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Displacement and Translation in the Work of Stephen Prina

Stephen Prina, Dom Hotel, Room 101, 1995. Courtesy Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla. Pictured: Stephen Prina
The origin of much of Stephen Prina’s work lies in his appropriation of cultural artefacts. Whether it be Manet’s paintings, a group of photographs documenting the exhibitions of an art gallery…
Stephen Prina, Dom Hotel, Room 101, 1995. Courtesy Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla. Pictured: Stephen Prina

The origin of much of Stephen Prina’s work lies in his appropriation of cultural artefacts. Whether it be Manet’s paintings, a group of photographs documenting the exhibitions of an art gallery, the plot of a book, a film script, a Beethoven symphony or a piece of architecture, his installations, videos and performances stem from reflections on the production and reception of other works of art (much of which derive from past phases of Modernism). In each of his projects Prina strives to establish a new frame of reference for these ‘objects’, producing alternative contents that affect not only the original works but also his own interventions. In this sense, his pieces can be considered parallel systems that generate supplements or excesses of meaning that are superimposed on the work from which he has departed.

In a lecture delivered in Rotterdam in 1992, Prina defined his work as ‘system specific’01 to explain the differences between his practice and the traditional concepts of site specificity and institutional criticism. Despite the fact that Prina pays great attention to the places in which his works are displayed, they always seek points of reference that transcend their settings and which relate specifically to various discursive factors triggered by the cultural artefacts that shape his projects. This approach creates a tension between synchronism and diachronism, presence and absence, that invites viewers to reflect upon the historical aspects of artistic production. Prina regards exhibition spaces – museums in particular – as dialectical environments in which numerous voices strike up a dialogue between events of the past and their present meanings.

Taking into account these idiosyncrasies, it should come as no surprise that one of the most significant works of his career has been the reproduction of all the images by Impressionist painter Édouard Manet, who, like Prina, regarded both exhibition context and quotations from earlier works of art as key factors in his artistic project. Exquisite Corpse: The Complete Paintings of Manet(1988-ongoing) is composed of the 556 works that have been determined as Manet’s by his catalogue raisonné. At each presentation Prina selects three of these pictures, which he partially reproduces: making drawings of the same size and shape of the originals, yet replacing their pictorial content with monochromatic surfaces produced by brushstrokes of watercolour wash in sepia. Another smaller drawing is always displayed to the right of each of the three pictures, featuring all 556 Manet works, reduced in scale and accompanied by entries that contextualise those selected on each occasion, allowing the viewer to situate each painting in relation to the complete corpus of Manet’s work. What is important in this piece is not so much the actual image as the circumstances surrounding it: the chronology, titles and places or collections in which each work belongs. Viewers are obliged to modify their relationship with the works of art, to reflect upon aspects that generally remain in the background and to envisage the different paths all these paintings may have travelled from the moment they were created to the present. The appropriation does not, therefore, consist in a mere visual quotation from other works of art, but in a historical analysis of the conditions of their reception. In the artist’s own words: ‘A lot of people have tried to see in my drawings the image of a Manet painting. That’s not a concern of mine. It’s not image to image that I’m interested in, but labour to labour.’02

In problematising the relationship between artworks and the way in which they are classified and archived, Exquisite Corpseexplores the effect of the passing of time on work. Another proposal in which he examined similar concerns is Galerie Max Hetzler (1991), an installation consisting of 163 contact prints of re-photographed photographs documenting all the exhibitions held at Galerie Max Hetzler in Cologne over seventeen years (1974-1991), labels which refer to each work and nine architectural models of the spaces occupied by the gallery during those years. At its first presentation the work acted like a memory exercise that invited viewers to re-create the different phases the space went through since its inauguration, as if it were in fact possible to subjectively evoke all absent experiences and events and thus attain a new perception of the present. The current space became host to multiple temporal dimensions, and the mutual relationships created from them.

