I wrote this paper a couple of weeks ago alongside my Frieze post about (          ) for a seminar on ‘originality’ in art. It builds on a review I wrote of Peter Dreher’s 2007 Approach exhibition on the Kultur Fabric blog. I’m thinking about Dreher’s work again today in terms of the ‘event’ in art (these seminars seem to have catchy one-word themes) in the hope that I can make originals and events meet.

I’d like to use translation as a frame through which to consider the critique of originality implicit in Peter Dreher’s Tag um Tag ist guter Tag (“Day by Day is a Good Day”). I argue that its ‘flattened’ quality opens the work to the dynamic of translation, and in so doing, positions it as a translation of itself.

peter-dreher-glasses-002

Tag um Tag is an ongoing work consisting of over four thousand near-identical paintings of the same glass of water against the same simple backdrop. The glass is framed identically on each canvas, and variation between paintings is restricted to subtle differences in light and colour that reflect the changing conditions in the studio. Only around forty of the paintings fitted onto the walls of the Approach gallery where I saw them last summer, hung serially along each of the four walls of the room.

The work is abundantly quiet. Visually, each painting has a muted palette and the elementary subject matter proposes stillness. The repeated presence of the glass, never moved, never filled nor emptied, adds to the quietness of the subject itself, offering a durational narrative in which nothing happens, and continues to happen.

1740-tag-um-tag-ii

I would argue that the unending repetition of the work superimposes a second order of stillness upon this visual narrative of unchange, and that this second stillness operates analogously to the translated text.

The translated text resists being read and instead continually points elsewhere, out of its own pages and into a different (original) text. The translation is a placeholder for the conspicuously absent original work, and yet it reads as a complete, self-contained work. The result is an uncomfortable investment of trust in the translation to fulfill the promise that its completeness implies, while this investment is continually undercut by the palpable absence of the original, which exists, but is elsewhere.

As in textual translation, each of Dreher’s repeated paintings operates in explicit recourse to some other painting. Accordingly, when I was with the work my investment in any single image was persistently interrupted by the immediacy of its neighbours, which continually persuaded me to demote the individual in favour of the whole despite the engrossing appeal of each painting. And almost all of the thousands of paintings were absent, in storage perhaps, and their absence was stamped on the work over and over again by the numbers scratched into the paint above each glass: 1740; 2700; 1834; 3397… impossibly high numbers for a series of paintings, and impossible ever to understand as a whole, even if they had all been in the room with me. The paintings resisted apprehension as either individual images or as a single work.

But the definitive divergence from textual translation is this: in Tag um Tag, there is no original. There is no single authoritative painting of which these thousands are all descendents, nor even an original glass and backdrop that epitomize the sum of the work. All we have are innumerable translations, none of which concur.

For the reader of a translated text, the feeling of alienation – of finding yourself wholly invested in something you simultaneously understand is not really there – is haunted by the frustration of an original text that is just out of reach. But in Tag um Tag the alienation of the viewer is drawn in upon itself and concluded within its own circularity, resulting not in frustration but in the feeling of stillness and peace that (eventually) pervades the work. The investment in the pulse of absence elicited by Dreher’s paintings is total, because the work is nothing but reference, and refers only to itself.

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