Indirect Translation: An Essay on New Work by Marianne Dages By Sarah Hulsey

Indirect Translation: An Essay on New Work by Marianne Dages

by Sarah Hulsey

In her show Distant Operator, Marianne Dages presents new work that engages with ideas about chance and miscommunication, approaching obliquely ideas about translation between languages and experiences. Dages’ work investigates the intersection of the mythic and the personal, as well as ways in which universal experiences can be accessed through metaphors of translation. This work extends her previous explorations of communication through indirect means: texts printed using the backs of wooden letterpress type, texts composed solely of symbols, and texts printed using a letterpress transfer process she aptly calls indirect printing. In the work in this show, she instead approaches text in ways more common to working with imagery. Text is used sparingly here, and where it appears it seems to function as a starting point for visual associations, like words remembered from a dream.

Much of the show is composed of process-driven visual pieces, each of which has an odd, otherworldly feeling: they evoke a sense of accidental passage into another realm, with just enough familiarity to throw their foreignness into relief. Each seems to encapsulate a moment or point in a world slightly out of synch with ours, which is derived in part from a mysteriousness about how each piece was created. One is left with the feeling that what we are seeing is a remnant of an unknown person’s journey in search of a personal narrative.

At the core of what Dages does is an exploration of translation: between languages, between experiences, between the mystical and the earthly, between language and image. Dages is a natively bilingual speaker of English and French and describes herself as having two selves, the American and the French. This subtle shifting of focus between one world view and another, and the constant minor adjustments between selves show through in her overall approach to art making. She employs chance in the way she creates both images and text, but not absolute chance; in both cases she sets up a technique or scenario and guides the formation of the outcome, allowing chance to take over at certain points but nudging, redirecting, and steering the process to create the effects she wants. There is a residue of both her guiding hand and the randomness underlying certain outcomes, which contributes to the unexpected effect of the pieces in situ. One is left with an overall impression that is generated as much from the cumulative spaces between pieces (metaphorical as well as physical) as from the pieces themselves.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is large assemblage piece which occupies one wall of the Napoleon Gallery. This piece includes found and made objects, as well as a number of her mysterious works on paper. Several are dense, rich photographic prints made from photographic chemicals, using either no imagery or images created from grains of dirt and dust. A particularly wonderful piece is a subtle and delicate “bone drawing,” created by rubbing ceramic “bones” on a black sheet. The traces left by rubbing one of the bones against paper hint at the mystical, magical side of Dages’ practice, but also ground this mysticism in the physical juxtapositions of object and page that are represented by the assemblage.


Great Expanses, 2014.

bone drawing process shot

in process shot

A more overt representation of issues of translation, identity, and secret worlds within the mundane is Fragmented I. This large drawing originated from sketches of rock formations done on site during a residency in Siglufjörður, Iceland. It is composed of many faceted surfaces, apparently of a rock formation, but with sparse touches of color that suggest an alternate reading as gemstone or ice formation. It seems to alternately balance precariously on a point and to hover in midair, tying the drawing back to the mystical subject matter of some of the other pieces. In the context of this show, it can be seen as a manifestation of the fragmentary, complex, yet illusory ideas about translations between experiences and selves.

Fragmented I, 2014.

Fragmented I, 2014.

In yet another take on translation, Sea Exercises is a piece that mediates between text and image as ways to engage with some of the poetic aspects of miscommunication. For this piece, Dages began with passages from the funeral rites of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which she then translated from one language to another and back again, until the final version is both oddly familiar and quite strange:

The patient is asleep.

His brow is making paper movements.

He is under the power of old names.

“These are high birds.”

“Yes, they are doing sea exercises.”

Set black plums outside,

And pour water on their backs.

Therefore you will not fear

these birds or their bad weather.

The line “He is under the power of old names” is particularly resonant with power and magic, and encapsulates some of the mystery of both Dages’ way of working and its results. The printed text is shown adjacent to a group of drawings created from rubbings of the cement floor of the artist’s studio—yet another translative drawing practice that pulls us into a strange landscape, but without fully giving us access to that space. Like the rest of the show, it is rich and minimal, crisp and eloquent, allowing the viewer to inhabit the boundary between experience and translation.

About the author:

Sarah Hulsey holds an MFA in Book Arts/Printmaking from the University of the Arts (2013),
a PhD in Linguistics from MIT (2008), and a bachelor’s degree
magna cum laude in Linguistics from Harvard (2001).
Her art work focuses on visual representations of complex systems,
including language, making use of her Linguistics background
in both the workings of language and systematic
investigation of its properties.

 To download a .pdf version of this essay, click DistantOperator_Hulsey_Sarah_Jan_2015





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