Later on, when the work was shown in other places, Prina decided that successive presentations should reproduce the original installation as precisely as possible. It was a matter, therefore, of superimposing the organisation of the 1991 space in Cologne onto the different places in which Galerie Max Hetzler would be subsequently shown. So, for instance, a series of images that had hung on a stairway at Max Hetzler also ascended diagonally, for no apparent reason, on the wall at the Luhring Augustine Hetzler gallery in Los Angeles in 1992. In such a way Prina investigated the effect of changed context on site-specific work: the variations it undergoes and the temporality and historicity these emphasise. In the different iterations of Galerie Max Hetzler, the work depended upon a double alterity (temporal and spatial) that had a bearing on the way in which the different contexts affected its meaning.

In turn, this working procedure leads to a ‘narrative’ of artistic practice, a sort of story or discursive structure that is foregrounded and stimulated from the minute the work moves away from its original referent. The re-installations of the work create a game of differences, supplements and excesses that affect its meaning, making it regenerate or mutate at each new presentation, like the chapters of a never-ending story. This linguistic dimension is clear in Dom Hotel, Room 101 (1995), a project inspired by the film Not Reconciled, Or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965) by the film-makers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, which was an adaptation of Heinrich Böll’s novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine(1959). The film dispensed with a whole chapter, containing a monologue in which a character (Johanna Fähmel) bemoans the political persecution suffered by one of her sons in Nazi Germany in the thirties, and the death of her other son during World War II. In a publication included in the installation, Prina reproduced the monologue, printed in Gothic script on black, red and yellow paper, evoking the German flag, and presented it in the same room at the Dom Hotel in Cologne in which Fähmel’s character appears in a scene in the film. Finally, Dom Hotel replicated Room 101 in an enclosure within the gallery – built in wood, no higher than waist level – in which copies of the book containing the monologue were displayed as well as a still from the film showing Fähmel in the original space.

This sophisticated referential system, which may although occasionally seem opaque and barely accessible, was intended to reconstruct a story through a structure comprising a range of both spatial and linguistic elements. It is obvious, however, that Prina is not too interested neither in literal identifications between the works and places, nor in absolute synchrony between the spaces and his interventions. Rather than ‘trying to trace a unique originality’ he strives to develop ‘an expansiveness and productivity of readings.’03 In other words, he attempts to create a project that starts from a specific space or referent and may be extended in through time, thus giving rise to a combined process of re-contextualisation and translation; a project that at once questions and updates the traditions of institutional critique and site-specificity. We find ourselves before an ‘iterable’04concept of the work of art, where each successive presentation produces transformations, new meanings and interpretations and where the various aspects related to the dissemination of the work (exhibitions, institutions, markets and historiography) become a key part of the artistic project.

This ‘iterable’ condition of the art work leads to an ‘itinerant’ notion, as can be appreciated in the different versions of the project The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You (2006-ongoing). This sort of ‘mini-Broadway musical on the road’, as the artist has described it, consists of a number of elements: a set of boxes like those used to pack artworks, which with their padding provided soft benches for viewers, and sound systems situated inside the benches, connected to nine loudspeakers, eight of which are placed on one of the walls and the ninth elsewhere, illuminated by a spotlight. In addition, the floor is covered in a carpet of the same pastel colours as the cushions and walls: vanilla, pale blue or light pink, according to each version. Finally, a caption runs along the upper part of the room like a frieze, bearing different messages: ‘I ain’t n-n-no conceptual artist’, ‘Things that Felix forgot to tell us’, ‘Aspiring to the conditions of light industry’, etc., which allude to the songs heard through the loudspeakers, performed by Prina himself and based on texts by authors such as Alexander Alberro, Julie Ault, Roland Barthes, Marcel Broodthaers, Johanna Burton, Andrea Fraser, Bettina Funcke and William Shakespeare.

