This selection from the MACBA Collection brought together over 160 works that charted a course through the artistic debates that had prevailed between the fifties and the late eighties.
In the fifties, the models of abstraction-informalism, new realism, abstract expressionism and concrete art – which had dominated the pictorial space in the post-war years – began to be challenged by a new generation of artists linked to Neo-Dada who questioned the autonomy and purity of artistic genres by incorporating objects from everyday life into their work. The sixties saw the burgeoning of new discourses and practices, such as minimal and conceptual art, which emphasise the performative and process-based aspects of art over its objectual nature. The main focus shifted from the artwork to the contemplating subject. As such, art began to offer an alternative arena for debate, activism and resistance. This new documentary approach put the spotlight on photography, video and so-called exhibition films, media that are ideally suited to the critique of representation theories that are a means of fighting the hegemony of the reductionist discourses of the mass media.
During the summer months the MACBA Collection is presenting a selection of over 160 works distributed in different parts of the museum. On floor 0 visitors will find a broad chronological reading of the collection, which spans the period from the fifties to the late eighties. The rooms on floors 1 and 2 and Convent MACBA complement that reading and bring it up to the present day, looking more closely at different authors and subject areas such as the ones devoted to photography after the eighties or the cinema.
The show begins on floor 0 with a series of works that illustrate the confrontation of the discourses that dominated the artistic debate from the fifties. The collection brings together these multiple responses to the period and its conflicts, such as the flowering of Informalism, American Abstract Expressionism or the Nouveaux Réalistes. As its starting point it takes the work of Roberto Matta, which opened up the conception of fundamental space over the following decades.
Many of these works point to two main tendencies linked to abstraction which, through apparently contradictory, are in fact complementary. On the one hand, Informalism, partially rooted in Surrealism, with artists like Antoni Tàpies. In this line we find artists who in some way respond to the Spanish political situation like Antonio Saura and Manuel Millares, members of the Grupo el Paso. In contrast with that tendency is another, rooted in Functionalism and Constructivism, in which the abstraction is the result of a search for order, clarity, balance and objectivity and which leads to Concrete Art, two of whose main figures in Spain are Pablo Palazuelo and Jorge Oteiza.
At the end of this period the works of a new generation of artists linked to Neo-Dada interrupt the abstract homogeneity of the pictorial space by including real objects in it which emphasise the material conditions of the work to the detriment of illusion and representation. That can be seen in the work of Larry Rivers, George Segal and most of all in the photographs by Robert Frank, a photographer linked to the beat generation, presented here for the first time.
The next rooms develop this discourse towards another turning point: the one that covers the sixties and seventies and corresponds to the flowering of new critical discourses and new artistic practices. In this period tendencies like American Minimal and the various offshoots of Conceptual Art live side by side and question artistic activity aimed at the production of objects, rather favouring the performance and process aspects. Along that line, Marcel Broodthaers is a fundamental artist in the collection. His work brings together two essential traditions of modern art, Duchamp’s ready-made and Magritte’s image-rhetoric. Although it springs from writing, it adopts different media: photography, film, installation, graphics, multiples, books, etc. His work is a prelude to the consequences of the transformation of artistic production under the expansion of the culture of consumption, which began in the sixties, and the transformation of the museum from the impact of the new practices and the critical thought of the new social movements.
Floor 1 begins with the reception of Conceptual Art in Catalonia in the seventies. In these works practices and strategies that favour of the processes and conditions of the work abound. Activity, information and debate are the other guidelines that structure the artistic creation of the moment, which corresponded to the end of the dictatorship in Spain, and can be seen in the work of the Grup de Treball, whose members included Francesc Abad, Fina Miralles and Francesc Torres.
The next rooms show two differentiated aspects, which place themselves at a third turning point related to the unstoppable boom of the market in the late seventies and early eighties and the return of painting and certain premodern traditions. Here we find the work of Dan Graham, with its fundamental element: the dialectical relation between cultural discourse – from the hybrid conception of artistic and architectural work, the value of use and attention to the phenomena of popular cultura – and the game of perception, as well as the tension between the spectator and the work, between public and private. That tension, in which the focus of interest moves from the work of art to the subject who looks at it, also appears in the work of James Coleman. The work of those two artists, which is shown with other earlier references like the photographs of Gordon Matta Clark, exemplifies the recovery of narrative traditions as a response to the dogmatism of Conceptual Art, in an attempt to overcome its contradictions and tautological limitations.
In this process the role of photography, to which the next room is given over, is significant, as is that of film and video, which are shown in the Convent space. In the eighties photography burst onto the art scene and became the emblematic medium for the theories of the criticism of representation, linked to certain postmodern ideas. The works here propose another definition of the pictorial from the notion of picture or photographic tableau, a strategy by which photography could occupy the architectural and cultural spaces of painting. Here we find the works of Jeff Wall, Craigie Horsfield, Suzanne Lafont and Jean-Marc Bustamante.
