Ana Torfs, [ . . . ] STAIN [ . . . ] (detail), 2012, twenty framed ink-jet prints with mixed media, four tables, two speakers, sound. Installation view.

Ana Torfs, [ . . . ] STAIN [ . . . ] (detail), 2012, twenty framed ink-jet prints with mixed media, four tables, two speakers, sound. Installation view.

Ana Torfs

Ana Torfs, [ . . . ] STAIN [ . . . ] (detail), 2012, twenty framed ink-jet prints with mixed media, four tables, two speakers, sound. Installation view.

Each year, Wiels devotes a museum-scale exhibition to a major Belgian artist, curated by the institution’s director and founder, Dirk Snauwaert. In contrast to the lush 2013 display of 124 paintings that spanned Walter Swennen’s three-decade-plus career, the pristine spaces of the former industrial brewery this fall boast a stern ensemble of just six works by Ana Torfs, all from the past five years. The show’s title, “Echolalia,” is a term denoting the either playful or neurotic reiteration of vocalizations made by another person. And in fact the exhibition gives a unique opportunity to encounter the latest results of Torfs’s diligent exploration of the semantic shifts that occur as words and images are borrowed, translated, reproduced, and recombined.

Torfs’s most recent, three-part installation, The Parrot & the Nightingale, a Phantasmagoria, 2014, takes off from the lost travel diary of Christopher Columbus—that is, from a transcription of it by Bartolomé de las Casas dating from the 1530s. Three flat screens on tripods display renderings of passages from the journal in American Sign Language. Meanwhile, four loudspeakers on tripods successively stream rather divergent readings of the signings by three English-speaking interpreters. Projected on two wall-size transparent screens in the middle of the gallery is a sequence of black-and-white images of a late-nineteenth-century botanical garden in Cuba that the artist visited in 2005—an artificial and idealized tropical landscape that has regained a wilder aspect thanks to human neglect. The complex technological, visual, and discursive setup of The Parrot & the Nightingale forcefully cuts up and reorders the story of Columbus’s discovery, an adventure that in and of itself was deeply marked by misunderstanding and confusion between languages and codes. The most frequently recurring term in Columbus’s notes, apart from gold, is sign.

Yet the history of globalization is not solely marked by Babylonian muddle. TXT [Engine of Wandering Words], 2013, a set of six wall-size tapestries installed back-to-back on three freestanding panels in the neighboring gallery, centers on a set of terms—“loan words” as they are known—that traveled the world along with the goods to which they refer: sugar, ginger, saffron, coffee, chocolate, and tobacco. Torfs took her inspiration from an 1838 wood engraving by J. J. Grandville for a French edition of Gulliver’s Travels, depicting an improbable mechanical device that combines words at random; in her version, images are presented. Not unlike a set of a Google-image-search results, Torfs’s idiosyncratic collection of mostly historical illustrations ranges widely, from photographs and engravings to maps, paintings, and advertising images related to the six respective terms, suggesting an associative redistribution for each of them. With “Family Plot,” 2009–10, a series of fifty framed prints installed austerely in two parallel lines on a ninety-foot-long wall bisecting the gallery, Torfs suggests that our use of words and names is usually a result of politics and power. The upper prints depict a flower and a portrait of the person after whom it is named in Carl Linnaeus’s eighteenth-century system of nature. On the larger prints below, Torfs balances out Linnaeus’s disputable taxonomy with a wide array of additional data for each respective figure, including a drawing of the earth indicating the state of global comprehension at the time of so-called discovery, neatly mapping, as it were, a broader cultural history.

Ever since Magritte, Broodthaers, and, later, Jan Vercruysse, one of the obstinate clichés of Belgian art—if such a category really exists—has been its proclivity to play with image and language. Torfs certainly fits within this lineage, even if her laboriously referential approach, meticulous craftsmanship, and formal austerity threaten to deprive her work of her precursors’ humor and wit.

Wouter Davidts