Here the artist’s voice, accompanied by a guitar and his melancholy yet humorous air, acts as an absent character. The Second Sentence… speaks of the distance between the moment of production and the ‘pre-recorded’ or ‘deferred’ relationship that the viewer establishes with the work – a link implicit in the actual title, where ‘you’ is the viewer.05Furthermore, the fact that the work’s components (especially the carpet, the mats on the benches and the boxes) should reveal signs of having been used has a precise bearing on the work’s demonstration of the conditions of production and dissemination of art in the context of the culture and entertainment industries. As pointed out by the writer and theorist Nuit Banai, ‘Prina reveals the basic condition of exile that was always constitutive of the modernist art object and that continues to stimulate contemporary art production. Because an art work does not exist without social visibility, it is fated to perpetually wander the globe in search of its next public venue. Like migratory communities such as the circus or the solitary transience of the travelling salesman, the work is expected to simultaneously entertain, edify, and market itself in order to survive.’06

Starting from a reflection on the physical displacements experienced by works of art and the way in which these relate to the different contexts they traverse, Prina’s artistic discourse explores the semantic changes inherent in such processes. He underscores their historicity and alludes to the key role played by language and ‘translation’ (between different artistic media, different spaces) in the composition of his works over the course of time. As a result, and in contrast to the strengthening of the identity or self-sufficiency of the art work in the past, characterised by the notion of ‘independence’, Prina seems to aspire to a form of artistic practice based on the creation of differences, proposing intercultural conversations between disciplines, contexts and subjectivities that afford his works nuances, accents and unexpected contents as they gradually unfold in space and in time.

Prina’s artistic project questions the traditions of the ‘autonomous’ object and of site-specific practices, and tries to create new attitudes and behaviours that take into account the present conditions of cultural production. The notion of an ‘itinerant’ and ‘iterable’ process endows his works with a marked historicity. A singular capacity to refer to different/changing contexts, and to free itself of the ‘unique originality’ or the intransigence of literal site-specificity, in order to develop ‘an expansiveness and productivity of readings’. To summarise, this kind of approach provokes – as the art historian James Mayer has pointed out – that projects like Prina’s ‘cease to be strictly bond to a concrete situation; to become a temporary thing, a movement, a chain of meanings and imbricated histories, instead of an object that is literally rooted to a place.’07It is perhaps for these reasons that Prina’s work can be considered as an interesting contribution to the revived debate on the role of artistic practices and modernism in a globalised world.

– Pedro de Llano


  • Lecture delivered at the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in October 1992. Quoted in Mark Kremer and Camiel Van Winkel, ‘Interview with Stephen Prina’, (last accessed on 5 May 2009)
  • Prina’s work bears a resemblance to that of artist Christopher Williams. Both artists’ works take as their starting point images, objects or installations that allude to their own production processes. An earlier referent would also be Hans Haacke’s work MANET Projekt (1974), which pieced together the path followed by one of Manet’s paintings from the time of its conception to the present.
  • M. Kremer and C. Van Winkel, ‘Interview with Stephen Prina’, op. cit.
  • Jacques Derrida employs the term ‘iterable’ to refer to a sign that relates repetition to alterity according to context. From this concept we may infer that there is no such thing as a ‘natural context’ for an expression and hence one cannot speak of ‘normal’ or ‘paradigmatic’ contexts. See J. Derrida, ‘Signature, Event, Context’, in Margins of Philosophy (trans. Alan Bass), Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • In a recent interview Prina explained that the title emerged from a conversation with the writer and literary critic Lynn Thomas: ‘When I admitted my literary ignorance, she confessed that if the first sentence of a book is not powerful she stops reading it. It’s a simple idea, but it has since made me ask myself, whenever I start a book, “Would Lynn consider this sentence compelling?”. It became a kind of joke with myself; it made me laugh because as a result Lynn is somehow present in texts from around the world.’ Javier Díaz Guardiola, ‘Interview with Stephen Prina’, ABCD Las artes y las letras, Madrid, 7 February 2009.
  • Nuit Banai, ‘Stephen Prina: Mutating Modernism’, Art Papers, September-October 2008, p.24.
  • James Meyer, “The Functional Site, or the Transformation of Site-Specificity”, included in the catalogue of the exhibition Platzwechsel: Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, Mark Dion, Christian Philipp Müller (Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, ed.), Kunsthalle Zürich, Zürich, 1995, pp. 24-39. Reprinted in the book Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art (ed. Erika Suderburg), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2000, p.27.