overhaul / undertow

Sunday, November 23, 2003

no translation needed

So for Coagula I had to go interview this gallery director off of Beverly and Crescent Heights ( this one, if you're interested), and review the show he has installed there: Gil Garcetti's photos of Disney Hall, in downtown LA.

Mat, my editor, did a lot of snickering when he assigned me this one, 'cos it truly does at first glance seem smarmy: ex-District Attorney gets hired by highfalutin' building company to document the construction of one of LA's most visible buildings.

My honest assessment: I found the photos to range from okay (artfully documentarian) to good (the photo image creating something truly new and different from the subject matter, and that something being created actually intriguing and involving to look at and think about). I don't think any were really really earthshattering, but yes--some were damn fine photos. I've never been big on photography though, so maybe I'm missing something.

I was talking with the gallery owner/director who really seemed earnestly to love the photos. Which, I guess, helps when you're selling them for 8,500 dollars. In describing Garcetti's approach to the work, the director paused and fixed me with a stare. "My first language isn't English, you know," he said.

I looked at his skeptically. Tall, overweight, graying and balding, with a scruffy unkept beard that didn't conceal his lack of a chin--no way was this guy from Europe. Only an American would not give this much of a shit about his appearance. Those Europeans are always put-together.

By way of explaining, he reminisced about an experience he'd had at a meeting with some fellow small-business owners (a digression: for some reason I never thought of an art gallery as a "small business." "Small business" always brought to mind an auto repair shop, or a catering agency, or a floral shop...you know, like in those credit-card commercials that promise to "get your small business off on the right foot...", with warm sepia-toned images of businesslike--yet motherly--young professional women earnestly potting orchids or baking bread while accepting packages from couriers and looking intently at their laptops...but whatever)...

So he was at this meeting, and the man speaking was a guy who owned a music studio and recorded/produced primarily classsical music--orchestras, big and small. And he was speaking to the group, and as he spoke he gesticulated, with his right hand--up and down, then reaching up towards his face and then extending back out to the audience, and back and forth, back and forth, rhythmically--


His movements were exactly those of an orchestra's conductor, shinking to tiny constricted movements as his speech contracted, then expanding wildly as his words poured out faster and faster. He couldn't think without thinking musically; only then did his brain translate the sound into language, into words, into English. His gesticulating hand betrayed the inner translation, the interpretation from sound to speech going on under the spoken words.

"So, for me, my first language is primarily visual," explained the man in front of me, shrugging. "I have to picture something in my head, to fully understand and apprehend it. And I see this work by Gil, and I can see--he is too. Visual. His modality is visual before speech. It's how he thinks. You can see it." And he nodded back at a large print behind him depicting the undulating walls of the music hall as they abruptly sank into the darkness of shadow, and then erupted into the negative space of the sky.

I looked at the photos, huge hung on the wall, and thought about the director's story. I wondered silently, what's my first language?

Interesting. It's English.

Words. I think in words. Worlds flower and unfurl in expanding rings in my mind, and it's all verbalized, set to speech like music, but in utter silence: just the words, each signifying for an idea, a thought, a substance like ether, nebulous, undefined, expanding to fill space yet with just the right word--just the precise one--you can capture it, distill it, condense it into the most magical transformative potion, pure vital unabashed and wildly exploding life compressed and crystallized into one single utterance.

Garcetti and the gallery owner may think in images before they try to put them into words; that small-business owner may have to conduct an orchestra to give structure and rhythm to the ideas within him; perhaps a sculptor thinks, first and foremost, in tactile sensations, and only then attempts to cast them into speech. Somehow I feel lucky, though. These words come pure and unadulterated, untranslated, no vagaries of interpretation to filter or dilute them. These words are my heart and soul.

The words, the writing, without it I could not live.


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