The language divorced of any meaning becomes an object, both threatening and useless…
– Annabel Daou1
Annabel Daou, “Constitution,” 2004, graphite, gesso, and tape on paper, 50 x 38 inches. © 2012 Annabel Daou
In Constitution (2004), Annabel Daou transcribes the text of the Constitution of the United States phonetically into Arabic characters. The result is not a translation of the Founding Fathers’ document, nor even a careful and systematic transliteration of the English words using the Arabic alphabet. Daou made this work as she read the Constitution, her eye following the famous text as her hand refashioned it in Arabic characters. Due to the immediacy of this process, the drawing exhibits a directness not typically found in translation or transliteration. The resulting work is not a readable text from which one might derive a linear narrative like that of the original text. Instead, it is a drawing filled with spelling inconsistencies and Arabic consonants imprecisely substituted for English consonant sounds not present in the Arabic language. Given the circumstances of its creation, the text may even be missing words. Daou herself thinks of the resulting text as the U.S. Constitution being read in an Arabic accent, the words having lost their meaning when taken outside of their American context. The literal implications of the Constitution as a document rather than simply a group of words placed together can only be understood fully in English, and even thoughConstitutionis not a complete iteration of the text in the original document, this drawing requires knowledge of both English and Arabic for any sort of linguistic comprehension.
Divorced from its original meaning, language becomes an object.2 As the drawing progresses along with Daou’s reading of the Constitution, the artist’s mental process of interpreting language becomes increasingly detached from her physical process of writing. With the fundamental essence of the text so unglued, the original meaning disintegrates and the potential for misunderstanding abounds. To use the artist’s own words, in her attempt to create “presence with a lack of presence,” language becomes a sort of “paint.”3 This paint fills the top portion of the frame and acts as a deliberately elusive foil to the void of the hollow cutout in the bottom portion. Although written in pencil, the transcribed letters were treated as permanent—Daou did not make any erasures or revisions, juxtaposing the ephemerality of graphite on paper with the immovability of the marks she had made.