As Arthur Rimbaud said, shortly after spending a season in hell: “Il faut être absolument moderne”.
It was vital to be modern then and it is today, because any ancien régime has the means to conserve its power and thus enjoy exclusive privileges, to the detriment of everyone else, obstructing the desirable goal of universal freedom.
The title of the retrospective exhibition Berenice Abbott. Portraits of modernity captures a fundamental aspect of the work of an American photographer who was also something of a Francophile (she adopted the French spelling of her name, swapping Bernice for Berenice). Modernity is probably the word that best defines her personality and her work, together with others such as freedom and creativity, which can be considered integral and indispensable notions in the program of modernity.
Because the system whereby privileges are conserved – and in recent years, increased – has worked hard to reduce the notion and program of modernity to that of merely technological and formal progress, we often forget that there can be no true modernity without full, responsible freedom, without equality of rights and duties, and without the promotion of creativity and the dissemination of knowledge. This exhibition, presented by the Fundación Mapfre at its Barcelona gallery and curated by Estrella de Diego, brings together almost two hundred photographs that focus on the three main fronts on which Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) set out her defence of freedom and modernity.
In its first phase, her work centred on portraits of the individuals who were creating artistic and literary modernity, especially in Paris between 1921 and 1929. She opened the second front in New York between 1929 and 1939. This time her goal, in which she was successful, was to create a portrait of the great modern metropolis of the twentieth century, New York in the 1930s, with its skyscrapers, newly-built or in construction, rising alongside the much smaller buildings that pre-dated them, whose days appeared to be numbered. And later, from as early as 1939, but especially from 1958 to 1961, she took scientific photographs, principally for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These were photographic documents of materials (soap bubbles, mould, etc) and physical phenomena (waves in motion, magnetized iron filings, etc) that also had an expressive and artistic value.
In other words, first progress and liberation in the spheres of art, literature and life, then the construction of the modern city, and finally, scientific discoveries and their divulgation in photographic images.
Although Abbott had studied sculpture, her medium of expression was photography, which in the first half of the twentieth century was, like cinema, a medium that permitted new modes of perception, expression and communication. Thus she was also modern in her choice of medium and in the way she used it, with a specifically photographic vision, free of hang-ups about traditional fine arts – especially painting, which the Pictorialist photographers had striven so hard to imitate. Abbott turned thirty in 1928, so from a historical and generational point of view she was born at just the right time to be a pioneering modern photographer.
The people whose portraits Berenice Abbott took in the twenties all have something in common: they are liberated and liberating figures; artists, writers and other members of her circle, which at that time meant the avant-garde in art, literature, thought, or life. Some are famous today, among them James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, André Gide, Sylvia Beach, Edward Hopper and Lewis Hine. In some of these portraits her intention is evidently to bring out qualities in each sex that were traditionally attributed to the other, and therefore repressed. For example, she portrayed – and thus championed – delicateness in men, and courage in women. She defended the freedoms of both.
Her portraits clearly advocate freedom in a general sense.
Beyond from her vindication of sexual freedom, now a mainstream position, under labels such as LGTB, her portraits clearly advocate freedom in a general sense. In 2019 this vision is still necessary, as an antidote to the emergence of hatreds and fear-driven fascisms, new because their masks – perhaps “constitutional” or even “democratic” ones – are new, but ideologically very old. At that time, too, during the années folles, the “Roaring” Twenties – for some – it was essential to express, in art and life, a break with the unjust, destructive and ideologically bankrupt ancien régime that had led to the horrific carnage of the First World War. However, as we know, during the thirties, depression and demagogic propaganda sufficed to return reactionary and totalitarian ideologies to power, especially in Nazi Germany, which would soon instigate the Second World War.
Another aspect of Berenice Abbott’s work that seems fundamental to me is the lucidity and clarity with which she was able to use photography simultaneously as a visual testimony and document, and as artistic expression. Like many other dilemmas, the obligation to choose between two mutually exclusive options called “documentary photography” and “artistic photography” was a false one, and thus harmful. This error persisted into the beginning of the twenty-first century, but I have the impression that, as a dilemma, it now seems obsolete. To resolve it, all that is required is to change the exclusive “or” for the good old copulative conjunction “and”. Photography can be art and document. A single photographic image can be both things at the same time. This is the case with many of Berenice Abbott’s photographs, such as Seventh Avenue, Looking South from 35th Street, December 5, 1935, with its diminutive silhouettes and shadows cast by passers-by shot contre-jour, contrasting with the sunlit asphalt, and others including Union Square, 14th Street and Broadway, Manhattan, 1936, Aerial View of New York at Night, March 20, 1936, or the close-ups of mineral structures in The Realities of Nature, 1958-1961. This last, with its luminosity and diagonal rhythms, could have been placed in an interesting dialogue with the aerial view of Manhattan mentioned above, with lights ablaze in hundreds of windows, which strikes me as the most sublime vision – in photography or in reality – that one could find in New York, from the top of the Empire State Building, for example.
Abbott served her technical apprenticeship as an assistant to Man Ray, but soon found her own path, closer to the documentary compositions of Eugène Atget – promoted internationally by Abbot – than to the poetic, constructed images of Man Ray. One could say that she was often in the right place at the right time, but this was due more to her acuity and courage than to luck. Leaving her birthplace in Ohio, she ended up in New York’s Greenwich Village, meeting Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven – possibly the inspiration behind Duchamp’s urinal – and the Futurist and feminist poet Mina Loy, who – incidentally – stopped sitting for portraits when she ceased to be a young and beautiful woman. Abbott did not hesitate to travel to Paris with little money to survive on. And, eight years later, she returned to New York equally decisively, although her professional life was going well in Paris, because she intuited that this was the moment to capture the great American city under construction and undergoing transformation.
Thanks to her US citizenship, and the fact that she worked in a country that was, at that time, modern and meritocratic, she was able to turn some of her personal photographic projects into commissions supported by public or private institutions, as in the case of her New York cityscapes (funded by the Federal Art Project) and her scientific photographs for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A little while back I met the greatest cronopio of the antique dealers guild, and the most unique of all. He is fifty-two years old, well-looked after, eremitic-shaped head, asthenic constitution and as elegant as an English dandy. His sartorial style is vintage like a 1920s character from Peaky Blinders.
I say that I met him not long ago, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when. The first time I saw him I was surprised by his clear, blue gaze – something unusual in the sector – and a skull ring he was wearing on his middle finger.
I knew right away that we would get on: I like people who are straight with you, without pretensions, who look you in the eye when they are talking to you and I love death to understand life. Xavier Vendrell is an antique treasure hunter. He’s got a good eye and he know how to differentiate between what is good and what isn’t and during his career he has rescued more than one anonymous work sleeping in time and returned it to the market with its identity intact. He prefers to mix with other cronopios rather than with the famas. Presumably for ethical and aesthetic reasons. Cronopios love art more than money while for the famas it is the other way around and behind each work they only see the half-moon symbol of the Euro like Scrooge McDuck who only saw dollars wherever he went.
Xavier Vendrell in a Baudelairian chercheur who does not wander around the Paris Spleen but around the Encants flea market in Barcelona. His Lucky Luke silhouette cuts a shadowy figure around the market among the remains of the past and when he finds art among the ruins of the stall where they speak Arabic, he strikes. He is a natural hunter and when he gets a whiff of the quality of the painting or drawing he is pitiless. He makes few mistakes but when he does he learns from them because he pays for them, unlike the academics who pass judgement like supreme Gods without taking any risks. It’s easy to judge when you have nothing to lose.
It is a modern-day version of Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
He normally sends me his latest discoveries via Whatsapp but a couple of days ago I received a videoclip which left me astounded. Filmed in black and white it showed a singer with the energy of a twenty-year-old and a broken voice like Tom Waits’. I thought it could be his twin brother and I called him to clarify. But it turned out to be him, the same Xavier Vendrell cronopio-antique dealer that I know, the same one who along with a group of friends from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine founded the group BB sin Sed which enjoyed considerable success in the 1908s and 90s. The group has made a comeback with concerts in Barcelona and Madrid. They do say that old rockers never die. I downloaded their latest album and I cannot stop listening to it. It is a pure adrenaline rush which helps me through these days of intense cold in the south of Holland. . “from the storms of the days, the placidness of so many nights… from the chains of lust, the links of sleeping friendship…and this time if you come back, you won’t be a pillar of salt… wrapped in ash and shadows, cornered at the final straight……”.
The story of Xavier Vendrell is a literary classic – it is a modern-day version of Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is the advert we have seen a thousand times of someone who is an office clerk by day and a rock star by night. It is Belle du Jour housewife and woman of the night. We all have some duality in our lives but we don’t admit to it. Vendrell’s confession is honest because his two worlds – art and music – are, in the end, the same thing – pure literature.
Only very recently we have discovered the name of a now deceased Capuchin monk who was based in Barcelona and formed part of the considerable list of clerics recently accused of sexual crimes with children.
Unfortunately, these days, this is not news, but in the case of the brother in question there is a considerable cultural background which singles him out among other similar cases.
Joaquim Mir, J. M. de Vera, 1940.
Josep Maria de Vera was a well-known painter and sculptor. His biography appears in the famous Dictionary of Catalan Artists edited by Josep-Francesc Ràfols and published in the early 1950s. Born in Vera, Andalusia, in 1912 with the given name of Alfonso Ramon Uribe (the Capuchins take the single religious surname of their place of birth) he moved at a young age to Catalonia where he quickly adapted and was ordained in 1935.
J. M. de Vera, Joaquim Mir, 1940.
He was a disciple of the Olot School of painters such as Melcior Domenge and Olivet Legares. He quickly made the acquaintance of some of the most important Catalan post-modernist artists such as Joaquim Mir and Manolo Hugué. One of Mir’s last works was, in fact, a magnificent portrait of the priest when he was young (1940), dedicated by the painter to his “Brotherly friend”. Such was the impression that de Vera made upon him that he wanted to be shrouded in a Franciscan robe on his death.
J. M. de Vera, Fra Eloi de Bianya.
Josep Pla, in his book about Mir, recreates this episode and the enthusiasm that the detailed painting of the colours of the habit awakened in him. According to Pla it enabled him to better understand the aesthetics of Zurbarán and that made him want to lay in death dressed in the monk’s habit. Dressed according to his wishes, Mir was painted precisely by Josep M.de Vera, in a small work which Oriol Pi de Cabanyes reproduces in his book Passion and Death of Joaquim Mir. This posthumous portrait is conserved in the Museum of the Royal Catalan Academy of Fine Art Sant Jordi in Barcelona, a gift of Josep Mir Estalella, son of the painter.
J. M. de Vera, P. Esteban de Andoain, 1947.
Josep M. de Vera took part in several exhibition and made many works, mainly with religious themes, which demonstrated that he did not have the naivety of an amateur but a solid artistic personality. The natural format stone figure which sits at the entrance to the Convent of the Capuchins of Sarrià, and which represents the martyrdom of the monk Eloi de Bianya, who was the doorman of the convent, is probably his best-known work, even though the vast majority of people who walk past it will be none the wiser as to its creator. There are other public and religious works in Catalonia, but also in his place of birth, Vera, and in Navarra such as the monument to Father Esteban de Andoain a Pamplona (1947), in the Basque Country such as the bust of the musician Aita Donostia, which sits in a public thoroughfare of San Sebastian.
