“Wisdom is not about destroying idols, but about never creating them”, said Umberto Eco. But in the main religious texts there are detailed instructions of how to annihilate them.

The Jewish Talmud says “To destroy an idol you must pulverise it and throw it into the sea. Never to the wind because it could fertilise the soil… it must disappear down to the last fragment”. The project To lose your head (Idols), which represents Catalonia in the Venice Biennale is about destruction and adoration and the visceral reactions that statues are capable of producing in humans.

Pedro Azara, curator of the Catalonia Pavilion. Photo: ArteEdadSilicio.

“The images have an enormous power over men (sic), as if they were living beings. This has nothing to do with the contemplative attitude that the illusory theory of art tells us we should have when looking at the statues, whose forms carry a content that is capable of arousing the wildest passions”, explains the teacher of aesthetics and theory of art, Pedro Azara, who more than just the curator is the true author of the Catalonia Pavilion.

Joan Brossa, Record d’un malson, 1991.

For the first time in the six occasions in which it has taken part in the world’s biggest art event, Catalonia is not presenting the work of an artist but a documentary thesis project by an art theorist, which invites reflection on the power of the images and the emotional pulse of being human. That is why he has tried to make the pavilion as similar as possible to the Vía Favencia municipal depot where all the statues are piled up that are either damaged or have been removed from the public space for extolling figures that history would rather forget, even though their memory unfortunately remains very much alive in Spanish society.

Pas del Sant Enterrament de Tarragona.

Azara insists that the pavilion should not be read in political terms, but actually he has selected works which are directly linked to the history of Catalonia and the traumas which have caused its cracks with Spain. There are four of them: the head of the Mayor of Porcioles by Joan Brossa, the Monument to Lluís Companys by Francisco López, the Float of the Holy Week Procession of Tarragona and the Monument to the fallen by Genaro Iglesias, considered  a Francoist work until it was recently restored by historians.

Exhibition view.

There are also 11 others whose stories of adoration, disfigurement and final destruction or removal are told in a documentary section through photographs and press clippings. Included are the monument to the slave seller Antonio López which was recently removed from a square in Barcelona. “Throwing paint and disfigurement are the usual and most immediate ways of negating the life of an image. The face and especially the eyes are the parts most affected when neutralising their power, stopping us from looking at them”, states Azara.

Genaro Iglesias, Monumento a los Caídos, 1963.

This is where the title of the exhibit comes from – alluding to statues losing their heads because before them human beings had lost them.  “A statue, whether venerated or destroyed, is a victorious statue because it has achieved its objective, brought us outside the box, confronted us with  our fears and hopes and made us accept a life full of contradictions”, he continues., remembering the equestrian statue of Franco which was recently attacked despite being part of an exhibition at the Centre for Culture and Memory of the Born.

Borràs encourages the public to attack or adore the human statues.

The most curious thing is that Azara has decided to encourage the visitors to give free rein to their emotions through a vending machine of artefacts to adore or destroy. There are plastic flowers and candles but also bottles of urine and paint, stones and even hammers like those used by the mythical historical vandals meaning that now most works are exhibited behind bullet-proof glass. We will have to see if anyone dares to use them.

Vending machine.

In the meantime they have been used in the performance that actor Marcel Borràs has conceived for the week dedicated to those professionals appearing before the opening ceremony on Saturday. The actress Marta Aguilar plays five statues in a kind of pagan procession, which invites viewers to think of the streets of Barcelona, around the old boat warehouse in the heart of the Biennale (between the Arsenale and the Giardini), which is the Catalonia pavilion.

The actress Marta Aguilar plays five statues in a kind of pagan procession. Photo: ArteEdadSilicio.

Borràs encourages the public to attack or adore the human statues like The Shoot of Camp Nou which people spontaneously turned into a monument to Johann Cruyff. Marcel Borràs’s role is almost anecdotically listed as project artist, together with the creators of texts such as Francesc Torres who have dealt with the topic of iconoclasm in their work, and  Albert García Alzórriz, producer of the hypnotic medium-length film Eyes/Eyes/Eyes/Eyes, and distressing like the great majority of works that make up this 58th Biennale, which will be open until 24 November.