Spanish Artists Debate Democracy

By: Sarah Lipkis 

“All art is politic[al], somehow,” according to Spanish artist Mateo Mate. Since 2008, Spain has seen a double dip recession, high unemployment, large inequality, the crash of the housing market, and massive bank failures. In response to the economic crisis, artists are using different mediums to explore the changing economic and political situation in Spain – making statements on democracy in the process.

Among the country’s artists actively participating in this arts-policy discussion are Núria Güell, Chus García-Fraile, Pablo San José and Cynthia Viera (PSJM), Mateo Maté, Marta de Gonzalo, and Publio Pérez. Their artwork focuses on the notion that, as financial and political institutions are bailed out by the government, the public has been forgotten. They argue that the people have been left without support, experiencing the consequences of a recession they did not cause.

Güell, a Spanish audiovisual artist, views art as a form of activism. Art, she says, “investigates the ethics of the institutions that govern us.” After the housing bubble, Güell, and many other Spanish citizens felt that the banks were becoming profitable while residents suffered. Her art examines injustices such as the failure of the government to help those evicted from their homes. In her work Intervention, Güell hired an unemployed worker to break the lock of a home repossessed by the bank.

Núria Güell, Intervention # 1, 2012

Güell’s video mimics the way the bank repossesses a home. Just like the bank changes a lock so the residents can no longer enter, the man in the video is breaking the lock so the door will not be able to close. It puts in plain view this an unfair dichotomy, where the bank has the legal authority to reclaim a house, but those evicted have no opportunity do anything. Güell notes that in Spain this is a daily reality: living in debt, fearing eviction, and the feeling that the government is looking out for the good of the banks–not the people.

Similar to Güell, the artists that go by the name PSJM feel the government has not done enough to help Spaniards recover. PSJM’s art focuses on commercialization of countries. Their work, The Decline of the Nation State critiques the global commercialization by having various company logos, such as the famous Starbucks, McDonalds, Volkswagen logos, which are all listed on the New York, Frankfurt, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong stock exchanges, slowly eating away at their respective countries’ flags.

“The financial markets have the control. They rule and we, the people, have not voted for them. They make up an illegitimate government commanding in the shadows,” says PSJM.

The Decline of the Nation State, PSJM, 2012

There are the flags of “stable” economies, such as New York, Frankfurt, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Hong Kong and the flags of “floundering” economies, such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece – all are consumed by consumerism.

Marta de Gonzalo and Publio Pérez believes art is a form of advocacy. “Based on our own experience art can very well be a path towards political awareness.” Citizens are losing various kinds of rights through measures undertaken by the government. Rights are put at risk by processes including: “constitutional reforms, privatization of public services, incredibly expensive new taxes for judicial processes…” In response they turned to art leading to the creation of Dance the Counter Reformation.

The piece deals with issues of becoming victims of the finical institutions, the EU needing to bail out Spain, the loss of identity, and an opinion that the government is not responsive to the people. Of particular importance is that all the people featured in the video are veiled in masks. Establishing a lack of personalization, the video becomes about everyone, not just one person.

Dance the Counter Reformation, Marta de Gonzalo and Publio Pérez, 2012 

Dance the Counter Reformation, though largely about the government’s treatment of their citizens, also looks to art as a tool against “the most capricious, dark and grotesque side of their realities.” Like the other artists, de Gonzalo and Perez’s art alludes to a growing feeling among Spanish citizens that they are in the dark, and have to find away to fight for their rights.   

In Mateo Maté’s piece, Heroic Acts, he constructs a house to look like the Iberian Peninsula. Maté describes the work as a “micro cosmos that reflects a macro cosmos.” Just as one fights for their home and feels protected by it they also feel a similar connection to the state. However, Maté points out that comfort and security are fleeting.

Heroic Acts, Mateo Mate, 2011

The house is demolished, symbolizing the destruction of the Iberian Peninsula and reflecting on the housing bubble. The economic strength the constructed house represents is destroyed alluding to both Spain’s and Portugal’s economic downturn.

Maté also uses incorporates the iconography of flags to bridge the domestic and the nationalistic. While a flag is the emblem of a nation and is given honor and respect, Maté exploits that patriotic attitude and turns the flags into tablecloths.

“A dinning table can turn into a territory to defend which flag can of course be the original tablecloth converted in whatever countries,” Maté says.

Nacionalismo Domestico,CAMPO DE BATALLA, Mateo Mate, 2011

At the end of the video the house is destroyed, and the sense of comfort and security one gets from the domestic and the nationalistic is taken away.  

Chus García- Fraile also explores this idea in A Question of Faith. She uses nationalistic iconography, the flags of the G20 countries, as well as religious iconography to explore the shifting nature of political philosophy.

“I would raise the question of whether political ideologies could be considered a[s] new religion[s] or at least [are] often laden with religious concepts.” Her art represents the political ideology of religious dogma characteristics and how it has become more pronounced in society.

A Question of Faith, Chus García- Fraile, 2012

“Politicians in these last eight years have not stopped stealing and wasting public money,” García- Fraile states. “And now we are paying the consequences.” Due to the constant feeling of injustice on behalf of the government, the people are suffering and losing faith in the political institutions that theoretically where designed to help them. 

A Question of Faith, Chus García- Fraile, 2012

“Art can also be a power and controlling weapon,” Maté observes. All five artists conclude that art has important role in understanding current events. These works are a response to a feeling by the public of being taken advantage of by the government. Núria Güell, PSJM, and Marta de Gonzalo and Publio Pérez are trying to help their viewers question and understand what it means to be a Spanish citizen. They hope that, through their art, people will become more engaged citizens and demand true democracy for their country. 



Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal

[Cover photo courtsey of Mateo Mate]

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