Francesc Torres

Centre d'art Santa Monica

Only months after Francesc Torres’ retrospective at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, for which he re-created seven video installations, originally realized between 1977 and 1991, he has returned to his native city, Barcelona, with a new project titled El Carro de Fenc (The hay cart, 1991). Is this increased visibility the product of his growing international acceptance? A consequence of the emergence of a sociopolitical tendency in recent art? Whatever the case, no one can accuse Torres of being an opportunist. For years he has been on the alert, responding to his critical conscience in his “compromise” with art—one unequivocally linked to politics and to the social act—without abandoning a certain strain of utopianism.

Torres rushes the walls of collective memory. He calls attention to the militarization of the culture and to the silence of intellectuals; he examines human behavior, denouncing war, the abuse of power, and the violence of contemporary society.

In El Carro de Fenc, he refers to the painting of Hieronymus Bosch entitled Haywain, 1500–05, in order to propose a new metaphor about earthly power, against which he sets two symmetrically inverted revolutionary moments: May 1968 in France and the student revolt in Tienanmen Square in 1989, thus recontextualizing two events that have to do with recent history generally as well as with his own biography.

The simultaneity of actions in the Flemish triptych is well suited to the stratification of discursive strategies that multimedia installations offer. Torres must have also been attracted to the analogy with that moralizing rationalism unique to the Humanist Renaissance, which already begins to appear in the Bosch painting: But to recall this might warn of determined deficiencies in the work at hand. For example, its inability to dodge a certain didacticism that is more literary than artistic in nature. While Bosch surpasses narration with his symbolic language, establishing fantastic associations nearly unrelated to the concrete, and calls to mind a medieval legacy—popular, esoteric, and caustic—in order to reveal the complexity of his own era, the images of Torres have yet to exhibit a comparable adequacy. The explicit ideas that he addresses in his installation are converted into excessively literal visual metaphors:

On the other hand, Bosch’s desire for synthesis, for unity between content and decoration, trips over the very contemporary difficulty—uniting and interrelating fragments that we think of andwork with separately. Not achieving this unity, each of the three fundamental parts of Torres’ installation—the chimpanzees reading Mao’s Red Book with blank pages; the 18-wheeler full of decals; the smashed bicycles evoking those of the Chinese students; and, finally, the six large videoscreens reflecting images of ’68 and ’89, not to mention the allusion to fire as a common element in the organized chaos of spontaneous festivity—functions separately, underscoring the practical, functional, not at all rhetorical nature of his approach; he has the ideas straight and does not seem to want to complicate them. It confirms his assertion that art does not interest him as a problem but rather as an activity, and he humors his American side with this will to situate himself in the fray.

When Torres says, “It’s about placing on the same hierarchical level the definition of what art is and balancing that with its fulfillment,” we become aware of another common dilemma these days: the difficulty of guiding esthetic qualities toward this knot without assuming the loss of a radical content. Here the esthetic qualities are directly related to the formal perfection of the objects and to the magnified mise-en-scène. “The world is a hay cart from which each one takes what he can,” says a Flemish proverb. However, we fear that the lazy spectator may remain paralyzed before the show and that the viewer who is more inclined to play the role of accomplice may feel a bit too dazed to ask questions and reflect.

Rosa Queralt

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent T. Martin.