"Antirrealismos: Spanish Photomedia Now," organized by the independent critic and curator Paco Barragán, is a touring exhibition of young Spanish artists working with photography and video. As such, it is an estimable attempt to bring international attention to a certain segment of young Spanish art, and consequently to propel the charming but sometimes insular Spanish art world into the global art mainstream. It is with pleasure that we present the curator's essay here.
The show presents works by 15 artists or artists groups in four primary categories: consumer society, urban landscape, sociopolitical visions and the construction of personal identity. The relationship of the photograph to truth, to painting and sculpture, and to mass culture is of compelling interest here, as it is in New York, London and Berlin.
"Antirrealismos" premiered at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney last fall, and is currently at the Fremantle Art Centre in Perth, Mar. 19-Apr. 15, 2004. It subsequently appears at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Sept. 30-Oct. 23, 2004, and the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, Jan. 28-Mar. 1, 2005, and from there to Taipei, Hong Kong and, possibly, to Japan.
"Antirrealismos: Spanish Photomedia Now" is a politically incorrect exhibition. Group exhibitions organized under a particular national flag are often motivated, at least in part, by a strategy for cultural marketing and political promotion, although this in itself guarantees nothing. In the case of this exhibition, however, the facts are simple -- it presents a group of young Spanish artists who are currently working in photography in a coherent fashion and who are worthy of broad attention, not unlike that received by recent Finnish or Dutch art. These Spanish artists work both inside and outside the country -- New York, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam and elsewhere.
But in fact these young Spanish artists have received little international attention. Why? While the answer is complex, factors include the absence of an internationally powerful gallery structure in Spain, the provinciality and small size of the Spanish art-collecting community, and a certain lack of interest on the part of larger Spanish institutions in promoting and supporting the work of young artists. So, this exhibition is "politically incorrect" in that it does not come with the capital "P" that marks the politics of nationalistic cultural export.
And why "photomedia"? After 40 years of dictatorship, Spain's "cultural catch-up" with the other countries in Europe has come about precisely at the moment when photography and video have come of age, becoming the media of the moment across the international stage.
Escaping the everyday
Well, you won't find in this material the hackneyed clichs of Spanish culture: fiestas, bullfights, quaint religious festivals and baroque excess. What you will find is a reflection upon the confusion between reality and fiction -- a confusion both initiated and addressed by means of digital manipulation, by re-reading traditional genres such as still life, portraiture and landscape. These artists explore the boundless possibilities of staged photography and its performative nature, its relationship to painting and sculpture, the celebration of fashion and subculture and the rise of narrative and the shift from "objectivity" to the self-referential. Indeed, one might venture to say that this group of artists uses photography and video in a specifically anti-documentary way.
Within the field of photography it is multidisciplinary artists who have slowly marked a shift away from the established vocabularies and poetics of documentary, photojournalism, reportage, travel photography and classic portraiture -- although these traditional forms certainly remain. Interestingly, video, on the contrary, had already acquired certain acceptability a decade ago, perhaps precisely because it did not come with any great historic ballast. And some genres resurface in a new form, for example in the new kind of documentary in which reality is presented in a diffuse, fragmented, manipulated or narrative way.
I. Consumer society
The culture of consumerism is the area of investigation for a range of artists including Joan Morey, Miguel Ángel Gaüeca, Mira Bernabeu and Chus García Fraile.
Joan Morey sees himself as a kind of "conceptual designer" delving into the clichs associated with the behavior and lifestyles growing out of a diversity of contemporary subcultures that revolve around sexuality, club culture, design, fashion and advertising. His work Surmenage, which is a term referring to a kind of bodily and mental fatigue, speaks of emptiness, existential world-weariness, submissiveness and boredom.
Miguel Ángel Gaüeca analyses the controversial position of the artist in contemporary society where, very often, a good promotional strategy is more important than the work itself. His work Me, Myself and I deals with the construction of the identity of a young, brilliant, successful and fictional artist, exemplified by the "brand" Gaeca -- which denounces the omnipresent narcissism of our society.
In another perspective, Mira Bernabeu analyses the culture of spectacle based upon texts by Jean Baudrillard, Guy Debord and Umberto Eco. Through an ironic mise en scene, the artist questions the contrived nature of spectacle before which the spectator feels, quite literally, naked. Only critical activism, she suggests, is capable of remedying this state of passivity, apathy and disenchantment.
Finally, Chus García-Fraile exploits and perverts the legacy of art history through an investigation of the consumer society and its fallacies. Her high-key color photographs of plastic packaging emphasize the false sensation that we have freedom of choice. Though polished and richly colored, these are objects destined to be discarded without a second thought and so become contemporary allegories.
II. Urban landscape
Consumer society is also present in the work of Sergio Belinchón, although for Aitor Ortiz, César Alvaréz, Jesús Segura and Lara Almárcegui the concern is more for the wider urban landscape.
