Franz Kafka’s novella Die Verwandlung (Metamorphasis ), 1915, opens with one of the most famous lines in European literature: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect’. Notably, the original German text does not describe Samsa’s new body as that of an ‘Insekt’, but rather that of an ‘Ungeziefer’, a term that denotes ‘an unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice’, and is used colloquially to mean something close to ‘bug’. Given Kafka’s linguistic precision (Hannah Arendt claimed that this Jewish Szech delivered up the ‘purest German prose of the century) translating his works is a complex business, which risks mutating language much as the unnamed and perhaps unknown force mutates the hapless Samsa.
Few efforts, however, stray quite so far from Kafka’s intentions as the artist Rory Macbeth’s project ‘The Wanderer’, 2008/9. A translation of Die Verwandlung attempted with no knowledge of German beyond a few learnt-by-chance phrases. Macbeth had not consulted any German/English dictionary. Presumbly informed by the artist’s memory or at least an ambient awareness of the novella, ‘The Wanderer’ is currently being adapted into a film by Laure Provost. Her show at MOT, entitled before, before, before it was, the title sequence, spinning before next, a squid, is billed as a prequel to this adaptation. The result isn’t so much Kafka-esque, as playfully Kafka-ish.
Beneath green strip lights, two black speakers stand back to back in the centre of the gallery, pumping out a looped recording of the artist narrating the thoughts and actions of a woman named Jenny, who is in search of a man named Gregor, perhaps the ‘Ungeziefer ‘ of Kafka’s tale. Jenny is disoriented, anxious, and quite probably drunk, stuck in a space she describes as the ‘before before’, a kind of existential anteroom. Around the walls, Prouvost has arranged a number of hinged plywood screens that variously recall polling booths, dole office info boards, and the incident rooms of a provincial police station—spaces where futures take shape.
As befits the bureaucratic architecture to which they belong, these uniform structures attempt to order and make sense of the melange of images, objects, texts and video footage they contain, but with little in the way of success. Between two of the screens, empty lager cans (the remnants of the private view celebrations?) collect like wind-blown leaves. On another, a provisional story board send Jenny and Gregor this way and that. Prouvost often addresses us directly (a mirror bears the words, in the artist’s trademark broken English, ‘HE IS GONE RUN OVER YOU IF YOU STAY THERE), or provides tautological stage directions (next to a big splash of ink, a handwritten sign helpfully announces ‘HERE IS A BIG SPLASH OF INK’).
Everywhere there is a sense of waiting: electric cables pooled for future use, a roll of lino standing ready to be unrolled, a flickering monitor partially covered by a swatch of black fabric, like a judge in a black cap about to pronounce his/her sentence. As the looped recording intones, ‘it’s wet, it’s so wet’, I think about the squid in Prouvost’s title. Squids release ink to either obscure themselves from a predator’s view, or to create a pseudomorph or ‘false body’ which a predator might be tricked into attacking in place of them. The pseudomorph is a translation, imperfect but good enough, a sign sacrificed so that the signified may survive. In a video piece shown on a small monitor, two fingers dabble in a glass of beer to the accompaniment of a piano. They look like tentacles, and their movements are vaguely masturbatory. Above them, a sign reads ‘IT’S A LANGUAGE’. Which one, though? Or what sort?
In another video, the artist’s voice (a quite incredible instrument—intimate, pressing, a little petulant, half perfume ad, half broken Speak and Spell machine) speaks the words ‘DON’T’, ‘LOOK’, ‘THERE’, ‘LOOK’, and ‘HERE’ as they appear on screen, in between footage of the opening of a fizzing can of beer and a cat chasing a bird, then pawing at its corpse. We might read these works singularly or consecutively, as poetry or diktat or as a combination of the two. Where exactly, though is ‘HERE’? One answer might be the moment before a narrative begins. The opening sentence of Die Verwandlung tells of an event so strange that the reader is compelled to ask ‘what next?’. With winning perversity, Prouvost turns our attention in the opposite direction: to the primordial, to the still-wet page, to language in its liquid state.
Tom Morton is a writer and curator based in London