Eloisa Ibarra's "The Seed of Babel" reflects on our shifting language


In "The Seed of Babel," now on view at the University of Minnesota's Quarter Gallery, Uruguayan artist Eloisa Ibarra shows 20 representations of the Tower of Babel using traditional printmaking techniques layered with iterations of the internet age. The work, which is curated by Alfredo Torres, meditates on language in the midst of the internet age.


The Tower of Babel (though it's not actually called that in the Bible) comes from the story in Genesis where human beings decide to build a huge structure that reaches up into the heavens. They are thwarted when God makes them suddenly all speak different languages. They can't communicate with each other, and end up not finishing construction on the tower.

For Ibarra's earth-toned, often spiraled towers, she layers symbols of our computer age -- QR codes, binary patterns, and so forth -- as a way to show how language has evolved into new realms beyond just speaking and writing. 

In addition to the prints, a snippet from Jorge Luis Borges's La biblioteca de Babel (The Library of Babel) is presented as a translation in English, and then is translated into other languages before finally being translated into English again, which is utterly incomprehensible. There are also QR codes throughout the gallery that you can scan with a smart phone and listen to in an audio format. 

In Borges's The Library of Babel, the Argentinean author describes a hexagonal-shaped library made of infinite floors that contains every book ever written and every book ever to be written in the future, with every possible letter combination and every possible language contained within it. The narrator, an aging librarian, tells the reader how many of the librarians have committed suicide because of the impossibility of actually finding anything in the library because there isn't a very good reference system to go along with all the books (which somehow are all the same size and have the same number of pages).

<i>Mirage</i> Intaglio and block print on mdf, 2013, Eloisa Ibarra

Mirage Intaglio and block print on mdf, 2013, Eloisa Ibarra

Writers reflecting on Borges have noted that The Library of Babel, as well as other works written by Borges, can be seen as a precursor to the internet age, where seemingly limitless amounts of information are available at our fingertips -- although sometimes a whole lot of useless information acts as a barrier to getting at the information that we really want or need. 

That's where the comparison between Borges's work and the internet doesn't totally hold up. Granted, we sift through a lot of junk everyday, but there are also pretty sophisticated tools out there that help us locate the specific pieces of information we are looking for. Borges, a librarian himself, skips over the idea that a library would have some system of locating all the works in the library. 

The quote from Borges that Ibarra uses speaks of certain books in the library that are utterly incomprehensible. "For a long period of time it was believed these impenetrable books were works in dead or remote languages," the quote begins. However, Borges goes on to say that others believed that "these letter sequences were codes, a hypotheses that has been widely accepted, although not in the sense intended by its originators."


To the average person, much of the coding that make up how computers and the internet work would be completely foreign if we were to try to read them. However, these codes do make sense when set in motion, like when we check our email or visit a webpage.

Still, Google Translate is a good example of how coding doesn't match the complexity of language. Anyone who has ever used it knows how useless it is as a tool for anything other than gleaning a tiny bit of sense from a piece of text written in a language we don't understand. For the most part, it doesn't really work, as most languages can't be converted word by word. In order to get the true meaning, you must have someone who actually speaks both languages do the translating. Perhaps someday technology will get over this particular hurdle, but it doesn't seem imminent. 

Still, the internet does manage to connect cultures and people from all over the world, and indeed new ways of communicating through sound and images are constantly being created. As this is happening, languages are also dying off, and cultures fold into one another. 

In Ibarra's prints, her various towers stand as monuments of past civilizations, complete with misty and romantic backgrounds. But they also carry with them the signs of what is to come. Differences in language divide us, but also make cultures around the world unique. They are what give us meaning. Language isn't going anywhere, but how we communicate is certainly changing. Time will tell how that shift will reflect on the identity of cultures not in the mainstream. Ibarra's work suggests the change is not a positive one. 


"The Seed of Babel"

The University of Minnesota's Quarter Gallery

Through November 30