Our History Starts Here is a series of three exhibitions that critically investigate MACBA’s own Collection, exploring the political framework, cultural collisions and the moments of rupture in which art practices were involved from the late seventies to the early nineties, all from the point of view of the work that underpins the general activity of the Museum.
The first in this triptych of exhibitions, The Immaterial Legacy. An Essay on the Collection, takes its title from the book by Giovanni Levi, who is considered, together with Carlo Ginzburg, Piero Camporesi and Carlo Cipolla, one of the founders of the so-called Italian Microhistory, a branch of social history that focuses on the study of unnoticed processes or places, rather than the analysis of great chronological events.
The exhibition is divided into six thematic areas – ‘The sacred and the popular’; ‘The street, the map’; ‘The body and its reverse’; ‘Politics of fiction’; ‘Autobiography and tautology’; and ‘The intangible’ – reflecting on some overflows produced in the field of aesthetics during this specified period, a time in which, beyond some dominant notions (re-searching the genius loci in painting and other arts; escapism and exoticism of the oriental; revisionism of history under anti-modern and nostalgic assumptions), there emerged new sensibilities and the so-called microhistorical practices of ‘re-situation’ that would connect the political with the corporal, the popular processes of secular tradition with autobiographical narratives, the search of the Other with research into indigenous heritage.
Thus, this reading establishes approximations – some enthusiastic, some critical – to the proliferation of musical forms that reflect the life experience of the most precarious and exploited sections of society; to the collective imaginary that reinvented urban rituals; fanzine culture, residue of the consumer society and Trojan horse within it; the vindication of humour at the heart of certain fundamental artists whose work is often seen as grandiloquent. Special attention should be paid to the stories of small territories that, since the Middle Ages, the Ancient Regime and the French Revolution, have served as a paradigm for rethinking the economics and social organisation of a new present, thereby holding to question the economic models of Thatcherism and Reaganism prevailing at the time through an extremely efficient analytical mechanism that might be called ‘judicial’ – after Ginzburg’s theses in The Cheese and the Worms and those of Leonardo Sciascia in his ‘true stories’ – and finally dealing, through a fecund reading of Marxism, with the central role of the so-called ‘subaltern classes’.
The Immaterial Legacy features 109 works – some of them presented for the first time at the Museum – that are shown alongside numerous contemporaneous publications (independent magazines, books, newspaper articles, comics, etc.), together with a sound booth in which can be heard several music compilations ranging from Basque Radikal Rock to bakalao; a chronology with unique information and the key historical/cultural changes of the period, shedding additional light on the works and the exhibition; and finally, a bibliography collecting the work of novelists, poets, essayists and historians associated with the contents of the exhibition.
This project takes part of the commemoration of the Tercentenary of the events of 1714.
THE SACRED AND THE POPULAR
Faced with the successive arrival of populist interpellations of all kinds, people – popular culture – generate their own mechanisms of self-defence and propagation. Language is one of them, along with community rituals. Other sacraments appear that relate to ways of rejecting class discrimination and the struggle for finding one’s own poetic and rebellious voice. At the same time, violence against the norm in the physical space of the city challenges social and economic hierarchies. The popular no longer has anything to do with the folkloric; iconoclasm becomes a way of restoring the world’s sacred status, a way of bringing ethereal religion into the political here and now. However, these rescue and desecration operations do not take place in the realm of the abstract, but within the territory of usage, in humour and in play, for example. Similarly, new ways of looking at nature appear that rethink nature’s implicit idea of sacredness, anticipating subsequent post-ecological movements.
