MACBA Collection. Absorption and theatricality

MACBA Collection. Absorption and theatricality

"The Nature of Visual Illusion" de Juan Muñoz, 1994-1997 Foto: Rafael Vargas

This new selection of works from the MACBA Collection revolved around the paradigm shift that affected art in the mid sixties and continues to this day. While the dominant modernist accounts had previously defended the centrality of vision as a pure system of reception, this new stage marked the start of a defense of the linguistic structure of art.

Thus, art once again opened up to narratives, figuration, representation and theatricality. As the autonomy of artistic disciplines and their celebration of abstraction gradually lost momentum, modern utopias proved to be inadequate for dealing with the complex changes that were taking place in society. The interest shifted from the artwork to the person viewing it, and the spectator became an “agent”. Conceptual practices extended the scope and interest of art into the political sphere, while the new culture of the image led artists to reflect on the ways in which the mass media shape new identities and ideologies. Photography and film took over museums and revealed their discursive potential, with the promise of embodying a perfect synthesis between document and fiction or, in other words, between politics and poetics. Likewise, the presence of film, and its temporality, challenged the traditional white cube model of the museum.

In short, this selection offered a rereading of modernity and suggested new itineraries and strategies for approaching the artistic production of the past seventy years.

The presentation of the Collection of this year reflects the main lines the Museum has followed throughout these last ten years and sets out to review predominant models in the narration of modern art in the second half of the 20th century. This is one of the Collection’s most comprehensive presentations as it incorporates a new exhibition space, the recently refurbished Capella MACBA, and also perhaps one of the most complex, as the new acquisitions serve to indicate possible differing itineraries and readings, both continued and discontinued, of the direction taken by contemporary art from the end of the nineteen-fifties to the present time. The principal theme of the tour is the centrality of a visual paradigm in the conception of modern art contrasted with a notion of theatricality as its antithesis.


The Collection begins chronologically in the Capella MACBA, with works that arise in the context of post-war Europe, a traumatic time of reconstruction immediately following the Second World War. The questions the selected works pose will mark the different lines the Collection displays in works from throughout the subsequent decades. These questions, which without confusing intensities are still valid today, are developed on the basis of the response to the function that art must assume in different historical contexts. The binding nucleus of this first space is a notion of modernity based on an independent, Universalist conception of vision, theorised by leading critics of the 20th century’s last modern art, such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. This notion of visual perception is communicated during this period through a legitimation of notions of pictorial abstraction in which the absence of referenciality is identified with the idea of an absolute vision in which viewers are absorbed in a pure, visual experience, to a certain extent disembodied, that brings about an annulment of their specific physical material conditions. This aspect is shown in the Collection through works by Antoni Tàpies, Lucio Fontana, Philip Guston and Cy Twombly. In contrast to this pictorial tendency is another of a more geometrical style with the work of artists who may be considered forerunners to the opening up of space as a form of relation, such as Alexander Calder and, in particular, those artists with links to constructivism like Néstor Basteiretxea, whose film Operation H about the Huarte family and Pablo Palazuelo is included in the exhibition.

This type of vision forms part of a conception of artistic experimentation restricted to the specificity of the materials employed and, as theorized by Michael Fried, is defined by its opposition to the notion of theatre which involves the discursive, the performative and the textual. On the other hand, photography and film play a relevant part in the Collection as two of the fields in which the relationship between document and fiction, poetry and politics, is materialized. The Capella MACBA presents works by photographers of the «new avant-garde» of nineteen-fifties’ Barcelona, such as Francesc Català-Roca, Oriol Maspons, Xavier Miserachs and Joan Colom, together with the film In the Street (ca. 1944) by the American photographer Helen Levitt. Finally, the work of Öyvind Fahlström acts as a nexus between the physical and temporal space of the Capella and the Museum’s main building, in which the installation Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb) (1969) is exhibited. Despite its apparent relationship with Pop Art insofar as the use of images from mass culture (comics, magazines, documentaries, newspapers and so on), Fahlström’s work underlines poetical-relational aspects in which art and poetry and the relationship between artwork, viewer and space converge.


