ana torfs

Family Plot, 2009-2010

installation view, Centro de Arte Moderna, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 2016

In English, ‘family plots’ are larger sections of a cemetery, including burial plots for members of one family. Ana Torfs’s installation takes the form of a gallery of forefathers, consisting of fifty framed prints. The central figure is Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who introduced a formal system for the naming of plants, the so-called ‘binomial system’. In the era of colonization, Linnaeus’s taxonomy often entailed the dedication of exotic plants to their – usually European – discoverers, commissioners, sponsors, or kings. Torfs describes this ‘politics of naming’ as a form of ‘linguistic imperialism’, whence also the allusion to a conspiracy or storyline in the work’s title. It refers to the dark side of this ‘family plot’, the hegemonic exclusion of the Other, even in ostensibly objective disciplines such as botany.

The smaller set of frames depicts the imaginary community of a Western elite, featuring portraits of the patrons whose names were given to the twenty-five plants in question. The "Magnolia" genus for example is dedicated, by Carl Linnaeus, to the French botanist Pierre Magnol (1638-1715). Graphically superimposed on this ‘family tree’ are suggestive close-ups of flowers and fruits — a reference to Linnaeus’s ‘sexual’ classification, which is based primarily on the number and arrangement of the male stamina and female pistils.

The larger set of frames spins a subtle web of interrelations between the worlds of the featured personalities, their ‘discoveries’, and the resulting implications for cultural history. With her fascination for the names of plants (Torfs is a passionate gardener) as a starting point, she further explores the ‘worlds’ of the twenty-five name patrons, all of whom lived in the era of European exploration and imperialism. From the tropical genus of flowering plants Brunfelsia — a hommage to the German scientist Anton Brunfels, who died in 1432 — to Davidia, a Chinese genus of flowering trees, which was decicated to the French priest and naturalist Armand David, who died in 1900. The pictorial atlas before us, incorporating existing archival material, including numerous illustrations, encyclopaedia entries, and, most prominently, world maps (plot also means plan), Torfs thus offers an alternative reading of our ‘natural world’. Speech bubbles contain biographical information in the form of anonymous quotes, which are provided with no additional identification. Indeed, the cultural history laid bare by Torfs cannot be comprehended from a single perspective. The viewer that stands before this thoroughly researched and beautifully arranged work, experiences a sweeping view of the dark hours of world history.

installation, 25 inkjet prints mounted on aluminium, framed each 70 × 100 cm; 25 lambda prints mounted on aluminium and silkscreen on glass, framed each 44,5 × 32,5 cm, total dimensions variable