PRINT January 1991


We need history, but not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, preface to Of the Use and Abuse of History

A politician’s duty is to try to integrate in a formula of government, in a formula of action, in a political act, the most discordant and conflicting factors that would lead to a crisis in the life of society. . . . The crisis is thus channeled toward a solution—even if the solution consists of breaking down the problem into many others, as happens in other spheres of application of the human intelligence.
—Manuel Azaña, speech given in Barcelona, August 3, 1934

HEIRS AS WE ARE of the theory of relativity, and conscious of our possible immersion in a black hole, we might dare a space-time extrapolation and ask the following question: To which school of ancient Greece would a dialectical figure like the artist Francesc Torres belong? To Socrates’, to Plato’s, to Aristotle’s, to Lucian of Samosata’s, to Zeno’s . . . ?

I am afraid that, in this, the end of the 20th century, the school of Socrates is Joseph Beuys’ space. Torres is rather Platonic, insofar as his ideas are attended by appearances—the shadows in the cave. He starts from the belief that humanity will evolve toward a utopian goal. His Platonic root can be seen in his Hegelian-Marxist concept of history, although his own personal confrontation with immediate reality has led him to criticize this concept. Torres believes the work of art to be immersed in economic reality, in the dynamics of a very present time (Dromos Indiana, 1989). His critical stance does not prevent him from wondering what kind of approach is possible in view of the conflicts brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of dialectical materialism. The fact that the practice of Marxism is bankrupt does not imply that capitalism enjoys perfect health, since, as we know, all that glitters is not gold (Oikonomos, 1989).

Torres is perhaps closer to the Stoics, one of the schools that, in Hellenistic Greece, offered an alternative to Platonism. Based on game-related thought, albeit with cynical reverberations, Stoicism was not concerned with the subjection of man to the polis—in the sense of Socrates’ sacrifice—but with the distortion of the mirage that transforms the individual into a project of ideal society. Torres’ most recent works begin to show the distinction between Platonic myth as canon and the Stoic myth as transgression. In his art, the Apollonian myth gives way to the Dionysian myth: the retrieval of the myth by the people, the cyclical resurrection of collective memory through ritual, operates as a revolutionary scheme (Destiny, Entropy and Junk, 1990).

Even if we remain skeptical about the possibility of changing history and society, we can at least choose our attitude toward history. I think Torres has chosen a stoic attitude. If we cannot be actors (from the Latin agere, “to act”) at least we can argue and resist the universal idea of destiny (Cincuenta Lluvias, 1991). As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, one must be a rock against which the waves break; the rock will remain firm while the tide swirls around it.

It is not by chance that we begin with this heterodox incursion into history. Throughout his works, Torres has broken down, or rather excavated, the layers of certain paradigmatic events in Western society. His archaeological interest is not historical in impetus but is tied to an eagerness to analyze the social, political, and economic powers that shape our lives. “Breaking down a problem into many others” is a quintessential method in his work. The different layers of historical process he has explored compose a memory that, for Torres, is but the “creation of an intellectual site where the objectivity of a historical event meets the myth, since historical reconstruction is, above all, an interpretation process.”1 As Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Thesis of the Philosophy of History,” to articulate the past historically is not to know it as it really was. Torres deems it obvious that “what we have in our hands is not the historical event itself, but a collection of perceptions of such an event with which we construct a narration—which is conditioned by ideological, political, economic and cultural factors and is intrinsically malleable and open to critical analysis.”2

Torres, born in Barcelona in 1948, grew up in a Spain just awakening after the scourges of the Spanish Civil War, a Spain isolated because of its neutral status in World War II. This Spain had no part in the formation of the new map of Europe imposed by the ethnocentrism and economic colonialism of the victorious allies. Yet the memory of this European map—a product of the Yalta Conference of 1945—is one of the devices used by Torres in his installation at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Clausewitz’s Classroom: Yalta Begins at School, 1984, titled after the theories on war of the Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz. “The great analysis of the chain of command by General von Clausewitz (Napoleon’s antagonist at Jena and in the Russian campaign of 1812–1813) . . . opens with the famous sentence connecting war to the contest of wills: War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.2 The ‘extension’ occurs through the architecture of the chain of command. The only thing which makes war unlike other forms of power is the use of violence.”3

Clausewitz’s “gift” to modern warfare was his doctrine of total war. No distinction was to be made between civilian and military populations, all territory, property, and citizens were fair game, “setting the stage for the Hegelian bloodbath that, until recently, has characterized the history of Europe.”4

In earlier works like The Head of the Dragon, 1981; Airstrip, 1982; and Tough Limo, 1983, Torres had explored the sources of this malefic behavior in the results of the brain research of the neurologist Paul McLean. According to McLean, the brain is similar to a multi-layered archaeological space. The deepest, most ancient layer corresponds to the reptilian and the most recent, the cerebral cortex, is found in primates and has its most complex manifestation in human beings. The so-called R-complex regulates aggressive and territorial behavior, which Torres associates with the political and the military. Within Clausewitz’s Classroom the R-complex is manifested as a serpent in a box placed on a pile of rocks among which lie photographs of Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, the major participants in Yalta.

