitz enlisted Afghan and Italian carvers to produce stone replicas of these volumes out of travertine from the Bamyan Valley, where the Taliban dynamited two monumental Buddhas dating from the sixth century.
In What Dust Will Rise, Rakowitz has brought together three enemies of the US (Afghanistan as a result of 9/11 and Germany and Italy as a result of World War II) in order to recover some of what was lost on September 9, 1941. By presenting the work at documenta, the famous art fair held every five years in Kassel, Rakowitz dredges up another forgetting that many in the art world would prefer to remain forgotten. The first documenta in 1955 was an attempt to showcase Germany as an enlightened country after the madness of National Socialism, and several of the artists of its initial iteration were indeed retrospectively seen as modernist torchbearers: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso. The same city pummeled for its regression becomes a few short years later the beacon of progression.
What role does art play in the shifting of political alliances under the pressure of war? Apparently, state actors thought art was powerful enough to change the image of Germany abroad that they organized and funded an enormous exhibition continuing to the present day.
As a whole, Backstroke of the West demonstrates that history is not just what is remembered, but also what is forgotten, and is composed of not just what is present, but also what is absent. In this way, there’s much resonance between Rakowitz and Benjamin, who similarly understands translation as attending to both what is and is not on the page. It’s as if language is a room, and a text is a voice reverberating through it; the bigger the room, the more influential the voice, the smaller, the weaker. This is why Benjamin rejects translation as a “sterile equation of two dead languages.” Instead, translation “produces in it the echo of the original.” Each translation stands in relation to the totality of a language, just as each narrative stands in relation to the totality of history. A selection of words, whether in a translation or a story, is the non-selection of others. While this statement borders on a truism, Backstroke of the West illustrates how memory and relics are differentially distributed around the globe, with the lion’s share going to those countries able to dominate socially, politically, or economically. I’m often told “history is written by the victors,” but I’d never wondered why this should be true until seeing Backstroke of the West. Stripped of materiality, culture lives only in the mind, where it will eventually waste away.
But what of my friend, driven to run through the streets of Chicago by some unseen force? Translation isn’t just cerebral; it isn’t limited to the abstractions of language and history. Translation is felt through the body as it passes from one place to another, from one moment to the next. Our bodies record where we’ve been and carry these impressions with us. Art can bring us back in touch with this materiality. In our digital age, we may be tempted to believe the corporeal is receding in importance, that technology is liberating us from our fleshy sacs. But nothing could be further from the truth. We continue to live intimately with the material, from the clothes on our backs to the roofs over our heads. Art is differentiated from all other materials because it’s where the physical and the metaphysical touch. Since art can be anything, what it ends up being tells us a lot about ourselves; a vehicle for our anxieties, hopes, and dreams. As such, we’ve been making art, or at least non-functional objects, longer than we’ve been writing. Early examples include elaborate jewelry buried with the dead, even amid relative scarcity: art as an existential scream against the void, luggage for an unknown voyage.