Spanish Art Fair ARCO Madrid Taken Over By Politics

ARCO Madrid 2018
Santiago Sierra. Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain. 2018
Spain's most important contemporary art fair, running from 21-25 February, overshadowed by an unexpected turn of events

In a break from tradition, this year´s edition of ARCO, Spain’s premier art fair, which runs from 21-25 February in the Spanish capital, is not hosting a guest country or region. Given the political and existential crisis that has gripped Spain since the Catalan independence vote last October, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the fair’s organisers wanted to steer clear from highlighting a specific nation and, by inference, a unified cultural identity. “The notion of nationalism in the arts has to a large extent been superseded,” affirmed Carlos Urroz, at the helm of the fair since 2010, a few days before its opening.

ARCO Madrid 2018

Barbara Thumm - Teresa Burga. Ilusion optica. Undated. Black, blue and red pen on paper. 13x21cm. Courtesy of Barbara Thumm gallery, Berlin

Nationalism, however, is alive and kicking in contemporary Spain and the events that unfolded on Wednesday, 21 February, during the fair’s collector and professional preview, proved a steely reminder that, all too often, art imitates life. In a regrettable first in the fair’s long history, an artwork by Madrid-based artist Santiago Sierra, well-known for his uncompromising and provocative stance, was removed from the stand of renowned gallerist Helga de Alvear, as it was deemed too inflammatory by IFEMA, the company that runs ARCO.

ARCO Madrid 2018

L to R: Clemens Krauss. The Feeding. 2017. Oil on canvas. 60x50cm. Courtesy of Crone Galerie. Clemens Krauss. Untitled. 2017. Oil on canvas. 60x50cm. Courtesy of Crone Galerie, Vienna

The series of photographs entitled Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners featured the pixelated but easily recognisable faces of several notable figures of Spanish culture and politics. Amongst them were several Catalan leaders who have been jailed in the past months on charges of sedition and rebellion for their role in the region’s independence drive. The work’s removal was widely condemned as an act of censorship and resulted in a public row, whose perhaps only beneficiary was the artist himself.

ARCO Madrid 2018

Philip Taaffe. Port Curtis. 2011. Mixed media on canvas. 154x201.4cm. Courtesy of Maruani Mercier gallery, Brussels

The events overshadowed what was set to be the strongest edition of the fair in recent years, bolstered by the country’s cautious but steady economic recovery. A report by research firm Arts Economics found that art sales increased by 19% in Spain in the period between 2014 and 2016. Whilst its share in the global art market remains marginal at just under 1%, Spain is witnessing an increase in private patronage of the arts with the emergence of several private and family-owned foundations such as Fundació per Amor a L’Art or Fundación Botín, whose spectacular Renzo Piano-designed art centre opened its doors to the public last summer.

ARCO Madrid 2018

Gonna Genovese. Zilla Leutenegger. Gonna Genovese. 2017. Oil on cotton paper (monotype). 102.5x67cm. Courtesy of Peter Kilchmann gallery, Zurich

This year’s exhibitor list, which the organisers describe as “maintaining the fair’s size, but enhancing its quality,” can be seen as a sign of a renewed confidence in the Spanish art market. A total of 208 galleries are taking part, including international heavyweights such as Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris), Kewenig (Berlin), Hauser & Wirth (Zurich), König (Berlin) and Chantal Crousel (Paris). For the first time this year, ARCO has adopted a curatorial concept: “the future,” which not only acts as a leitmotif for the fair but also extends to several museums and art spaces across the city.

ARCO Madrid 2018

Gabriel Orozco. Roiseau 122012. Bamboo branch and bird feathers. 200x240x70cm. Photo Andy Keate. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Curated by an all-female trio, Chus Martínez, Rosa Lleó and Elise Lammer, the special section titled What is Going to Happen is not the Future, but What we are Going to Do, features 20 artist positions ranging from Barbara Kasten’s bright architectural compositions (Bortolami) to Eva Fábregas’ playful and tactile sculptures (Tenderpixel) to Petrit Halilaj´s poetic installations (ChertLüdde). The theme finds echo in another one of the fair’s curated spaces, Opening, which presents 19 emerging galleries from Spain and beyond, including Grey Noise, that are exhibiting a selection of works by young Dubai-based artists Raja’a Khalid (1984) and Lantian Xie (1988).

ARCO Madrid 2018

Jose Pedro Corft. Untitled. 2017. Gouache, Indian ink and varnish on arches paper. 120x160cm. Courtesy of Galeria Vera Cortes, Lisbon 

By Wednesday afternoon and ahead of the Spanish royal couple’s official visit to the fair the following morning, Sierra’s work had been replaced by a series of sober photographs by German artist Thomas Ruff. ARCO may be looking to the future, but the controversy over Sierra’s work shows that it cannot turn its back on the realities of the present.

ARCO Madrid 2018

Chant Avedissian. P5 Ancient Egyptian Patterns with Plants. 2016. Gouache on corrugated cardboard. 180x90cm. Courtesy of Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid


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ARCO Madrid 2018
Santiago Sierra. Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain. 2018