Friday, May 19, 2006

"An Enduring Civil Peace" Francesc Torres in New York



NEW YORK -- the scribe and guitarist Omar Torrez attended a lecture by Spanish conceptual artist Francesc Torres on the recuperation of a Republican memory in Spain. The talk was a part of the Bill Susman Lecture Series sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA).

James D. Fernandez, director of the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University opened the event by expressing difficulties he had with the phrase, “recuperation of memory.”

Memory, he asserted, is not something that can be lost and then found, of a piece, and application of the singular is also misleading because there must naturally be more than one memory in the case of something quite so sweeping and complex as the Spanish Civil War.

Fernandez called instead for the, “cultivating of democratic habits of remembering.”

“Bill Susman – one of the founders of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives - knew the materials are inert, that they had been recovered but not cultivated to create a pluralist democratic memory,” he said.

In introducing Francesc Torres, Fernandez referred to him as, “one of Spain’s most important conceptual artists.”

Torres himself opened by describing the sentiment behind much of his work in the visual arts as a response to the fact, “a vast area of human history has been defined by war, which,” and here he quoted Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, “is politics by other means.”

“I might have chosen more pleasant subjects, but I could not. Why? Because the most influential event in my life happened nine years before I was born. The Spanish Civil War shaped my way of being in the world as is the case in today’s Spain, which is still challenged in dealing with it.”

His installations, Torres said, represent an effort to transfer, “historical sediment” into the “domain of the symbolic.”

The first of such politically motivated installations were exhibited in 1991 at Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia entitled, “Cincuenta Lluvias” or “50 Rains.”

He chose three years for depiction in three separate but interrelated installations – 1943, 1973, and 1993

For 1943, Torres used rubble (“historical sediment”) from the Spanish embassy to Fascist Germany in Berlin. An enormous building of some 300 rooms, it was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and left standing for some 60 years in the same condition to which the bombardment had reduced it.

The artist took the broken furniture and other artifacts for the edifice and constructed an assemblage of helter-skelter, post-bombardment disorder, a bed hanging diagonally from a ceiling, a photo of the pre-bombing building rotating intermittently on a wall.

More to the point, he scattered throughout the piece documentation pulled from the rubble clearly linking the Franco regime to Fascism. “At the time two intellectuals [here and in Europe] were describing Francoism as a totalitarian regime with very little in common with Fascism.

“I did not know what the objective of such a fine threading of the effort was,” he said, adding that the mid-40s were, in fact, a time of the most savage repression in Spain.

“Franco knew he was well accompanied by his allies in the [Third] Reich,” the artist pointed out.

Torres chose 1973 for his second piece, “because it represented the de facto beginning of the transition with the bombing of Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco’s car by the Basque separatist group ETA. The politician was Franco’s political heir apparent, the man chosen to keep the regime “Atado y bien atado” (Secured and secured well).

The artist went looking for that very same car, because his goal was to use historical sediment in a clinically pure form.

“My aim was to present a question to Spain as a whole regarding its political context: Why, under a Socialist government, had such an incredible cloud of collective amnesia descended over the country?"

Torres could not procure the actual car, but was able to procure a model of the same type used by all Francoist officials of the era. “I restored it, turning the clock of assassination back to one second before it happened. It was more art than pure historical sediment, but made its impact.”

On the walls of the room marking the installation’s parameters were the front pages of newspapers, made slightly blurry to insinuate the passage of time, reporting the event of Carrero Blanco’s assassination.

His next choice, 1993, had yet to unspool when Torres confected the final piece to his three dimensional triptych. It followed a year during which Spain celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America and also one in which Barcelona hosted the Olympics and Seville the World’s Fair.

“It was a year that put Spain back on the map of normalcy among European states.”

Furniture used in the sleekly constructed apartment-style arrangement was chosen from the national daily of record, “El Pais,” books in shelving along the wall were those being read by the political class at the time, and it was rounded out with a Jaspers Johns-like representation of the Spanish flag.

“At the time,” he explained, “there was a movement in the cultural class to renew the history of contemporary art as if Spain had always been a part of the 20th century art movements, which wasn’t the case.”

The artist took images from printed media of that moment and used them as art for the walls of the young, urban, and professionally inspired apartment: the mouth of Isabel Preysler, a former wife of Spanish entertainer Julio Iglesias and later that of a promiment socialist Minister of Economics, Miguel Boyer; the cleavage of the famous Spanish flamenco singer "La Pantoja."

These were fragmented images; subject matter objectified, if not always sexually, as the cropped image of vice president Alfonso Guerra’s terrifying eye attested to.

The soundtrack was that of rain falling… a distant storm.

"Things happened,” Torres said, “art had lost weight, commenting on itself, deepening its servitude to the market.” Along with this change in the art world came an equally profound internal change for the artist: “An intense external social and political interest to reduce to zero the difference between my interests in my art and my interests as a citizen.”

His overarching point is that 67 years after its conclusion, the civil war is still raging in Spanish culture. “There has been no reconciliation between the two sides, no melding of a shared history between them,” said Torres.

He asserted that there is an ongoing disconnection between political discourse and the underlying reality of tension fueled largely by myths of the Spanish transition.

The crucial moment in that widely lauded transition, Torres argued, was the Pact of Moncloa reached amongst political elites on both sides of the spectrum, elites who, because there had yet to be elections, actually had no claim to representation among Spaniards.

“The agreement institutionalized what one side could not remind the other of. It was a decision to mortgage the reality of a political past,” said the artist. “A battle of memory, of how [the civil war] will finally go down in history is still being waged. There is but a narrow window of time left before those who lost the war might be made whole.”

And then there are, “the dead people lying around all over the country.”

Torres discussed his difficulty in putting together a project to uncover certain unmarked, mass graves in different regions of Spain both by governments of the right, which might be expected, and those of the left, which was both more surprising and disappointing.

There are, he said, an estimated 35,000 Republican Spaniards lying around in graves. Many lie adjacent to, or directly under garbage dumps.

“Coincidence?” Torres prodded.

Following a number of false starts, the artist was finally permitted to proceed in a location outside Burgos, northwest of Madrid.

At the outset of the civil war, he noted, there was no Republican resistance in this particular region and, for that reason, the repression was most savage. People who had been mayors, administrators, and simple municipal functionaries in Republican administrations were assassinated in great numbers by firing squad.

The specific massacre his team investigated took place, according to witnesses, on September 23, 1936. The grave contained 47 people in all. Most showed signs of having been tortured and among the bullet casings emptied by members of the local Fascist Falange and Civil Guard were found the tops of beer bottles, too.

“They were drinking and having a good time as they did their killing,” said Torres.

He projected images of skeleton feet with their shoes still on them, gnarled finger bones bearing rings; images that remind us that 70 years is not so long ago. For 70 years, Torres said, those of Republican persuasion have been denied their dignity and denied their identity.

In post-dictatorship Spain there has not been one single indictment for war crimes and not a single Republican figure has been rehabilitated.

He chose the figure of former Catolonian President Luis Companys as an example. Companys escaped Spain only to be captured by the Nazis and returned to Franco who had him shot. His crime was, in the end, that of being a democratically elected official.

Social Democratic Spain, which has held power for a total of 15 years since Franco’s death, he said, bears the largest part of the blame.

“By failing to correct the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, they have prevented an enduring civil peace.”

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's great to read such an accurate summary of the ALBA-Bill Susman lecture given by Francesc Torres the other night at the Instituto Cervantes. Thanks.

the highway scribe said...

You got it.