I usually prefer to focus my attention on those things that I am drawn to and that I admire in some way. I’ll make an exception here though. On Friday afternoon I went to see Gure Artea 2008 at Rekalde (the main public contemporary art space in Bilbao). Gure Artea is held every two years and is the most important visual arts prize in the Basque Country. All the selected artists on this occasion have studied at the Fine Arts faculty at the University of the Basque Country or have had some connection with it. One of the selected artists Iñaki Imaz is a lecturer there. The main curator/juror of the show is Miren Jaio who has also spent some time teaching contemporary art history at the university. The whole thing is a bit of a closed shop and very symptomatic of the art scene here in the Basque Country. This would be excusable on one level of course if the works in question were of quality. The prize is financed by the Basque Government (with all the connotations that entails). A select group of so-called “cutting edge” artists, almost all graduates of the Fine Arts faculty have become almost institutional artists, reappearing in this prize and other major exhibitions over the last few years. This prize is interesting on one level at least, and that is as a sociological portrait of the art scene here in the Basque Country.
Most of the art on show betrays an already conventionalised modus operandi, especially where new media is concerned. Maider Lopez has perhaps made the strongest video piece which documents an intervention in the city of Sharjah in the Arab Emirates. The lines of a football field were marked out in one of the public squares. The camera then documents the social interaction with this phenomenon. The editing though seems clumsy and I couldn’t help thinking of Francis Alÿs who has intervened in public spaces in a much richer way. There is a strong social/critical aspect underlying a lot of the work, the duo Iratxe Jaio & Klaas Van Gorkum for example, whose video piece shows the crude reality of urban development in the Basque city of Vitoria; the camera moves slowly and continuously from left to right showing buildings sites, the paraphernalia of construction, vast D.I.Y stores and builders merchants. When compared to say Catalan director Jaime Rosales’ ambitious and radical use of non-ideological cinema (often incorporating and transforming aspects of video art within the larger scope of cinema) a lot of this video work seems very poor and lacks any rigour. It is visually uninteresting and conceptually weak - employing and motivated by a predictable omnipresent “critical” rhetoric.
New media have an enormous potential for artists (just consider the expansive practice of Adrian Schiess for example, incorporating painting, installation and video) Unfortunately, and despite still being early days, a significant number of artists have adopted predictable ways of using them and have already created a kind of orthodoxy which begins in art school (certainly at the Basque Faculty of Fine Art).
Liam Gillick comes to mind when considering the work of Xabier Salaberria. His work appears to question the formalist and minimalist canons in modernism and its political implications but the objects he creates lack any value because there is no serious working through of ideas via the material of sculpture itself. The sculptural object is almost an afterthought. His piece Part II of an unbuilt Project is an example of this and perhaps of the greater malaise at the heart of this show: the artists operate in a territory which is almost exclusively theoretical yet theoretically limited. It also feels even somewhat outmoded as a discourse. One is left with the desire for something more open and anarchic. An intelligent proposal seems to mean working “conceptually” for most of these artists. However, thought and speculative approaches to art can also be made manifest through practices which manifest fluidity or materiality so absent in much of the current local scene.
Perhaps one of the most acclaimed younger artists in the Basque Country and Spain (and one of the three prizewinners) is Asier Mendizabal. Though his work is complex it essentially deals with the displacement of political, social & cultural symbols. Though his approach might seem intelligent and carefully focused, this in itself does not guarantee anything and ultimately his piece, Bigger than a cult, smaller than a mass (one, two backdrops), seems simplistic. It consists of two backdrops; the first made of recent newspapers and hanging in front of it a selection of different national flags.The “dislocation” doesn’t happen the flags maintain there mute symbolism.
Some of the paintings by Iñaki Imaz (the only painter in the show) work well up to a point but I can´t help feeling his paintings are not pushed far enough. They could be more extreme and so have greater tension. The presentation doesn’t entirely convince me either. The framing, which I assume is meant to be “ironic” in some way, just looks awkward. However, the mysterious yellow painting reproduced here is very good indeed; in my mind the best piece in the whole show. Evidence that through its specific materiality and fragile limits, painting can still offer a rich, layered and more adventurous experience compared to other media.
This prize would benefit from being opened up, maybe to artists from the rest of Spain & Portugal or even internationally. A fresh curatorial angle on each occasion would also be beneficial. This of course would be good for Basque art and contextualize it in a larger sphere. With the spectre of nationalist politics and an immobile social and cultural situation I can’t see this happening soon. I left the exhibition feeling mildly irritated but mostly bored.