The terrible crimes attributed to him which completely wipe out the positive part of his life?
He also frequented the circles of psychiatrists and was a friend of Jeroni de Moragas and de Ramon Sarró. Five years before his death, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, some of the many friends he had promoted a bibliophile edition of his life and work, with a prologue by Luis Monreal y Tejada. When he died in December 1997, Albert Manent wrote a moving obituary in the newspaper “Avui”, demonstrating the mark that the monk had made in the highest circles of Catalan society. In the Dictionary of Ecclesiastical History of Catalonia, de Vera has his own section.
J. M. de Vera, Aita Donostia, 1974.
So, what should we remember of this character who was as much an artist as an empathetic man with so many valuable friends in our country? The terrible crimes attributed to him which completely wipe out the positive part of his life? Or should we believe that hideous thought they were, they should not erase the other part of his existence? In fact, worse crimes such as murder have not wiped out the memory of major artists and other characters. This is a dilemma which we need to solve, in his case and also in the case of others which may arise, if we do want to fall into the trap of new taboos. For all that they are justified their bases always distort a clear perception of the truth.
Isidore Lucien Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont, broke new ground in the definition of beauty, when he alluded to the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of an umbrella and a sewing machine.
Sigmund Freud established a conceptual framework for this new way of seeing with the invention of the Uncanny, das Unheimliche. What was familiar and recognisable became at once unknown and unsettling.
Evaristo Benítez, Décalage.
These are invasions, displacements, ruptures. Educated, as we are, in the practice of cut-and-paste, they might seem the most natural thing in the world – but imagine the impact of collage, in 1912, on the concept of art itself. The thing and the name of the thing collided on the same plane. The universe became the multiverse. There was no turning back.
Indeed, the late exhibition from Evaristo Benítez (Azuaga, Badajoz, 1957) at Contrast, bore the title Room XXIII. Collages: a series of vast, practically uninhabited spaces, filled with iconic avant-garde artworks, beheaded, scattered, shredded… but still recognisable.
Benítez returns to the fray with a new series entitled Décalage. Basically these consist of variations on a single theme: characters from pop culture –the Pink Panther or “Johnny Zipper”– in an abandoned library. Sometimes the scene is illuminated by a flaming heart, worthy of the best tattoo parlour, pierced by the obligatory dagger, or even wrapped in a crown of thorns. Nothing we haven’t seen before – separately.
“Johnny Zipper” –Juanito Cremallera– is a character so ugly no one with eyes could desire him. Which is why this latex toy, produced by The Original Cha Chá, hides his face under the leather mask associated with certain sexual practices related to submission.
What is he doing here, this character, sometimes accompanied by a dog – also masked – amidst these shabby bookcases? Perhaps he serves to establish a parallelism, to suggest that classical culture, the culture that clings on in books, covered in dust and mildew, crammed onto flimsy shelves, disembowelled on grimy pavements, is powerless before the phone screens and social networks that divulge the world one Tweet at a time.
Benítez’s palette, on this occasion, is limited to tones of watery soot, orange and, by way of contrast, fleeting notes of pink and red. It hardly matters whether the scene is painted on canvas or built as a wooden diorama. As we begin to pay closer attention, after the initial impact, the references become evident: to Joan Brossa, Benítez himself, painters like Philip Guston, linguistic games – an octopus crawling the floor, “as lost as an octopus in a garage,” as the Spanish expression goes – and the trashiest sexual clichés, in those blow-up dolls.
Will we end up tattooing our libraries onto our skin?
Let us look more closely at that heart, which appears, like a revelation, to the central character in the majority of these scenes. It’s a proletarian image, a design that prisoners and sailors tattooed themselves to mark a doomed affair or a betrayal in love, and derives from religious iconography: the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Will we, too, end up tattooing our libraries onto our skin? Or, even worse, turning them into an ironic decorative anachronism?
During these last few days we have discovered who the National Culture Awards 2019 will go to. Congratulations to all the prize-winners. And no, this year once again not a single designer among them.
2012 was the last year in which the National Culture Awards of Catalonia were divided into sectors. Up until then there was: Architecture and Public Space, Visual Arts, Audio-visuals, Cinema, Circus, Comic, Popular Culture, Dance, Design, Literature, Music, Cultural Heritage, Scientific Thinking and Culture, Social Projection of the Catalan Language, Theatre and the Special Professional and Artistic Career Prize. That year the National Design Award went to Enric Satué, and in my opinion it was long overdue. Before him, from 2003 when the awards began, the prize went to: Daniel Giralt-Miracle, Promotion of Decorative Arts-FAD, ACTAR Publishers, Pati Núñez, Martí Guixé, Nani Marquina, Enric Jardí, Claret Serrahima and Javier Mariscal.
The National Culture Awards winners, together with the CoNCA board. Photo: David Ruano.
In any case, from that year on the award was not made by cultural sector but rather to people in the cultural limelight. Some of us expressed our disagreement at losing the sector prizes, since we considered that some fields of culture are more “visible” then others and the broader view which included Comic, Circus and Design would probably be lost as would their equality of position alongside Visual Arts, Literature and Theatre, which are historically more recognised. The Councillor for Culture at the time, Ferran Mascarell, assured that this would not occur because the judges had a cross-cultural view.
The following year the jeweller Elsa Peretti won a prize despite the fact that it was awarded for “the significant task of cultural, scientific, humanitarian, educational and human rights sponsorship from the sponsorship Fondazione Ferdinando Peretti, in Rome, and the Elsa Peretti Foundation, in Sant Martí Vell, Baix Gironès, always combining past and present, tradition and innovation”.
Six year on and the jury, which is no longer formed of independent professionals but members of the Board of the Catalan Arts Council – CoNCA – have not found anyone in the field of design worthy of the country’s greatest cultural recognition. Bad luck. Curiously, each year writers, actors and artists have been identified as being worthy, and probably rightly so. I would not wish to challenge their criteria or their knowledge of design, among the other disciplines that can present themselves as candidates for the award. But I cannot help thinking that if there is not specific slot for this sector, then maybe they don’t think about it.
For many people Design is simply not Culture.
And why don’t they think about it? Because for many people Design is simply not Culture. Or at least not culture with a capital ‘C’. It is not the only professional sector in this position, but I want to talk about design because it is what I know and in which I have been working for thirty years. And don’t let them say that means I belong to the world of industry, because if that is the case where does it leave film, publishing, performing arts and architecture. To think that this disciplines which thinks up and produces most of our surrounding does not form part of our culture is arguable to say the least. From the time we get up to the time we go to bed we are surrounded by design. Sometimes design is functional, discreet, almost invisible, but you certainly miss it when it does not fulfil its task. In fact, design becomes most visible precisely when it fails.
We do see it when the beauty or efficiency of the object we are using impresses us. When a poster or a restaurant interior, or a mobile app or the chair we are sitting on, or our daily newspaper or our glasses or earrings or shoes or … the list of things which make us smile, feel good, ask a question or leave us open-mouthed is endless. That is when design also becomes visible. So, it would seem that for the jury of the National Culture Awards none of these things have happened to them in six years. Blimey, how sad it that? I must be easily pleased because I remember pretty pleasant experiences with objects, graphics, fashion, interiors and jewellery during the whole of that period.
This year the centenary of Bauhaus is being celebrated and in Germany they are organising a series of exhibition and activities connected with it. They see it as a national event. Books have been republished and facsimiles and objects re-made. Documentaries have been made and even a film about Alma Siedhoff-Buscher which will soon be premiering, and which emphasises the importance of the women designers from the Weimar and Dessau School. The centenary is organised by the Ministry for Culture. They do not seem to have any doubt about whether design is culture.
We do not have anything comparable here, but we do have an incredibly important legacy of creators, both women and men, who were pioneers in design, and many of them are still working. It is a shame that the Department of Culture of the Government of Catalonia does not consider that this talent merits the National Award, because what they are saying, de facto, is that they are not concerned with the contribution of design to our culture. And let me tell you, it is no small thing.
In the talk All things queer, the impact of queer theory in contemporary art practices, which took place in the University of Barcelona a few months ago, the researcher Élisabet Lebovici referred to the famous intervention of Zoe Leonard in the 9th Kassel Documenta as an example of how to explain how “the museum is always half empty. It is always half empty of us”.
That “us”, which she assumed in the first person was obviously a reference to all those non-normative identities and experiences that the imperial-rooted museum had ignored.
Intersexuals, radicalised people, transsexuals, homosexuals, guerrillas, people with HIV. And in that sense we can say that thanks to the exhibit AIDS Anarchive, organised by the Centre for Documentary Studies of the Contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona the museum has been less empty of us for at least four months.
The exhibition is yet another of those deriving from the research into the multiple dimensions of the HIV/AIDS crisis that the team, reformed by Aimar Arriola, Nancy Garín and Linda Valdés have carried out over the last six years. And we talk of derivations because as the title of the exhibition suggests, their working methodology has challenged the logistics of the archive and the museum to encompass the conservative notions of the environment which we now understand as heritage.
On this occasion the difficulty in creating dialogues with materials related to mourning, pain, secrets, hidden secrets, feelings of guilt and clandestine celebrations is presented in two lines of argument and three case studies where Barcelona appears as a constant, but always in relation to other contexts.
The first line of argument is around the “way of making the public sphere”. The first piece in this sequence is the document by artist Xoán Anleo, made for the Galician Pavilion of the Universal Exhibition of Seville in 1992, declaring “UNHA FORMA PUBLICA DE REPRESENTAR”. This document is situated right beside the images corresponding to an unplanned action by the ACT UP Barcelona group which took place in front of the Centre d’Arts Santa Mònica in 1994, which was organising the exhibition “Public Domain”. The equation seems simple: in Spain, where the programming and celebration of the adherence to the logic of a spectacular global capitalism is taking place, through branding strategies for the main cities, these pieces, which are linked in the case of ACT UP to HIV/AIDS activism, call for creative practices to situate themselves in a clearly uncomfortable environment. On the poster produced by members of ACT UP Barcelona appear the words: “There are people who are concerned for just one day…those affected suffer 365 days a year. We don’t want you solidarity, we want you to feel affected”.
Besides the material of Spain, the perspective is broadened through the incorporation of other documents, which even uncover, in the “First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against free Neoliberalism” organised by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation of Chiapas, a reflection of HIV/AIDS and drug dependency. “The drug dependents are not excluded from the neoliberal system. They are included as consumers and victims of an economic power which, protected by the policies of free trade and globalisation , have become a new instrument of capital which reinforces the domination against countries and groups”.
Era allí on Keith Haring va trobar més xeringues.
The second line of argument precisely takes on this premise, because it revolves around the idea that “pharmacolonization of life”, in other words the set of rules, not just artistic, which stated that life was controlled unscrupulously by the alliance between neoliberal capital and the Big Pharma. So the malaise is politicised, whether through public demonstrations in Chile, with banners warning of the “psychotherapeutic holocaust”, through creative inserts in advertising which talk of the existence of a “drug bank for people with HIV/AIDS”, or pieces such as the vinyl by Pepe Miralles Dinero = Poder = Muerte (1993).
