Approximations/Contradictions, 2004

For APPROXIMATIONS/CONTRADICTIONS, her first web project – commissioned by Dia Art Foundation – Torfs focused on the Hollywood Songbook, a collection of 49 very brief, haiku-like songs written by the German-Austrian composer Hanns Eisler in 1942 and 1943 while he was in exile in California. She elicited powerful performances from 21 very talented, diverse people singing the songs, and weaves them together into something entertaining and beautiful yet deeply disturbing and compelling. Through his compositions for the Hollywood Songbook, Eisler was interested in translating his impressions of war, exile, and Hollywood. While the lyrics for these 49 compositions include texts by Hölderlin, Rimbaud, Goethe and others, the lyrics of the 21 songs selected by Torfs for her web project were all written by Bertolt Brecht, Eisler’s frequent collaborator in Berlin before both men fled Germany in 1933.

Torfs researched Eisler’s work extensively, formulating an idea of how he would have intended this material, both dark and witty (Contradictions), to be performed. Her assumptions were confirmed by Irmgard Arnold (born 1919), a German soprano Torfs befriended, who worked intensively with Eisler in the 1950s. Torfs searched for twenty other character performers, primarily actors and singers of multiple nationalities living in Belgium, most of whom are not classically trained.

In APPROXIMATIONS/CONTRADICTIONS Torfs filmed 21 performers, creating ‘close-up portraits’ of each singer performing three evocative versions (Approximations) of a song. Interested in responding to the setting in which people typically view the web, Torfs offers a kind of intimate cinema. 21 performers were filmed in three different ways, turning us into witnesses of their transformation from ‘person’ to ‘character/figure’. Playing off the convention of cast credits at the end of films, three versions of each song are offered from the project’s main page, with song titles in the position of the role.

The first version (linked to each performer’s name) shows each one mentally singing the song while listening to the piano. During the rehearsals for the project, Torfs discovered that every singer very quickly ‘acted’ the song in a very specific way. For the second version, (accessible by clicking the line connecting the name to song title) Torfs asked the singer to be conscious of this and to repeat it. This version also presents Piet Kuijken, the young pianist whose face tells as much as his interpretation of the music. For the third version (linked to each song title), Torfs asked the performers to gaze directly into the camera, and asked them to wear something they felt was appropriate to the subject of their song, as if they were being filmed for a musical. Contrary to the first version where everyone is dressed in a neutral white, in this final one, the women wore makeup and their hair-styles often varied dramatically.

Torfs filmed the performers in close-up, framing them in a style consistent with a portrait: a bust with a little headroom, cropped mid-chest, with a white background. Yet these three different renditions have extremely varied impacts. Watching the first, devoid of language as in a silent movie, one can sense the performer’s concentration, singing even while mute. English translations of the original German lyrics accompany the second and third versions. The second version feels, as the first did, slightly voyeuristic, watching the performers sing in a very personal style. And in the third version, with the singer gazing directly at the camera, the viewer is intensely engaged by the performer’s metamorphosis into a ‘role.’

(Sara Tucker, from the introduction to the web project)

web project, German with English translation, speakers or headphones are required.
In 2019, Dia Art Foundation has reprogrammed this work in HTML5 as Flash was no longer supported by most browsers. The size of the work has been adapted to contemporary computer screens.

Irmgard Arnold, Kobe Baeyens, Esmé Beysens, Esmé Bos, Marijs Boulogne, Vera Coomans, Kris Dane, Koen De Cauter, Viviane De Muynck, Jim Denley, Madiha Figuigui, Lucy Grauman, Claire Haenni, Filip Jordens, Cécilia Kankonda, Simonne Moesen, Dett Peyskens, Zahava Seewald, Olivier Thomas, Hilde Vanhove, Bruno Vanden Broecke.

Piet Kuijken

Produced by vzw NN, Brussels, with the support of VAF (Flemish Film Fund) and Dia Art Foundation, New York

This work is part of the web art collection of Dia Art Foundation, New York