- “In the Beginning”… an Intermedial Babel
I think in images. Poems help me to do this.1
In the Beginning was a major exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s work at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn in 2012. The exhibition included, among other works, several large-scale lead book sculptures, and featured Bavel Balal Mabul (2012),2 an installation filling an entire room and bringing together many of Kiefer’s key themes: mythology, memory, and history; apocalypse, regeneration, and transformation. It shows the tower of Babel in the shape of a spiral staircase-like structure, spanning from floor (the Earth) to ceiling (the Heavens). Tumbling down the metal stairs are picture rolls that gather at the bottom of the tower like the wastage on the cutting room floor of a photographer’s or a movie editor’s suite. If we look more closely, we notice that these ribbons of paper are each composed of multiple black and white photographs.3 Strung together, the photographs are like a film reel. Each photograph depicts a tower and as a reel they show towers at various stages of (de)composition. The images come from other gigantic installations Kiefer created, including the architectural landscape of concrete towers molded from shipping containers at his studio in Bajac, France.
The very name of the Bonn sculpture captures the confusion of languages associated with the Babel myth. The name “babel” () is a mingling of the letters from the word “balal”(), which in Hebrew means to mix or to confound, while “mabul” () is the Hebrew word for flood. The work itself is a mesh of different materials and media: a mixed media sculpture of steel, lead, and photo paper. Bavel Balal Mabul is one of several of Kiefer’s reworkings of the Babel myth and a title he has used for another sculpture exhibited in Milan in 2012 in the form of a printing press. From this press spill out a tangle of photo papers, which like their Bonn counterpart depict various towers. Juxtaposed here are an old technology (print) and a new technology (photography, film).4 It is as if Kiefer is drawing our attention to Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (15–16). The content of film is photography, the content of photography is painting, or in Kiefer’s case, the content of the sculpture is print and film and the content of the photo stills are sculptures.
As the spectator moves around the Bonn installation and takes in its details, the eyes must zoom in on the stills of the picture rolls. Only [End Page 112] then can we see the details of the towers. When we step back, zoom out so to speak, we take in the work as a whole, albeit only ever from the partial perspective of where we are standing in relation to the sculpture. While the work is static, simulating movement only in the tumbling of photo paper rolls uncurling across the gallery floor, our movements as spectators around the sculpture, coming closer and stepping back, put the work in motion for us. Intermediality here is not only a descriptor for a multi-media artwork like Bavel Balal Mabul, it is also a descriptor of our engagement with it. More than that, intermediality is what this work is arguably about. In the beginning was intermediality. Kiefer’s sculpture is the starting point of this essay, because it brings together the three areas I want to explore: mediality, intermediality, and translation.
Roman Jakobson argued that interlingual (as opposed to intralingual or intersemiotic) translation defined the study of “translation proper” (233).5 In the 1990s, many translation theorists argued that formalist approaches of this kind tended to overlook the importance of culture as a unit of translation, and therefore proposed intercultural translation as a renewed way of thinking about translation.6 I would like to add intermedial translation to this already growing taxonomy, not least because interlingual and intercultural studies of translation have largely been blind to the extent to which mediality is an underlying condition – one might say the a priori – of all cultural output and cultural...