TXT (Engine of Wandering Words), 2012–13

Ana Torfs

Biennial, Commissions & Productions

Ana Torfs, TXT (Engine of Wandering Words), 2012-13, Six Jacquard tapestries, wool and cotton, Courtesy of the artist. Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation. Installation view.

TXT (Engine of Wandering Words), 2012–13

Six Jacquard tapestries, wool and cotton, each 275 x 325 cm

Commissioned by Sharjah Art Foundation

Each tapestry depicts a strange mechanical device with squares of twenty-five different images attached by lines to handles along the edges. Each of these squares depicts a fragment of a photograph, engraving, oil painting, map, pamphlet or book page, all from various time periods. Soon we realise that the squares 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 diverse wor(l)ds and eras, but they make the viewer guess and search for some kind of a clue or solution. People always try to find a relation between things that are grouped together, so 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 the word “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 to which it refers, it is called a “loanword”. The “wandering words” of the work’s title – a literal English translation of the beautiful German noun Wanderwort – refer to a special type of loanword that spread among numerous languages and cultures, across a significant geographical area, from language to language, so that 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 a series of random combinations. Swift’s fictional invention might be the earliest example of a 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.

Torfs’s 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 mechanising a previously labour-intensive task. Jacquard revolutionised 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 the 1970s. Today, of course, they have been replaced by newer storage methods.

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