These two lines have been extended by three case studies, the third of which studies the relationship between heroin and HIV/AIDS in Barcelona, which was launched recently. This case sits alongside the materials of SCT UP Barcelona (the first case study) and the mural by Keith Haring Together we can stop AIDS (the second case study). In doing so there is an insistence in the continued need to situate the knowledge of an “archive” in relation to its context. In the neighbourhood of the Raval, which is a paradigm of the process of urban gentrification, where today there is the discussion of where to locate an extension of the local health centre in banal dichotomic terms of culture versus health, ACT UP has faced the public with banners claiming love and affection. Just a few metres away Keith Haring chose the Plaça Salvador Seguí in 1992 for the location of his mural, because he said it was the place you found most syringes. The city is always half empty of us.
Outside it is a bright sunny Saturday, but we are immersed within the darkness of the Barcelona CaixaForum hall watching a video installation of Turbulent, by the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, which forms part of the Poetics of Emotion exhibition.
On one screen there is a singer performing a traditional Sufi song before a male audience. When the singer finishes attention is directed to another screen on which a woman dressed in black, the singer Sussan Deyhim gives an incredible performance in an empty auditorium. This is a protest against the situation of women in Iran, where they are not allowed to sing in public or record their performances, explains the guide of the microvisit. The silence of the group is moving. The emotion of the magnificent piece performed by Neshat has undoubtedly touched the group, which probably joined the visit spontaneously.
Microvisit to the exhibition Poetics of Emotion. Photo: Montse Frisach.
The microvisits to the exhibition Poetics of Emotion, offered every weekend by the CaixaForum, are a simple and easy way to approach contemporary art and discover in detail many of the pieces in the exhibition at no extra cost and without having to make a reservation. Poetics of Emotion curated by Érika Goyarrola, is an exhibit in which works from all periods are in dialogue to show how the many different emotions in the history of art have been represented. The exhibition speaks for itself, without cryptic messages, but the mediation offered by microvisits of just 20 minutes gives the weekend visitors new ideas about the works.
Bas Jan Ader, I’m Too Sad to Tell You, 1971. Courtesy of The State of Bas Jan Ader, Mary Sue Andersen and Meliksetian.
At the start of the tour the guide, Cèlia Prats, dressed in black and with a badge showing a question mark, makes it quite clear that she is open to questions and hopes that the audience of the microvisit will come away better-informed. The start of the visit is announced on the loudspeakers of the CaixaForum. The first to sign up are a father and his ten-year-old daughter, who watch attentively throughout the visit. Then a couple joins the group and are later joined by more visitors.
“What is an emotion?”, Cèlia asks to break the ice.
The start of the exhibition is clear enough in explaining that art has always been interested in the strength of emotion in human beings. “What is an emotion?”, Célia asks to break the ice. Three extraordinary works express pain and sadness, almost in the same way, despite being from different periods: the Gothic Weepers: a fragment of the calvary with six characters, from the end of the fifteenth century; and the video The Silent Sea (2002), by Bill Viola. Human beings have not changed and neither has their expression of pain. The visit continues with the video I am too sad to tell you (1971), with a close-up of the artist Bas Jan Ader crying. In the next room, the visitors are especially intrigued by the photographs, which look like drawings, of solitude in the landscape of Carla Andrade and are surprised when the guide tells them that the two blackened bronze relief by Günther Förg each weigh half a tonne, meaning that the wall had to be reinforced in order to hand them. The microvisit concludes with an oil by Miró, photos by Colita and the video Birthday, by Ivan Argote, which speak more of celebration and happiness in different contexts.
These microvisits are different every time, since the guides adapt them to the profiles of the visitors and the question that they ask. On this particular occasion there were not many questions. The guide tells us that “Other groups are more talkative and so, depending on the dialogue the topic of conversation changes”. The visits are also adapted when there are children in the group. For example, Cèlia passed quickly by the works of Gina Pane, which show some harsh images of self-harm by the artist in an action against everyday violence.
The guide stays in the exhibition rooms to answer questions from the visitors and waits for the next session. On leaving the room where Shirin Neshat’s pieces were exhibited, two women are sorry that they realise the visit had already begun but they stay for the next one so that they can enjoy the full tour.
Once, sometime in the 1970s, Cesáreo Rodríguez Aguilera told me, paradoxically, that what had done most for the spread of avant-garde art had been Francoism.
He said that he himself, along with Zabaleta, had attended a talk at the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, at the height of the Republic, and that his friend had shouted out “Viva Picasso!” The public had reacted by called them “backward” in return. According to Cesáreo, the republican left was more conservative in matters of art and if they named Picasso director of El Prado it was because of his international prestige at the time of the Civil War.
Interior of the Pavilion of the Republic, 1937.
At the beginning of the post-war period, fascist Spain was not accepted in any of the biennials or international art fairs – until the appearance of an illustrious member of the Phalange named Don Luis González Robles that is, and it is he who I will discuss here.
This educated and very amiable character was the person appointed by Franco’s government to try to give some prestige to the damaged image of cultural promoter. He presented international avant-garde artists such as Millares, Saura and Tàpies at the biennials and the international museums…many of whom has close connections with the Communist party, either in Spain or Catalonia. González Robles had persuaded the Franco government that art had very little political repercussion in terms of propaganda and yet the artists that he was promoting offered an aura of prestige.
That situation would change radically at the end of the 1960s when at an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London on Spanish Avant-garde art, the participants made them take the works down, stating that they should not have to contribute to dignifying the dictatorship. Perceptions of the end of the regime were starting to emerge and the Communist parties decided that it was time to make a stand.
Following this rupture, González Robles made a new selection, including Cuixart, who had won the Gran Prix of the Sao Paulo Biennial, Joan Ponç, who had won the painting prize, and Canogar, among others.
Meanwhile the Communist parties of Spain and Catalonia were preparing their position for the moment when the regime finally fell. With the dictator now dead, some of the leaders of the Catalan Comunist party came to see me at the Galeria Adrià, which I was director of at the time, to propose that the gallery should host an art exhibition which was aimed at raising party funds. They approached the gallery owner, Miquel Adrià, and he accepted. They designated as the exhibition coordinator a former member of the Phalange, José M. Kaydeda, who Hernández Pijuan told me had astounded him at the university and who had been a painter and later on a para-psychologist and esotericist.
In that exhibition several artists from the Galeria Adrià and others took part, but I cannot remember the details of the exhibition, probably because by then I had already moved on the Galeria René Metras. The next activity I heard about which related art to the Communist parties was the 1976 Venice Biennale.
It all started because since Spain was still a dictatorship (the head of the government was Arias Navarro and the Head of State was the current emeritus king) Official Spain was refused admittance and after a bit of “give and take” there it was agreed that the Central Pavilion of the Giardini di Venezia would be dedicated to an exhibition entitled Spain: artistic vanguard and social reality (1936-1976).
After Venice, this exhibition could be visited at the Miró Foundation in Barcelona, in December 1976. And recently, in September 2018, it was rebuilt at the IVAM in Valencia.
It should be pointed out that several of the aspects in producing this show were very important for the time at which it happened:
The project committee included the painters Antoni Tàpies, Antonio Saura, Agustín Ibarrola and the Equipo Crónica, architect Oriol Bohigas, graphic artist Alberto Corazón, historians Tomàs Llorens and Valeriano Bozal, lecturer Immaculada Julián, el poster artist Josep Renau and photographer José Miguel Gómez.
The exhibition had three main sections:
1) Reconstruction of the Pavilion of the Republic, with works by Picasso, Miró, Calder, among others, and a show of poster and graphic work, especially Renau, but also Fontserè, Ballester, Bardasano, among others. Other artists such as Castelao and García Maroto were also included in this section.
2) A special section dedicated to the artists who were considered to be the most outstanding at that time: Picasso, Miró, Alberto Sánchez, Juli González and Josep Renau, with a special focus on the first two and the last.
3) Critical development of the most outstanding trends from 1936 to 1976. This is where, under the curatorship of Imma Julián, who followed the instructions of Tàpies, Saura and the Equipo Crónica (that is, those of the Communist parties) to the letter, there was a selection of artists who had the approval of the triumvirate and those who were not to their taste were rejected, such as Guinovart, Todó, Artigau, Garcia Vilella, Tharrats, Vilacasas, and others. From Valencia Boix, Heras, Armengol and Equip Realitat, among others were considered dispensable, and in Madrid the axe fell on Canogar, José Guerrero and others.
When they found out he was homosexual they excluded him.
It is surprising that artists who were so clearly aligned with the Communists were rejected, such as Guinovart and Artigau. But the most curious case is that of García Vilella, who was a member of the Central Committee and therefore it had been decided to promote him internationally alongside Tàpies… but when they found out he was homosexual he was excluded. Another of the highlights for their complete absence in any of the sections are the women artists, with the exception of the obedient curator.
Ever since then, Tàpies has been the official artist of Catalonia, and his work presides in the Council Chamber of the Government of Catalonia and the entrance to the MACBA; he has his own foundation and he took offence when his “Sock” was not allowed to occupy the Oval Room of the MNAC. He was made the Marquis of Tàpies.
In one of the prints from the series Topiary. The Art of Improving Nature by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a woman pushes with a mighty inner force the trunk of an exuberant tree.
In another graphic work by this imposing French-American artist, Bourgeois recreates the subject of maternity in a drawing of a mother and newborn child, naked, vulnerable, on the foot of a staircase. Despite the fact that the staircase is very steep and high, the impression is that overcoming all the difficulties, one day mother and child will reach the top. Survival and vulnerability but also courage and freedom. This is the message that all Bourgeois’ work exudes and for me she is one of the best artists of the twentieth century, out of both men and women.
Louise Bourgeois, Topiary. The Art of Improving Nature (3), 1988.
Basically known for her sculptural works, Bourgeois was also a great printmaker, excelling in all the techniques but specifically in drypoint. You can see for yourself in the Marlborough Gallery in Barcelona which is currently exhibiting twenty-odd prints made between 1988 and 2005.
Louise Bourgeois, Madeleine, 1999.
There is little difference in the subjects that chooses for her prints and those of her sculptures. The world of Bourgeois is so personal that it becomes one of the most difficult to put a label on. There is a bit of Surrealism, maybe, but not much else you could put your finger on. Bourgeois is Bourgeois and now that the genre of self-fiction is so much in fashion, you could say that she is the most powerful inventor of visual self-fiction in the contemporary sense of the term.
Bourgeois sublimates insecurities through a cat-like alter-ego.
Her childhood and adult traumas, the difficulties of being a woman and, at the same time her vital drive, all appear in these prints. Pain is the in Madeleine screaming in a clear reference to Dora Maar crying in Picasso’s painting. Bourgeois sublimates insecurities through a cat-like alter-ego, a sensual feline in high-heels, Champfleurette. Growing up, as she did, in a house full of animals, she designed a kind of contemporary best, where cats and spiders – the symbol of maternity – are the great protagonists.
Louise Bourgeois, Eight in bed, 2000.
Fragmented bodies appear in the prints of the series Topiary. The art of Improving Nature, while in Eight in Bed, the only works in colour in the whole exhibition, there is a very ironic scene of polyamory. The astuteness of the vision of Bourgeois, who is now an old lady, the one that you see in the portrait Robert Mapplethorpe made of her with a sculpture of a giant penis under her arm, soars over the exhibit of this creator who used art to strengthen, in her own words, her “determination to survive at any level, no matter how fragile”.
That is how Juan Batlle Planas defines himself in an interview in the newspaper Clarín in 1965, just a couple of years before his death. In the Art Museum of Girona you can see the first exhibition of this artist – Argentinean but with his origins in the Empordà.
