This is a slightly adapted version of a conversation that took place over e-mail in 2006 between art historian Els Roelandt and visual artist Ana Torfs, on the occasion of the first exhibition of Torfs’ installation Anatomy at daadgalerie in Berlin.
Els Roelandt: Can you say something about the title you chose for this new installation, Anatomy, which you realized during your residency at DAAD in Berlin?
Ana Torfs: The first meaning of the word “anatomy” is “dissection”: Webster Dictionary defines it as “the art of separating the parts of an organism in order to ascertain their position, relations, structure, and function,” but in a broader, more figurative sense it also means “analysis”: “a separating or dividing into parts for detailed examination.” It is used in that sense in the title of Robert Burton’s book The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) or in Otto Preminger’s film Anatomy of a Murder (1951).
ER: What was the starting point for Anatomy?
AT: In a way I deal in this work with the “anatomy of a murder,” the analysis of a murder. To this effect I read the whole record of proceedings of the “Case of the Murder of Dr. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg before the Military Field Tribunal of the Cavalry Guard Rifle Division in the Main Courtroom at the Berlin Criminal Court” (1919), a document of some 1,200 pages, held in the Military Archive in Freiburg. For young readers of this conversation it might be important to mention that Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were the founders of the German Communist Party. From the trial record I distilled the statements of twenty-five different persons—defendants and random witnesses—that were heard at the trial, and processed them into a “Tragedy in Two Acts,” the literary script for my project. I cut the chosen testimonies up into short chronological scenes so that a “story” emerges in which details from the same event are told from different angles, highlighting the relative nature of the narrative.
ER: And how does Anatomy relate to earlier work?
AT: I often used preexisting texts as starting points for my work: the conversation books of a composer gone deaf in Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten (Cycle of Trifles, 1998) or a trial record in Du mentir-faux (About Lying Falsehood, 2000), but it might just as well be a play in The Intruder (2004), an opera libretto in Battle (1993), or lyrics in Approximations/Contradictions (2004). In each case these texts are “dissected,” after which they take on a new aspect.
ER: How do you choose the text material with which you work?
AT: I do not really “choose” the material according to a predetermined idea. One might say I just happen to “run into” it. Sometimes you discover something unexpectedly in a library, next to another book you were looking for, or sometimes by leafing through a newspaper or magazine. Each of the texts I’ve come across either got stuck in my mind, or made me feel like doing “something” with them; often because I sense in them strong dramaturgical and narrative potential. Most of the time this is followed by a long process of “dealing” with the material: looking for a context to understand it, also to explain things better to the actors I work with later, should that need emerge.
I had learned about the existence of the trial on which Anatomy is based, several years ago already, during research for the “reading diary” which accompanied my installation with projected slides: Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks & Tables of Affinities (2002). In the library I had accidentally come across a book from 1967 by lawyer Heinrich Hannover and historian Elisabeth Hannover-Drück about the Luxemburg & Liebknecht murder case, which they described as a “Justizkomedie” [comedy of justice].
ER: Was Berlin a fertile ground for the creation of your work?
AT: When I arrived in Berlin, sometime in March 2005, I wanted to keep all my options open; I had no precise idea yet about what I wanted to start working on. A number of elements, however, encouraged me to get to work with the aforementioned criminal proceedings. Berlin has excellent libraries, like the magnificent Staatsbibliothek in the Potsdamerplatz area, a building designed by Hans Scharoun, immortalized in the opening scene to Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987). DAAD also offers the possibility to take German language classes, and I used this time to subject the trial fragments I selected to a very intense “close reading,” in order to get through to the finer meanings of these at times somewhat archaic words, to catch the tone of the proceedings in the best possible way. Finally my stay in Berlin was important in finding the forty-two actors of various ages, who I needed for the realization of my work. I don’t think there is another city with so many theaters and such a rich theatrical tradition (of Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator, and Max Reinhardt). So, for several months I immersed myself in the theater life of Berlin, in order to prepare for the casting. I chose twenty-five young German actors and filmed their “interpretations” of the testimonials on video. Through twenty-five versions of the “truth,” a fragmented and constantly shifting image of the last hour in the lives of Liebknecht and Luxemburg emerges. Another seventeen actors of four generations posed for a series of black-and-white slides in the demonstration room at the Anatomical Theatre in Berlin, a building with a particular history. It was erected over the 1789–90 period by Carl Gotthard Langhans, the architect who also built the Brandenburger Tor. In some ways this building, a dissecting theater, might be perceived as a more general metaphor for my work, where reading material, rather than bodies, is subjected to analysis and dissection.