But to Torres, warfare and the nationalism that gives rise to it, understood as extensions of political ideology, are also learned behaviors, perpetrated through such institutions as the church and the school. So we have Clausewitz’s classroom, in which monitors atop benches of varying heights project a collage of material: historical footage of the ’45 Yalta Conference and images of children playing with the massive guns in a military museum. To see the video we have to twist and turn, reproducing, in a way, the children’s unruly behavior: we are students of Clausewitz, too.

Allusions to war as a constant factor in human society are numerous in Torres’ work: in Steel Balls, 1983; Paths of Glory, 1985; The Gladiator’s Attic, 1985; dictatorship of swiftness, 1986; and Plus Ultra, 1988, among others. In the last few years, the artist has been influenced by the theories of the French sociologist Paul Virilio, who conceptualizes war in terms of domination, devastation, power, expansion, economy, and especially speed, the latter understood as a phenomenon that has essentially changed the relations between the leading powers, and, perhaps more crucially, provoked a loss of consciousness that has fundamentally affected our ability to perceive the phenomena around us.

Belchite/South Bronx, 1988, an installation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, introduces Clausewitz’s and Virilio’s ideas into, in the words of the installation’s subtitle, “A Trans-Cultural and Trans-Historical Landscape.” This has properly been Torres’ space since he moved to New York in 1972, an objective historical arena permeated by the subjectivity and emotional drive of personal experience. For Belchite/South Bronx juxtaposes two sites divided by geography and time yet united in their personal resonance for Torres and in their incarnation of man-made devastation—of civil war. A six-channel, 12-monitor video installation, it reproduces at slightly smaller than life-size—which makes the entire scene appear somewhat haunted—a group of charred, ghostly buildings in the South Bronx; mounds of garbage; an abandoned car, stripped of its wheels; a basketball court; and a church, a stylized replica of one that stands over Belchite’s ruins, a 1917 Remington rifle hanging on its pediment. Lying about are some 24 basketballs, in reference, Torres says, to a famous photograph of the Crimean War by Roger Fenton, in which the sense of loss is conveyed through absence: there are no corpses, just cannonballs and the empty field of war. A bed and some chairs inhabit the otherwise vacant shells of burned-out buildings, and on the video monitor play tapes of fighting during the Spanish Civil War and of the rubble-strewn landscape of the South Bronx.

Belchite and the South Bronx. Belchite, a small Spanish city in the province of Zaragoza, was bombarded by both Republican and Royalist troops in the Spanish Civil War (Torres’ grandfather fought with the Republicans and was incarcerated after the war). After the cessation of hostilities, it was purposely left in ruins, a reminder of the Republicans’ pyrrhic victory and a monument to the war, though the buildings themselves were soon pillaged for usable materials and the town became a garbage dump. The South Bronx was devastated and divided by an enormous highway that was part of the network of interstate roads projected by the federal government in the late ’50s and early ’60s as a part of the so-called highway defense system. As Torres points out, the association between the highway and war dates back to the Roman Empire; it is a fact that war and economic and political expansion require an effective communication network to move swiftly. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, designed by Robert Moses, was, as Moses himself said, a “meat ax”: it was executed under the state’s order, and it contributed to the death of a once lively New York neighborhood. “Among the many images and symbols that New York has contributed to modern culture, one of the most striking in recent years has been an image of modern ruin and devastation. The Bronx, where I grew up, has even become an international code word for our epoch’s accumulated urban nightmares: drugs, gangs, arson, murder, terror, thousands of buildings abandoned. . . . ”5 One place a casualty of war, the other of peace, and both casualties of civil strife. As Torres writes, “Clausewitz’s cold definition of war as politics by other means implies its opposite: politics is war by other means.”6

Torres unravels the connections—swiftness, economy, war—that form the reality the state intends to conceal. This complex mesh of interrelations is analyzed in such works as Dromos Indiana, in which the ritual of the famous 500-mile Indianapolis car race is made coincident with American Memorial Day celebrations: the power of the political and the military is thus equated with speed, establishing an analogy between the soldier-hero and the sportsman-hero. In the installation, which was at the Indiana State Museum, Indianapolis, a soldier’s helmet of polished metal and a racing driver’s helmet of white-painted steel are displayed together with 40 video monitors that simultaneously show the preparation for the race, the race itself, and the military parade, emphasizing the organized violence implicit in the civil, political, and military fields. A red racing car—one that belonged to a driver who died in an accident—lies like a coffin atop the monitors, not far from a statue of a horse’s head. Above hangs an enormous American flag.