He was born in Torroella de Montgrí in 1911, and at the age of two the family moved to Buenos Aires to reunite with their maternal relations. Although he did not want to become an Argentinean national he never returned. His father did, however, and sent photographs of Torroella, with the castle and other features, which he incorporated into his work. One of the most renowned painters in the Argentinean avant-garde, here he remains an unknown. Until now, that is.
In the Art Museum of Girona, you can see the exhibition Juan Batlle Planas. El gabinet surrealista – an exhibit which will go on to be shown in the Juan March Foundation in Palma de Mallorca and which opened in the Museum of Abstract Art in Cuenca. Although this is not a retrospective exhibition the ethereal female figures which brought Battle Planas a large audience – the Noicas – show him in his strongest surrealist side, especially from the 1930s and 40s.
He read Freud widely and knew a lot about orgone energy.
Batlle signed up to the surrealism movement in 1935. His first solo exhibition affirmed this. He arrived there through his interest in automatic writing and free association, which his quickly realised was the best way in to seeing the human interior. He read Freud widely and knew a lot about orgone energy – that primordial and universal force which, according to Wilhelm Reich combines the organism with the orgasm. This can be seen in the texts, talks and courses that he gave, and also in the titles of his works. Juan Batlle himself left his affiliation to this in a manuscript which is conserved in his personal archive:
“Hieronymus Bosch, the Count of Lautréamont informed this research in my painting, just as it was informed by the Triumph of Death by Brueghel, just as it was informed by Halley’s comet, or the paintings of Emeric Essex Vidal, or the four corners that make up the crossroads of calle Matheu with the ex-calle Victoria […], and just as it was informed by this painting which most represents a young girl looking intensely into the distance while in a dark blue background resides a sky that illuminates the castle of Torroella de Montgrí.”
With more than 50 small format works, which are the works with which the artists felt most comfortable, the exhibition concentrates on two of his most significant series: paranoic radiographies and his collages. In the first set, which were pioneers of Surrealism in Argentina, Batlle shows monochrome skulls, skeletons, empty silhouettes and organic features that come from the unconscious.. The first collages in black and white and the later ones in colour include cut-out drawings and combine geometries and the human figure with an oneiric air which is reminiscent of Chirico, Dalí and Max Ernst. Seemingly realistic characters holding weightless objects wander through empty landscapes and atmospheres that contain nothing. These are works that function as visual poems. Indeed, Batlle was a great reader of poetry and illustrated one of the texts that was most loved by the Surrealists, Les chants de Maldoror by the Compte de Lautréamont, but also by his contemporaries such as Julio Córtazar, Rafael Alberti, Jorge Luis Borges and Alejandra Pizarnik.
Laborious and exquisite, the dream-like reality of Juan Batlle Planas offers a journey to the most classical surrealism. With unfailing fidelity to the movement which influenced a good part of the creation of the twentieth century, as he said himself admitted, Juan Batlle died in Buenos Aires in 1966.
A few years ago I was able to visit the Proa Foundation in Buenos Aires. Ai Weiwei was exhibiting.
The exhibit was called Inoculación and consisted of a large number of political works presented as a project of public and social intervention, as dissident art.
Ai Weiwei, Law of the Journey, 2016. Photo: Gilbert Sopakuwa CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
I managed to join a guided tour of some 50 or 60 people. Every work was the subject of a great debate: migrations, deaths in the sea, border controls, and two works completed the exhibit – a huge inflatable boat with 51 figures in the Law of the Journey (Prototype B), 2016 and 15 tonnes of hand-made porcelain sunflower seeds, Sunflower Seeds, 2010, accompanied by a video which showed the labour of turning small pieces of clay into sunflower seeds. Political content, social intervention, dissident art? The more I looked at the art the less I saw any kind of true dissidence or social intervention (is making dozens of people work on something which is not creative in the process a work of collaboration?) or the artistic value, beyond any monumentalism, the ingenuity and the “feel-good” factor (that’s all we need) of an international-level artist such as Ai Weiwei.
For me it remained to be seen whether the art was political or a sham. I have to admit that the public was truly touched. The questions that people asked the guide were non-stop and demonstrated a real interest. The people tried to understand the precise meaning of the works. Only a few days previously, a friend of mine had told me about the dramatic situation of Ai Weiwei’s appearance on the beaches of the refugees, in the east coast of Italy. His impunity, his scenarios, his productions and his path on reaching his artistic goals, his malpractice and his desire to use a drama which is not his as a demonstration of his own opportunism.
Santiago Sierra & Eugenio Merino, NINOT, Prometeogallery.
During these days of ARCO in Madrid a debate has emerged once again which I think I can relate to my experience in Proa. NINOT by Santiago Sierra, is a wax reproduction of the figure of Felipe VI, created on the condition that its buyer burns it in the style of the Valencian fallas, so that all is left is the skull.
The work is exhibited in the art fair one year after a work by Sierra was removed by the “council” of the organisers. 24 black and white photos of pixelated faces which referred to 74 political prisoners of different stances, among which were the prisoners of the Catalan process of independence. This unjustified censorship cannot be tolerated in a democracy. It is the proof of the lack of free expression in this country. In just one year the 24 photographs which have been reproduced hundreds of times have given rise to debates about censorship, freedom of expression, art and politics.
I cannot help thinking about other ambiguous and, in my mind sensationalist works.
I understand the excitement that NINOT provokes, bearing in mind the social and political times in which we are living and the scant recognition that most artists are experiencing (I cannot deny that seeing the figure of the king burning does inspire a certain curiosity). But I cannot help thinking about other ambiguous and, in my mind sensationalist works, with dubious ethical practices (use of immigrants, radicalized people) by Santiago Sierra, or the videos of a group of “cholas” from Bolivia mechanically declaring “I am paid to do my job” or hundreds of young black men who allowed their hair to be dyed yellow in a giant factory-hair salon). Although I also recognise that he has produced some interesting works, such as the one he made for the Spanish pavilion of the Biennale where you could only go in if you showed your Spanish national identity card, only to find, once you were inside, an empty space, almost in ruins. Similarly, I admit that Weiwei’s work Straight, also in Venice, had a profound effect on me, carefully lining up 150 tonnes of steel recovered from the colleges that were devastated by the earthquake in Sichuan.
But what is most difficult for me to accept in these works which, according not only to my criteria but that of many others, is that they seem so opportunistic. On the one hand , their scantly justified spectacularity and the fact that they make a spectacle out of unmeaningful criticism, even a clear positioning, but with no answers and, even worse, with no proper questions. On the other hand, I think it makes me slightly annoyed that in the end it will be these works that are talked about, these will be the ones that question the people, the media and which will make the general public think that art is this “meaninglessness”, this blow below the belt. I even think that works like these mask the true debates that should be taking place in an art fair like ARCO, where it is clear that the galleries are completely dated, the fairs have to find new strategies to justify themselves and where the art appears essentially missing.
This is a fair whose resources are watered down (the idea of making ARCO a biennial have long been shelved), and where the market rules but not with the same opportunities for all and even less, where the works which offer more complex readings are hidden in the shadow of the ‘show’. Where Plensa or Garaizabal reign because of their impact and size, where hardly anyone talks about the drop in the number of women artists, where the sales are to the big collectors and the idea of small-scale collection has receded into the distance. In short, the socially articulating aspect of art is losing all of its force and possibilities and ARCO is reinforcing this situation by only incentivising trade.
I’m in the grip of a simian rage, and I hope this is obvious from the tone in which this article is written.
I’ll begin by describing two parallel events that took place in Barcelona not long ago. 1/ When MoMA New York was organising its big Torres García exhibition (Torres García: The Arcadian Modern), the MNAC was called upon to loan a number of works, which it agreed to do. After New York, the exhibition travelled to Madrid and to Málaga. Not to Barcelona. It didn’t come because the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the flagship of Catalonia’s art institutions, unlike Madrid and Málaga, did not have the funds to foot the cost of bringing it. Take a moment to reflect on that point.
Sarah Lou, Erotic Museum. CC BY 2.0.
2/ At about the same time, the Catalan Socialist Party’s most senior representative on Barcelona’s city council, Jaume Collboni, announced to the press, with great fanfare, in the purest traditions of Iberian social democracy, the conversion of one of the pavilions dating from the Barcelona’s Universal Exposition of 1929 into a mega-venue for “international” exhibitions (when I hear the word “international” my body cries out for a stockpile of illegal firearms) without uttering a word about how much it would cost to do this, or to maintain and program the space, and, to add insult to injury, this great balloon of hot air was launched with the MNAC, a national museum in dire need of money, space – everything – as a backdrop. Collboni didn’t bat an eye. I ask myself whether this should be classed as coincidence, sheer nerve, or simply an attempt to get up the noses of those of us who really care about art and culture. Have you heard any mention of the subject since the announcement? You haven’t, have you? Under Franco, we used to save up so we could hitch hike to Paris or London from time to time, to find out what it would be like to live in the world instead of its asshole. Now we can go to Málaga.
I have bad news. Barcelona, and by extension Catalonia, is sinking rapidly into a disastrous cultural limbo, with the concomitant danger that in the end all it will have to offer is what every other irrelevant picture-postcard city has, to wit, a more or less remarkable past that accompanies a present incapable of competing with the greats. I’m sorry to have to say this, but when I say “greats”, I’m not even thinking about London or NY, but Madrid, which could knock us into the middle of next week with one hand tied behind its back. How can we have come to this, as good-looking as we are? Was it the scam of the financial crisis? The brutal budget cuts of former president Artur Mas? Perfidious Castile? I’m afraid that there has to be more to it, and that Madrid is not to blame. Perhaps, among many other factors, we should take into account Mayor Ada Colau’s contempt for the culture of the chattering classes that is generated in the world of contemporary art, and whose most visible proponent is the MACBA, for example. It doesn’t matter: let’s start acting like grown-ups. The fact that the teacher has it in for you is no excuse for not winning a Nobel Prize, if you’ve got some fight in you.
In my opinion, it’s a product of several factors. One is incompetence pure and simple, and here I am not referring solely to the ignorance and lack of imagination displayed by the political class in this country; within the “sector” too, there have been, and still are, glaring deficiencies, but the deadly common denominator is the chronic lack of courage and ambition from which this country has suffered for a long, long time. There is also the incapacity for humility that prevents those in charge from asking those in the know. And as a paradigmatic example, apart from the curse of Tutankhamen, once again we have MACBA, the museum that nobody loves. Because you see, an unwritten law dictates that when something is done for reasons that are not the right ones, the project comes into the world with deep-rooted disease that is difficult to cure. And this is precisely what happed with the MACBA from the very first day. The decision to create it did not arise from the sense of urgent, sincere and informed need that should have been the origin of the project (having to explain the obvious is one of the hardest things in the world). Apart from colonizing the Raval, there was no clear idea of making it a priority to create a centre of excellence that would stand on equal terms with the best in the business. Zilch. There was endless talk, in abstract terms, about “museographical models”, while the architect gave their desires free rein, as if this was the secret code that would open up Ali Baba’s cave, as if there were some pressing need to invent something that had existed all over the world, without too many problems, for almost a century. It’s like sex; if you know what it’s all about, you just do it, but if you have problems you talk and talk and talk, it turns into a nightmare and you don’t get invited back. After all the museographical models, the lame excuses, plus two directors at the same time, treading on one another’s toes, when the MACBA opened, it was empty. How’s that for a model? We reinvented the wheel and made it square. And since then, an everlasting malaise. My American friends are flabbergasted at the tragicomedy of the MACBA, in a city which, according to them, is so cool. Of course, their own museums are not constantly questioning their raison d’être in endless spiritual exercises. They know what they’re for, they’re delighted to be doing what they do, and are packed to the rafters, despite charging entrance fees, like MoMA, at 25 bucks a head. The city is proud to have them, the more the merrier, so that each one can do what they think they have to do, and do it their own way. If there are problems these are resolved without pillorying the institution. They know that where there are museums there’s also knowledge production, heritage conservation, the cultivation of history, memory, academic rigor and above all else, excellence, that ineffable virtue that makes the world worthwhile. This is a planet where you can walk and chew gum at the same time, and if things work it’s because that is the normal state of affairs, and there’s no need to fix them. Nobody wastes time stating and restating the obvious.
