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.
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.
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.
Why don’t we start to talk about this?