The new works presented in the Collection this year, from James Coleman to stanley brouwn and Isidoro Valcárcel and including both Juan Muñoz and Krzysztof Wodiczko, facilitate a deeper understanding of the change in paradigm that occurred from the mid-sixties to the late seventies. The romantic celebration of vision as the absolute element conforming the Western epistemological paradigm was gradually replaced by the recognition of the linguistic structure of artistic practice. This change allowed the reintroduction of certain aspects that, considered examples of a type of modern art, had hitherto been repressed, such as narrative, figuration and theatricality. This process involved transforming the viewer into an agent and including the introduction of the subject – the role of the viewer – as a structural element of the piece, making room for the “other”.

A change also took place from understanding art as an object to seeing it as an institution; hence the absorption of a self-critical dimension into artistic practice. The pioneering work of Marcel Broodthaers is fundamental in this sense, as it meant the recognition of art’s communicative nature and thus the possibility that elements not necessarily artistic but rather more communicative, social and political could become a means of intervention. We find evidence of this in the work of Jo Spence, arising out of the legacy of feminism, cultural studies and activism. In his work Beyond the Family Album (1978), the artist explores the predominant modes of social identity-building, of which the family album is one of the essential mediums, and proposes a subjective and subversive re-appropriation of the dominant and popular uses of the image.

The journey around the first level begins with a selection of works that reveal the accentuation of the political as from the inception of conceptual art. In Spain, conceptual pieces from the mid-seventies maintained a characteristic feature of political opposition that corresponded to the climate of the end of Franco’s dictatorship, exemplified in the work of Catalan conceptual artists such as Grup de Treball and Francesc Abad. In Argentina in 1968 a group of artists among whom were to be found Daniela Carnevale, Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Favario and León Ferrari used the Tucumán Arde (Tucumán is Burning) exhibition to denounce the conditions of economic crisis that were being endured in the province of Tucumán. Working out of the CGT trade union headquarters, this collective presented documentation and promoted a campaign of counter information which employed strategies characteristic of the communications media, and even holding a biennial of Latin-American art in the union head office.

The appearance of portable video equipment in the mid-seventies gave rise to a constellation of decentralised communication experiences. The pioneering experiments of the Vídeo-Nou / Servei de Vídeo Comunitari collective and of Muntadas (Cadaqués, canal local and Barcelona, distrito uno) – in many ways unique – were a reference in Spain. In the same context, the Collection includes Joaquim Jordà’s film Numax presenta (1979) which documents the experience of the occupation and self-management of a factory in Barcelona in the mid-seventies. As a counter-point, a reconstruction is presented of an exhibition that Antoni Llena mounted in the Petite Galerie of the Alliance Française in Lleida (1969).

This reflection on the growing predominance of the communications media and of the image culture of the late seventies is essential in understanding a work such as On Subjectivity (1978) by Muntadas. The interest in collective spaces and the investigation into how the communications media shape individual experience of the community is one of the aspects developed throughout this level in the work of such artists as Dieter Roth and Dan Graham. Alteration to a Suburban House (1978-1987) is an iconic work of the process of deconstruction of the modern legacy undertaken by this generation of post-conceptual artists (Edward Ruscha, Robert Smithson, Jeff Wall, and Graham himself). Graham’s work provides a first glimpse of issues that would eventually become dominant in the artistic sphere, such as the hybrid conception of artistic and architectural work, the value of using and paying attention to phenomena of popular culture, such as rock music, and the tension between the audience and the artwork, and the public and the private.

This tension, in which the focal point is displaced from the artwork to the subject who views it, also appears in the work of James Coleman. The MACBA Collection includes two key pieces by this author which present an attack on the notion of visual independence proposed by modern art, Slide Piece (1972-1973) and La Tache aveugle (1978-1990). Coleman’s work is a refined exploration of perception processes and their institutional conditions and highlights the ways in which certain artists recompose aspects of modern art without renouncing the legacy of conceptualism and the criticism of representation derived from the boom in post-1968 neo-avant-garde experimental practices.