ER: Word and image are often of equal importance in your work. In Anatomy actors interpreted the text that you selected and adapted. What kind of interpretation did you expect from these actors with regard to the script: they rarely seem theatrical, but instead rather solemn. It would seem that the way you work with actors is no different from your approach to text. Or is there an essential difference?
AT: Generally I spend a lot of time on a text: I keep polishing the selection, the order of the chosen fragments, etc. This was also the case for Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten, for instance; it took me over a year to read all of Beethoven’s conversation booklets, over 4,000 pages, and distil a script from them, which can be heard offscreen in the film. Even though I do not write these texts myself—they are objets trouvés [found objects]—copying, cutting, and pasting them is a process that is just as slow and intense. For my installation with projected slides, The Intruder—for which a theater play from 1890 by Maurice Maeterlinck was taken as a starting point—a large amount was omitted; obsolete characters were left out, etc. The original French text of this play was specifically retranslated to English for this project by Gila Walker (the last English translation dating back to over one hundred years ago). In this way I wanted to actualize Maeterlinck’s text and bring it closer to the work of such authors as Samuel Beckett, to which it relates in many ways.
I like to surprise actors, however: speed is important, in that way something can happen in front of the camera which escapes their command of the situation. For this reason actors hardly get an opportunity to “perform,” more than anything else they have to “be.” For the video segment of Anatomy the recordings with twenty-five actors were managed in five days. The slide photographs with seventeen actors in the Anatomical Theatre were shot in a single day, taking in the light of the moving sun as a major element.
ER: I think it has to do with the way in which you pick out a text, followed by selections within the text itself, i.e., which particular fragments you want to use and how you visualize them later (or make them heard). The same thing happens—to my mind—with the actors, the way they are brought in is well defined. Can you say a bit more about the way you work with actors?
AT: I did the casting of forty-two actors in Berlin over the short time period of a few months, something I would never leave to others: it is a quest for very particular faces and/or voices. For the video recordings of Anatomy, twenty-five actors were needed, of roughly the same age as the witnesses and defendants of that time (between seventeen and forty-four years old). They were handed the text in advance, so they could memorize it, with a single instruction: do not attempt to act a “part,” and leave out “Bewertung,” as they say in German, any judgment or evaluation of what you are saying. Everything was recorded without any rehearsal. This resulted in an intense concentration in front of the camera. The actors were also instructed to face the camera directly the whole time, a genuine ordeal at times. And in spite of the fact that I had asked them not to act, the result is very penetrating. They were also encouraged to leave a lot of “white space,” i.e., silence, between sentences: voids for the spectators to fill in, offering them time and space to picture what is being said. The actors all wear a classic shirt: they are young people of today, not reconstructing characters from 1919. Because of the head-on filming, close to the face of the actor, an intimacy arises in which nothing is left hidden. The actor stands naked and vulnerable before the camera, in a matter of speaking; their voice is their only instrument. What happens if you ask young actors from today to “perform” such a text from 1919? How much or how little can you read from a face?
It is remarkable to hear how the language of the military contrasts with that of random witnesses, like a bookkeeper, a waiter, a cloakroom attendant; how a military person of higher rank is a better liar than a common soldier, etc. It is fascinating to discover how language is always subjective. It is also important to mention that the testimonials in German were simultaneously translated by an English court interpreter. This “interpretation,” audible in the work over wireless headphones, accentuates that there is no clear divide between the naked fact and the interpretation, between fact and fiction. A story is colored by language, no matter what.
That’s why I think my works are a lot less “about history,” than about language. A similar idea is found in a quote from Michel de Certeau’s L’écriture de l’histoire (1975): “Ce que nous appelons d’abord l’histoire n’est qu’un récit” [What we first call history is merely an account]. De Certeau means that history is never objective, the subject/author/speaker always resonates in the language. There is no such thing as a clear divide between fact and fiction. In the end a history/story is colored by language, there is no way around that.
So whether I’m working with a text or with actors, I clearly like to stress the fact that what I make is fiction (that it has a certain form that is constructed by a maker), even though I often work with “documentary” material.
ER: Is it possible to describe your working method as that of a film director?
AT: Clearly there are similarities, with regard to the working method—as I also work with actors, on a set, with a photo or film camera—but at the same time the final result of my installations is far removed from classic cinema.
ER: The restraint of your sets gives a certain degree of abstraction to some of your images; they even get a certain iconic value; they become ageless. So what is the relevance of the specific (historical) context to which the works are linked in that respect? How do both elements (the specific and the abstract) interact with each other?
