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Adios to the monoglot museum

2 April 2019

The following is the editor’s letter from the April 2019 issue of Apollo, which includes an interview with Jenny Holzer. Preview and subscribe here.

Jenny Holzer works with words: slogans and aphorisms, complaints and confessions are all set forth – and all made strange – on fly-posters, as light projections or monumental inscriptions, or scrolling across LED tickers. For her current exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao (until 9 September), a number of Holzer’s works have been translated from English into other languages; posters from two early series, Truisms (1977–79) and Inflammatory Essays (1979–82), speak in five of them, including Spanish and Basque.

Holzer has frequently exhibited in multiple tongues: in 2001, for instance, she projected phrases in French and English on to Parisian landmarks – as if rebellious axioms had broken free from a Berlitz phrase book and gone on to annex the city. It makes sense for an artist so invested in language to renounce the monolingual and explore what translation makes possible. After all, Holzer’s works, which transform words through unlikely contexts, are as alert to the fraying edges of our endeavours to communicate with one another as they are to our aspirations for them to succeed. Her Bilbao exhibition has the title ‘Thing Indescribable’.

Artworks that make use of multiple languages will often admit to a combination of hope and frustration: the ambition of crossing linguistic borders, coupled with the acknowledgement that not everything can be carried through them. The written words in Cy Twombly’s macaronic scribbles, for instance, begin to lose comprehensible form as they edge towards abstraction. ‘Each language speaks the world in its own ways,’ George Steiner wrote in Real Presences (1989). ‘Each edifies worlds and counter-worlds in its own mode. The polyglot is a freer man.’

Many museums hanker to be polyglot – an extension of the longing, so often expressed, for art and culture to prevail as a type of visual lingua franca. Most major institutions in the UK and US operate in a single language (English) that is the second tongue of many employees, from curators to support staff. But they have not always made concessions to the linguistic diversity of their visitors; floor plans and guidebooks may be translated, but the text that appears in captions and on explanatory panels rarely ventures beyond the vernacular.

Welcome, then, is the new practice at the National Gallery, where exhibitions that focus on European artists are now punctuated by texts in both English and the most relevant foreign language. Visitors to ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ this winter were greeted by an introductory panel in English and Italian; ‘Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light’ (until 7 July) is narrated in English and Spanish. At the British Museum, meanwhile, the recently installed gallery of the Islamic world foregrounds fragments of Arabic, Persian and Malay, emphasising the importance of script to the traditions it celebrates.

These may seem small gestures but they have powerful implications. Texts in other languages do their bit for access, of course, but they are also a visual reminder to those visitors who only read English of other worlds and ways of thinking – a reminder, that is, that looking at art from elsewhere might entail thinking oneself into another culture. ‘One of the reasons for learning at least one foreign language well,’ wrote T.S. Eliot, ‘is that we acquire a kind of supplementary personality; one of the reasons for not acquiring a new language instead of our own is that most of us do not want to become a different person.’

The Dallas Museum of Art, in a metropolitan area in which 42 per cent of the population is Hispanic, has worked hard to become a bilingual institution: its signage is in two languages and last year it added six bilingual staff to the education department. In England, at least, museums are unlikely to turn bilingual any time soon (in Wales they already are). That they might try to get along in other tongues is refreshing and timely, however – and an important complement to what they teach us, as cultures and individuals, about sameness and difference.