In Catalonia, we find ourselves facing a resurrected scenario of post war scarcity.
One could add another observation that perhaps provides the historical and sociological icing on the cake for the whole mess. An unquestioning respect for culture, and the conviction that culture and fascism were antithetical, was forged in Spain under Franco. The moral superiority of the humanities, the arts, culture in general, was beyond any doubt, and it was practically a declaration of democratic principles to defend them. It is possible that there was no especially well-defined idea of how and why this was so, but nobody dared to question it, on pain of looking like an idiot. It was in the instruction manual for democracy and everything that was done for the country’s cultural infrastructure during Spain’s transition was informed by this belief. The momentum was sustained under the first socialist government, and it was all that was required. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party decided it had to cultivate the world of culture if only to add luster to its own image. Even this kind of thinking implied that culture was considered to be of some importance. But then everyone, and I mean everyone, in Catalonia too, realized that it made not the slightest bit of difference. Political provincialism could allow the whole tedious business of culture to die of inanition (all sense of shame had been lost) without losing a single vote that counted; and so began the wrecking yard end-of-season sale whose consequences we are familiar with. This is bad news, but while things are still getting done, and museums and institutions are doing what they do without excessive interference, you muddle through, sometimes even doing reasonably well, at least as regards major exhibitions. But when the deterioration of the institutional fabric reaches the point where there is only enough money to pay electricity bills and little more, as is occurring today in Catalonia, we find ourselves facing a resurrected scenario of post war scarcity, and I am not exaggerating, softened by a dismal coating of badly-applied make-up. I am certain that there will be some to whom this predicament comes as a wondrous stroke of happenstance, because this way, the contrast with what awaits us when Catalonia becomes independent will be sublime. Meanwhile we can all die of boredom, why not, and Barcelona can become little more than a dock for international cruises, although let us not forget, with a cultural politics that focuses on its neighborhoods, per la gent. Hallelujah!
The eye of the camera has no compassion: it records, records, records, never stops recording, regardless of whether you put a worm or a king in front of it, the sweet sweat of two young people making love or the rotten veins of a seventy-year-old’s foot.
In the case of Roi Soleil Albert Serra once again opts for the agonising body of Louis XIV, embodied by another mythical body – that of Lluís Serrat, alias Sanxini, who he has used in almost all of his projects. Two biological records which are shredded and exposed as the film progresses in front of a camera that cannot distinguish between kingdoms: the human and the animal the character and the actor, the oppressed and the oppressor remain on an even keel as a result of the disease and the catastrophes of the time. Grow old, die, is the only theme of the work. A Baroque motif which is repeated throughout the film.
Albert Serra. Roi Soleil, ®Andergraun Films.
Roi Soleil begins with the imposing figure of the monarch pacing and sighing from one side of the room to the other. It is an ambiguous space – square and of an evidently contemporary design. This anachronism from the start places us in a fantastic and delirious scene; an impression which is reinforced by the red monochrome of the image, which looks like a developing room. How many reasons do we need to find for the use of a single colour, specifically red, which is uncomfortable, insistent, sharp, and tense to the eye? From the first minute the viewer is dominated by a sensation of danger and warning. The viewing is adapted by necessity, almost by dearth. The monochromatic in this work functions with a ferocity to reach the deepest part of the eye: the optic nerve. Roi Soleil seeks commitment, attention, a complete devotion of our thoughts. “I do not believe in that which is aimed at my reason” said Artaud, “but in the evidence that moves my brain. I have discovered strata in the field of the nerve”.
Albert Serra. Roi Soleil, ®Andergraun Films.
In Roi Soleil the architectonic space works to provide a limit to the body of the monarch. The king embraces the walls of his own material decadence, he drags them with him. He observes them, lazy or indifferent, he comes up against them again and again like a fly trapped in a bottle (or a beetle closed in a room: it is obvious that the view of Albert Serra converts Louis XIV, one of the most powerful kings in western history, into the insect which is Gregor Samsa). In this struggle against the disasters of the of the flesh, language is reduced to pure panting. The king does not speak. The only sounds that can be articulated are those which are articulated more closely to the visceral and mucous membranes: interjections, ahem-ahem, inhalations, sighs. Just like the beetle in Metamorphosis, the king is left mute, or rather he can only express himself with the viscous language of organs. A voice which, by law, in the age of Louis XIV was the only direct channel between god and the people. The communication between the monarch and his subjects interrupted. Roi Soleil documents the fall of a world which can also be read on a political level.
There is no more dialogue with the other. The other becomes the mystery of the body itself.
During the hour that Roi Soleil lasts, the viewer basically sees the circulation of air, water and matter through an organism which, when it comes closer to death, relates more closely to other species. In the solitary interregnum of death, language loses its function and its power; it is stalled and becomes spirit-like. There is no more dialogue with the other. The other becomes the mystery of the body itself, which only knows how to communicate through the cruel binary code of pleasure and pain. In this interregnum there is no place for empathy or desperation, feelings which area always found on the side of the living, of the organisms which still have the potential to rebel. The body of the monarch is a body sunken in pride, greed and laziness. Despite his biological decline the Sun King cannot help munching sweets, looking at himself in the mirror and combing his moustache. Recently, in a conversation, the philosopher Alexander García Düttmann (one of the actors in Personalien, the installation which Albert Serra is exhibiting now in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid) proposed seeing Roi Soleil as a paradox of the “contemporary art” subject, making him a fat and capricious newborn-grandad, a complaining subject, impotent and aphasic, who , like all the others who have trafficked with him, have lost their voice. In any case, of all the needs of this newborn-grandad the one that seems to pose the greatest agony is drinking water, as if the body only finds pleasure and substance in the activities that are contrary to its subsistence.
Albert Serra. Roi Soleil, ®Andergraun Films.
To understand Roi Soleil you need to know that the piece starts out from a recording of the performance by Lluís Serrat in 2017 in the Graça Brandao of Lisbon. For over a week, four hours a day, the artist was acting out the death of the bourbon. Albert Serra says that the basis of his methodology is to work with actors. Roi Soleil confirms once again that the dramatological instinct of this this director combined with the tireless talent of Lluís Serrat, means that this piece has achieved levels of facial expression which are almost soporific. The unforgettable scene of the king Sanxini spitting out his frustration in front of the mirror, screwing up his face and panting in the face of the crude reality. All we have is the body and we won’t go beyond our own vices, faults or finitude.
Michael is a young American who is travelling to Naples to recover the memories of his recently departed father, since he will no longer have any relation with him in life. His father works for the National Archaeological Museum in the city and to try to understand the person he knew very little about, Michael visits the museum on each day of his trip.
And from there, and through some of the objects exhibited, on a journey that also visits the past of Pompei, Ancient Egypt and the golden age of the Neapolitan Baroque, Michael is able to make peace with his father. This is the storyline of the videogame Father and Son, launched in 2017 for Naples museum, open to everyone and which, just one and a half years after its release already had over three million downloads.
Father and son game.
An app-based video game like Father and Son, for all audiences and very intuitive, has enabled the National Archaeological Museum in Naples to gain an international public. Probably most of the people who have played Father and Son will never set foot in the museum but at least they will know a little bit about and take an interest in its extraordinary collections. Yet according to the museum there are those who have visited it on the grounds of the game alone. Also, some of the puzzles in the game can only be solved from within the museum, using a GPS.
Gamification is just one way of applying new digital technology to the museum and heritage sector. These tools have such great possibilities that they have opened up new paths for the diffusion of artistic and monumental heritage, and they have proved a true revolution when it comes to disseminating knowledge in the sector. But where they have been particularly effective is in the difficult task of reaching out to the viewing public.
During the seminar which took place on 7 February at the Episcopal Museum of Vic, organised by the Catalan Agency for Cultural Heritage and entitled Heritage and Digital Technology. Technology and Storytelling for Cultural Communication, some examples of the application of these digital tools in Catalan museums and monuments were presented, providing the key to a great revolution that is affecting the entire employment chain in the sector, from documentation and research to dissemination. It is in this last aspect that the seminar focussed, with examples that are functioning successfully. Albert Sierra, head of new technologies at the Catalan Agency for Cultural Heritage, explained that audiences, at a time when the fact of “looking” is continuous as a result of the multiplicity of screens that surround us every day, “are demanding experiences, not just going to a place and looking at it”. Digital technologies not only make immersive experiences and interactivity with the public possible, but they also facilitate the most detailed recreation of the stories that the institutions want to tell, adding information which perhaps was more difficult to introduce in the past. A clear example which has been operating since 2013 is the video mapping projected on the apse of the church of Sant Climent de Taüll, which is a faithful projection of the original paintings conserved in the National Museum of Art of Catalonia in Barcelona, but which also represent what the complete works would have been like by incorporating the missing parts. A similar example is the virtual recreation made of the Romanesque cathedral in Vic or the immersive visit to the Royal Monastery of Vallbona de les Moges, centred on the story of the female religious community there.
The iberian city of Ullastret in 3D.
As Albert Sierra told us, new technologies allow “journeys through time and space”, through virtual reality, for example. In the archaeological site at Ullastret there is an immersive video room which recreated the Iberian city in 3D, and at Empuries you can also “visit” the Roman city’s forum in virtual reality. Immersive experiences are ideal for disseminating archaeological heritage and can also be applied to painting with the more conventional techniques of spectacle art which have been used in recent exhibitions with the projection of artworks in spaces such as L’Atelier des Lumieres in Paris to with exhibits of the works of Klimt and Von Gogh. In the latter case there have been different version of these visual spectacles (a term which seems more appropriate to me than exhibitions) one of which will shortly be arriving in Barcelona.
Juguem a fet i amagar (Let’s Play Hide and Seek)
Augmented reality also allows experiences that increase the knowledge of the exhibitions and can offer gamified museum visits. One example, also present in the seminar at Vic, is the game Juguem a fet i amagar (Let’s Play Hide and Seek), aimed at children aged 8 to 12 at the Museum of Girona. The children use a tablet for the visit and through an augmented reality application the Lioness of Girona invites them to discover a whole series of animals hidden around the museum, and to learn about them while they are at it.
Audio dialogues are also changing a giant’s pace. The recently opened Mas Miró in Montroig del Camp offers a visit to The Emotional Landscape of Miró with an audio guide that uses a card linked to mobile devices which allows the user to plan their own route. Visitors van also record, increase or continue the story following their physical visit to the farmhouse using their mobile or any other device with direct links to the the information. The audio guide offers information to the visitors of Mas Miró that help to improve their experience.
