San Francisco

Francesc Torres

Capp Street Project/AVT

At the center of Francesc Torres’ new installation, Destiny, Entropy, and Junk, 1990, a ten-minute, fuguelike videotape projection was beamed from above onto a nineby-eighteen-foot patch of salt on the main gallery floor. Surrounding the highly reflective, makeshift screen sat seven luxury cars—a Jaguar, a Cadillac, a BMW, a Corvette, and so on—all exhibiting varying degrees of front-end-collision damage. Torres borrowed the sedans from a local AAA garage for the duration of the show (fittingly, the Capp Street building is an ex–body shop). Next to the cars stood shiny steel showroom display markers framing head shots of the large German-culture-hero statues that lined the Siegesallee (Avenue of victory) in Berlin’s Tiergarten from the 1880s until the late 1940s when, having been severely battered during World War II, the statues were removed and buried on the grounds of the Schloss Bellevue. These same recently exhumed cast-concrete figures emerge. as major players in the videotape. With their stricken visages topping off an egregious heroicism, they supplied, as Torres put it in a gallery handout, “the visual record of a historical lesson.”

Collision, or crash—with its ur-text of speed at all costs—was the central metaphor within this work. The videotape opens and closes with blurred and grainy zooms and pans of the hapless Siegesallee figures. In between occur bonfire-lit street scenes of Torres’ native Barcelona during the summer-solstice celebration of St. John’s Night, shots of intense proceedings on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and correlative footage taken off network TV. There’s a telling sequence that begins with a couple of boxers breaking from a clinch, accompanied by a soundtrack of some obligatory Wagner overdubbed with car screeches: cut to a Wall Street trader hanging up the phone and bowing his head (whereupon the whole frame enacts a literal slump), Reagan speechifying, and a race car exploding. Finally, a 1981 news tape snippet of Reagan being shot freezes on the appearance of a gunman’s hand (not John Hinkley’s but a Secret Service agent’s) at the edge of the frame. The whole sequence lasts little more than a minute and triggers several quick changes in tempo. A panicky, speeded-up overview of Wall Street segues into a set of slow, near-ecstatic, pastel-hued pixilations of solstice fireworks, at which point the “victory” statues reappear and the tape goes blank on one long note of white noise.

Torres may be a kind of model intellectual artist. He doesn’t fiddle around with ideas but goes straight to their everyday relevance. Viewing the installation at ground level, or, better, from the second-floor balcony, one could see how he orchestrated a tidy repertoire of analogous elements into a theoretical nexus of gists about how history does and doesn’t work. Sensibly, the thesis was rigged so that, of the three terms in the title, entropy came out the winner. Torres assigns entropy the potential value of a spontaneous cleansing agent. A self-styled destiny, being coercive within any rationalized system (of which the destiny-acquisitive nation-state is one) ends in a shambles. If temporal powers fall apart by their own momentum, the resulting chaos can prepare for a new and more promising order, or, at any rate, a little humane loosening at the controls. If not, all that’s left is junk—bashed-in remnants of the old, self-defeating control mechanisms ripe for retooling into another cycle of coercion.

Torres’ way of connecting the dots among the displaced tenses of history is distinguished by its soulfulness. By invoking the popularly ritualized forms of chaos in an ancient Catalan carnival, he means to introduce a salutary glimmer of optimism into the infernal mix. There’s as much pathos in that as in the drive of one superpower after another to end up on time’s scrap heap. If anything is missing from Torres’ vision, it’s the crazed eroticism that J.G. Ballard, for one, has discerned within the fast-lane enchantments of contemporary life. Even the most sensuous moments of Torres’ imagery are checked by a resolute spareness, which may signal a cautionary refusal to cross over into excess.

Bill Berkson