On the Spanish scene, the end of the seventies reflects this interest by redefining the boundaries between popular and elitist culture. Along these lines, the Collection presents the work of artists who include Raymundo Patiño, Eulalia Grau, Manolo Quejido and Herminio Molero.


The reintroduction of the narrative and figurative was understood in many instances, especially in Spain, as a kind of return to order, back to school, going beyond the avant-garde suppositions of modern art. The final part of the Collection addresses the ways in which the artists of recent years recompose this legacy, in particular the notion of theatricality. Thus, for example, in the eighties certain artists like Jeff Wall, Suzanne Lafont and Juan Muñoz began to use methods of staged presentation. Jeff Wall for instance photographed scenes that were built imitating the procedures of film fiction, enlarging images into huge backlit transparencies. Emerging from conceptual practice, with this work Wall introduced a dramatic change in his artistic activity, critically recovering the Baudelairean programme of the “painting of modern life”, in other words, an art oriented towards the representation of everyday life in the big city. In this way, Wall proposed an exit to the self-referentiality of conceptual and late-modern art through the gesture of returning to the origin of Western artistic modernity, which is also the origin of photography. It was an attempt to overcome the limitations of an art that limited itself to decoding its own material and institutional conditions and leaving the debates that restrict art action in the world, while refusing to renounce the legacy of institutional critique. The theatrical model resides here not only in its methods of staging but also in the type of image-painting, in the representative-allegorical image that contradicts modern autonomous visuality by introducing discursive and performative elements.

The sculptural spaces created by Juan Muñoz operate in a similar way, like dramatizations of their own presentation in the exhibition space that recuperate traditions of visual trickery, of the trompe-l’oeil and baroque rhetoric as elements for a critique of modern visuality in which vision and rationality appear as synonyms. Precisely through this shift towards visual tricks and staging, the impossibility of maintaining such a paradigm of modern vision-rationality and the need to incorporate aspects linked to the body and the viewer’s presence becomes obvious. His work The Nature of Visual Illusion (1994) is, in this sense, an authentic manifesto.

One of the “theatrical” methods of recent art is the use of narrative and documentary forms, in which carnivalesque, parody-style aspects and the minor genres such as caricature express a will to reflect minority subjectivities that conserve a transforming potential in contrast to predominant models. These forms of subjectivities also share the adoption of archivist methods that challenge the predominant visual epistemological models and explore the link between representations and images with other fields of knowledge or social sciences. Along these lines, the Collection displays the works of Mabel Palacín and Pedro G. Romero together with pieces by Maja Bajevi’c and Alejandra Riera.

Another aspect that occupies this level refers to the incorporation of exhibition film, which appeared in the nineties as a practice that attacked the museum “white cube” model. The presence of a time-based art in exhibition space and that of forms of public show production mean alternative ways of participating and an involvement of the viewer that goes beyond the scenographic models of the eighties. The work of artists like Harun Farocki and Krzysztof Wodiczko presents a modern archaeology of the show in which the forms of seduction of the latter are inseparable from development of the new technologies of the image and the forms of social control derived from these technologies. They allude in their works to the new forms of spectacle and control that constitute a kind of new subconscious technology and, at the same time, generate a new image culture that overcomes the codes of traditional film. The journey concludes with the work by Wodiczko If You See Something… , in which he refers to the conflictive way with which the “other” is encoded in the West today following the situation created after Sept. 11. The immigrant appears as an unrecognisable, impossible to assimilate, phantasmagorical shadow. Today, permanent fear and war constitute very real historical conditions which are, at the same time 0 and beyond the scope of visualisation.

Curator: Manuel J. Borja-Villel
roduced by: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA)

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22 September 2006 – 15 January 2007
MACBA Collection. Absorption and theatricality
22 September 2006 – 15 January 2007
MACBA Collection. Absorption and theatricality