The possibilities to disseminate knowledge by museums and cultural institutions now seems infinite.
The possibilities offered by new digital technologies to disseminate knowledge by museums and cultural institutions now seems infinite. An app such as Second Canvas, for example, allows virtual tours around museum collections with an extraordinary visual quality, showing details that are almost invisible to the naked eye thanks to super high-resolution photographs. This is a way of admiring the works in the museum, whether you are planning a physical visit or not. It can be used as a callout, guide or as complementary information once the visit is over. In Catalonia, four museums are using the digital platform in different ways: the National Museum of Art of Catalonia with a tour of the subject of the portrait; the Museum of Empordà, with masterpieces; the Episcopal Museum of Vic as an interactive resources for the temporary Oliba Episcopus exhibition; and the Museum of Girona which is currently preparing material for its exhibition of some of its medieval altarpieces.
Reconstruction hypothesis of the Vic cathedral.
It is clear that this country, where the cultural sector is in a financially precarious position, is still a long way from the spectacular proposals which are being offered in other countries, especially in English-speaking nations which have had it much clearer for a long time now that having a good digital department in the museum is crucial. Digitalisation of the dissemination of museum collection is changing the relationship that the institution has with its public. Museums are active agents but so are their visitors. For example, in the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York visitors are offer The Pen on arrival. They can use this device to point to different objects exhibited which interest them during the visit. When they leave the content is downloaded and they can take it home with them, with all the information about the chosen pieces. It is their own personalised catalogue to take away.
The Pen. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.
The biggest dilemma in all of this change is how to explain museums through these new tools without ‘dumbing down’. Gamifying, teaching, fine. But the principal objective of the museum should never be taken away: the conservation of works and the creation and dissemination of knowledge. “Without quality research it is impossible to produce a quality product”, said Albert Sierra in the Vic seminar. This is an objective that we need to always bear in mind.
… is that I am not mad. Salvador Dali was the supposed author of this joke-like statement. Dalí was also the last painter to be treated by the psychiatrist Joan Obiols, who died of a heart attack in Portlligat following a session with the painter.
The figure of Joan Obiols Vié (Granollers, 1918 – Cadaqués, 1980) is multifaceted. This recognised psychiatrist and academic from the University of Medicine of Barcelona, art collector and cultural activist in the times of Francoist restrictions, passionate gastronomist and cultivator of friendships – he was a great friend of Brossa among others in Catalan culture – has not had a complete exhibition dedicated to him until now.
Joan Obiols, Self-portrait, c. 1950.
Curated by his son, who is also a psychiatrist, Joan Obiols Llandrich, the exhibition Art and folly. Joan Obiols Vié. Psychiatrist and humanist can be seen at La Seca, the new exhibition space if the Brossa Foundation in the old building of the mint of the same name.
Trained alongside Ramón Sarró at a time when the first anti-psychotic drugs were coming onto the market, Joan Obiols was a pioneer in this country in the use of creation as a tool for psychotherapy. He was a great lover of art and aware of the value of the image, stimulating his patients to express their emotional state through visual language, as the exhibition clearly shows. Not long before him, in 1945, Jean Dubuffet had used the term art brut to lay claim to the value of artistic creation in the hands of children, prisoners and people with mental illnesses. Obiols promoted the curative power of different artistic forms, not only visual but also through music therapy and psycho-theatre. He created the first section of Art Therapy in a Spanish hospital – the Hospital Clinic in Barcelona and also promoted the International Society for Psychopathology of Expression, as well as organising several international art psychotherapy conferences between 1958 and 1964.
Drawing of the Dr. Obiols art brut collection.
Art and madness shows 60 drawings by his patients, from a collection of more than a thousand which he himself had exhibited during his lifetime. This exhibition is therefore incredibly immersive. The works, situated in the space as document and not as works of art, means that the drawings offer access to worlds which are particularly painful and private. The motifs are repeated, the obsessions as well and the works are traced out in a number of discordant areas. Apart from their communicative function many of the drawings are surprising (why deny it?) in their plasticity and visual force.
Perejaume, Nen lluna.
But the most surprising thing of all is the worrying familiarity that some of Obiol’s patients display with the worlds of Dalí, Joan Ponç and Zush ─ a name which Albert Port received from an inmate of the Phrenomatic Institute of Barcelona, from where Obiols had the works of three artists. The exhibition also shows the collectionist side of Joan Obiols, with some dream-like and surreal works by Tàpies, Tharrats, Dalí, Ponç, Zush and Perejaume. It also shows through photographs and documents Obiols’ involvement as an untiring and curious activist of groups such as Dau al Set, Club 49 and other cultural movements. “Solar friend, talented incisor of mists” is how Joan Brossa remembered him in his obituary text of 1980 in Serra d’Or.
Obiols made portraits of his patient interned in institutions for mental illness such as Sant Boi.
Obiols was a lover pf photography and in the 1940s and 1950s he did what no other doctor had done – made portraits of his patient who were interned in institutions for mental illness such as Sant Boi, Pere Mata de Reus Institute and others. The result is a collection of more than 600 black and white photographs – phrenographies, as they are called – which are truly original- in the exhibition there are over 80 of them, with many more women than man, who observe us from the walls of La Seca. By making portraits of their gaze, Obiols has given them an identity.
Joan Josep Tharrats, Untitled, 1950.
While all of this was happening, in France , Francesc Tosqelles, another Catalan psychologist from the same generation was carrying out another independent project with mentally ill patients in the Saint-Alban hospital in Losera. Tosquelles was a republican exile and working with Félix Guattari. In Italy, meanwhile, a few years later the so-called anti-psychiatrics opened its doors. But that will be another episode. By giving a voice to the nocturnalisms and peripheries of his patients, Obiols made great strides in psychiatric practices which are still largely ignored today.
Most of these last four decades of democracy have been spent creating a fake culture, using as a marketing ploy a country which urgently needed to demonstrate that it could hit the spot in terms of European culture.
Of course, this was politically instrumentalised systematically resulting in a few scraps from which to produce true culture. It had great support from the creators and cultural agents who put up with, but at the same time reported, bad practices but had a spirit of transforming the cultural desert which we inherited and begin to create a network of creation, production and research in a relatively articulated manner and driven by what appeared to be a promising new path.
Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona. Photo: Transductores.
But unfortunately, this was not the objective of the parties directing our institutions. Finally, the crisis came – the second after ’92 – and brought with it arguments to dismantle everything that had been started. The crisis was the great excuse of the government machine to cut the cultural feeding tube, revealing what was beneath it: a profound disregard for the people working in culture. On the part of the conservative politicians, represented currently by the Council for Culture of the Government of Catalonia, the only interest that has remained is that of recovering heritage – to conserve private collections. On the other hand, Barcelona City Council – currently governed by a party which emerged from the movement of 15 March, the “commoners”, has proved disappointing in the area of culture. After leaving it in the hands of the Socialist Party of Catalonia, PSC, which created the Barcelona Brand with interests increasingly related to the private sector, very much in line with its Spanish counterpart, PSOE, it has now been left without that ally, and finds itself a new vacuum in terms of proposals for cultural policy or, even worse, it is maintaining its original objective since it has not been able to find other with new values which are a better match for its general programme.
At the moment, the financial and political crisis – scam – has driven culture into a “low importance” corner. That, together with the idea that those of us who work in the world of creation and art in general are “recompensed” by the fact that we do what we do, even though it does not allow us a proper standard of living. It is a perfect excuse to devalue our employment rights and thereby avoid any kind of “meddling” with critical thinking in society.
Protest at Arts Santa Mònica, Barcelona. Photo: Transductores.
In recent years, and even in the times of the “big cheeses”, culture was measured in terms of its infrastructures. Every city, however small, wanted its own contemporary art museum, which enabled it to requalify areas of low value through scandalous gentrification (now it seems to be the turn of L’Hospitalet) which were in many cases highly inefficient and in others directly destroyed the fabric of the people who lived there. Nowadays, many of these spaces have extremely low budgets which prevent them from producing coherent programmes and endanger their continuation. Smaller budgets for contemporary creation have meant that in the last ten years countless centres for art and creation have had to close. They were the first seed of what was turning into a truly rhizomatic structure.
The result of all this is a Barcelona which is increasingly barren, culturally speaking.
Perhaps we could think that this neoliberal posture has achieved the activation of the art market, but they have not even been efficient in that respect. The dismantling by Councillor Mascarell results again and again – with each of the heads of culture – in an unusual administrative silence. The result of all this is a Barcelona which is increasingly barren, culturally speaking, but in particular in terms of visual arts. The public spaces are adrift, with Arts Santa Mònica continuing along its erroneous path, Canòdrom non-existent, Fabra i Coats a complete mystery, and the MACBA maintaining its inflexible and conservative arrogance with no proposals for a truly innovative and socially articulating formula. Only La Virreina Centre de la Imatge is generating activity and has set itself up as an essential laboratory, and the MNAC continues striving to reinvent itself. The situation is so serious that even the private spaces such as the Miró Foundation and the Tàpies Foundation are in danger. All this evidently encourages bad practices: unjustified dismissals, the abandonment of adjudicated spaces, incomprehensible programmes which respond to interests that do not match those of a general preconceived project.
Nothing is happening to improve and/or change this prevailing state of affairs. Nothing demonstrates concern for this kind of precariousness. Just a few loose hopes from the private collections, where the proposals are based on locating public art centres to accommodate the artistic heritage of a small clique of families. There is no interest by the government in finding out about contemporary artistic and cultural practices or in understanding the evolution that has taken place in the last few years to open up new fields of production and relations with society. People working in culture have never been so immersed and interested in the discourse with their surroundings as they are now; never so concerned with the topics that affect us all. For a long time now, contemporary cultural practices have taken a real interest in the role of the intermediary and the collector of social stories. However, it would seem that as far as the government is concerned, we should be placed in that narcissistic and banal space that capitalist society has marked out for creators, for the consumption of the few. That is where they want us, and we won’t let them put us there…
In one of the videos of the exhibition Architecture and Criticism, which is dedicated to the professional career of Ignasi de Solà-Morales, you can see him saying: “Architecture is an aggression towards territory, towards material, which it violates, manipulates, forces, twists; it is violence against the existing forms, against existing types and ways. All founding architecture is based on violence and in its interior does not have so much a construction as an inseparable destruction as well”.
This was in his talk Anyway presented at the CCCB in 1993.
Exhibition view. Photo: Pep Herrero.
I would say that you can use this reading of violence as a device to understand a large part of the exhibition in La Virreina or, what amounts to the same thing, the intellectual and critical legacy of Ignasi de Solà-Morales, an architect born in 1942 in the city of Barcelona, and son of a family of architects which included his grandfather Joan Rubió i Bellver, his father Manuel de Solà-Morales i de Rosselló and his brother Manuel de Solà-Morales i Rubió, who was a prominent member of the academic and professional architectural community from the nineteen seventies until his sudden death.
The career of Ignasi de Solà-Morales (Barcelona, 1942 – Amsterdam, 2001) exemplifies some of the most characteristic traits of a certain architectural tradition which is closely linked to Barcelona and typified by bringing together, with no clearly defined limits, thinking about culture, heritage and the city. In his own work, thought, architectural practice and involvement in the public sphere formed an uninterrupted whole.
