Ana Torfs travels through time and space in Wiels exhibition


Flemish artist Ana Torfs takes visitors to her Echolalia exhibition in Brussels on a mind-bending journey, with multiple distance games along the way

New perspectives

“Every story is a travel story,” reads a projection in “Displacement”, the final installation in Echolalia, a survey of work by Brussels-based artist Ana Torfs. This distant yet loving deconstruction of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film classic Viaggio in Italia can only be reached by climbing a narrow staircase on the Wiels art centre’s third floor, located in a very spacious former brewery with ceilings that only Jack and his magical beanstalk could seemingly reach.

By the time you arrive at “Displacement”, Torfs has already taken you on an expedition around the world and through the ages.

“This exhibition is a journey,” says curator and Wiels art director Dirk Snauwaert. “In Belgium, Ana Torfs’ work has the reputation of being highly cinematographic. With Echolalia, we want to offer a new perspective and relate her work to a much broader and deeper iconography.”

As I embark on the trip, Torfs gives me some travelling advice: “Titles are important to me,” she says. “The word ‘echolalia’ might seem like gibberish, but it refers to the playful or compulsive repetition of words by children or mental patients.”

Such duplications and reiterations reverberate throughout Torfs’ entire body of work, including the new installation that opens the exhibition.

That opener, “The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmogoria”, combines projections of an unkempt botanical garden in Cuba with the diary Christopher Columbus wrote during his first voyage to America, which was reinterpreted by sign language interpreters.

The inspiration for the piece sprang from Torfs’ copying and reading the texts out loud. “I consider myself a parrot,” she says, “because I too repeat existing material and reproduce it in my own way”.

Wandering words

Torfs is fascinated by the way both images and words have travelled through time and have shaped our world. “It is remarkable how the invention of printing and the spread of capitalism in colonial times intertwine,” she says.

For “Txt (Engine of Wandering Words)”, she selected six words that represent colonial entrepreneurship and that have changed little across the boundaries of time and languages.

I consider myself a parrot because I too repeat existing material

- Ana Torfs

In German, these words are called Wanderwörter (wandering words), “a term I really adore,” says Torfs. For each word – sugar, coffee, ginger, tobacco, chocolate and saffron – she created a large tapestry that depicts a mechanical device with various existing illustrations, paintings and maps. “The engine described in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels inspired me to create a sort of fictional computer with images instead of words.”

These aren’t the only works in which Torfs delves into sources that hark back to the roots of the capitalist system of trading, colonising and (re)naming. In “Family Plot” (pictured above), she traces the people after whom Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named exotic plants. His 18th-century taxonomy – often called linguistic imperialism – consists of a first and a last name, inspired by people like preceding botanist Pierre Magnol (Magnolia grandiflora) or explorer Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldtia decurrens).

“With great authority, Linnaeus replaced existing native names, a bit like Adam once did in the Garden of Eden,” Torfs explains.

The framed prints of “Family Plot” display several layers of history, including biographical information on the namesakes, world maps and the sexual classification Linnaeus imposed on exotic flowers and fruits. Torfs’ own rigid arrangement allows her to appropriate a highly influential authoritative system.

Travelling companions

Acquired by the Mu.Zee museum in Ostend earlier this year, the “[…] STAIN […]” installation (pictured above) tackles a more recent catalogue by a more contemporary authority. Based on a sample book of dyes by manufacturing company Bayer from the early 20th century, Torfs has brought together a cabinet of peculiar colours.

“I started from the first synthetic colours ever made, produced by this large international corporation that made enormous profits from it. These colours had names such as Congo red or Bismarck brown. They seemed to realise an old alchemist dream,” says Torfs.

I would really like visitors to participate in the game of distances

- Ana Torfs

Torfs likes to introduce multiple layers that create distance, often by incorporating subtitles or other text fields. “I would really like visitors to walk around in the exhibition and participate in the game of distances I’m very fond of,” says Torfs.

Her source material, both images and words, has already travelled a great distance. The 2009 photo series Legend consists of nine landscapes on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands.

In that series, you look at the photos through an iris diaphragm that brings to mind a telescope or early cinema. The accompanying texts inform you that on this very location Columbus set sail for what he believed to be India, Spanish dictator Franco held a dress rehearsal for his reign of terror, and waves of immigrants today reach the most outward shores of Fortress Europe.

Finally, the journey called Echolalia leads to the Swedish isle Gotland, once the home of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. “It’s an eerily desolate, but stunningly beautiful landscape,” says Torfs. “I’ve tried to take pictures there like a tourist would.”

Those photos constitute a homage to Torfs’ favourite film, Viaggio in Italia, another cinematic great. New perspectives abound, but cinema appears to remain an inspiring travelling companion for Torfs.

Until 14 December at Wiels, Van Volxemlaan 354, Vorst