For her first solo exhibition in the Nordic countries, Belgian visual artist Ana Torfs brings together two major installations, The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria (2014) and Legend (2009), as well as Toast, an iconic photograph she made in 2003, which functions as a connecting element between the exhibited installations.
On the occasion of this exhibition, Torfs made a two-sided poster in collaboration with graphic designer Jurgen Persijn.
Since the early 1990s, Ana Torfs has been composing a unique, visually striking oeuvre, which addresses fundamental questions of representation and its narrative structures. The relation or tension between text and image plays a central role in her work, and with it all the related processes of visualization, interpretation, perception, manipulation and translation. Torfs enables a topical and authentic perception of the scattered fragments from our cultural and political history. Literary texts or historical documents often constitute the starting point of her works. These material remnants are then reworked into meticulously composed installations—with diverse media such as slide projections, sound, photography and video, to tapestries and silk screens—in which projections and allusions have free reign.
The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria is based on Christopher Columbus diary of his first voyage to America. Torfs became fascinated years ago with Columbus’s journal, which describes the newly discovered “India” as a cornucopia, a paradise of wondrous flowers, with a thousand variety of trees and remarkable fruits, while he is looking for gold. On three monitors, we see an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter signing carefully selected passages from the journal, while one of three Anglophone interpreters, each one fluent in a different sign language and alternating one another randomly, reinterprets the footage in spoken English. In the end we hear only echoes of the original source. All the while, the viewer encounters slowly dissolving black-and-white projections of a tropical forest. While Columbus and his crew were crossing the Atlantic, he noted that the only thing missing was the song of the nightingale, the traditional metaphor for the poet. The only living thing that he mentions in his journal on his first day in “India”—apart from people— is a parrot, the bird famous for its mimicry and repetitive speech. That same day, Columbus also wrote that the ‘Indians’ he encountered were like obedient children who would make good and intelligent servants, for they repeated very quickly everything that was said to them.
For her photographic series Legend, Torfs travelled to La Gomera, the second smallest of the Canary Islands. Assigned to each of nine framed photographs are five engraved metal tags containing a variety of information about this archipelago. The photographs suggest a view through a telescope, and the tags list historical, political, and economic facts; they also tell “legends” in the sense of mythical reports. In Greek mythology, the Canaries were considered to be identical with Elysium, the island located at the western edge of the world, where the favourites of the Gods forgot their earthly sufferings forever. Columbus set sail from La Gomera when he sought a sea passage to India. Yet the history of the Canary Islands is also one of the suppression of its indigenous people, of waves of emigration, and of the terror of Franco’s dictatorship. With each “legend”, a different “(hi)story” is inscribed in this landscape, changing the way we see it. The web of associations creates a multilayered picture that, despite or in fact because of the variety of information, cannot be brought into focus.
A man is seen in three-quarters profile sitting on a chair, his back to the camera. He is holding a glass of champagne in his left hand. Instead of bringing it to his lips, he raises it away from his body in mid air, where it stands out sharply against a rectangle of light cast diagonally on the rear wall by the slide carousel in the left foreground. The photograph bears a title: "Toast". This then is what the man in the photograph is doing. But to whom or what is he toasting? A word is written on the white surface, whose shape and size immediately bring to mind those of a screen: "Vérité" (truth). If one had to choose a single picture in Ana Torfs body of work that most accurately conveys its unswerving course, it would probably be this one. It’s all there: the image, the text, the title, the projection screen, and the search for truth, but with no naivety and nearly without hope, for the man is seen from behind and truth is a word projected onto a wall—one might as well say a pipe dream. All the questioning, the calling and the searching revolve aimlessly around an absent and meaningless core: truth is but a word projected onto a wall, an illusion traced by finger on the fogged-up surface of a mirror, which a single breath can erase.
Ana Torfs, born in Belgium in 1963, lives and works in Brussels. Among other solo exhibitions, she has shown at Centro de Arte Moderna, Gulbenkian, Lisbon (2016), WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels (2014), Generali Foundation, Vienna (2010), K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf (2010), Sprengel Museum, Hannover (2008), Argos centre for art and media, Brussels (2007), daadgalerie, Berlin (2006), GAK Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen (2006) and Bozar, Brussels (2000). She has developed a web project for Dia Art Foundation, New York (2004). Ana Torfs has participated in numerous international group exhibitions, including Contour Biennial 8, Mechelen (2017), Parasophia, Kyoto (2015), 1st International Biennial of Cartagena de Indias (2014), Sharjah Biennial 11 (2013), Manifesta 9, Genk (2012), Montreal Biennial 2 (2000), and Lyon Biennial 3 (1995).