From his academic activity to his restoration projects for such iconic building as the German Pavilion from the 1929 Universal Exhibition, known as the Mies Pavilion, his position is the result and also the drive for a time which, having survived Modernity, sought explanations (always fragmentary and unfocussed) to the specific problems of the contemporary world.
This is an archive exhibition in which above all there are documents, facsimiles, reproductions of plans, photographs and videos, publications, etc. These exhibition always seem a bit harsh for visitors. The main task of the curators , in this case Carmen Rodríguez and Pau de Solà-Morales, is to create a narrative between a series of basically unconnected pieces which separately would be unreadable, both in terms of format and theme. It is understood that nobody, except perhaps an expert or scholar of the author in question, would take the time to reads each and every one of the documents exhibited.
Exhibition view. Photo: Pep Herrero.
The mounting of the exhibition, carried out by the Cadaval & Solà-Morales Studio, therefore has to work in a rather complex context, showing the pieces but also generating an environment. Most of the visitors take away with them a general idea of the content. The documents are not readings for the visitors but images which support the discourse as a whole. The fragments of these reading which were considered to be pertinent and worthy are extracted and magnified so that they can be red. Here, the whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts. And on that note I go back to my starting point. Solà-Morales defends the position that contrary to what we have been told, from the theory of the Modern movement, architecture is not a mediator, nor a device for participation. On the contrary, and as I said at the beginning, in every architectural action he sees an act of violence: “In fact, any architectural operation is an imposition, a colonisation which involves violence”. He adds that as architects there are only three ways of reacting to this situation: submission, delinquency or resistance.
The way in which this exhibition is set up is an evident act of violence.
The way in which this exhibition is set up is an evident act of violence. It imposes itself on the visitors (like any expositive formalisation), and conditions their reading and even the way they move their bodies and move around the space; it forces certain perspectives, biased views and obliges the visitors to adopt strange postures to see some of the parts. The question is whether it does so from a hegemonic stance of control, from the wrong of vandalism or from resistant complicity. I speak to Eduardo Cadaval and Clara Solà-Morales about this sensation of exclusion when trying to see parts of the exhibition and they tell me: “There is a clear desire in the design to show that reading these texts (like any other theoretical text) requires an effort. In fact, in all our exhibitions we have always placed the texts a little too low. We think that the visitors who really want to see or read a piece should make a minimum effort; the information, given that it is not an image, always requires an effort by the visitor”.
Exhibition view. Photo: Pep Herrero.
However, I would say that the world of Ignasi de Solà-Morales, even from an archive culture, withstands this arrangement in the space and a visit would prove equally revealing. Little wonder that eclecticism and a review of history distanced from dogmas and common ground enabled him to come out unscathed from blind alleyways such as the rehabilitation of the Liceu, the study of the Universal Exhibition or the Duchamp or Rietveld shows. As the programme leaflet says for Rietveld exhibition: “…he proposed a reflection on the reproduction of a work, understood as an exercise in overcoming imitation and as an opportunity to contemplate “a research project, the recomposition of a design process and the possibility of thoroughly understanding a method”. The development of this idea in the mind of the architect is essential for rebuilding a path which will reappear in future interventions, tracking the process followed by the author and reaching “the very heart of the work once the thick structure has been torn away”. And is that not what every exhibition should do?
While I am visiting the exhibition in La Virreina, I see the Boqueria Market through the window and I cannot help seeing parallelisms between the exhibition of the cruciform column of the Mies Pavilion from 1929, discovered during excavation work in December 1984 and the cured sausages hanging on the other side of the glass. In the text “Weak Architecture” Solà-Morales talks of an architecture that is neither important nor proud, because it is the only kind that can escape the banality and self-reference of postmodernity. And while I am thinking about that and in the inherent pride of the Mies van der Rohe beam, exhibited as contemporary archaeology, the tourists are taking photos of the sausages. That is violence.
This interesting study, in exhibition format, addresses emotion though western art. Do we feel the same now as we did five hundred years ago? Is art able to lie and be sincere at the same time?
Can you remember the last time you laughed or cried in the cinema? Well, what you experienced was manufactured by one or several creators with a specific objective in mind: transmit a message through emotions.
That, and many other things, is what Poetics of Emotion is about, curated by Érika Goyarrola at the CaixaForum Barcelona. Forty-four works of art belonging basically to three chronological periods: the Middle Ages, the turn of the twentieth century and las last thirty years of the twentieth century until the present. These works are brought together under three main themes: death (through the religious iconography of the medieval period), group celebrations (festivals and demonstrations) and landscape as an expression of the inner self.
These are pieces from different collections such as the ”la Caixa” Contemporary Art Collection, the National Art Museum of Catalonia, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona, the Joan Miró Foundation, the Es Baluard Museum in Palma de Mallorca and the National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid, among others. And apparently such unconnected artists as Bill Viola, Manolo Millares, Shirin Neshat, Julio González, Joan Miró, Darío de Regoyos, Perejaume, Gina Pane, Joaquim Mir, Pipilotti Rist, Günther Förg and Colita.
At first view it could look like one of the “thesis exhibitions” which lately seem to be everywhere. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Here, the “thesis” is an invitation to participate through the simple element of emotion, through dynamics and through the poetic of art.
People know more or less about art, But everyone feels emotion, neurochemical and hormonal reactions which make us predisposed to react in a certain way to any stimulus, be it external – somethings which we perceive – or internal – a memory. And all these emotions on display in the exhibition are recognisable to the viewer.
Rather than being the title alone Poetics of Emotion is an invitation to see are and learn; from the art of from ourselves. Each work is accompanied by an explanatory text. Brief but well written they are designed to be assimilated by visitors, containing basic information to be able to understand the work and its context. Obvious? Well, not that common in other institutions in Barcelona which regularly exhibit art.
Now that we are making comparisons, there is a fantastic dialogue between two pieces which are separated by more than seven years of history. They appear at the entrance to the exhibition and immediately attract the attention of the visitors: the Gothic painting Weeping women (1295), which forms the lateral part of the sarcophagus Sancho Sánchez Carrillo and his wife Juana, from the church of San Andrés de Mahamud in Burgos, and next to it the video The Silent Sea (2002), by Bill Viola. The weeping souls of the funeral procession, tearing at their hair and scratching at their faces in a demonstration of their grief on the one hand. And on the other, nine actors, each representing a different emotion in their own way and in silence: pity, hatred, fear, and so on. Against a black background and theatrical lighting it is a recreation of the iconography of drama which is so often present in religious scenes such as the Calvary, the taking down of the Cross and the Pietà.
Is it valid to feel aesthetic pleasure in the face of “real” pain?
Pietà is one of the compositions most commonly recreated in contemporary art, in fact. The pain of losing a child is a moving and universal tragedy. A functional Pietat (c. 1850) by Ramon Padró Pijoan sits in contrast next to the Funeral in Kosovo (1998) by photojournalist Enric Folgosa Martí. One image that is so aesthetic but at the same time real – with no actors or models – makes us questions the limits of what we can share. Is it valid to feel aesthetic pleasure in the face of “real” pain?
But they are not all human figures, wailing in woeful mourning to underline their spiritual state. There are also emotions expressed through the contemplation of nature such as Landscape 17 (1985), by Perejaume – which is like a Mediterranean version of Rothko, or the symphony of colour in Sunset (1903) which almost cost an impassioned Joaquim Mir his life, or the powerful diptych in bronze – Untitled (no. 74/88) (1988) – by Günter Förg, which almost makes you want to claw at it (I don’t recommend you do so, by the way!).
Are emotions universal? Do we all read the works of art in this exhibition in the same way? The shapes remain, just like iconography and the written word. But…what about emotions like pain. Death, and even love? Is it possible to feel the same way following sexual freedom, social security, Ibuprofen or Prozac, than when this progress and security did not exist?
In the amazing underground space occupied by the Estrany-de la Mota gallery in the Passatge Mercader in Barcelona, the Throwback exhibition is in a permanent state of construction.
The posters are on table and piled up on the ground; the spirit levels for hanging the paintings are still resting on some of the frames; the transportation boxes are used as tables; post-it notes signal whether one painting or another needs adjusting; one of the mounters has left their trainers on the floor…
And that is how it will stay until June, until this project which takes a look back at the history of the gallery in three acts finally closes. It is a three-part epilogue because when the third part closes, Estrany-de la Mota has announced that it will close its doors as a commercial gallery. But the half-mounted appearance of the exhibition –an installation under the name Espumillas, which sounds like more than the name of an exhibition mounting company– is not the result of a lack of time but a deliberate metaphor. Estrany-de la Mota is closing a chapter with this totally unencyclopedic journey through its history, but it is doing so in a deconstructed manner, showing the public the crude process of mounting a show, because sometimes you need to disturb everything right down to the guts if you want to construct something new.
Christian Boltanski, Blagueur, 1974.
This has been the intention of Àngels de la Mota, who since the sudden death of Toni Estrany in February 2017, has continued to direct the gallery programming with her own very personal touch and a firm commitment to the contemporary art produced by now-iconic artists such as Ignasi Aballí, Francesc Ruiz, Douglas Gordon and Bestué-Vives. But now, de la Mota, driven by the realisation that the gallery model is changing around the world, thinks that the time has come for a radical change in the project. “Nowadays many galleries are opting to not have their own spaces and set up specific exhibitions. We are going to do it the other way round”, she explains.
Miquel Barceló, S.T. (detall), 1979.
So, they will keep the 200-metre square basement, which opened in 1990 as the Toni Estrany gallery and became the Estrany-de la Mota in 1996, when the latter moved her gallery in the Gràcia neighbourhood down town to merge with it. Àngels de la Mota plans to produce specific artists’ projects there which could equally be exhibited in the Passatge Mercader space or others. They will be completely transferrable projects (her own special interest is in dance and performance, for example) and much more open than the line that has characterised the gallery to date. “I want to have a space but not be obliged to produce a programme and travel to art fairs – that time is in the past”, she explains. In her new project she will also offer a consultancy service for collections, which goes to show her love for that kind of work. The gallery collection is also up for sale.
What Àngels de Mota wants is to move away from the nostalgic stance of the gallery’s epilogue.
What Àngels de Mota wants is to move away from the nostalgic stance of the gallery’s epilogue. In the first part of Throwback, you can see works from the 1970s, from the time when Toni Estrany was working in the Trece Gallery and became an independent dealer. The exhibition particularly shows the clinical eye of Estrany during a period which was not at all easy for contemporary art in Barcelona. His “nursery” as he liked to refer to his artists, was impressive and balanced the local with the internal scene.
Josep Uclés, S.T., 1981-1982.
In the show there are some very valuable small format works which include a dozen fantastic watercolours from 1978-79 by a young and unknown painter called Miquel Barceló; a subtle series of prints by Sergi Aguilar; painting from one of the best moments of Josep Uclés; an extraordinary etching by Antoni Tàpies, drawings of Spring goats by Robert Llimós; a work from the playful self-portraits by Christian Boltanski and works by Richard Hamilton showing his relationship with Cadaqués. But above all don’t miss the numerous publications that Àngels de la Mota has rescued from the gallery collection. Or kneel down to admire a small floor painting by the underestimated painter Manuel Molí (1936-2016), of clearly Boschian inspiration.
After March the exhibition will include works from the nineteen eighties, and then the nineties and the 2000 in a very unconventional journey through the history of one of Barcelona’s most important galleries in recent times.
