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Presentation of Alessandra Russo’s The Untranslatable Image

This presentation took place on April 16, 2014, at Book Culture, New York.

I did not come here to tell you about Alessandra’s book, The Untranslatable Image. Both Serge Gruzinski and Alexander Nagel are more informed and have so much more to say. You came here to listen to them, and I won’t keep you from it.

On the other hand, you know, I have one privilege: I am authorized to spend some minutes talking about friends and books, and I don’t see why I should forfeit this privilege. Especially in this particular, very rare case in which one reads a scholarly book with the passion and the pleasure one normally reserves for novels or poetry. Especially for poetry. Because, even though we might have forgotten it in this “scholarly era”, writing is always about poetry –that is, about making things with words. Alessandra makes lots of things with words that un-translate untranslatable images and untranslatable experiences. She is a magnificent un-translator for one reason: in her book, the personal pronoun I is not a part of the grammar; it is, instead, the link that connects her research with her soul –partially made out paper, as she herself reminds us, by means of Tournier’s Le Roi des Aulnes, in her book. We can read the book with her voice; actually, we should read the book with her voice, because the rhythm of this voice is the one that beats across the book. Of course, she makes hundreds of discoveries, by traveling from convent to convent, or from library to library, by crawling around the dust-guard or guardapolvo of tens of cloisters, trying to read complex graffiti from the colonial era.

Let me just give you some examples. The whole book is framed by the almost serendipitous way in which Alessandra, typically helping somebody out (because she is, above all, a generous friend), finds herself with some books of a certain Serge Gruzinski. Or when, wandering around “L’Arbre à Lettres” with her mind full of abstract thoughts, she holds in her hands Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies –more or less in the way some other writer is walking around Toledo’s alcaná only to find an aljamiado book about a certain don Quijote. Children, don’t try this at home. Neither that particular “Arbre à Lettres” nor Cervantes’s silker exist anymore. Later, she invites us to make a longer detour to follow her across the convents of Mexico in search of malicias, or pasquinades, while she repeats the words attributed to Hernán Cortés “pared blanca, papel de necios”, that immediately reminded me of a graffito I have seen in Italy a number of times, “muro pulito, popolo muto.” Are these certainly soiled walls the “paper for fools” supposedly claimed by Cortés, or the space for wisdom and truth claimed by some anonymous wall-writer as a response to Cortés? Alessandra knows that they speak an untranslatable language that she needs to translate, and then we have to become her to go through, at least, some of those images with immense hats, or bug-like bicephalous eagles, or crowned eagles that turn out to be leopards *passant*. This is the book about Alessandra climbing up the rooftop of the church of Atlatlauhcan to find the point of view of Turcios’s map, and about Alessandra in conversation with some inhabitants of the Rancho san Bartolo, who will show her how the map of Tecualoyan is, in fact, the territory, at least in that photo, taken by herself, in which these four men hold the map as if it was a byzantine icon.

I don’t have to tell you why this book is important for some scholarly fields, or for the History of Art, or for Iberian Studies, or for the Anthropology of Visual Culture –I am not even sure this field exists at all. This is Serge and Alex’s task; they are the specialists. I am just a reader, and as such, my only mission is to tell you why this book does not belong to Alessandra anymore, or to any of you, for that matter, as it belongs to me, it is now part of me, and I am the owner of its poetics. Also, because I am not a specialist in the field, my pencil was optional, and I could mark whatever I fancied, like for instance a sentence or a series of sentences I simply liked, and with which I could build a poem:

“The rhythm of the description in Nahuatl reveals another way of observing the consecutive effects produced by the iridescence of the feathers.” (24)

“Postwar plumes” (26)

“a tiny insect armed with two great antennas promenading at ease along the humid walls.” (78)

“the Western frontiers between sacred and profane are continuously crisscrossed.” (99)

“Signed mountains.” (128)

And so on.

Like Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, according to Alessandra, I also get “sensory pleasure and intellectual attraction” from reading this book (57). It is difficult not to. I have spoken a bit about sensory pleasure. I would argue that, at least in my case, it is impossible to disentangle both kinds of feelings. But if I had to, and then I had to talk about the intellectual pleasure, I think I would be in for a really difficult question. What would be the intellectual attraction I would pinpoint? The sensation of discovery that the book unleashes at every page? The sudden experience of many living individuals becoming artists? The effusion of objects being used and reused in such different ways? A new language –Nahuatl, for instance– giving out its concepts right there and then, and just for me? The societies that are forming and reinventing themselves in front of my eyes? The new ways of observing, of reading, of making that Alessandra is constantly highlighting for her readers? Perhaps I should choose one that is really close to my heart: a real contribution to the theory of history. This is what it is. Exactly the claim that she makes from the beginning of the book to the curtain: what I am going to tell you –says Alessandra– is not a history of mestizo art, but rather a mestizo history of art. This is what gave me more intellectual pleasure; more than I can tell.

Her main contribution, in my humble opinion, comes very early in the book, and constitutes the backbone for her insightful and poetic analyses. It is the idea that it is not “mestizo” objects that we are looking at, even if they mix varied elements, and materials, and techniques –in this sense, all art is “mestizo”, precisely because it is the process of a complex production. What needs to be considered “mestizo” is history itself, the ways in which agents, users, readers and networks, deal with those objects. The “mestizo” historian of art needs, in the words of Alessandra, to “reconstruct the genealogy” of these pieces, “to show that they are the result of the articulation between parts, each of which remains somewhat autonomous.” (36) This “mestizo” art history de-exoticizes art practices, focusing on the contemporariness of the work of art; for art is always contemporary.

But I promised I would not take too much of your time, and I have already spoken for too long. I am easily carried away when it comes to talk about this book and its author. I can’t help it. Should I be sorry about that? I don’t think so.

To talk about this book today we have the author herself, and we also have two wonderful scholars and intellectuals, Serge Gruzinski, professor at Princeton and at the ÉHESS, and author of books like La pensée métisse, Quelle heure est-il là bas?, or, now, The Eagle and the Dragon; and Alexander Nagel, Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU, and the author of two important recent books, Anachronic Renaissance, with Christopher Wood, and Medieval Modern.

Please join me in welcoming our distinguished guests.

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