Written in the first person, curator Elinor Morgan’s exhibition text for ‘The Spirit of the Staircase’ reads like a conversation between friends: ‘I am interested in the time – whether seconds or centuries – that something is in translation.’ Whilst, at first, Morgan’s tone may seem casual, the result is a sense of intimacy that prevailed throughout the exhibition.
In the entrance corridor, Sophie Mallett and Marie Toseland’s audio piece, 2s from the Bottom Up (2015), features a woman recounting a medical procedure: ‘She asked about my last sexual partner and whether it had been a relationship. I said that it had lasted for two months.’ The procedure is unpleasant, ‘uncomfortable enough to make my thoughts collapse’, she admits. She tries to remember the names of the men she has slept with, in order. (Their names become syllables, letters, hollow sounds.) She thinks about a story she has read. She describes her embarrassment at the situation (her flesh exposed – both to a stranger and to herself). None of this is confessional – it’s just painfully intimate; too intimate for the relatively public space of the gallery entrance, where the visitor is visible to passers-by, uncomfortable.
The themes of physicality and the body returned in Danilo Correale’s ‘Boosted’ (2014), a series of ten faux-silk rectangles linked to a metal frame hanging from the ceiling. The scarf-like objects, printed with the recognizable logos of energy drinks, wave in the air, connecting layers of the synthetic, from Red Bull to artificial silk. Elsewhere, Andrew Gillespie’s silkscreens on cast concrete were scattered throughout the room on the floor. One shows part of the mascot of the New York baseball team, Mr. Met (Mets, 2015), another a black and yellow abstract stain (I Am the Resurrection, 2015), a third fragments of an upbeat text in which the only comprehensible words are ‘but’, ‘life’ and ‘remember’ (Inspirational, 2015). In a way, the act of translation here is too transparent, with the titles spelling out meanings of the works. The installation, with Gillespie’s pieces on the floor and Correale’s suspended from the ceiling, made for a beautifully hung exhibition, which used the space to its full potential; their inclusion, however, felt too literal.
Beth Collar’s more oblique take on the theme or translation brought a much-needed political dimension to the show. Do not feel too guilty about all of this because you only reported what you saw, and what you saw was only 150 meters on either side of the Holiday Inn (2015) is a consideration of the fraught position of journalists reporting from the front line – in this case, during the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. Ink drawings suggesting the views from the titular hotel where the journalists were holed up at a safe remove from the turmoil were accompanied by a short video superimposing dialogue (‘understand the crimes that are going on’) with archival news footage. Do not … is an examination of proximity and its failure that, whilst refraining from direct criticism, implies that being present does not necessarily generate meaningful interaction.
The focus of Sue Tompkins’s the view from the long couch (2015) was more intimate. A compilation of large newsprints with typewritten texts that spread across one gallery wall, the elements of the work do not cohere into a story: lines such as ‘smell the metallic strike for change’ and ‘you know / meeting you here’ run into and alongside one another to create something that is a messy amalgamation of sentimental notes, memories and accounts without any unifying thread. No one can paste these fragments together into a single statement: they are a testament to the challenges of language that does not communicate.
Translation is possibly too fluid a subject for an exhibition, resulting in an ‘anything goes’ approach because terms are always in a state of flux. Here, the slipperiness of the act of translation was most successfully conveyed by those pieces that were based on unreliable narration – reflections on the impossibility of creating an accurate account. The exhibitions title alludes to ‘staircase wit’ – a calque from the French expression l’esprit d’escalier, meaning those witticisms thought of too late. This seemed fitting – the sculptural work appeared too clunky for the subtleties of moving fluidly between languages, while the different strategies of re-writing in the projects of Collar, Mallet & Toseland and Tompkins imply a staircase-sense of regret and revision.