November/December 2006

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MovING SCENE:
SAN FRANCISCO‚S
REPOSITIONING
by David Spalding

Anatomy of Revolution:
Ana Torfs

TEXT / WIM PEETERS

Last fall, the modestly-scaled gallery space of Berlin‚s Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst [German Academic Exchange Service] (DAAD) played host to an impressive installation by Ana Torfs [September 23ųNovember 4, 2006]. The Belgian artist is best known for her deadpan work‚s scrutiny of the relationships between history, language, memory, and the revolutions that have shaped modern society. For Anatomy, 2006, an installation that enlists video, sound, and slides, Torfs has excavated the court transcripts of the inquiry into the 1919 assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in order to present a reconstruction of their last hours.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

In Du Mentir-Faux, 2000, an installation dedicated to Jeanne d‚Arc‚s revolutionary impulses, Torfs had already explored the trial as artistic material, historical document, and performance format. Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks, 2000-2002, pieced together a broad range of texts, in an attempt to understand the motives of Ulrike Meinhofųa German journalist who turned to terrorism in 1970 at the age of 36. The work developed into an associative literary study of two centuries of German-French history. In 1998, Torfs produced Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten [Cycle of Trifles], a film on the last years of Ludwig van Beethoven‚s life, based on the deaf composer‚s bookletsųnotes written by the composer‚s friends and family to communicate with him. The film features voice-over readings from these often astonishingly banal notes. Beethoven himself never appears in Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten. While he was indeed deaf, Beethoven was able to speak, which is why he is absent from the notebooksųand from the film. Despite its banality and Beethoven‚s absence, Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten delivers a sensitive, almost impossible portrait of the composer. As such, it illustrates Torfs‚ approach to historical documents and their restaging as intricate repositories of cultural, psychological, traumatic, and heroic contents.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

In Anatomy, Torfs adopts a similar strategy to tackle the Record of Proceedings of the „Case of the Murder of Dr. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg before the Military Field Tribunal of the Cavalry Guard Rifle Division in the Main Courtroom at the Berlin Criminal Court,š a 1919 document of some 1200 pages kept in the Military Archive in Freiburg. Torfs subjected the transcript to close reading and distilled statements by twenty-five individualsųboth defendants and random witnessesųwho were heard at a pro forma trial in 1919. This trial was held to downplay the murders and to support the official version of events. A version of the events had already begun to circulate in the newspapers on January 16, 1919ųthe day after the double assassination. According to this account, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were both detained at a hotel unfortunately named Eden on the evening of January 15, 1919. Having learned that the leaders of what was to become the German Communist Party were held there, a crowd had gathered outside. As a result, Luxemburg and Liebknecht had to be transferred to a proper detention center. Just before his departure, an unknown perpetrator climbed on top of Liebknecht‚s vehicle and dealt him a hard blow to the head. The car raced off, and then broke down in a dark avenue. Liebknecht took to his feet and was shot. Rosa Luxemburg was to be driven to the detention center separately. Before she even reached her transport, however, an unidentified person hit her. She was then carried inside the vehicle, whose departure was hampered by the crowd. A man then jumped onto the slowly moving car and shot her. Like so many others, perhaps, the director of the Eden Hotel acquiescingly read this newspaper article to his staff, and added „So ist es gewesenš [And that is how it was]. Torfs refuses to accept such an ordinary state of affairs. Instead of searching for some higher truth, however, she restaged the trial as a traumaųa doubly traumatic event that folds history into the present of its reconstruction.

