published in Perro Berde (Manila, Philippines, 2019).
On February 2019, the Ateneo Art Gallery hosts Domènec’s exhibit titled Not Here, Not Anywhere, organized in collaboration with Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and with assistance from the Embassy of Spain in the Philippines. The exhibit features selected works from the MACBA show as well as two new works Domènec created after a 10-day visit to Manila and as a response to the Philippine context. He is also one of the featured speakers at the 2019 Art Fair Philippines art talks. The following Q & A explores the artist’s background as well as his insights on the role of artists in revisiting the past, reassessing history, and recovering the voice of the voiceless.
ATENEO ART GALLERY:
For the benefit of Philippine readers, can you give us an overview of your beginnings or early years as an artist?
My years of learning coincide with the last years of the 80s; my first relevant exhibition is from 1989.
In 1975, the dictator dies after 40 years in power and a period of transition begins, to a democracy full of conflicts and tensions between the oligarchic and conservative structures that seek, and in part achieve, holding on to power, and the desire among the general population, women, workers, students … to initiate a deep and radical change. This period of political turmoil, which I experience intensely as a high school student, we could say—and simplifying a bit—ends in 1982 when the Socialist Party wins the elections by an absolute majority. For the first time since 1939, Spain is governed by a president not involved with the fascist dictatorship. It was the beginning of a period of euphoria resulting from an act of collective forgetfulness, when no one will be judged for the crimes of the dictatorship (there are still tens of thousands of unidentified corpses in mass graves scattered throughout the country).
In the context of art, this period of euphoria, amnesia, and superficiality coincides with the period of a speculative bubble of the art market. Universities and schools also participate, in a certain way, in this process, producing an interruption in the transmission of knowledge between our generation and the generation of Spanish artists of the 70s, much more involved in artistic practices committed to experimentation, social criticism, or political commitment.
We could say that it was at the end of the 80s and in the first half of the 90s when some young artists began to configure other ways of working beyond the parameters established by public institutions and the art market of the time, starting, among other things, to reconstruct the relationship with the local tradition of conceptual and political art. For example, the work of artists, such as Francesc Abad (1944), who were absolutely invisible during the 80s, becomes fundamental in reintroducing the recovery of the memory of the victims of the dictatorship in the 90s with their project El Camp de la Bota.
What were the circumstances that led to your current art practice? Or what led you to focus on modernity and architecture and urban planning as points of interest and criticism?
I have always been very interested in architecture, as well as in contemporary history and political theory, but it was more than twenty years ago, in the middle of the 90s, in a historical moment characterized by the triumph of global capitalism and the apparent defeat of all the attempts to build alternative scenarios, that I started through my artistic practice to ask myself about the role of the artist in society and about myself as a contemporary subject.
Of the artistic practices, architecture is the one that, in a more radical and sometimes even traumatic way, affects the daily life of people and at the same time is intersected by all the conflicts and political contradictions. This makes it an ideal territory to analyze how the different processes of modernity materialize, even where different “modernities” collide.
The intimate, complex, dangerous, and often contradictory relationship established by architecture with ideology and social utopias on the one hand, and with oligarchic power, the market, and speculation on the other, constitute a perfect field to deploy contemporary artistic practice as a process of analysis and criticism.
Precisely when the housing utopias derived from the Athens Charter (1933) are completely shipwrecked in the metropolitan peripheries of the whole world, it is more pertinent to replant the question of how to live together.
How does an art project begin for you? What interests you in pursuing further research on a specific topic or historical event or period?
This depends on many variables, but we could say that there are two types of projects. Self-generated projects, that is, projects that are the result of the general process of my research and interests, and projects generated from a context, whether social, geographic, political, or specific. For example, a project on Soviet utopian architecture like Conversation Piece: Narkomfin would be an example of the first typology. I have never been to Moscow and therefore the project does not respond to a reaction to a specific context, but to a process of a more general reflection on the limits of the modern project.
