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Michael Stoeber

The Art of Translation

On Chapter Five/Ceiling by Andrea von Lüdinghausen & Mareike Poehling      >>back

Imagining life as a journey is an old metaphor. It does not necessarily involve a change of scenery in order to fill it with meaning, but neither can it do any harm. Marcel Proust once said that the best voyage of discovery is looking at the world through different eyes. In his poem “Journeys” Gottfried Benn writes: “Ah, travel is nothing to relish! / You discover yourself by and by: / remain and quietly cherish / the self-circumscribing I.” 


Andrea von Lüdinghausen and Mareike Poehling have adopted a similar dialectic of travelling for their art. They set out and stay a while. For their international art project ROOMS TO LET, the two artists travel in spirit and in reality. They are out and about in the world and stay home in Hannover, have an eye on the familiar and the unfamiliar. Since 2017 they have been using hotels and guesthouses worldwide as sites for their collaborative artistic work and exhibitions, whereby they operate four-handedly and blur the individual signature in their joint activity, aspiring to and achieving collective authorship. ROOM TO LET’s fifth station goes by the name of Chapter Five/Ceiling and took place in Hannover. It was devoted thematically to the art of translating in a sense that is as general as it is specific and self-referential.


Lüdinghausen and Poehling collaborated with the Mongolian artist Bayartsetseg Dashdondov on this fifth chapter of their undertaking. Recognizing a kindred spirit in her, they already worked with her when they guested in Ulaanbaatar in 2018 with ROOMS TO LET, after which they invited her to Hannover. On the theme of translating, Dashdondov contributed a text by Samuel Beckett, “Ceiling,” which she discovered in the course of her artistic research and had translated into Mongolian. Andrea von Lüdinghausen and Mareike Poehling in turn had the text translated into German. Prior to this initiative by the three artists, it was only available in English and, of course, its original French (“Plafond”). Beckett had written the short piece of prose in 1981 for a close friend, artist Avigdor Arikha. It was published in one of his art catalogues. Beckett found critical prose a useful form for working out his ideas. He wrote prolifically on art — one need only call to mind his essays for Bram van Velde and his paintings. It is therefore no wonder that “Ceiling” also touched the three artists. Since Beckett writes so musically, rhythmically, and minimalistically—in short, so artistically—it is all the easier for an artist to identify with him. Dashdondov, von Lüdinghausen, and Poehling also expressed their affinity with the text in a concluding performance in which they recited English, German, Mongolian translations of “Plafond” simultaneously.


Yet the theme of translating not only concerns the Beckett text, but art itself. All art is always one of translation, even where it adheres to the principle of mimesis. This is even more strongly the case in modernity with Marcel Duchamp fundamentally transforming and revolutionizing the language of art with the introduction of the ready-made. The sculptural interventions by Andrea von Lüdinghausen and Mareike Poehling also operate in the spirit of Duchamp, whereby they more than once, to use Karl Marx’s words, “stand him on his head.” If in the case of Duchamp’s ready-mades the museum changes, determines, and turns his everyday objects into art by means of a kind of artistic transubstantiation, von Lüdinghausen and Poehling’s interventions and interactions ennoble the respective space and turn it into a venue that they surrender and entrust to the visitor. With inclusion of texts, images, films, photographs and objects ROOMS TO LET perform a crucial semantic volte-face. The work’s title aims to become a definition that goes far beyond an advertisement to stay overnight, whereby the alliance of cultural objects from the artists’ archive and objets trouvés from the country they are visiting with their project makes for a further translation in the spirit of tolerance.


“Ceiling” by Samuel Beckett is centrally inscribed into the fifth chapter at the Hotel Schwarzer Bär in Hannover and in the exhibition by Bayartsetseg Dashdondov at the AD/AD Project Space. It embodies the poet’s philosophy in nuce. People are born and die. Those are the constants of their existence. In between there is life. Their life has to be lived, but it has no meaning whatsoever. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s most famous play from 1952, Pozzo finds the corresponding image: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” In “Ceiling,” what the individual beholds is something white, either the white of the ceiling in his room or even the white of the cloud ceiling above him. It is not until he is in a position to take a closer and keener look that he recognizes it as a “dull white”. His life to come is tuned to a minor key. 