With his photographs of pallid and phantasmagorical housing developments, Sergio Belinchn meditates on the brutal colonization of nature through the urban landscapes that have sprung up over the last 40 years along the Spanish coastline. These developments are truly a cultural aberration, resulting from the demands of tourism and the country's irrational hunger for progress.
Aitor Ortiz, on the other hand, creates unsettling yet highly pictorial urban visions -- computer manipulated "de-structures" standing in as blunt metaphors for the fate of human relationships in the city at the beginning of this new century. They bring to mind the visionary architecture of Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko while boasting a fresh and original Postminimalist appearance.
Meanwhile, César Alvaréz takes this concern for the urban landscape to an extreme, locating it within a quasi-science-fiction setting. The faux cities are created in his studio using a grid-like system placed against a black backdrop, to which he adds nylon to produce a kind of urban layout. They suggest enigmatic flows of information and new forms of behavior.
Jesús Segura, on the other hand, returns to everyday landscape to come up with something of an anti-documentary. Speed Cinema presents images of a railway carriage door in motion, all framed in a consistent manner. There is no artifice or manipulation. The spectator sees a blurred landscape pass in front of her/his eyes while waiting for a climax that never comes.
Finally, Lara Almárcegui not only observes urban change and mutation, but also acts upon them through interventions undertaken in vacant lots, urban garden plots, demolition sites, disused buildings and other non-spaces. These self-made constructions are individual gestures rejecting an increasingly speculative form of urban planning.
III. Sociopolitical visions
The social world is at the heart of the works of Fernando Sánchez Castillo and the group El Perro. Both reflect upon the social and political context of Spanish society, though from very different space-time continuums.
Fernando Sánchez Castillo returns to the recent past -- the final years of Franco's dictatorship in the late 1960s and early '70s -- with a video entitled Canicas. The work subtly denounces the still-perverse architecture of the Universidad Autnoma de Madrid, a building conceived to provide riot police with ready access, even on horseback, to the campus, in order to quickly bring any potential student protest under control. In the Franco era, the students responded by throwing marbles [canicas] under the horses to make them lose their footing.
In contrast, the collaborative group El Perro (Ramon Mateos, Pablo Espaa, Ivan Lopez) situates its work in the present to reflect on immigration and the hypocritical attitudes of western societies and particularly those of Spain, which has traditionally been a country of emigrants. Wayaway shows us the workings of a "travelbox" designed to transport an illegal immigrant. The 3D treatment accentuates the irony of what looks like some kind of advertising site.
IV. Construction of personal identity
While Fernando Sánchez Castillo and El Perro explore mechanisms of surveillance and control, Enrique Marty, Ixone Sádaba, Olga Adelantado and Cristina Lucas shift this concern with community issues towards more personal ground.
Enrique Marty's practice revolves around the familiar and the close at hand. The idealized concepts of "family," "childhood" and "friendship" are here reflected back to reveal a perversion dwelling in their heart. Through the use of theatrical make-up, these staged portraits of apparently bloody and bruised family members and friends speak openly of violence and abuse in a chauvinist society whose "achievements" are reproduced daily in the media.
Ixone Sdaba also relies on the theatricalization of everyday life in a play of split identities that have an underlying suggestion of Greek tragedy. Inhabiting dreamlike settings, her twin characters perform dramatic duels that speak of suffering, anxiety, tension and despair. The compositions are carefully staged and surrounded by a halo of disquiet and frustration.
Olga Adelantado offers us a more personal vision of identity. While she used to employ materials like latex or gelatin for her sculptures, in the video Molding Me she takes her own body as sculptural material. A masseur explores the body of the artist over and over until the contrast between the black hands and the white skin becomes a metaphor for the limits and fallacies of identity in an increasingly globalized world.
Finally, using a comic book esthetic tinged with irony and humor, Cristina Lucas tackles the construction of the masculine identity. Young teenagers happily fly around with their penises transformed into propellers, exuding a selfish, narcissist and solitary attitude. They touch as much on issues of gender identity as they do on the strategies of authority and power in a highly phallocentric society.
Post-photographic and post-videographic focus
In Spain, photomedia did not achieve artistic legitimacy until well into the '90s. That this acceptance came about at all is thanks in large part to younger artists, such as those included here, who, in their reflections on the crisis of representation, unselfconsciously adopted a multidisciplinary practice. They would as soon mix painting with video as sculpture with installation or maybe photography with performance.
This brand of "antirrealismo" is clear in the words of Alicia Murra, who has noted that "something similar has been occurring in the field of video, which not so long ago was [in Spain] the restricted province of video artists, just as photography once belonged to the photographers. In both fields analogies with the real have served a growing need to return to story telling."
Finally, let's end with the words of Gael Newton, who contends that nonetheless "art presented under nationalist banners can be illusory. Artists today are world citizens and an international style of postmodern and post-photographic [and post-videographic] approach is apparent when looking across contemporary photo-media practice from many countries."