The Brussels-based artist Ana Torfs’s first solo exhibition in the Nordic countries, Figments & Fragments at Pori Art Museum on the Finnish west coast, brings together three works dealing with the language-based politics of history and geography. The exhibition examines tales and legends about geographic locations that relate to Western colonialism.
At first, Torfs’s works feel distant: words building on words, the story buried somewhere under a sleek, intellectual appearance. But given some time, intriguing mind games open up. It starts with the main installation, a work entitled The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria from 2014, which is based on Christopher Columbus’s diary from his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. From there, Torfs builds various strata of representation.
At the time of Columbus’s journey, there were indigenous people living on the islands that we now call the Bahamas. Everything we know about life in the Caribbean at this time is based on interpretation of archaeological sources, and on Columbus’s diary. We don’t know exactly what he wrote, because the diary exists only as copies — most notably a transcription by the bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, written almost 40 years after Columbus’s first journey.
In Torfs’s installation, we experience how this particular part of history is built. An interpreter translates passages of the diary into American Sign Language (ASL), a language that involves the hands as well as movement of the face and torso. Three other interpreters take turns in telling the story in spoken English, translating from ASL. In the exhibition space, we also see large black and white projections of a tropical forest. They comprise 81 different images slowly dissolving into one another. We can sense the beautiful, exotic forest, yet the lack of colour makes the scenery feel remote and strange.
En route from the late 15th century to the exhibition in Pori in 2017, at least five main points of interpretation can be counted. This chain is what Torfs presents. The 2003 piece Toast accompanies the installation. In this photograph, a man sits on a chair and toasts his glass to a projection of the handwritten word vérité (truth). It is a textbook example of one of 20th century continental philosophy’s basic problems: is truth an illusion, either by the shortcomings of human experience or by the structural character of reality itself?
Torfs’s work is not a stack of representations that appear for their own sake. When one peels off the linguistic layers, there is still a lot to be read between the lines: the violence of colonialism, and the human suffering that happens while history is being written and rewritten. This aspect forms the subtle undertone of the show.
This is evident also in the exhibition’s other main installation, Legend (2009), a compilation of nine frames, each containing a photograph of a landscape from what looks like a telescopic view. Each frame includes five short sentences telling different stories from the island La Gomera in the Canaries. This creates a versatile portrait of the geographic location from which Columbus set off on that journey in 1492. Later, in the 2000s and 2010s, the place served as the arrival point for refugees who survived the sea crossing from West Africa.
The human experience and the oppression that forms part of this history are disconnected from the language and the landscapes that are the main motifs in the works. But despite this quite impassive exterior, the violence of history materializes slowly, as the viewer envisions what is left out of the tranquil scenery.