People do not really know why they actually live. In principle, the fundamental questions of whence, whither, and wherefore remain unanswered. They can only conjecture the answers. It is a matter of enduring life. Somewhat better with every day and every breath, if possible. This is the meaning of the maxim: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.“


In an almost proverbial way, these laconic lines from Beckett’s Worstward Ho (1983) mark an attitude towards life that one could describe as heroic—the continuation of a belief system such as that of Augustine, to whom the expression credo quia absurdum is attributed. He believed in God, because believing in him seemed absurd. Becket does not know anything metaphysical in which he might believe which makes his defiant acceptance of a life perceived as meaningless all the more admirable. He insists on continuing to live and to breathe—“Endless breath”—with the will to “Fail better” in the end, although the last line of “Ceiling” at death’s door constitutes something like an ode to life. Whereas the poet, in about the middle of his text, lends expression to his fear that he might, bound to the cycle of reincarnation, be reborn at some point “With dread of being again”—which for Buddhists does not represent an impossibility—he now speaks of reality as “Dread darling sight.” Fear and horror as well as love and rapture balance each other out in what he sees. Although Beckett’s postmetaphysical world has no meaning whatsoever, it nevertheless does not seem to be without magic and beauty. 


A character of this kind also resonates in Pozzo’s hellish image of an eternal night in which the light “gleams,” even if for only an instant. The fact that it is necessary to live life, without reason and sine ira et studio, marks the recurring “on” in “Ceiling.” Beckett lends this even clearer expression in his play Breath, a scene that only lasts about 35 seconds. Because it dispenses with protagonists, plot, and text, it exhausts itself in a mere stage direction: “Curtain. 1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds. / 2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds. / 3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.” Here, too, human life between the cry of birth and the cry of death is nothing more than a brief becoming and passing in the pointless chaos of the world. 


Breath presents Beckett as a master of minimalism. By addressing only a single breath of air, it is the shortest artwork imaginable. The breath is metonymic with human life, and this perspective also appears in “Ceiling.” In Chapter Five by ROOMS TO LET, Andrea von Lüdinghausen and Mareike Poehling make further reference to works by Samuel Beckett, namely to the minimalistic television plays Quad I and Quad II that the poet realized in the 1980s for the German television network Süddeutscher Rundfunk. In Quad I, four actors, dressed in colorful frocks, scurry over the orthogonal stage around an uncanny hole according to a strict pattern of movement. In Quad II they wear gray frocks, as if life had already passed and death approaches in the form of the hole. Life follows recurring rituals, which the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whom Beckett admired, referred to as its semper idem. The first line in Beckett’s first novel Murphy from 1939 already makes inimitable reference to this: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”


Beckett likewise scoffs in passing, at the adage “There is nothing new under the sun” in a way that is as disaffected as it is ironic, and at the same time sets it right. Even more succinct than the German translation by Elmar Tophoven is the original: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” The breath and movement, which define and animate all of Beckett’s comments on art, are also important for the works by the three artists, who joined forces in their project to create an homage to Beckett. Andrea von Lüdinghausen and Mareike Poehling emphasize these essentials by including an abstracted quote from Andy Warhol’s film Sleep in Chapter Five of ROOMS TO LET in which the sleeping man’s reposeful breath marks the manifest threshold to death as an élan vital. It is not by chance that in Greek myth Hypnos, the god of sleep, is the brother of Thanatos, the god of death. For Bayartsetseg Dashdondov, the breath also plays a major role in her art and in her life. The delicate lines out of which she produces her drawings follow the rhythm of the breath. Moreover, her motifs are often the leaves of trees, which take the notion of a tree of life into account. The “graces twain” that Goethe associates with drawing breath hold true for the artists no less than for Samuel Beckett. After all, he has his protagonist Pozzo also say: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”


The Art of Translation

Michael Stoeber, Art Critic, Hanover, November 2019

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