ana torfs

TXT (Engine of Wandering Words), 2013

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

Each tapestry depicts a strange mechanical device with squares of twenty-five different images and handles along the edges. These squares depict fragments of existing photographs, engravings, oil paintings, maps, pamphlets and book pages from various time periods. Lines connect the squares to the handles, and soon we realize that these are in fact cubes that can be turned, revealing another side, perhaps with a new image. Is this a visual dictionary? A rebus? A children’s game? An “engine of the imagination”?

The images conjure up very diverse wor(l)ds and eras, but they make the viewer guess and search for some kind of a clue or a solution. A person always tries to find a relation between things that are grouped together. After contemplating the tapestries for some time, visitors will probably start to look for a label with the title.

The first part of the title, TXT, evokes text. Text, texture and textile all derive from the same Latin term, "texere", meaning “to weave.” In The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst writes of this “ancient metaphor”: “Thought is a thread, and the raconteur is a spinner of yarns—but the true storyteller, the poet, is a weaver. The scribes made this old and audible abstraction into a new and visible fact. After long practice, their work took on such an even, flexible texture that they called the written page a textus, which means cloth.”

Trade brings languages together. It is easier to borrow an existing word from another language than to make one up. Approximately sixty percent of the English language is borrowed. If a word is simply adopted from another language, along with the thing it refers to, it is called a “loanword.” The “wandering words” of the work’s title—a literal English translation of the beautiful German noun "Wanderwort"—are a special type of loanword, one that spread among numerous languages and cultures, across a significant geographical area, from language to language, and it is not always possible to ascertain from which language it originated. A few examples of “wandering words” are ginger, saffron, sugar, coffee, tobacco and chocolate.

The machine, or engine shown on the tapestries is inspired by a wood engraving by Jean-Jacques Grandville, an illustration from the 1838 French edition of Jonathan Swift’s novel "Gulliver’s Travels". This great adventure story has amused and confused readers since its first publication, in 1726, as "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships". The book is both a parody of travel writing and a satirical exploration of politics, colonialism and human nature. On the island of Balnibarbi, Gulliver visits the Academy of Lagado, an early scientific institute. There he is given a demonstration of a giant machine, used for making sentences and books. Every turn of the handles generates series of random combinations. Swift’s invention might be the earliest example of a (fictional) contraption resembling a modern computer. During his guided tour of the Academy of Lagado, Gulliver also observes projects intended to do away with words altogether. Because words were only names for things, it was reasoned that people would be better off if they dealt with things themselves rather than with words.

These tapestries were woven on a Jacquard loom, named after inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard, who was born to a family of weavers in Lyon, France, in 1752. His loom was the first programmable machine: It used punch cards to store complex weaving patterns in a binary format, enabling the weaving of any design of which the imagination could conceive and mechanizing a previously labor-intensive task. Jacquard revolutionized the weaving industry, and the principle of his loom is still in use today, although the automation is now computer-driven. American inventor Herman Hollerith applied the same technology to construct the first data-processing machine. In 1911, he sold his tabulating machine company to the conglomerate that later became International Business Machines, or IBM. Jacquard-style punch cards were widely used in the early computers of the 1940s to ’70s. Today, of course, these have been replaced by other storage methods.

Ana Torfs, 2012

Installation, six Jacquard tapestries, wool and cotton, each 275 × 325 cm
Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation - SB11- 2013