New York

Francesc Torres

In the three installations here, Francesc Torres has created (to use the artist’s terminology) three different “trans-cultural and trans-historical landscapes.” In Belchite/South Bronx he uses one abstract architectural scenario to fuse the desolate setting of the South Bronx, which looks as though it had been bombed and abandoned, with the ruins of the town of Belchite in Spain, which was in fact bombed and abandoned during the Spanish Civil War. (The latter serves as a touchstone for Torres’ war-obsessed, death-obsessed art.) Television sets, both black and white and color, show interviews with various residents of the South Bronx, alternating with scenes of architectural ruins. Images of boys playing basketball are a leitmotif; the implication is that they will eventually get caught up in some kind of war and be killed. In Steel Balls, originally created in 1983, Torres sets up an ironic parallel between a World War II American bombing raid on Regensburg, which destroyed a ball-bearing factory, and the steel balls used in pinball games. The piece consists of a documentary film of the raid (which caused a great loss of American as well as German lives) shown as a negative, and rows of old pinball machines. In The Assyrian Paradigm, originally conceived in 1980 and here in a new version, numerous houses of brightly colored playing cards surround a plaster cast of a heroic classical figure, which originally stood on top of one of the pillars that formed the gate to the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. A black and white photograph of the bombed-out palace, with the statue inserted, hangs on the wall next to the cast.

Torres’ installations are thick with historical and philosophical meanings; they are uncategorizable in terms of genre, although tending in a conceptual direction. His pieces are esthetically brilliant in their complex, dramatic play of color and shape, of two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. Their juxtapositions, in general and in detail, are startling and subtly grotesque. It is an agonizing, very Spanish grandiosity he offers us. His work transcends the narrow category of political art—indeed, shows just how narrow and simplistic it is—and protests nothing. I regard it as a participatory theater of meditation on human destructiveness. One can play the pinball games, add one’s own house of cards, wander through the architectural ruins. Torres makes a dispassionate, melancholy statement on the folly and absurdity of human existence, manifested in the apparent inescapability and omnipresence of war. His art has a visionary caste. It manifests a profoundly tragic sense of life; each installation is a kind of nightmare memory.

One of Torres’ greatest strengths is that he uses public material such as films to show the subjective experience of the participants in war, and private play activity to convey its nihilistic outcome. The randomly constructed houses of cards make the point particularly clear: nihilistic chaos as the paradoxical out- come of systems, or game, theory is Torres’ “message,” as it were. These installations have a vitality of form, density of meaning, and power of intimidation that few works realize. They are both intimate and grand, speaking to us personally with a universal voice—a rare achievement.

Donald Kuspit