This area begins with a work that could be considered foundational for the general contents of the exhibition, Mi pathos doy, 1981/92, by Carlos Pazos, where the artist highlights how within any rhetoric there inhabits its own parody, an ancestral mixture of sadness and celebration of laughter. Following this work, we find a piece by James Lee Byars alluding to his characteristic rituals of death and gold. Next to it a line of research opens that investigates the perimeters of the most caustic type of humour, something that runs through this entire section. This series of works begins with a corrosive replica and retort by Rafael Agredano on Picasso, understood here as the ultimate archetype of masculinity in the history of art. This is followed by Troglodite Erudite, 1987, by Sandro Chia, a truly irrational tirade, and Nina Hagen, 1982, by Antonio Beneyto, where the punk singer suffers a plague of giant insects. Finally, we find INTERFACEs, 1977, by Richard Hamilton and Dieter Roth, a series that recreates the complicity between the two artists and the humour behind most of their joint productions.
12 libros, mueble C y mueble S, 1988, by Pedro G. Romero, explores unexpected relationships between gag and mystique, translation and betrayal, aura and silhouette, through references to Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin. Following the theme of ‘furniture’, we find Inmensa, 1982, a maquette for a sculpture by Cildo Meireles, referring to the rituals of ascension and the formal physiognomy of Christian confessionals. In another sense, the works by Eva Lootz and Gabriel Orozco refer to the pantheism of nature and its protean character. In a similar vein, with Volcano Saga, 1989, Joan Jonas recreates a medieval legend, set in the landscapes of Iceland, where a young woman has dreams that can predict the future. Finally, Perejaume’s Mar, 1987, completes this selection of works around the natural as an element of fiction. We should also note Untitled (Leaf Drawing), 1982, by Ana Mendieta, a piece with which the artist explores the vast territory of pagan rituals of fertility and the metaphor of the terra mater.
Another singular approach to the idea of the sacred is to be found in Santo III and V, 1988, by Pepe Espaliú, two pieces that refer to sadomasochistic ‘rituals’ and to the Picasso mask – in concomitance with Agredano – as well as to the exquisite and popular leather saddle work. The last work in this section, another work-manifesto for the exhibition, is Sacro Pagan, 1978, by Miralda, a videographic record that observes a pagan ceremonial procession making its way through the crowded streets of Puerto Rican neighbourhoods in New York.
Worthy of mention are a set of pieces by Joan Brossa, related to the poetic production of Marcel Mariën and Nicanor Parra, and to Beaux Arts, 1992, by Rogelio López Cuenca, which constitute an escape from the questions treated in this section: a preliminary narration or an advance on the exhibition that MACBA will dedicate to Brossa in 2017.
THE STREET, THE MAP
The post-Franco city seems to rebuild itself through the same arguments used by the ideology of the democratic transition: political consensus that obscures the forms of urban control and surveillance; the street as an ostentatiously festive walkway, beyond which lies a hidden discrimination, in terms of economics, identity and sexuality. In another sense, the map abandons its topographical character to record primarily geopolitical disputes, new exiles and ancestral diasporas. However, this same street-space is also the home of rebellious imaginaries against the social hierarchies, forms of activism that violently reject the process of ‘touristification’ and metropolitan spectacle.
This section is structured around four film works where the collective becomes a hostile power against the complacent imaginaries of the city. Thus, Numax Presenta…, 1980, by Joaquim Jordà, and Gritos... a ritmo fuerte, 1984, by José María Nunes, form a compendium of oral testimonies on working-class self-organisation and the dynamics of musical groups in eighties’ Barcelona respectively. On the other hand, Eleccions – crisi, 1978, by Francesc Abad and Ramon Santos – a work that is still relevant today –, and Belchite/South Bronx: A Trans-Cultural and Trans-Historical Landscape, 1987, by Francesc Torres, give us a fulsome tour of Spain’s political history, from the ruins of the town of Belchite drawing on archive material of the Civil War – juxtaposed with images from other contemporary urban battles in the South Bronx – to the automatic ritual of democracy and its protocols of reification of ideology.
