Advertisement

Ana Torfs

Long before the debates over stem-cell research or climate change, controversy raged over the field of botany. During the Enlightenment, for example, plant textbooks were considered pornographic. Looking at Ana Torfs’ silkscreened prints of mostly hermaphroditic plants, it’s easy to see why. In her photographic series, ‘Family Plot #1’ (2009), we see close-ups of voluptuous pistils and suggestive stamens – the sex organs of plants on which Carl Linneaus, the father of botany, based his naming system. (As his artificial approach to classification was gradually replaced, botany became a decidedly less racy discipline.) As Torfs discovered while researching a certain botanical garden in Cuba, it wasn’t all in Linnaeus’ head: the explorers who gathered the specimens and brought them home weren’t far from today’s ‘sex tourists’.
In a complementary series of collages, ‘Family Plot #2’ (2010), Torfs continues her practice of dissecting and mingling cultural histories – in this case, the roles of science, state and private appetites that are behind the naming of particular plants. In these works, Torfs traces Latin plant names back to their sources. Her framed collages, with their tidy blocks of pedantic texts and images reproduced from encyclopaedias and almanacs, beg to be taken seriously. Here we learn that the magenta blossoms known as Bougainvillea glabra Choisy were named for French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville – known for his attempt to defend France’s claim to Canada against the British, settling the Falkland Islands and declaring that the Tahitians knew ‘no other god than love’. Another collage focuses on the Quassia plant genus, which is named after African slave Quassie van Timatibo. In the collage, Torfs includes a miniature image of him based on an original portrait. Over an inflated chest, Van Timatibo wears a gold-laced suit accessorized with a feathered hat and cane; these accoutrements were his rewards for turning traitor to his fellow runaway Maroon slaves by becoming a professional slave hunter himself. Clearly, even plants are susceptible to politics.
Torfs’ other new work is Displacement (2009), a 55-minute slide installation and loose remake of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film essay Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy), which traces the dissolution of a marriage. Again, Torfs continues her practice of mining existing texts – court records, old almanacs, diaries – to form narratives that she presents in installations in which sound, image and text are literally and physically divorced. Here, two screens were mounted at opposite ends of the room, text running on one of them, while the characters’ voices were piped in through wireless headphones. Unsynchronized and disorienting, it left me wishing for the rear-view or additional serial processing capabilities.
In place of Rossellini’s Naples, Torfs sets her version on a deserted island, described by the (possibly unreliable) narrator in vaguely European-accented English as an isle with ‘Northern European scenery, Italian coastline and Arizona sands, all within one hour’s reach.’ Slide images show a defunct military defence zone covered by bunkers and barbed wire. The alienation of the main protagonists, a married couple, is palpable, not only because of their exchange, at turns accusing then placating, but also because everything here is literally and physically adrift: the elliptical narrative of Torfs’ tale, the slide images of the empty island on one end of the room, juxtaposed with the huge, inscrutable portraits of the couple at the other end. Reality becomes at once heightened and enlarged, but also dubious and disturbing.
Also included in the show were Torfs’ earlier and perhaps more successful installations combining slide, video and sound, including Du mentir-faux (2000), based on Joan of Arc’s inquisition trial records, and Anatomy (2006), based on the military tribunal investigating the deaths of Marxist activists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The superimposed places, people and voices, shown and heard in close-up or off-screen, create a spatial, Brechtian Verfremdung that rarely cracks (though at one point, the narrator in Anatomy begins sobbing), and is simultaneously a source of pleasure and frustration, for reasons similar to Displacement.
Whether dissecting political assassinations, martyrs burned at the stake, or colonial pillage, Torfs’ works remain dreamy and polite, while clearly revealing ambiguity and nuance. It might be difficult work, but Torfs knows that insisting loudly on truth doesn’t make it easier to reconcile what you see with what you hear and what you think you know.

Helen Chang is a writer based in Vienna.

Issue 137

First published in Issue 137

March 2011
Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018