In Oikonomos, which translates from the Greek as “economics,” Torres further investigates the speed/economy relation, this time choosing as his subject the Stock Exchange and the consequences of its actions: ritualized speed in the heart of anonymous power. This work became the object of a controversy when it was displayed at the 1989 Whitney Biennial. Paradoxically, it was censored not because of its critical content but due to a presumed lack of respect toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art-owned statue of Zeus, a modern bronze cast of an ancient Greek original, that Torres had incorporated into the installation. Torres had placed a baseball bat in the statue’s right hand, in place of the javelin or divine thunder that the diety usually wields. He tied a rope around Zeus’ waist, and from the god’s genitals hung a video monitor showing hectic activity on Wall Street alternating with the killing speed of the Indianapolis 500 race. Opposite Zeus, a screen—toward which the god seemed to direct his wrath—held an image of two young men cleaning car windshields on the Bowery. Decontextualization, transformation, appropriation are some of the weapons that 20th-century artists have used in resisting and continuously redefining established notions of both the art object and culture itself. The controversy resulted in a press conference at which Torres appeared, carrying a box of matches on which were reproduced details of Impressionist paintings owned by the Met. Torres’ argument was sound: why is decontextualization acceptable when it is for commercial or publicity purposes yet not for critical ends? Indeed, Torres hit the mark by choosing to use a cultural product—the sculpture of the god of gods—as a symbol of power.7

Speed is exciting, speed is powerful, but speed, so greatly valued by our society, may lead to accidents––of chance or of history. In Destiny, Entropy and Junk, Torres created a tension between order and the ever-present threat of chaos. Lined up in the garagelike space of the Capp Street Project in San Francisco (which had once been a body shop) were seven luxury cars, each waxed and cleaned and the victim of a front-end collision. Next to each car was a head shot, photographed by Torres in black and white, of a cast-concrete statue of an idealized German hero that had once graced the Siegesallee (Avenue of victory) in Berlin’s Tiergarten. Damaged by World War II bombing, the statues were buried in the grounds of the Schloss Bellevue until 1986, when they were briefly put on public display. Completing the installation was a ten-minute videotape, projected onto a large square of salt on the gallery floor. On this tape was a collage of materials: images of the German heroes, frantic Wall Street activity, the attempted murder of Ronald Reagan, boxers in a clinch, and a car crash were quickly intercut with shots of military activity, all to the sound of synthesized music by Wagner and the screeching of car brakes. Toward the end of the sequence the tape switched to footage of the Nit de Sant Joan (Night of Saint John), the night of the summer solstice, on which bonfires are lit and fireworks exploded throughout Barcelona in a frenzied celebration of chaos.

Like Benjamin, Torres seems to be debasing the objective value of a history based on progress and idealizing myth as a possible means of regenerating the present. History, Torres knows, can be written in different ways, as we are daily witness to in this period of mangled political alliances: yesterday’s enemy is today’s ally, indecently and cynically. Torres has lost his faith in history and in politics—if he ever really had it—but not his belief in people. For Torres, we are still capable of deconstructing order and authority so that social change may be based on qualitative rather than quantitative—speed?—values. The state tries to shape our lives, even our memories. But there is a liberating power in our hands, in Dionysian rituals like the Nit de Sant Joan, that might lead to the substitution of an ethics of responsibility for an ethics of ultimate moral ends. As Richard Sennett wrote of Max Weber: “What [he] sought to evoke by an ethics of responsibility was exactly that feeling of self-limitation involved in adult lives: what the self-limitation leads to, Weber said, is not a weariness and withdrawal from social situations, but a willingness to get involved in the kind of messy, disorganized social experiences that are immune to some transcendent end or justification.”8

The media are the main generators of opinion and behavior as well as of images in Western society. In Spain, in 1981, for example, a colonel’s attempted coup was thwarted thanks to a message broadcast on the television by King Juan Carlos a few hours after the attempt. The event was later analyzed in a somewhat humorous essay by Josep M. Colomer : “The royal countercoup was not fought with chariots and rifles but with red telephones . . . telex and television.”9

