Imagine that as you are wandering around NY City you see two distinctive strangers bump into each other twice at two different locations. You ask yourself – is this compresence or causality? Perhaps this would call for an investigation. Such coincidences are so rare, but, of course, that is the nature of coincidence or we wouldn’t have coincidences. Well, in the case of this review, I am referring to two artists who bumped into each other at two differing locations in Manhattan – one now gone but legendary and the other still very much alive and gaining in reputation and stature.
A few weeks ago Nam June Paik, the illustrious but deceased artist, shared the Summer Art Festival opening at the Waterfall Mansion on the Upper East Side with the very lively Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos. They coincided again at the Shin Gallery on Grand Street of the Lower East Side.
Could it be that master Paik might have developed a soft spot for the young Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos, just as he did for Yoko Ono? His untimely death may have precluded this. Furthermore, both galleries haven’t worked together at all: it has been researched. That there is such a bumping into must be due to other causes, unless we give up to the comfort of the mere random chance. Of course we cannot (here I’ll lose many readers, but if you stay with me you’ll still find the best part).
Nam June Paik created video art at the forefront of the telecommunications revolution to think about it, to criticize it and laugh about it. He used TVs, lots of them, fountains of them sometimes, and neon, and lasers later on.
Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos shares this discursive quality with him. Her work has attracted invitations from galleries where Paik is admired because where he experimented with electrons a cathodic tubes, she does it with bites crossing the internet. In “40 Shades of Happiness” she reveals to us the difference of smiling in Veranda from doing it in Gill Sans, and how much different it is from doing it in Cambria. The digital categorization of emotions is a frequent and central theme also in her “ALTER Ego” series where emoticons are mirrored by portraits. The Shin Gallery now exhibits her latest work, where she reflects on the parallels between oral tradition and the latest developments in artificial intelligence. There is fierce competition between IBM, Google and Microsoft for leadership in the automatic translation technology. This art work talks about how, despite the monumental progress achieved, the impossibility of translating adequately from one language into another remains intact.
Surrounding Paik’s “Big Shou7lder” (a portentous android made out of radios and televisions from different times), Esmeralda Kosmaotopoulos lines up seven small retro-illuminated speakers that participate all together into a cacophonic speech. The speech commences from a neatly synchronized origin, where a mechanic voice recites the first verse of Homer’s Odyssey at a time. Then every speaker continues independently with fourteen successive translations that we hear back into English, while the sound grows in chaos and confusion until, like Odysseus, we return to the origin.
“Tell me, O muse of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home.”
This sort of technotronic interpretation of the fourteen places that Odysseus visited contains the archetypical features of the biblical narration of the Tower of Babel.
One language, English, whether as a starting point or as a unifying attempt. Genesis 11: 1-9 <<Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. >>
A powerful technology appears, such as the artificial intelligence that fuels the automatic translations systems, or the adobe brick. Genisis 11: 1-9 << They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. >>
And in the end comes the disproportionate pride: the hubris that dispersed men and confused their language. Genesis 11: 1-9 << Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens”. >> Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos may reveal the human insolence of pretending to turn the divine punishment around by means of another unstable and cacophonic tower. <<Come, let us build ourselves one world, with a machine that unifies the languages>>. What, if not a technological challenge, could have made Nam June Paik and Esmeralda Kosmatopoulos coincide?
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Writing by Alejandro Pardo