Next are pieces by Miguel Trillo and José Antonio Hernández-Díez regarding the identity signs of the – much more than –
tribes passing through a city in the process of industrial restructuring. Then follows the agitprop of the Agustín Parejo School collective and, by contrast, the frontal gaze and topographic look of Manolo Laguillo, whose apparent coldness does not hide the place – always at street level – from which the city is photographed. Along with all these manifestations of street ‘buzz’ we find the work with textile patterns by Katalin Ladik, the mud-covered atlases of Pere Noguera and the maps on the memory of the Holocaust by Guillermo Kuitca, a kind of endless mapping within history. Closing this section is the Utopia series, 1977–85, by Lothar Baumgarten, whose title is already revealing.
THE BODY AND ITS REVERSE
Exploring the body’s own rearguard is equivalent to violating the regulations of the social body. From the rejection of imposed gender to the negation of the bourgeois and patriarchal phallocratic paradigm; from the technologies of altered consciousness to Otherness as ‘war machine’, other bio-political forms appear at this moment that undermine the established roles, recovering the corporeal and sexuality as new and vital ideological foundations. At the same time, monstrosity acquires a renewed status and is now not only a product of the fantasy novel, but the anti-cliché of the aseptic beauty and neat uniformity venerated by social democracy.
This section relates the photographs by Humberto Rivas of Violeta la Burra, 1977, to the ‘macho world’ of Sábado legionario, 1988, by Javier Codesal; the abject face in Cap, 1981, by Joan Ponç, to the aberrant and ‘metric’ hand in Cones on Fingers, 1979, by Jana Sterbak, reminiscent of her other works on pain and what lies beyond desire; the archive of gestures by Bruce Nauman, 1994, and the shadows of Helena Almeida in Desenho habitado, 1977, to the much imitated collection of beds without owners of Hans-Peter Feldmann, 1990. On the other hand, the still-life of absences in the Sèrie Aparences: La maleta, 1994, by Eulàlia Valldosera, finds its counterpoint in The Life of Phillis, 1979, the video by Tony Oursler that ironically refers to the mythological character of Phyllis, who occurs frequently in pastoral poetry. This section closes with The Kiss, 1984–85, by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, where in common with other contemporary artists on the American scene the filmmaker portrays the narrative and sexual stereotypes of Hollywood cinema.
POLITICS OF FICTION
The end of the Franco dictatorship brings a kind of liberation from the various political commitments, while the culture of leisure becomes the new sign of the times, in the smiling and sometimes cynical face of the welfare state. The stories of urban entertainment replace the programmatic pamphlet, and the foundational essayists are supplanted by the hero and fictional spaces. However, some artists and authors understand that this ‘faked thing’ is not just about imaginary characters and events, but a feint, in the Pessoa sense – an author rediscovered precisely around that time – hiding an intense truth that is not uncritical in the slightest, only camouflaged by what we call verisimilitude. This section covers the political folds of the ‘novel genre’, a title that refers not only to the novel or the culture industry, but especially to the use of literary language and the invention of collective heritage, as noted by Borges, another key author in this period.
A first group of works show the artist as material and subject of his own fictions. From Isidoro Valcárcel Medina’s La chuleta, 1991, a piece that uses this ‘educational’ device to narrate the public melodrama of the creative act, to Disfruta de una semana en Río de Janeiro, 1990, by the collective Estrujenbank, and Untitled (Sèrie Snapshot, Part I), 1988, by Mabel Palacín and Marc Viaplana, where the authors embody the archetypal legend of Bonnie & Clyde. On a different register, weaving through the differences and similarities between science, myth and literature, and again not far from Borges, we find Fauna, 1989, by Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera. Special mention should be given to The Live! Show (April 29, 1983), 1983, by Jaime Davidovich, showing an episode of the programme broadcast by Manhattan Cable Television between 1979 and 1984. In it the artist interprets the character of Dr Videovich, who instructs viewers on how to deconstruct the evening news and how to paint on velvet. John Torreano, guest commentator, offers his particular views on contemporary art. The section ends with Our Progress Lies in Hard Work, 1977–78, by Art & Language.
