Through the Mirror of Translation: Aishan Yu’s Recent Works

A small stream of water is coming out from a tap, and yet, a comb with static
electricity bends its trajectory of flow. The image in Aishan’s
1=0.999999999999999... (1) is almost a photogram—from transparent to
milky-white, the gradient tones of the running water, the tap, the comb, and
the hand are seemingly the result of this simple science experiment being
recorded directly without a camera onto a piece of light-sensitive paper.
However, traces of pencil dust dirtying the white paper on its edge elicits
the truth, that it is a drawing of a black-and-white photograph inside a
vintage children’s book. This is where Aishan’s translation starts. The
translation is intermedial, crossing the boundary between photography
and drawing and yet proceeds back to the photographic effect of negative
imaging*. The slow process that this highly detailed drawing demands bears
the same qualities as the normally lengthy procedure of translation, both
as means of configuring transformations within the mind’s eye and the
subject’s phenomenological understanding of life.

Drawing calls out the unconscious, the ghost image embedded in the artist’s
inner self. In 1=0.999999999999999... (1), Aishan’s longstanding interest in the
phenomenon of shadow is played out, albeit unconsciously, in this
photogram-like image—for the physical essence of a photogram is exactly
the interplay between light and the shadows of the objects upon the
photosensitive surface. Only when the pencil dust smudges out the dazzle of
light from its edge will the viewer’s mind be pulled back from the
phantasmagoria of this eye-deceiving trick. Operating somewhere
in-between the almost right and not quite, this uncanny drawing turns the
scientific truth into an enigma.

Nevertheless, the artist reconsiders the postwar strategy of using found
imagery as an anti-subjective act and questions again the concept of originality
by using drawing—usually considered as a highly subjective means of art
making—to mimic found photographs through a process of what she calls
‘translation’. ‘I have to run my hand over these old photographs in order to
understand them.’ For Aishan, drawing is like gently touching the surface of
her object. Early photographs were unable to present the original scene in full
due to the long exposure time and other technological imperfections of the
camera, but it is precisely this blurred, colourless surface that invokes the artist’s
desire to ‘touch’— through the intensity of her gaze. Drawing is a bodily
experience: ‘as I draw, my pencil touches the paper, so does my hand**.’ Unlike
painting, drawing is indeed a kind of creative experience that is far more
intimate and personal for Aishan. It is a site of ceaseless phenomenological
interchange between the object of encounter

and the drawing subject via the intense gaze. Meticulously weaving her image,
the artist makes an autobiographical record of her discoveries from the process
of copying, and as such, the drawing becomes a powerful cure for the defect of

While the artist travels back in time, setting up a dialogue with the ghost
subject within these histories by means of her replicas, she makes a mark on
the edge of the black-and-white imagery as if to reclaim the presence of herself.
These coloured marks don’t lament distance, instead, they are traces of the here
and now. They function as footnotes, at once adding information to the imagery
at the centre and interrupting the viewer’s reading of the work. The marks
signify the author-translator’s agency within the work. The semiotic structure
between the marks and the translated imagery mirrors the act of translation as
a hermeneutic and experiential process. The marks operate within the works as
‘parergon’, supplementing the represented photograph but never being part of it***.
After Rousseau’s division of the drawing (the delineation the contours) as
life-giving part in the work and colour as a supplement, Kant adds to this notion
by pointing out the frames of paintings as parergon—a kind of marginal existence
that marks the limit between the intrinsic and the extrinsic****. Any framing device in
a painting, be it the curtain, the drapery, or a window, can be considered as
parergon. Hence, the green mark that seemingly imitates the trajectory of a ball
hitting a wall and bouncing back (1=0.999999999999999... (4)) or the blue mark
that seems to mimic the shape of the distracted water stream turned
up-side-down (1=0.999999999999999... (1)), are running their parergonal function
of the frame.

Sometimes the mark functions as a dagger, putting at risk the perfection of the
realistic drawings. In the 1=0.999999999999999... (3), a woman is gazing into a mirror
as if trapped in this pensive moment of the ever-shifting interchange between the
mirror image and herself. However, a hint of red paint startlingly invading this image
like a dagger’s blade, threatens to tear apart the drawn image’s slow motion and to
break the spell that the mirror image casts on the enchanted female subject. Likewise,
the neon ‘marks’ that are shining almost obscenely at the very edge of the exhibition
space are a pure shock to the spectator. They are like a joke, so detached from the
greyish tone of the show that the viewer feels lost when discovering their abrupt
existence at the corner. The sense of disorientation is a temporal one, resulting from a
dramatic shift in the viewing experience of the nostalgic drawings after historical
prints to the razzle-dazzle of the neon lights that register modern times. As such, the
tension between the two layers of temporalities of the quick marks and the slow
drawings grows outside of the frame into the exhibition space.

But are the marks really ‘quick’? They may have actually come after the long
meditative process of drawing, as the result of this pensive accumulation.
Aishan’s art asks us to interrogate the problem of translation as
‘1 = 0.999999999999999…’, an act of crossing boundaries via the gaps, the fissures,
and the interstices that are situated in between. Especially in the process of cultural
translation for the artist as a migrant inhabiting a non-native cultural environment,
the uncertainty of whether meaning has been successfully conveyed and
transferred always comes with communication. The marks bear the struggle and
weight of translation. Aishan’s work is an analogy mapped by this specific method
of human communication. It is also an effort to bridge art with an unexplainable
quality and the laws of nature proven with varying degrees of mathematical rigour.
The painting Translation 1 may have been created to be a mirror image of its
drawing counterpart or vice versa, however, something is lost midway. Aishan’s
work is a signifying structure: after all, everything is bracketed under the umbrella
of 1 = 0.999999999999999…




* The term ‘intermedial translation’ means translating across media. See Mieke Bal
  and Joanne Morra, ‘Editorial: Acts of Translation’, in Journal of Visual Culture, April
  2007, p 7.
** See James Elkins’s email exchange with John Berger in Berger on Drawing,
   ed.Jim Savage, Ireland : Occasional Press, 2005, p 106.
*** For more on parergon, see Jacques Derrida, ‘the Parergon’, in October, Vol. 9
   (Summer, 1979), pp. 3-41.
**** Craig Owens, “Detachment from the ‘Parergon’, in October, Vol. 9, 1979, p 45.