Torres, who has used video in his multimedia installations since the mid 1970s, is well aware of the power of the media, while remaining critical of the uses to which they are put in capitalist society. Video, on the one hand, allows for rapid cutting, a useful cinematographic resource for creating a dialectical dialogue between the past and the present. Television, on the other hand, with its ties to advertisers and the ferocious competition within the industry, remains fairly impermeable to critical analysis. In view of this fact, Torres, together with other artists who share what we might call an ethics of resistance, prefers the rear-garde attack. As Krzysztof Wodiczko has written, “You engage your enemy in a frontal exchange of fire while part of your force penetrates a different section of the battleline.”10

A recent ongoing project with the working title Social Sculpture—Talking Clay, 1990–, makes use of the neglected medium of the radio, which, renouncing the easy seduction of the image, and because of its somewhat marginal status, retains a radical potential. The starting point is the political process viewed as a social sculpture. The referents are an artist who became a politician—Joseph Beuys—and a politician who considered the results of his actions as works of art—Manuel Azaña. For both of these men, society was a material that could be sculpted. As Azaña said of politics, “It is somewhat comparable to an artist’s work. The people is the material, the clay with which a statesman must work.”11 It is Torres’ idea, as Bertolt Brecht wrote, to “make the clay talk back.”12

Torres plans to do Social Sculpture—Talking Clay in several cities, varying the choice of media and the specific content according to context. The original project had been planned to coincide with the local election campaign in New York City in 1989, but it could not be completed in time. Last October, the artist mounted Social Sculpture—Talking Clay in Łódź, Poland.13 In this version, he focused on recent events in Eastern Europe and the role of art in the processes of social change, using television and radio to formulate his “Questions to the Polish People by an Ignorant American.” The radio segment of the installation was integrated into daily programming. After a few seconds of music of the Eastern European socialist kind, the title (“Questions to . . . ”) was announced. Then the music switched to two or three seconds of the U.S. national anthem, after which 45 of those questions—Can history be forgotten? Is the United States (or Germany) helping Poland because of its move toward democracy or because it is a cheap labor market? Is the art and culture of a particular country known in the international arena independently of its wealth and political influence? and so on—were broadcast and a telephone number given so that listeners could call in and either answer a question or propose another of their own. These responses were recorded and, later rebroadcast, became part of the piece.

In his 1930 essay “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat” (The radio as a communication medium), Brecht advocated the use of radio as more than a simple broadcaster of words and music, more than a medium of information transmittal. For him, the radio must not only transmit but also receive; it must make the public talk. In Social Sculpture—Talking Clay Torres privileges the clay for a change, allowing it to find a voice, allowing people to fill the gap between public and private life, between the state and social reality.

Such a hope for public participation in the social and political processes within which we are all immersed has inspired Torres’ most recent work, Cincuenta Lluvias (Fifty rains), a reflection on the Spanish past/present/future, commissioned by the Museo Nacional: Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid, as part of his retrospective in February. The installation is in three spaces that refer to three crucial dates in the Spanish history of the past 50 years: 1943, 1973, and 1993. The first room contains relics of the Spanish embassy to the Third Reich from 1943 to 1945, which Torres first presented in his 1988 installation Plus Ultra. “Apart from being a solid sign of the Yalta legacy, [these ruins] represent the ramshackle symbol of an ideology politically, morally and humanly bankrupt from its very origins and which, nevertheless, perpetuated itself like a fossil in Spain until 1975.”14

For Torres, the interest of the ruins is less in their obvious specific reference to a horrible period of world history than in their ability to evoke and comment on “the unrestrained exercise of power by the State on subjects and on the other, weaker, States.”15 Torres here means to generalize the evil that Hitler and Franco represent, so that we are less able to think of them as unique and, therefore, easy to dismiss as aberrations.

The second space fixes the event that marked the starting point of post-Franco democracy: the assassination by a Basque terrorist commando of Franco’s political heir, the vice president, Admiral Carrero Blanco. The event is represented by a Spanish-made Dodge Dart identical to the one in which Blanco was riding (the actual car has been exhibited in the Museo del Ejercito in Madrid), restored to brand-new, its clock moved to one second before the bomb explosion that took his life. On the walls are enlargements of the front pages of several Spanish newspapers on the day of the assassination. Out of focus yet legible, they show us an event eroded by time yet still available to memory.

