Culture | Unearthing memory

Artist José Luis Torres dishes the dirt on displacement and nostalgia

Tomorrow at Montréal, arts, interculturels (MAI), Argentinean artist José Luis Torres’s new exhibit, Continente, will open. My outing to meet with Torres did not have an auspicious start, seeing as I got lost seconds after stepping out of the Metro station. A good half an hour later, and thanks to a very helpful old Frenchman, I was making my way to the MAI. I finally got to the beautiful stone building, complete with bright purple door and window frames, and walked inside.

Torres, who came to meet me as I entered the centre, is a kind-looking man with a ponytail of frizzy hair and round glasses à la John Lennon. In addition to holding a Masters degree in Fine Arts, he really did look the part of the artist-carpenter as he showed me around in jeans and work boots. Hailing from Argentina, Torres has lived in Montreal for the past five years and his entire approach to art since then has been based on such concepts as space, exile and memory.

In Continente, Torres uses earth-filled wooden casts strewn across the room to depict the effect that displacement and reminiscence have had on him. Although the interactive exhibit had not yet been finished when I visited, it was still possible to see how Torres planned to use the enormous casts to convey his ideas on immigration. It was perhaps a personal reaction, but the warm, bright light, combined with the smell of earth and wood did lend a feeling of nostalgia to the gallery.

Speaking French with a thick Argentinean accent, Torres tells me that his inspiration did indeed come from his immigration, specifically the problems concerning identity and culture. “The earthen casts are a sort of metaphor,” he told me. “I employ traditional Latin American construction techniques but the material, the earth, is universal; it represents me.” To Torres, it is the act of making a cast that symbolizes the displacement of travel, although the lighting, layout, and smell also play important roles in the exhibit, determining how viewers will interact with it while contributing to the contrast between wood and earth, past and present.

Perfectly melding space and art is a distinct priority for Torres, as he tailors each show based on the specific venue he uses. When asked why he chose the MAI, he responded that he found its architecture exciting and was “very drawn to the structure of the place.” He was also very much attracted to the openness and lighting of the space and the possibilities that these characteristics offered him. Another factor that immediately appealed to Torres was the multicultural profile of the MAI, as he felt it lent itself to his transnational themes.

He also told me how this exhibit compared to his previous work. “Each exhibit is a consequence of the previous one,” he said. “It’s an evolution of art and images. I take the conclusions I’ve formulated from the previous exhibit, my reflections, as well as feedback that I’ve gotten and I use them in the next exhibit. I continue the evolution.” Two of these exhibits, En trànsito and Nomade, were both recently shown in Montreal, where Torres has been steadily gaining recognition.

Whether interested in contemporary art or not, I would suggest paying this exhibit a visit, to walk through the displays and venture into the mind of a displaced man.