Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"In This Dark Wood" by Elisabeth Tonnard (J&L Books)


"In The Dark Wood" has become an obsession of sorts, due to the combination of found images and in a funny way, found text. "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/mi ritrovai per una selva oscura/ché la via diritta era smarrita" this being the opening line to Dante's "Inferno," here translated from Italian to English 91 times. Elisabeth Tonnard had gathered photographs from a street vendor Joseph Selle and his 'Fox Movie Flash' that was placed very close to a movie theater where he or they took pictures of people as they walk down the boulevard. The chosen images are all shot in the nighttime, and they share a quality of singular people either lost in thought, strolling down the street, or a determination to go from one destination to another. Most of the images of the women seem to be carrying packages of all sorts, which suggests that they went shopping, and there is only one photograph of a mother holding her child's hand. The men on the other hand, with some exceptions, are not carrying any items, and seemed to be wandering perhaps from their work place, or even leaving the movie theater.

For example one of the text's translations, "Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/for I had wandered off from the straight path" brings a sense of the spirit of the Flâneur, but with a darker connotation. Suggesting that these people are walking in darkness (nighttime as well as spiritually) is a reading or more of a 'replacement' by Tonnard. In that manner the book is very Situationist like in that it deals with the juxtaposition of image with the text that gives it a new meaning.

Also reading the text over and over again (with separate images) is fascinating as well. Similar to Raymond Queneau's “Exercises in Style” one reads the same phrase, but the difference between the translations gives it a separate reading of the text or at the very least, a slight change of Dante's intention with the lines, which can be very slight. I suspect Tonnard was not concerned about the quality of the translation but just the beauty of the language as well as the pictorial image of the text, and what it conveys with respect to the path that is not perfectly good.

If the book had a volume, this work would be on mute, but you can clearly feel the vibrations, and part of the joy is thinking about the specific text with that image. Dante wrote a beautiful piece of poetry of sorts, and the images convey the thought and the haunting of Dante's words, but through 91 translations of the same phrase. Also one can make out the words on the movie theater marquee “Petrified World.” Which is perfect of course.  



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