The construction of the gaze in the photographic tableaux in Craigie Horsfield or Jeff Wall bears some relation to the use of landscape in the films of Alexander Sokurov. On floor 2 of the museum there is a showing of his Spiritual Voices. From the Diaries of War (1995). It is a diary recorded on the battlefield with real characters, in which the filming of the landscape and of the passage of time produces a sensation of elegiac, unreal quietening. In the words of Jacques Rancière, “the real has to be fictionalised to be thought”, and that is the case of the documentary work of this film-maker who fully assumes the discursive nature of all representation. In the Capella other works by Sokurov can be seen, together with a selection of films and videos by authors like Tacita Dean, Pere Portabella or Harun Farocki. All these works redefine the documentary through different strategies, such as revealing the process and the methods used in the relations between the director and the subjects, revealing that the documentary constructs a meaning and showing that the narration that goes with it is never an impartial account, but an open interpretation. In many of them the notion of testimony is fundamental, insofar as it involves a different work process that gives rise to a new relation of collaboration between an author and some social subjects.
DOCUMENTARY / CINEMA
In recent years, the MACBA Collection has acquired a series of works linked by the concept of “exhibition cinema”, film matter that explores the complex and fruitful relations between the fine arts, the cinema and audiovisual techniques. This room brings together a selection of works that may well be described as “documentary” and which share an interest in building images to make visible the ways they explain reality and which reflect the profound transformation that the idea of document has undergone between the 1960s and the present.
The documentary was born as a category linked to the incorporation of reproduction techniques, from photography to video and presupposes an objective, impartial view of the subject or events observed. This is a genre linked to the political traditions of liberal reformism, that is to say, of intervention or protest to promote change and social advancement for the subordinate classes. Nonetheless, in a context marked by the hegemony of televised information and by crisis over the representation of reality by the audiovisual media, the documentary needs to find other forms of resistance enabling it to conserve the critical and transforming potential of the image.
The selection of works begins with a historic reference, Germany Year Zero (1947), by Roberto Rossellini. This film represents the response of documentary photography and the neorealist cinema, in the 1950s, to the crisis of values in postwar Europe. The city, devastated by war, reflects the urgent historical need to face up to reality. This new experience of the city, stripped of innocence and rhetoric, resulting in the profound transformation of the public space, is seen in a different way in Joan Colom’s film El carrer (The Street, 1960) a cinematographic prolongation of his work as a photographer. Colom’s work eschews the narrative conventions typical of the cinema of the time to create a work that is deliberately unfinished, a film whose rhythm springs from a series of figurative and thematic blocks. Far from being realistic, Colom’s images have a strongly subjective character that offers us “both a different world to look at and ‘another’ place from which to look at it.” The counterpoint to this block is provided by Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), which exemplifies the mid-70s return to the documentary as a critique of photographic realism, understood as an exercise of contextualisation and articulation between text and image.
The work of such film directors as Jean-Luc Godard is essential to this critique of representation. This cinema is steeped in the militant film tradition of the 1960s, which combines the political with the poetic and has provided a reference point for many artists interested in building images of historic processes, as we can see in the work of Pere Portabella and Harun Farocki. In Pont de Varsòvia (The Bridge of Warsaw, 1989), Portabella returns to the experimental language that imbued his work in the 1960s, continuing his critique of language through the cinematographic medium. In his work, Harun Farocki orders his images in such a way as to reveal the ideology that lies beneath technology and the way in which this technology is capable, in turn, of generating new thought structures. An example of this technique is his trilogy Eye/Machine (2001-2003), which addresses the automation of images in war technology, and how this has penetrated civil life.
Certain key notions in the redefinition of the document that began to take shape in the 1990s adopt a stance of cultural resistance, seeking to use artistic work effectively and, through the idea of testimony, to develop new forms of interaction between artists and different communities. This is the approach taken by Ursula Bieman’s video essay Performing the Border (1999), made in a Mexican frontier town. In it, Bieman investigates the growing feminisation of the global economy through its impact on the women who live and work in this area. More examples are provided by the videos of Marcelo Expósito, which combine archive images with contemporary interviews and recordings, and by Carles Guerra’s interview of Toni Negri (2000).
We find yet another approach to the documentary in the work of Alexander Sokurov and Tacita Dean, whose structure includes fiction, signalling these artists’ complete acceptance of the discursive nature of all representation. To quote Jacques Rancière, “The real must be fictionalised if it is to be thought”, and this is exactly what occurs in Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices. From the Diaries of War (1995) – which can be seen at MACBA on the second floor – Soldier’s Dream (1995) and Confession (1998). Spiritual Voices, a diary recorded on the battlefield, is a timeless, elegiac work with an air of the unreal. Tacita Dean’s work, as we can see in Teignmouth Electron (2000), revolves around the transformation of forgotten tales and constructions built up in a visionary way, but doomed to failure and abandoned to their fate.
Finally, this presentation also includes Lalo’s Story (2004), by Fikret Atay. This artist’s work uses irony to reflect on the Western influence seeping into the traditional culture of his home region, an area of Turkey on the border with Iraq characterised by poverty and political oppression, ethnic minorities and the military presence. Lalo’s Story speaks of the communication strategies and codes used by a generation for whom traditional ways of passing on knowledge have broken down and in which, paradoxically, it is the young boy who explains the world to the family patriarchs.