I think it is unusual, exceptional even, for a movie to approach the wisdom of life through the wisdom of film in the way that Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón has.
However, some of the critics, visibly influenced by the commercial strategy of Netflix, have been unable to see the work other than through spectacles of prejudice, both ideological and aesthetic.
Scenes from the film Roma.
Can the fragile dignity of human beings or the human condition be filmed? Can it be represented through film? I do not think it is an easy task and there are very few occasions on which it has been done fully. Perhaps it was possible in movies from the 1950s and 60s directed by Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, John Ford, and John Huston, but not many others. It was certainly possible in the case of Renoir and Godden’s The River, in The Seven Samurais and in Red Beard, in The World of Apu, The Misfits,The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and several films by Ozu. And in a different way, also in later and different works such as The Last Picture Show, The English Patient, The Man without a Past and Gran Torino, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, Anthony Minghella, Aki Kaurismäki and Clint Eastwood, respectively. And I think it has happened again in 2018 with the film Roma, by Alfonso Cuarón.
In this case the preposition “by” is justified because the director is also the single-handed screenwriter, director of photography and – in collaboration with other people – editor and producer. In other words, he is the true author, something which cannot be said about many other film directors.
Above all, Roma seems to me to be a necessary piece more than a masterpiece, which I also think it is. The first time I saw Roma –named after the neighbourhood in the City of México, la colonia Roma, not Fellini’s Italian movie– was in a movie theatre, and the second time as well. The first time I allowed myself to be carried by the pure cinematographic marvel of the experience, which is subtle and unspectacular, without attempting to analyse the reasons (although I could not avoid doing so anyway). On the second viewing I was able to make a better analysis of the elements which comprise and shape its meaning.
My first conclusion is that the work itself is reduced by its domestic perspective, for a TV screen, on Netflix. Not through its visual aspect, however, which is conceived for the home screen, but through the sound. It is only by watching and listening to this work in a movie theatre that you can capture and enjoy one of the fundamental characteristics of this movie: its strange and yet very considered depth of field which is not only visual but also acoustic. The depth of field makes it possible to relate the characters to their surroundings, with their physical and social context. And one of the key features of Roma is the relationship between the individual and the personal and the social and general –not as an emphatic element but one which is omnipresent in the backdrop of everyday events.
We are used to the surround sound being at the service of an overwhelming spectacle, such as the excellent, warlike and psychedelic Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola. But in Roma the surround sound evokes only the everyday noises of a neighbourhood, the sounds of the colonia Roma in 1970 or 1971: birdsong, cars and distant planes, dogs barking, songs on the radio, the melancholic cries of street sellers, the flute of the knife-grinder. All of these sounds make up a kind of natural urban music which, in this film, form a parallel to the aromas in À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust. In Roma the sounds awaken past thoughts, childhood memories and take us to a different age, connecting us with it. They take us to Cuarón’s time and childhood and possibly also to those that we have been able to live its spectators, also those from other countries and other ages.
The world as seen in Roma has not yet completely disappeared. It is still possible to see in Barcelona, even in 2019, an horchateria with fluorescent lighting and pastel-coloured drawings very similar to the fruitshakes shop in Mexico’s Roma over thirty years ago. And the sculpture of the giant crustacean on a Caribbean beach which appears in Roma is not so different to signs which were popular here fifty years ago along the Catalan coast, like La Ballena Alegre sign on a campsite to the south of Barcelona. Now they are disappeared, just like the big movie theatres that occupied marvellous art deco buildings in Mexico, Barcelona and Madrid in the mid-twentieth century, which were pulled down to be replaced with something worse. It is true that this evocative aspect of the movie is powerful and can contribute to forging a strong connection with a large audience. However, the greatness of this movie does not lie in nostalgia or even in its capacity for resonance.
I think Cuarón’s first good decision is his choice of the main theme. The history of cinema is full of heroes, epics, warriors, criminals, femmes fatales, people with unscrupulous ambition or people in love, etc. But Roma is the first great movie to have as its main character a nanny and a maid who appears completely realistic, with all due respect to Mary Poppins. At last, somebody like that –a maid, a skivvy– is considered and contemplated for the human being that she is, with feelings, with an apparent simplicity and an authentic complexity, and not for her job or her usefulness (and not for her revolutionary or offensive hostility either) compared with the usual protagonists, her middle-class employers.
Cuarón’s choice is an act of love and gratitude. Cleo, the main character, is not pretentious or proud or aggressive, but warm, calm and discreetly wise and heroic. Her character is based on Libo, the nanny who looked after Alfonso and his brothers like a second mother. Only a few changes to the storyline are made to enrich it and give it more depth and intensity. The focus on her, the nanny and maid, means that Cuarón the child is not the star and it also means that Roma is not Amarcord or Fanny and Alexander. However, there are some implicit autobiographical references. The boy dressed up as an astronaut who appears in different situations, such as walking through the woods where the sky is reflected in a puddle obviously represents the child who, as an adult, made a film called Gravity.
Roma is also a happily feminist movie. In fact, it is perhaps the best feminist movie that I have seen since the now-distant, harsh and very slow Jeanne Dielman, by Chantal Akerman. The advantage of Roma is that it does not get stuck in sorry prose and it offers generous doses of audiovisual and narrative poetry. This poetry, like verbal poetry, requires an attentive audience capable of receiving it. Viewers who are distracted are, by definition, impermeable to the poetry and as a result they are left outside the film and they misinterpret it. Some of the more negative criticisms published about Roma are also some of the stupidest I have ever read, even more stupid than some of those published after Kubrick’s 2001 or Lynch’s Eraserhead (in the Spanish press very few of us defended his first feature film when it premiered).
Of course, one can never generalise but it is true that the two male characters in this movie are clear examples of the fraudulence and irresponsibility in both the middle and working classes. Both can be considered to represent too large a portion of the male population, and not only in Mexico. There are many countries in which sexism is a major cause of suffering.
Ideologically, Roma is both a lucid and necessary work. It shows the close relationship between sexism and real-life, militant fascism. Class hierarchy also appears related to racism and sexism. The movie addresses the real distance between the dominating class and the underclass directly and without exaggeration. Contact between the two is possible, even affectionate, but the real distance is enormous. In the Mexican setting of Roma there are millionaires with American surnames, upper middle-class Mexicans, especially of Spanish origin, and then there are native Mexicans, who are the poorest. Within this subordinated class, women are clearly more easily pushed around as shown in the scene of the martial arts training camp.
Another positive aspect of Roma is its authenticity. When an author talks about what he knows, what he has seen, about a place and a time that he has lived through, it is only a guarantee if he knows how to do it in the best possible way. In other words, the way he expresses it has to match his experience. In Roma, Cuarón clearly achieves this to the extent that the movie reminds me of two books which are also exceptional by Marcos Ordóñez: Turismo interior and Un jardín abandonado por los pájaros.
The way that the characters, things and actions are shown is important, as is the way that feelings and ideas are expressed. In Roma, the coherence between form and content goes beyond the obvious cinematographic and photographic beauty of black and white. For example, all the camera movements make sense in relation to the story and are not simply the hallmark of the author’s ego. Distance is also decisive, being related to the narrative tone and the way in which the parts are played. In this film, the actors do not seem like actors and the actions seem like they come from a documentary. An incredibly well-filmed documentary, having said that.
The depth of field is fundamental in this movie. I do not think I have seen such careful use of this expressive cinematographic device since Playtime, by Jacques Tati –a comedy which is also rich in sounds and noises and which thematically reflected on the relationship between people and their surroundings in an mass society. In that sense, in Cuarón’s movie scenes such as the childbirth, with the baby and the doctors out of focus in the background, are particularly memorable. Or the gradual presentation of the demonstration and its repression: at that moment the background scene of police repression moves to the foreground.
In his Notes sur le cinemátographe, Robert Bresson wrote this aphorism – an excerpt from his approach to film-making: “When everything is not there, but when each word, each gaze, each gesture, has a backdrop meaning”. And there are others by Bresson which fit this film, despite it being very unlike his own works. Especially this one: “The production of emotion through the resistance to emotion”. But also, these two: “Telephone. Its voice makes it visible”. “Tweaking what is real with what is real”. This last one, in Roma, is seen in certain relations between the image and the sound.
In Roma only the water reveals the truth.
The script of Roma is a marvel of conciseness and measured doses of narrative tones. Cuarón alternates scenes which are extensive enough to represent everyday life in a real and truthful way with others which seem to be mere brushstrokes but are in fact significant concentrations of truth. Sometimes they are poetic flights which reduce distances and relate the four basic elements of earth, fire, air and water. In Roma fire is destructive hatred, in the earth there is also shit, the air is like a kind of evasive dream-state and only the water reveals the truth, just like the mirror of film. Incidentally, when you look at the title Roma in the mirror you see amoR, or love. Water is also the element that enables purification and renewal – something that was known at the time when the main religions, including Christianity, were created and which is often forgotten.
The everyday scenes in Roma sometimes alternate with metarealist glints which reflect the Mexico that so fascinated Luis Buñuel. For example, the collection of stuffed dogs around the walls of a large country house, or the bullet-man who is fired from a cannon in a miserable puddle-filled vacant lot where loudspeakers broadcast the false promises of electoral propaganda. Or the infraguru, the trainer of the martial arts fighters who at first are almost comical but later appear as evil agents.
The movie manages to either say or suggest a lot, even in a few seconds or a single sentence of dialogue. For example the swanky car which barely fits into the parking place is enough to evoke the vanity of the middle classes and the economic and cultural colonialism that the United States imposes on Mexican society. The fact that the owner’s wife writes off the car later on as a result of her reckless driving is also significant. Or the comment by a man during a kind of picnic party with sun, alcohol and loaded pistols: “So women don’t shoot?”. The conciseness that Cuarón achieves is comparable to that of Juan Rulfo or Albert Camus.
This work by Cuarón, his most autobiographical, is also strangely capable of supporting associations with other very different works by other authors. He broaches, for example, the topic of emotional displacements within family and social structures. The character of Cleo is like a second mother who officially cannot cease to be an obedient servant. In a way it is similar to the real but unrecognised fathers in Ju Dou, by Zhang Yimou, or the previous masterpiece by Yasujiro Ozu Ukigusa (Floating Weeds), with which Cuarón’s movie also coincides with the use of aircraft sounds as a linking mechanism and an expression of distance and solitude.
Finally, one of the essential themes of Roma is that of the true but unrecognised hero. But the epic of Cleo’s character is feminine and more discreet than that of the silent hero played by John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And when Cleo, who is marvellously embodied rather than played by Yalitza Aparicio, reveals herself as a heroic character, precisely then, she feels guilty because a question that her conscience had not resolved, nor recognized, and she says at the last: “I did not want him to be born”. And then her life goes on as it had before –harsh and salaried.
To the non-Mexican critics who judged the earthquake in one of the scenes as being artificial, I would just say that earthquakes are completely possible and not at all artificial in countries like Mexico or Japan. I was in Mexico DF in the summer of 1985 and the building where I lived (in the Roma colony, precisely) had been the victim of a devastating earthquake just weeks before. It no longer exists. The danger of earthquakes forms part of the day to day existence of the Mexican people. It is like the light of the sun, the fallout from corruption or the danger of death, which are ever-present, as a backdrop to life itself.