Ana Torfs

Being murdered can make dying less lonely. If it leads to a criminal trial, the most solitary act of life becomes a public event, if not a theatrical spectacle, which repeatedly delves into the moments leading up to the victim’s last heartbeat. The instant of death can be as tricky to determine as the guilt of the accused. Driven by conflicting testimonies, the trial is not only a drama in itself but also an attempt to come up with one final script about the victim’s death. A trial reenacts a murder only to produce its own safer version, which turns crime into justice, death into language.

Treating testimony as a script, Ana Torfs, for her installation Anatomy, 2006, has re-created parts of the trial for the murders of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the pacifist cofounders of the Spartacist League, who were abducted and killed by Freikorps militia on January 15, 1919, in Berlin. Torfs hired twenty-five German actors and filmed them playing the roles of witnesses and defendants—from a waiter who saw the victims beaten outside Hotel Eden to a lieutenant who dumped Luxemburg’s corpse in the Landwehr Canal. Encased in two monitors set on a table, the actors appear as blank Thomas Ruff–like portraits that suddenly move their lips, only to recite gruesome details about rifle butts and blood. Such details become more shocking as the defendants awkwardly deny the fatal attack, at times sounding like a kid blaming a missing plate of cookies on an invisible friend. “I may have hit the car,” says one rifleman. “I don’t think I got Liebknecht.” Since no one was convicted of murder, the May 1919 trial was a mere show of justice, if not a dress rehearsal for the Nazis’ judicial travesties. An English voice-over of the proceedings offers yet another reenactment, which recalls the repetitions in a language class. But the installation’s title refers to the black-and-white images projected on the wall, shot in Berlin’s eighteenth-century Anatomical Theater, where we glimpse seventeen mute witnesses waiting for a dissection that never occurs.

In the catalogue, which takes the form of a script for a tragic drama, Torfs recalls that anatomical theaters used the corpses of executed criminals, who, like Liebknecht and Luxemburg, were killed with the blessing of the state and whose death thus remains a collective burden. Ultimately, she multiplies the perspectives on the bare life of a Homo sacer, an individual who can be murdered with impunity, according to Giorgio Agamben. Torfs reenacts not the deed itself, à la Jeremy Deller, but witnesses’ particular recollections of it. As Luxemburg was dragged away, she lost a shoe, which a soldier picked up as a memento, knowing that she was about to become history—a harrowing version of “Cinderella.” Given Torfs’s approach, one wishes she had created the new Luxemburg memorial for Berlin instead of Hans Haacke, whose uninspired work consists of Luxemburg quotations embedded in the pavement; alas, like neglected tombstones sinking in the earth.

Jennifer Allen