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The term culture derives from the Latin colere that refers both to the act of tilling the earth and to cultivated soil. If we link the etymological origin of the word to the laboured sentence ‘History is written by the victors’, we will discover a few clues to the interpretation of Francesc Torres’s venture in this ‘entropic box’. The history that was buried by farmland is the history that is exhibited.
The show, curated by the artist himself, displays a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection. All these works have been the object of attacks, fires, erosion, slits or censorship, or else they have been neglected for a long time — like the wrecked Aston Martin used to test its safety, a totum revolutum made up of mediaeval architectural fragments, the final sequence of the Buster Keaton film Seven Occasions (1925) and the rerun of a previous work by Torres, La ciudad de naipes (The City of Playing Cards), all of which emphasise the atmosphere that he intends to recreate, leaving spectators in a state of ruinous fun. Accidents as a symptom and an illness. Culture as a vehicle that has been designed to crash at a speed of two hundred kilometres per hour against the wall of history.
In the galleries displaying disasters we come across paintings of female nudes presumably slashed by seminarians in 1952; the paintings by Josep Maria Sert burnt in Vic Cathedral during the Spanish Civil War; the recovered mediaeval altarpiece of Saints Johns by Bernat Martorell that shows the faces of the stabbed Jews, perhaps in an attempt to mutilate the Hebrews in effigie, or the doors of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló that were found on the street by Joan Ainaud de Lasarte, then director of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC). We also discover the pornography that King Alfonso XIII admired so fervently, together with photographs of the bodies of Spanish soldiers defeated in the Rif War, a chapter whose message is confused by the insertion of numerous portraits of the king. But the strategy remains clear — to show objects that were attacked, hidden or scorned with a double purpose, i.e., to pose a reflection on how we count and how we count ourselves, create a space for cultural debate that is so necessary these days, and to contextualise them in relation to the latest events in the field of Catalan politics and culture.
The changes in meaning of works that have suffered attacks has aroused the interest of many other thinkers and artists, as proved by Luke Caulfield’s project Guerrilla Documentation, museum screenings in which the artist superimposed a work that had been attacked on its original (as he had done with Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, also contrived by Torres), or Iván Argote’s video Retouch (2008) in which he vandalises a Piet Mondrian painting from the Centre Pompidou in Paris with a graffiti. These works are in tune with the intentions of this exhibition and affect the way in which cultural avatars add as many layers of information to artworks as layers of matter they remove. What is left after the crime is what we have to face.
This curatorial project is very artistic — not in vain Torres himself mentions earlier works of his own in his presentation, such as Accident (1977), Plus Ultra (1988), Destiny, Entropy and Junk (1990) and Memory Remains (2011). It is indebted to Harald Szeemann’s exhibition Zeitlos (1988) staged in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, that still shows traces of World War Two, and to Raid the Icebox 1 (1961), curated by Andy Warhol, that consisted almost literally in turning the Menil Collection upside-down in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. Francesc Torres also turns terms upside-down and back to front in an unruly exhibition that makes, unmakes and remakes history starting from collections and archives.
The generation/degeneration of the archive reveals an operation that, intentionally or unintentionally, contains a subjective and subrogated logic. In this case, the emphasis is placed on elements that might have experienced the wrath of a given ideology and conflict. After the Spanish Civil War, artworks from the Republican period stored in the permanent collection of the Museu d’Art Modern and the Museu d’Art de Catalunya were moved to the National Palace, perhaps the less suspect place for hiding something from the authorities of the Franco regime. The plan proved successful and the artworks remained concealed until the eighties, when they were discovered after restoration work was carried out on the building. In The Entropic Box there is also room for this secondary story that the artist-cum-curator links to other similar cases on an international scale: ‘This episode can be related to what has recently happened with Iraqi and Syrian museums and archaeological remains at the hands of ISIS soldiers. Practically nothing was hidden in the Middle East, although luckily some sculptures were reproductions of the original works, a fact which went unnoticed by the barbarians’, says Francesc Torres. Besides the destruction of heritage, another equally decisive element is that of the relevance of the original over and above the reproduction. In this sense the exhibition gains momentum.
I shall mention two other artists foreign to this operation in the hope of finding other interpretative clues. Continuing the discussion of the strength of originals and of the didactics of museum collections, Fernando Bryce’s work Visión de la pintura occidental (Vision of Western Painting, 2002) is exemplary, for it parodies the pre-eminence of European culture in the Peruvian art system. On the subject of how the politicisation of the archive determines our cultural grounding, I should like to allude to the video entitled Translation Lessons (2016) by Chilean artist Voluspa Jarpa, that shows the artist learning English through classified CIA documents relative to the undercover actions carried out by the United States government in Latin America. A tyrannical professor (the interpreter of the archive) belittles the student (the spectator) when she mispronounces one of the uncensored words (the archive). Our conclusion is that we are not only defined by the archive, or the collection, but that two other elements are brought into play: the interpreter (the team in charge of its care) and our qualities for understanding it. Collections define and define us. Our ability to assimilate, combat or promote them are as vital as the tools we have at our disposal to codify this encapsulated entropy.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)