Christian Jankowski: Swiss Institute. (New York)

Article excerpt

Robert Frost famously remarked that poetry is what gets lost in translation. Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski seems to have taken the bard to heart, albeit turning his dictum on its head. By fashioning art out of the strange, often wonderful juxtapositions that arise in witty linguistic and visual transformations, Jankowski has arguably made translation itself his medium. For a piece, Let's Get Physical/Digital (recently shown at Apex Art in New York), Jankowski and his girlfriend, he in Stockholm, she in Milan, restricted their communication for a week to instant-message conversations on the Internet. The transcript of their perfectly ordinary exchanges was then translated from German into Swedish and given to seven pairs of actors, who played out the two roles in a series of vignettes that were videotaped, given English subtitles, and broadcast on the Web--made digital again. Mediation and translation make up the very fiber of the project, and it is precisely in the slippage between the written and t he spoken--between the digital and the physical--that the quotidian graduates to art. The transcript records several moments of lost connection between the two computers; when reenacted by the young "lovers" looking searchingly into each other's eyes, the repeated question "Are you there?" carries a potent emotional charge.

More typically, however, Jankowski's transformations traffic in sly humor rather than angst. All three performative videos on view in the artist's New York solo debut handle weighty issues with a light touch. My Life as a Dove, a series of photographs and a grainy video projection documenting a 1996 project, is the earliest piece here. Jankowski hired a magician to "transform" him into a bird, which remained in a cage in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. For three weeks, the "artist" was fed and photographed by gallery visitors; he was restored to his usual form in a ceremony at the show's close. Though gimmicky in an art-school kind of way, My Life as a Dove neatly embodies the kind of alchemical transformations that are central to Jankowski's production. By turning artist into animal, no matter how illusion-lessly, Jankowski reformulates classic modernist questions concerning the nature of all artistic production. …