Language, abstraction and translation

Preparatory sketch for Guernica, Pablo Picasso, Musée Les Abattoirs, Toulouse

When going to a museum with a 8-year old one needs to find ways to tell the stories that the pictures on the wall tell. The more explicit the story is the easier this is of course. European paintings from the Renaissance to the 19th century are always easier to translate than abstract modern art. Contemporary art often tells such strange stories and is so much defined by breaking common narrative or disturbing ‘normal’ codes that children are sometimes much faster to grasp their ideas. Looking at this preparatory sketch of Picasso’s Guernica with my 8-year old proved to be a particularly difficult exercise of abstraction. Not only should she understand that what is depicted here as relatively real-looking (a horse’s head in pain) was symbolic but also that the symbols reflected something she had never experienced from close or far (and hopefully never will): war, bombs, rubble, pain, screams, dust, panic, pain, blood and grieve so deep the deepest black cannot tell.

The stories therefore do not tell themselves but need to be translated into the experience of an 8-year old. When our worlds come to an end, our words must not necessarily but we need to find the images, experiences, resonances, thoughts and feelings that can replace the failing words. How do you look if you feel pain? What colour do you associate with fear? What movement would your body do? What sorrow do you see in my eyes now?

Silence, too, can be such a translation. If we have nothing more to say, if our silence indicates that words cannot be enough or right, then silence speaks. It is the recognition that we cannot enforce meaning or understanding but we can create an impression and a memory of the story that is told. Like a song whose sadness we understand by its melody and not its lyrics.

Such silence requires a lot of respect and acknowledgment. Our own self, our words have to stand back and let space be filled by the images, stories, ideas and feelings of others without being able of controlling, measuring or judging them. This is probably the most important reason why academia does not like silence and has no space for it to be expressed. Even the symbolic … is followed by words. Silence cannot be a space of power or authority. It diminishes the academic, it relativises the knowledge and stature that have been so studiously achieved through words, and more words. And this, this, makes the poverty of academia.