Last Saturday the Government of Catalonia paid homage to the republicans who were deported during the Nazi regime. The event took place in the concentration camp of Mauthausen, in front of the memorial stone that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Raül Romeva, had unveiled in 2017, on the occasion of the 72nd anniversary of the liberation from that hellish place.
The acting Spanish government – clearly a soothing influence – attended the event. When Gemma Domènech, the Generalitat’s Director General of Democratic Memory, reminded people of the situation of the minister as a political prisoner, the Spanish delegation headed by the minister for Justice, left.
So, all the newspapers were full of stories of a political dispute. But none of them mentioned that up to 200,000 people had been taken to Mauthausen, half of whom were either exterminated or died in infrahuman living conditions.
Another collateral effect: the most frequently reproduced work of art in the press this week was precisely the stone by Jesús Galdón which Raül Romeva unveiled two years ago.
Are all commemorative stones the same? What is special about the one placed by the Government of Catalonia in the wall of Mauthausen? We ask the creator, an artist who has made his work a permanent dialogue between memory and formal tradition, to the point where it is not surprising to see his exhibitions in archaeological museums rather than spaces for contemporary art.
–How did he get the commission for this monument?
Plàcid Garcia-Planas, who was at the time the director of the Democratic Memorial, called me. He asked me to make a plaque with the inscription “In memory of all those deported to Nazi camps” in Catalan, Spanish and German and Hebrew. But there was a series of conditions, established by the Mauthausen Memorial, when it came to making this kind of commemorative monument. However, my choice of stone was completely free. I also added the motto “All the pain of a people” The pain of collective memory, indistinctly.
–But the wall where the work was to be placed was not just any old wall.
Garcia-Planas sent me several photographs of the place where the plaque was to be placed – on a wall built by the prisoners themselves with the granite from the Mauthausen quarry. There was a series of plaques already placed on the wall. And I thought to myself: What can I add?
In other cases, the stone substituted the flesh, stone is eternal, hard, and flesh is soft and decomposable. Flesh disappears and that is why the statues are made to last.
I found it absurd to think that stone was being used to commemorate those who lost their lives quarrying it, covering up the fruit of their own work. The wall is the true memory of that pain.
–A memorial which covers up the object of the commemoration seems absurd.
The simplest solution to conserve that memory was to make a hole, to empty out a space. The plaque frames a detail of the place of pain which is condensed in these stones.
When I went to supervise the mounting of the piece, I visited the camp. There is an exhibition space which explains all of the barbarities which were carried out by the Nazis. And there is a piece of granite of the type the prisoners had to carry up the stairs to their death – stones weighing up to 50 kilos which were placed on wooden trays and carried on their backs. Their working says were up to eleven hours. I tried to lift one of those stones and all the weight of memory bore down on me.
–If memory carries weight why commemorate it with a hole? And why is the hole circular and not square or triangular?
Memory is a wall. And the hole is circular because pain is circular, infinite. Also, the inscription was a prisoner of those walls, and both I and the Democratic Memorial wanted to get away from that gesture. That is why we made a graphic work.
–How can you convey a message without conserving either the materiality or the place?
It is true that the format was different. But I continued with the idea of the stone as an impression and I thought about the process of lithography. The stone of Mauthausen has made an impression on memory in the same way that the lithographic stone makes an impression on the paper, just like a memory.
Granite is an extremely hard stone composed of quartz, feldspar, alkali and mica. In this work I substituted the three components of granite for the skin texture of three people: the fingerprints of Neus Català – the last survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, those of the artist – as a mediator in the continuity of memory, and those of a young person, not yet born into this memory which they would inherit.
–And how did you manage to get a hundred-year-old woman to cooperate?
I went to Neus’ village (Els Guiamets, 1915-2019), to the old people’s home where she lived.
When I introduced myself, I explained the project briefly. I shouted quite a lot because she was quite deaf. In the end she said, don’t tell me anymore because I haven’t understood anything. Just tell me what I have to do”. I took a litho stone with me and spread the ink on the paper. She licked her fingers and placed her fingerprints on the edges of the stone. When we had finished, she insisted that I took her on a trip around the village in her wheelchair. She made a huge impression on me.