The corona measures have thwarted the new exhibition by Ana Torfs over the past few months, but “The Magician & The Surgeon” is now reopening full- time. This is a blessing because the Brussels-based artist’s revenge is sweet, glowing, a touch mysterious, and strangely breath-taking.
“Breathe,” you read on a light box in the small space at Bozar where Ana Torfs's new exhibition is located. “Breathe. Blow.” It is a touch creepy how prophetically “The Magician & The Surgeon” appears to invoke a world gasping for breath. Inevitably, in the sighs, gasps, and groans that float through the space, you hear echoes of George Floyd's struggle to live and of the corona wards in our hospitals. Sounds and images make the room pulsate and fold in on itself.
The light box on which the rhythmically alternating words appear is featured in the video When You Whistle, It Makes Air Come Out (2019). Ana Torfs used the book The Child's Conception of Physical Causality (1927) by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to find the answers of children to questions such as: what happens when you blow? Where does the air in your mouth come from? In the video, these answers – from “When you drink hot milk, it makes smoke” to “I have eaten an egg” – are accompanied by deep breaths.
Back to back with When You Whistle, It Makes Air Come Out, you find The Shadow Is Black and in the Darkness It Can't Show (2019), a mysterious video in which a shadow attempts to breathe life into a doll that looks real. Body and spirit, life and death mingle and echo.
RUINS OF WORDS
That echo recurs in Echo's Bones/Were Turned to Stone (2020), where by a hand-knotted carpet, designed by the artist, you can listen to an audio work in which a voice – that of Caroline Daish as a magisterial nymph Echo – chews and spits out fragments of a broken world. The recording, which is more than three and a half hours long, delves deeply into the anecdotes of famous lives and deaths. Artists like W.G. Sebald, Billie Holiday, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Aznavour, Frida Kahlo, or Josephine Baker are woven into a web of occasionally morbid associations.
Their penniless deaths, deaths in exile, deaths from colon cancer, from unspecified causes, from liver failure, or pneumonia lead to random factoids about bodies and the world, about the heart muscle and the rise of the killer robots. This conspiratorially whispered whole is occasionally peppered with statements that knock the ground from under you: “When we open our mouths, we speak with the voices of ten thousand dead.” “Nothing ever dies,” we hear, but these “ruins of words” are stripped down to the bone by hellish gasps and groans that get under your skin.
The same is true of Sideshow (2019), a compelling video in which actors (including Ana Torfs's mother) enter and exit a neon-lit stage in stop motion. Like a hall of mirrors in which characters wordlessly appear and disappear behind animal masks, bridal veils, and linen bandages. There are no faces or sounds, but the mime is scintillating. The raven, the mummy, the clown, the geisha... – plucked from and referring to the worlds of cabaret, silent film, masquerade, butoh... – tell a story with hands and gestures. Uprooted, groping. It is a sideshow that unsettles and envelops, that wrenches open the door between life and fiction. And ultimately between the roles of the surgeon and the magician. Precise and hazy, carnal and in the spirit, palpable and imagined.
Somewhere a body gasps for breath, magic, poignancy, and art. For a memory, terrifying and sweet. We have no more than the ruins of words and the echoes of ten thousand dead to conjure it before us, before it disappears again. It appears and disappears. And echoes. Art is a sweet avenger.
ANA TORFS: THE MAGICIAN & THE SURGEON
> 1/11, Bozar, www.bozar.be