Another section of works includes pieces that challenge the new social fictions, many of them created in marketing and advertising laboratories, or investigate the systems of signs: in the case of Gary Hill, on the importance of assembly and cut & paste for television languages; in the case of Daniel G. Andújar, on the iconic power of the logos of large multinational corporations. Finally, Recinte núm. 6, 1981, by Sergi Aguilar, and the drawings of Peter Friedl, inquire about the spectral nature of the sculptural object and the object represented, respectively. Closing this section are the photographs of ‘Bachelors’ by Jean-Louis Schoellkopf, 1988, and Actes irreversibles, 1978, a set of images by Jaume Xifra illustrating his performance Holocauste pour un ballon.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND TAUTOLOGY
There are two introspective and somehow symmetrical movements that can be seen in the aesthetic practices of this period: one is a return to the artist’s biography; the other sees art re-examining its own linguistic perimeters. Both cases are tautological, even ‘inbred’, but in the autism of these gestures we also find the idea of a common story, a kind of dispute not for dominating the discourse, but for finding the germinal word, a different and unknown language, new and ours at the same time, which expands the meaning of literary devices such as the dramatic monologue or the so-called stream of consciousness.
This section is based on the work of four artists who embody, each in their own way, the above-mentioned autobiographical and tautological operations. In this way, Martin Kippenberger’s two collages of the Duchess of Alba and the Countess of Romanones, both from the Retratos series, 1988, demonstrate the sharp, corrosive and turn-of-the-century humour that characterises all his work. Elsewhere, Joseph Beuys’ F.I.U. Flag, 1985, refers to the Free International University, ‘an organisational place of research, work, and communication to ponder the future of society’, as expressed by the slogan of this organisation, whose principles were based precisely on the manifesto written by the artist together with the novelist Heinrich Böll in 1973. The fact that Böll’s most famous book is The Clown, 1963, gives us that histrionic rather than prophetic dimension – the clown rather than the shaman – with which Beuys colours this section. Thirdly, Félix González-Torres brings disdain for rhetoric and grandiloquence, the rejection of wit and brilliance in favour of the best prosody and something like a new ‘conceptism’, a sort of filtered and pared-down rhetoric, reduced to its essential through the sieve of Minimalism. Finally, Mike Kelley with Fresh Acconci, 1995, in collaboration with Paul McCarthy, shows us how in the complexities of his own biography lies the portrait of a lively and Dionysian way of understanding art, free of old and tired compartments.
Building on aspects symbolised by these four artists, we find different works that are formed around semantic groups. Partenón de Libros, 1983, by Martha Minujin and Liegender, from the Erinnerungspur series, 1979, by Dieter Appelt, express the power of the body breaking into the public and private space, respectively. These are two key works for understanding the era. Martillo, 1977, by Manolo Quejido, and Pintar es fácil, 1989, by Muntadas, deepen, the first into the tautological nature of pictorial representation, and the second into a subtle irony of a type of commercial painting characteristic of the eighties. Fx bis Zz, 1990, by Thomas Locher, La triple negación, 1988, by Juan Luis Moraza and Corner Piece, 1992, by Richard Artschwager, share an interest in linguistic, spatial and conceptual problems as well as a Structuralist influence. In Ignasi Aballí’s Pols, 1991, and Günther Förg’s Bleibild, 1987, both artists inquire into the support materials and into the condition of what is called plasticity. Finally, Untitled (Bulletin Board: Match Book Covers), from the M.I.T. Project, 1990–2009, by Matt Mullican, investigates the processes that transform empirical facts into an abstract and symbolic discourse, projecting into the future, as a form a closure, what the present exhibition has enunciated so far.
Under this heading are five sound compilations performed by Víctor Lenore, journalist and music critic. ‘The democratisation of the fiesta’; ‘Tales of the neighbourhood’; ‘The Movida’; ‘The ‘rabble’ were right’; and ‘The isolation of indie’ are the titles of each thematic nucleus where playlists, documentary material, quotes and texts narrate their respective contents.