Torres' concern with ideology and politics began early on. A disenchanted Marxist (not unlike George Orwell), he was born in 1948 in Barcelona, Spain, in the shadow of the repressive fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Much of Torres' later work reflects this. In lieu of formal university education, the artist went to Paris, where he became involved in the May 1968 student revolt that ended in the French national strike that nearly toppled de Gaulle's administration. He stayed in Paris long enough to apprentice with French artist Piotr Kowalski, an important member of the art and technology movement of the 1960s and 70s and an early pioneer of kinetic and installation art.

In 1972, Torres emigrated to the United States, ultimately settling in New York City, where he still lives and works. He is credited with creating more video installations than any other artist in the field. Torres' list of national and international museum exhibitions encompasses major exhibitions at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, including its 1989 and 1992 Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art. One of Torres' most memorable, and perhaps controversial, installations, "Chronicle of Getting Lost," was created for the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain. The expo was anchored by the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of America's discovery by Christopher Columbus. To counteract, in Torres' words, its "decaffeinated celebrations," the artist filled Seville's Church of San Luis de los Franceses, an ornate, 16th-century baroque church whose richly gilded interior came courtesy of the raping and pillaging of New Spain, with 20,000 white paper ships made by schoolchildren in the area.

On the church altar, Torres replaced a reliquary containing religious relics--the teeth, finger bones and hair of saints--with a video monitor showing a Native American boy reading a 16th-century book at a table, the top of which turned into a miniature sea with three paper ships sailing toward the boy. When he noticed them, the child would blow at the ships, making them disappear; the amplified sound of his breath was broadcast throughout the church. From the monitor cascaded the small, white ships, filling the church nave like sea foam and surrounding a pensive figure sitting in one of the pews holding a paper boat in his hand. The figure was Christopher Columbus, the man who stirred up the waters of modern history forever.

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