Lastly, 1993, which promises to be a key year for Spain after Europe’s monetary and political integration. This future time, in Torres’ understanding of it, will be an economic space, whereas the other two refer to ideology and politics. His model of the de-ideologized society of the New Spain—or a society in which the prevailing ideology might be defined as “business as usual”—as proposed in current theories calling for the end of history, is sarcastically represented as an upper-middle-class “enlightened” salon. This could be the home of a collector, and, in fact, there is art on the walls: a painting of the Spanish flag done à la Jasper Johns and luscious Cibachromes, “appropriated” details of photographs of famous Spanish celebrities, flamenco singers and political leaders alike, blown up to enormous size. Everything is mixed together, and everything is permeated by banality. We have come to the end of Hegel’s paradigm, to a country ruled by the cult of money and the concept of sculpture as commodity. The soundtrack playing in the three rooms is of distant thunder and rain falling.

We can trace the origin of Torres’ work back to the epic form of the auto sacramental, with its complicated scenarios and dazzling visual effects. In this most typical form of Spanish Baroque theater, which was meant to shape the opinions and behavior of the common people, each scene and each character was based on a central, unitarian criterion. Torres, in contrast, defines his work as “event-specific.” While his installations share some of the theatricality of the Baroque model, his representation of events defies its unified and unifying discourse, tending instead to reproduce the fragmentation and duality of modern Western experience. “Democracy requires a power willing to build and practice ‘double morality.’”16 Otherwise, it will perish, a victim of its own innocence and defenselessness. Seeing art as a tool for social ends, however admirable, is obsolete. It is a broken toy, somehow. Today, Torres, and other artists who see themselves as inheritors of the avant-garde, are struggling to redefine art in such a way as to reflect the complex social and political web we must negotiate in our everyday lives.

In each of his installations, Torres tries to undermine the chain of command that more and more constrains the freedom of individuals in Western society, a society whose leaders, from left to right, ironically parrot the word “freedom” with increasing and banal frequency. We might stop to consider the meaning of the question posed to Lenin by Fernando de los Rios—one of Spain’s humanitarian socialists—on his trip to Russia in 1920: “And freedom? Freedom for what?” (Italics added.) Today we know, as Azaña might say, that the point is not to solve the problem—there are no solutions, either dialectical or mystical. What we must content ourselves with is the possibility of questioning both history and memory, in order to create a fruitful conflict: the possibility of making a change in each person’s consciousness. We cannot live the present without a critical awareness of the past—both as history and as memory.

Mar Villaespesa is an art critic and a freelance curator.

Translated from the Spanish by Gonzalo Torrado.



1. Francesc Torres, quoted in La creation artistica come cuestionamiento, ed. J. M. Cortés, Valencia: Institute Valenciano de la Juventud, 1990, p. 239.

2. Ibid.

3. Richard Sennett, Authority, New York: Vintage Books, 1981, p. 170.

4. Torres, Belchite/South Bronx: A Trans-Cultural and Trans-Historical Landscape, exhibition catalogue, Amherst, Mass.: University Gallery, University of Massachusetts at Amherst,.1988, p. 75.

5. Marshall Berman, All that Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, New York: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 290.

6. Torres, Belchite/South Bronx, p. 82.

7. In a compromise between the Metropolitan and the Whitney, Torres was allowed to use the statue “denuded” of its artifacts, which were placed on the ground near it.

Photodocumentation of the original, with an explanatory text, was placed at the entrance to the installation. A few weeks later, the loan from a private collector of a duplicate of the statue of Zeus enabled Torres to re-present his work as planned for the duration of the Biennial.

8. Sennett, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970, p. 131.

9. Josep M. Colomer, El arte de la manipulatión política, Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 1990, p. 159.

10. Krzysztof Wodiczko, DIA Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster, Seattle: Bay Press, 1987, p. 48.

11. Manuel Azaña, quoted in Juan Marichal, La vocación de Manuel Azaña, Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1982,205.

12. Bertolt Brecht, “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat,” in Versuche, vol. I, Berlin: Kiepenheuer, 1930, n.p.

13. Social Sculpture—Talking Clay will be done in the following cities: Madrid (February 1991); Barcelona (October 1991); Washington, D.C. (February 1992); and Berlin (date undetermined).

14. Torres, unpublished proposal for Cincuenta Lluvias, 1990.

15. Torres, “Über Plus Ultra,” Francesc Torres: Plus Ultra, exhibition catalogue, Berlin: DAAD and Nationalgalerie, 1988, p. 24.

16. Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Galindez, Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990, p. 59.