On the other hand, the long series of projects on the context of Israel and Palestine (Real Estate, 48_Nakba, Erased Land, or Baladia Future City) are the direct result of an intense relationship with a specific geographical context initiated by an invitation from Nirith Nelson, an Israeli curator, to work in that place. Many of my projects start this way, from an invitation to stay in a new context. From this trigger, I begin a more or less long process of immersion and investigation of this context. I apply what I call a “bastard” research process that works at many levels, from the physical experience of the place, the route, observation and listening, to conversation with all kinds of people and agents—from the food vendor in the street to the political activist, from the taxi driver or the refugee to the journalist or the academic—or to the consultation of historical archives or specialized readings. Finally the resulting project is a kind of “response” to the place.
It has been noted (in the catalogue essay) that you view architecture as a “political unconscious“. Can you expound on this?
There is a phrase that says “no building is innocent”, which perfectly defines this concept. A formalistic and academic analysis of architecture would center its interest on the formal and aesthetic qualities of buildings, as if they were abstract bodies, but no building is innocent. Its “unconscious” is loaded with political conflicts, hidden human dramas, life stories of the workers who built it, of those who inhabited them … this “unconscious” is what interests me and what I try to rescue in my projects, like, for example, in the project Rakenjan Käsi (The Workers Hand) that I made in Helsinki. Instead of focusing my research on the building Kulttuuritalo (The House of Culture, 1952), designed by Alvar Aalto, all my interest was focused on recovering the voice and memory of the volunteer workers who gave generously and free of charge more than 500,000 hours of their lives to the realization of the project. My project raises the question of why the fundamental contribution of these volunteers has been forgotten by official accounts.
How do you see your role today as an artist in relation to the “conversations” with icons of architecture and/or modernist projects you have embarked on?
I have worked around the architectural paradigms of modernity, with a critical reading of symbolic constructions by Alvar Aalto, Mies van der Rohe, or Le Corbusier in an attempt to identify architecture as the “political unconscious” of modernity. As Walter Benjamin already detected, the architects’ projects would constitute the best incarnation of all those dreams of an impotent modernity to fulfill its promises of emancipation and welfare for all. Ironically, contradictions between the ideological program and political reality become more evident in social housing projects.
I work with the concept of history established by Walter Benjamin, where reviewing history only makes sense if it is a political combat tool of the present. I am interested in studying what has happened to these projects to resituate them in the present, so that they can be discussed, provide complexity, layers of meaning, so that together we can imagine and reimagine alternatives.
Your research visit to Manila last July 2018 was quite brief, but you were able to explore and develop a new project. Were there any new insights you gained about the Philippines or Manila during this 10-day visit? Can you tell us more about the new project you are working on for the Ateneo Art Gallery exhibition?
Yes, my first visit to Manila and my first contact with the context of the Philippines was quite brief but intense. I must admit that my prior knowledge was very poor. The Filipino context seems really interesting and complex, with many layers of meanings that coexist in the same spatial-temporal context.
I am shocked by how ignorant we, the inhabitants of Spain, are about our colonial past, its consequences and the responsibilities that derive from it. Despite the fact that the last decolonization process of North African territories took place in the 70s, there has not yet been an important debate in public opinion. Only recently have we begun to review and question some of the important figures of the last colonial period in America (Cuba and Puerto Rico) and Asia (Philippines), such as Antonio López y López, the Marquis of Comillas, a businessman with very good relations with political power and the monarchy, the founder—of among other large companies—of the General Company of Tobaccos of the Philippines, who began his fortune by dedicating himself to the slave trade in Cuba. For example, the great fortunes of the Barcelona bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century and the industrial wealth of Catalonia are based on slavery and the exploitation of the natural resources of the colonized territories.
In my work, I have been interested in how, beyond the territorial occupation and the plundering of natural wealth and bodies, the colonizer also “colonizes” the cultural images of the colonized, appropriating their referents, acculturizing the population, and building an exoticizing story, where the colonized is presented as a “savage” who needs the “civilizing” intervention of the colonizer through his educational, ideological, and military apparatus.