Thank goodness summer is over and the new art season is back in swing! Wiels have kicked off their new term by celebrating Ana Torfs, an artist who works and resides in Brussels. According to Dirk Snauwaarts, the director of Wiels, one of the words which could sum up her exhibition is “exotic”. Her exhibition ‘Echoalia’ is a travel through language and time, journeying to tropical lands and reaching into exoticism in literature. The Oxford dictionary describes the etymology of echolalia as, “late 19th century: modern Latin, from Greek ēkhō ‘echo’ + lalia ‘speech’.” Ana Torfs’ exhibition is an echo of her linguistic curiosities and explorations of etymologies and places.
In this exhibition, Torfs shows that she is an artist of many mediums. Photography, film, audio and installation are her predominant choices of media. However, she has also conducted works in tapestry and her research process may not be overlooked. In every piece, you can recognise her precision for detail. Yet, her works are not severe; there is a sense of playfulness in her pieces as she toys with words and their meanings.
When entering ‘Echolalia’ you are drawn into an exotic botanical garden. Two large screens are placed in opposition in the space, a loop of photos are projected onto the screens, gently fading in and out of one another. The images are of a Cuban sugar plantation, a beautiful forest with a tainted history of colonisation and slavery. A voice is reading words describing sounds of tropical birds, delicious smells, fruits on the trees, the luscious vegetation and the sweltering heat. The voice is dictating passages from the diary of Christopher Columbus, in particular, the moment when he landed upon an island in the Bahamas. Columbus describes his first meeting with the islanders, he remarks in his notes that the people would be of value to him as slaves, because they were able to reiterate the words said to them.
There are three screens placed around the installation of a female sign interpreter. She is echoing the tales of Columbus’s diary in sign language; however each of the interpretations is different. One version is English sign language, another is American, and the last is international sign. To realise how different these are, you can read the transcriptions in the artist book ‘Echolalia’, made by Ana Torfs for this exhibition. In this piece ‘The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria’ (2014) debuting in Wiels, you are met by all forms of communication, visual, audio, and body. The juxtaposition of the three forms can give us a perception of the first mystifying meetings between the Western explorer and the indigenous people.
To Be Read
In a work called ‘Legends'(2009), we have landed on the Canary Islands, where Christopher Columbus was said to have set sail to the India’s. There are a series of photographs allowing us to view the landscapes of the Islands as if through a telescope. The circular view to the slightly grainy images makes us feel like we are peeking through a lens, as if spying on beautiful terrains. Under the images, the artists had added texts, legends about the Islands and their history. The image and the texts draw us into the print. We physically move towards it to study its details. It is as if she is sharing precious secrets or folk tales with us about an enchanted place.
The series, ‘[…] STAIN […]’ (2012) would be an example of Torfs’ enjoyment of language. In this piece, beginning with the title, she evokes all of the possible meanings of the word stain, and by adding the square brackets, she informs us that she intends on manipulating the meaning, adding her own interpretation, her own words. And indeed, in this work, inspired by the German dye company, Bayer, she has taken and invented names of coloured dyes and given to them pseudo-scientific explanations. Like Bayer did in the early twentieth century, she has used feathers to show her array of colours and beside each row of fantastically named coloured feathers, such as Prussian Blue or Malachite Green, you will find images of things or people which she has found to have some relationship with the colour. While trying to decipher their links or sources, we are listening to a female voice, announcing supposed facts about each colour.
What’s in a name?
The naming of things has interested the artist greatly. At the press release, she reminded her audience that bestowing a name upon something is a position of power which she regards as “linguistic imperialism”. In her work ‘Family Plot’ (2009/2010) she has created an artwork combining her interest in the history of a name with her love for plants. As a gardening enthusiast, having her own city garden, she came to questioning the naming of plants. They, like humans, have been given forenames and surnames to distinguish them from one another. She found that many exotic plants had been named after their western discoverers or important figures of that time. Indeed, the naming of these plants was like a family plot of conquest and colonisation. In her work, she dissects the name of the plant, showing the portrait of the person from which the plant is named and she has produced maps of the world, portraying the world map how it was known at the time of that particular figure. Upon the world map you may read various insights into that time, that person and into the colonial history of each chosen plant and character name.
Following this theme of the power of names and colonisation we are drawn to her installation of 6 impressive tapestries hanging in the exhibition, this work is named ‘TXT (Engine of Wandering Words)’ (2013). Deciphering signs and interpreting words continues in this piece. We are travelling with Gulliver, John Swift’s invented adventurer and self-pronounced linguist. In the German language, wondering words, Wanderwort, are words which, due to trading, lend themselves to many languages and cultures. In particular, the words which Torfs has depicted are items of trade: Saffron, Tobacco, Coffee, Sugar, Ginger and Chocolate. These words, like the plant names in Family Plot, are also carrying a history of colonisation and capitalism. The 6 tapestries describe the histories of these goods in images. They depict world travels and expeditions, thus through these images, we too can travel with the wandering words. The images are set upon a chessboard like grid. The shape of the grid comes from an illustration of a passage in Gulliver’s Travels, when he learns how to speak a foreign language and is presented with wooden blocks, painted with images, like a child’s learning blocks. These wonderful tapestries were produced by a Jacquard loom, an early mechanical loom which could produce complicated patterns by using a hole punching system on card. This loom was an inspiration for computing technology.
Her exhibition continues on the next floor with a piece inspired by her favourite film, Rossellini’s ‘Journey to Italy’. Torfs had a residency in Gotland, Sweden, where the great film maker Ingmar Bergman used to call home. She fell in love with the tremendous landscapes and decided to make her own version of the film, ‘Displacement’ (2009), with a couple journeying to Gotland. The work is composed of a photo montage, an audio piece where we hear a couple bickering and discussing their relationship, and on the opposing wall, there are two portraits which alternate. One is of a man, another of a woman. Sitting in the installation, we are listening attentively to the love story, admiring the beautiful island of Gotland, whilst ever so often being drawn to the portraits as if they are our protagonists. Repeatedly we are reminded that “Every Story is a Travel Story”, a quotation from Michel Certeau’s book ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’. Even though the piece is almost an hour long, we are gripped to the script and visually travelling to Gotland ourselves.
A Matter of Perception
Ana Torfs’ exhibition is about perspective, it is about details; titles are of the upmost importance. The juxtaposing of the installation elements in the exhibition space, the composition of image and text, and translating signs are all essential elements of her work. This is an exhibition for which you should take your time. There is much to read and interpret. Feel free to jump to the back of the book and read the last page first, she welcome us to find our own path through her work. There are no chronological obligations. But if you haven’t the patience and skip too many pages, you won’t have had the full experience of these tails by Ana Torfs. Indeed, every work here tells a story.
- Installation view of the exhibition Ana Torfs: Echolalia at WIELS, 2014, with The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria. Photo by Sven Laurent
- Installation view of the exhibition Ana Torfs: Echolalia at WIELS, 2014, with Legend, 2009. Photo by Sven Laurent