 
Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

On trial in Anatomy are soldiers of various ranks, waiters, a cloakroom attendant, and others. Torfs hired twenty-five actors to reenact selected statements from the trial. Their performances were captured on video. While these fragments often contain harrowing details of the actual murders, Torfs instructed the actors to refrain from acting or expressing judgment on the brutal events.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

Spatially, Anatomy is divided in two parts. On one side, two television monitors stand on a large central pedestal, displaying individual testimonies. The actors look straight into the camera. They compose a coupleųone is always silent while the other speaks on the other monitor. What are we to make of their relationship? Is one speaking for the other? Is one witnessing the other? Or is one backing up the other? Two loudspeakers sit on top of the two monitors, providing a simultaneous English translation. Slides are projected, life-size, on a large wall next to them. These images were shot in the Anatomical Theatre in Berlin, a late-eighteenth-century structure initially built for the Prussian army‚s Royal School of Veterinary Medicine, to ensure the health of its horses. They call on another seventeen actors ranging in age from twenty-five to eighty who occupy the spectator seats of the anatomical theater. Their poses and attitudes remain ambiguous. Are they observing the corpses of Luxemburg and Liebknecht at the center of the theater or contemplating the corpse of Communism? Are they mourning or wondering? Might this posthumous jury even relieve us of the duty of moral involvement as the trial is being restaged on video, shifting our attention from the gruesome details of violent deaths to the neutrality of underlying structures? With Anatomy, Torfs has forever foreclosed the identity of truth. If truth can no longer be upheld as an autonomous, independent concept, Torfs replaces it with identification. Truth is a function of individual and societal identifications with facts and groups. It is also a function of hierarchies within groups, which Anatomy demonstrates as it constantly restages the story from slightly different angles.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

A historical interrogation impulse characterizes Torfs‚ work. Her projects enlist languageųrather than art history and its objectsųand rely on a range of fictional and non-fictional texts. She often tackles loaded subjects, and her work dodges easy consumption and categorization. Torfs renegotiates cultural values or assumptions in a post-1989 climate by accounting for the complexity of trauma and its impact on the tropes of recent history. Thus, Anatomy makes frequent use of displacement and narrative shifts: the court transcript is restaged as theater; an actor speaks to give voice to another actor‚s body; one language (German) is immediately translated into another (English). Space and time are also subjected to this loss of solid ground. Freud‚s retroactive concept of Nachträglichkeit is very useful here as it allows us to preserve the complexity of Anatomy‚s historical, cultural, and political trauma while accounting for its lasting impact on contemporary society. The term was originally coined to describe a particular function of memory whereby the psyche strives to master trauma by belatedly producing the anxiety that should have preceded the traumatic event. Coming too late, this anxiety is then projected onto other objects or situations since the original cause is often no longer there. Torfs‚ work enlists hysterical symptomsųwithout becoming a hysterical productionųto usher us into its universe and unveil its hidden or obstructed contents.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

Yet, Anatomy does not hint at a truth between the lines. It examines the fragile nature of experience. Focusing on the experiences of individuals who have participated in events that, in retrospect, have defined the course of political history in and beyond Germany, the installation scrutinizes the apparent objectivity of their statements preserved in historical documents.

Torfs‚ effort is remarkable, to say the least. Very few artists take it upon themselves to unravel the intricacies of the present by revisiting the historical moments that have shaped our current ideological and emotional climate. Even fewer can avoid the pitfalls of determinism or utopia. Torfs manages to offer a profound analysis of Europe‚s darker moments without forfeiting its relation to the present, and vice versa.

Ana Torfs, ANATOMY, 2006, installation with slide projections (34 minutes; looped) and video on two monitors (90 minutes; looped), two wireless headsets, variable dimensions (© Ana Torfs; courtesy of the artist)

Torfs successfully navigates the limits of the creative figures she impersonates1ųthe writer, the film director, the stage instructor, the visual artist, the photographer. She assumes the guise of one to work with the other‚s materials. In Anatomy she literally becomes the anatomist of the trial‚s record, breaking it down to different pieces. Torfs‚ impulse is not purely deconstructive, however: when pre-emptive detention and strikes are accepted governmental practices, it is important to examine how nations are (re)created from day to day. In the case of Anatomy, it is a matter of eliminating political enemies, speaking the same language, or sticking to variations of the same story. Torfs momentarily pulls the curtains aside to expose this consensus machine.

NOTE

1. Critic Dirk Lauwaert already noticed this when writing about Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten. See Dirk Lauwaert, Muziek en Woord, Brussels: 1998.

Wim Peeters is an independent curator and writer living in Antwerp, Belgium.

 

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