Trade routes are mapped roads to transport goods between different geographical locations, key pathways in the history of humanity which configure spaces of relations and exchange, weaving alliances and triggering wars. Overland and sea routes, such as those in the silk and spice trades and, in the Modern Age, the tornaviaje, or return journey, and its Manila galleon trade route, have all been pivotal in the history of humanity and with repercussions, trade-based as well as commercial, that have been inscribed in artistic language.
In this room, the piece by Ana Torfs explores the relationship between language and history, and also language and image, which, along with related processes of representation, interpretation and translation, plays a central role in the work of the Belgian artist. TXT (Engine of Wandering Words) (2013) is a textile installation made up of six tapestries centred on the history of some of the most appreciated foods and spices on the centuries-old routes that threaded commercial relations between cultures: ginger, saffron, sugar, coffee, tobacco and chocolate, the names of which have been imported by different languages but with little variation. In Portuguese they are translated as gengibre, açafrão, açúcar, café, tabaco and chocolate; in French as gingembre, safran, sucre, café, tabac and chocolat; in Spanish as jengibre, azafrán, azúcar, café, tabaco and chocolate; in German as Ingwer, Safran, Zucker, Kaffee, Tabak and Schokolade; in Norwegian as ingefær, safran, sukker, kaffe, tobakk and sjokolade; and so on.
The title of Torfs’ work references, on one side, writing as a tool of history: TXT refers to terms such as text, texture and textile, originating from the Latin texere, “to weave”. The Engine of Wandering Words, the subtitle, alludes to the circulation of words through time and the different narratives which stem from these appropriations, many related to the annals of colonialism. Each tapestry contains twenty-five images which narrate the history of the word and its travels through different eras and different cultures. The images in each tapestry are represented as interconnected axes that end in cranks, the engine that puts them in operation and progressively alters narratives. The artist takes this handle-built machinery that can be operated to play with words and their histories from Gulliver’s Travels. In one journey, the main character visits the academy in the city of Lagado, where scientists work to invent whacky devices with no social or practical function. The one which Torfs draws from contains sheets of paper with every word in the world, changing position through a series of levers and composing, in different combinations, phrases that form a total work, a compendium of all knowledge