José Manuel López

“From all histories of History — wrote the poet Jaime Gil de Biedma — the saddest is undoubtedly that of Spain because it ends badly”. When you are born in Spain, you automatically gain a certificate of castaway of history, “as if man, tired of fighting his demons, wanted to end with that history of that country of all demons”, concludes Gil de Biedma in the voice of singer-songwriter Paco Ibañez, who brought music to his words. Before that end of history, the Imperial Spain that tried to instil Hispanity and Catholicism in the rest of the world had as its motto Plus Ultra («Further beyond»), two words that still appear in the Spanish flag and coat of arms. However, even when the Kingdom was young and its History yet to come, Spain was already, unknowingly, taking care of its re-establishment. In this way, with the pompous arrogance of the conquerer, the elites of the time called Nueva España, or New Spain, to the first Spanish viceroyship in the newly discovered “Indies”, a territory then extending from Central America to the north of California and from San Francisco to Cuba, covering a great part of current Texas.

To expand itself and be committed further beyond its borders is the dream of any empire; a dream always followed by a hard awakening with a flavour of worn-out utopia and epitaph. Since then, the «brand Spain» took care of re-establishing itself on multiple occasions. Galician writer Castelao, for example, called that new country that was meant to reinvent itself once again Hespaña, adding to it the initial H of Hispania to thus circumvent all descent from the old Kingdom of Castile. And contemporary Spain is not, of course, an exception: politically and socially fragmented, diluted in the fantasy of “Europe”, hit by the umpteenth systemic crisis (“our famous immemorial poverty”, as Gil de Biedma called it), the 506,030 km² of its current configuration have become a scattered territory (its borders are perfectly delimited, its identity not so). The dreamt Spanish utopia ended up becoming an inevitable atopia (an anomaly, something strange and out of place), and therefore its images will also be stateless: placeless images of an imageless place.

The idea of Spain no longer lives (and perhaps never lived) in its geography and the artists that make up this exhibition seem to seek it plus ultra, further beyond its borders, or to question that idea directly, as Helena Girón and Samuel Delgado did in No hay tierra más allá. An atopian Spain to be abandoned (as so many Spanish youngsters have done), or at least reinvented, or reimagined, through images that are not its but that constantly evoke it. When we began selecting works for this exhibition, a common characteristic emerged in many of the names considered: many were out of place, living or working further beyond the borders of Spain, all of them wanderers in search of new images and new sounds, just as the walker of Winterreise by Franz Schubert, in which Inés García found inspiration for her homonymous installation. A cycle of twenty-four songs for piano and voice about a man whose heart is broken and begins a journey towards the unknown: “As a foreigner I arrived, as a foreigner I leave again”, we hear in the first of them.

The outcome of that common atopia is this New Spain, an exhibition of Spanish filmmakers in which Spain stays out of the picture, as a non-place erected upon un-situated images that are searched for outside of it (from nearby Morocco to the Atacama desert in Chile, both former Spanish colonies, moving across the snowy landscapes of Austria and the interior of the USA) or in the faded canvas of its own history (from the political leftism of the 70s to the colonisation of the Canary Islands in the 15th century, an antechamber and rehearsal for the conquest of America). Six site-specific installations that reflect the view of a group of artists, almost all born in the eighties and used to working outside their country of origin. In New Spain the aesthetic gesture and the political gesture come together, but with no loudspeakers or watchwords, for all of them search the way in which, as Laida Lertxundi states on 025 Sunset Red, “politics may erupt, shape a life, form a sensibility, and become inscribed upon a body”. Travel and moving out of one's place — not only physically, but also through recollection, as in the case of Lertxundi — have always been a tool to “understand” the world, to leave and return a foreigner of oneself, to be deterritorialized (that is, to let go of the familiar territory as one lets go of the clothes one has carried throughout the day).

«But I am no longer me, / nor is my house mine», wrote Federico García Lorca. And that is the exact moment of the realisation that one has to leave — although Lorca himself never did — in search of somewhere new, new landscapes that will become emotional landscapes and mental spaces (because, we know it well, all landscapes are always a projection, an inner wound). The installations of New Spain inhabit this emotional landscape, which is also a mental place: their authors live or work outside Spain, move somewhere else — or some time else, perhaps — and shoot it on film or record it in digital format, but these “images without Spain” will refer back, time and again, to a Spain that will always be evoked, invoked even as a ghost (or, in the case of Helena Girón and Samuel Delgado, as an indigenous mummy from the Canary Islands, she too moved out and out of place, for she is preserved in a museum in Madrid). That will literally be the operation led by Natalia Marín in New Madrid, “an essay on failed utopias”, on simulacrum and places built as copies, in which Marín searches for and finds the eight towns in the United States called Madrid and realises, in her own words, that at some point in their short histories those eight urban projects failed. History, clearly, repeats itself. Laida Lertxundi, living in Los Angeles for years, carries out a similar process in 025 Sunset Red: taking the recognisable landscapes of the North American West as her starting point, she gives shape to an “abstract autobiography” in which she recalls her childhood in the Basque Country, in the midst of a family of communists, during the last years of Franco's dictatorship.

Finally, a second atopia also converges in New Spain: working both with the materiality and the “gravity” of film (Inés García, Helena Girón and Samuel Delgado, Laida Lertxundi), and with the virtuality and “lightness” of digital video (Lois Patiño, Natalia Marín, Carla Andrade), these seven artists are out of place, both in the movie theatre and in the art gallery (if that distinction still makes sense nowadays): this New Spain is — and could not be otherwise — a borderless, hybrid territory between the “white box” of the museum and the “black box” of cinema. For the contemporary image cannot do without the light of the museum or the darkness of cinema, without day or night (the solar department and the lunar department, as photographer Jeff Wall once described them). The outcome of this double atopia are alien, lunar images and sounds, like the deserts in 025 SUNSET RED by Lertxundi, in The Landscape is Empty and Emptiness is Landscape by Carla Andrade, and in Fajr by Lois Patiño (in which, furthermore, we hear the adhan, the call to prayer echoing from the mosques before the appearance of the solar disk); like the snowy Alps covered in Winterreise by Inés García, only accompanied by the words of Schubert's songs; or like the sounds from the Atlantic, recorded with hydrophones by Helena Girón and Samuel Delgado in No hay tierra más allá, a dive added by the presence in the exhibition room of a cube containing water from that same ocean which once brought Old and New Spain together.

© 2021 Curtas Vila do Conde