AT: A possible misconception in the reception of my work is that people often dig in too quickly to the obvious historical link that I hand them. It is so easy to lose oneself with words in the process: people no longer discuss what is actually there to be seen and heard in my work, instead they talk/write “about” Beethoven (Zyklus von Kleinigkeiten) or “about” Joan of Arc (Du mentir-faux), and I also get content questions “about” these people. So Anatomy is definitely not “about” Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Even though I often take historical texts as a starting point for my installations, the ultimate goal or the result is not “historical” or something that is bound to the past. As Robert Bresson writes in Notes on Cinematography (1977): “Reject historical films, whose effect would be ‘spectacle’ or ‘masquerade’. […] In my Trial of Joan of Arc, I have tried to avoid ‘theatre’ and ‘masquerade’, but to arrive at a non-historical truth with historical words.” Or in a recent monograph on Roberto Rossellini there are similar words: “What interested Rossellini in dealing with the past was not to show what actually happened, but to take from it an idea that could help us to reorient ourselves in the present. Like Croce, he saw all history as ‘contemporary history’.”11Adriano Aprà, “Rossellini’s Historical Encyclopedia,” in Roberto Rossellini, Magician of the Real, eds. David Forgacs, Sarah Lutton, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (London: BFI Publishing, 2000), 142.
It is true that I try to look for a certain “degree zero” in my sets, some kind of “blank” or void, leaving open the largest possible number of associations to the visitor of the exhibition. How much or how little do you need in order to tell something: an actor, possibly a voice, and well-selected costumes? The “sets” in my work until now are often reduced to a light, white background, in front of which the face of an actor is photographed/filmed in close-up, a subtle reference to the white projection screen: a metaphor for all the possible projections of each individual spectator. The most extreme example in this respect might be the slide projections in Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks & Tables of Affinities. The 162 different “disguises” of a single actor can lead to countless possible stories and interpretations. I often use black and white for my images, which creates a degree of abstraction in itself. But the actors are always clearly identifiable as people of today; they do not immerse themselves in specific historical periods, or try to embody a historical character.
It is important to indicate as well that in Anatomy, slide projections are counterpointed with video images on two monitors. The (mute) slide projections provide a more abstract visual counterpoint to the video images. The architecture of the Anatomical Theatre evokes a very suggestive atmosphere somewhere between a stage, a Greek amphitheater, and a court of law. Are the slide photographs of this silent group of anonymous people who are posing in the steep rows of this amphitheater not reminisent of a Greek choir? Or is it an audience, “we,” “us,” the witnesses, looking at the bleeding corpse of Western history?
ER: In your work you observe and study certain aspects of history, in an almost microscopic way. In the publication that you put together for Anatomy you wrote an essay that starts with a quote from Hannah Arendt, in which she discusses an attempt to reconcile with the past. Might your work be read as an attempt to get a better understanding and perception of the past? Is it also a way, in the end, to reconcile the spectator with the past?
AT: It would be naïve to think that it is possible to reconcile the spectator with the past through art. But, to be precise: in this quote and the context from which it arises Arendt is actually talking about the use of literary forms, of fictionalization, in order to discuss the past. She also writes how for certain memories a proper literary form can only be found after many years, at the moment when indignation and pertinent rage have come to a halt. And that is the reason why I used that quote, because to me fictionalization and distance from an event are very important. Moreover, what I want to say about my own work I often write down in texts, which—like a program booklet in the opera or the theater—might enable a better understanding, but reading them is definitely not a requirement. The publication that comes with Anatomy is not part of the installation itself. It exists in itself, like another author’s essay about my work would.
ER: In that text you clearly make your own voice heard, in a very different mode from your “distant” role as a director. In a sense you become an “anatomist.” Did it feel like a necessity to express yourself this way, or as an evolution in your work as a whole? Was it the specific subject matter (content) or the form of Anatomy that compelled you to do this?
AT: In the artist’s book that was published with my installation Du mentir-faux I also wrote a very personal text and, as with Anatomy, it is not required for an understanding of my work, it just offers possible lines of thought to the spectator. The first sentence of the essay I wrote for Du mentir-faux went as follows: “It was impossible not to write this text.” A very penetrating text, some might say almost unbearably so, probably because of its intimate nature, which will affect the way you look at the work, that is for sure. My voice also returns in the “reading diary” accompanying the installation Elective Affinities/The Truth of Masks & Tables of Affinities, which I mentioned already. It is important to me that I am able to share some of my fascination for the selected text material and my working method with the audience. Moreover, I don’t think I have ever kept my distance from the material I have worked with. If you take a year of your time to go through about 4,000 pages of Beethoven’s conversation booklets, and make a selection of them for a feature film of eighty-six minutes—merely a fraction of the material I have read—than it is obvious that my own voice does come through as well: no two people would ever have created the same textual construct.
© Ana Torfs & Els Roelandt
This conversation was made possible by BAM (Kunstenpunt).