Lladres de Cossos – Metronom gallery, Barcelona, June 2005
Galleria Metrònom is situated in an old fruit and vegetable warehouse next to the 19th century market. The building’s historical role was as a temporary point of storage, a pause in a process that involved several different but obviously connected systems. Firstly the agricultural system of planting, growing and harvesting, which itself exploits and is dependent on the natural systems – biological, meteorological etc.; Secondly the economic system of exchange in the market place; and finally returning to the natural-biological system of absorption and transference as nutrients in the human body via the various socio-cultural systems surrounding the preparation and consumption of food.
The Lladres de cosses exhibition brief spoke of ‘site-specific multi-media installations’ and a desire for projects that ‘transcend the physical space of Metrònom and enter the outside world.’ It was therefore an obvious choice to consider the use of vegetable produce and the process of production and consumption, as outlined above, as a starting point.
It is not hard to question the motives of the agro-industrial system of production that caters for the vegetable needs of the urban first world today. In terms of ecology, health and human rights, the industry has a poor record. From deforestation to the exploitation of migrant workers, from the driving of small farms out of business through price fixing and the copyrighting of GM seed, to the dumping of excess produce on third world markets.
To take this view on the subject is to take a political position. Yet in these post-modern, ‘post historical’ times the ‘death of ideology’ is a given, and the idea of progressive politics is highly unfashionable, if not highly suspect. When nearly any form of protest or dissent is almost instantly co-opted or appropriated by a consumerist mass culture, is the only creative option to lapse into knowing irony and go shopping?
In 1934 when Metrònom was probably still full of fruit and vegetables from the fields of Catalunya, Pablo Neruda was briefly the Chilean consul in Barcelona before being moved to Madrid the following year. In 1936 the Spanish civil war broke out and in 1937 España en el corazón was first published. A year later it was printed in an old monastery in the thick of the fighting on the eastern front near Girona.
era grandes voces, sal de mercaderías,
aglomeraciones de pan palpitante,
mercados de mi barrio de Arguelles con su estatua
como un tintero pálido entre las merluzas:
el aceite llegaba a las cucharas,
un profundo latido
de pies y manos llenaba las calles,
metros, litros, esencia
aguda de la vida,
contextura de techos con sol frío en el cual
la flecha se fatiga,
delirante marfil fino de las patatas,
tomates repetidos hasta el mar.
Y una mañana todo estaba ardiendo
y una mañana las hogueras salían de la tierra
y desde entonces fuego,
pólvora desde entonces,
y desde entorches sangre. 1
Neruda’s poetry was always rooted in a universal idea of nature but his experience in Spain was to politicize him and his poetry and he later came to consider poetry as a social act. España en el corazón and later works were to become works of political propaganda as well as poetry.
In relation to the Lladres de Cosses project Neruda can be seen to represent an historical example of the artist and his work moving from the sphere of culture in to the social and political spheres. In particular his poetry was seen as part of an international struggle against Fascism, and in support of the people, “…the people whose sword, whose handkerchief my humble poetry wants to be, to dry the sweat of it’s sorrows and give it a weapon in its struggle for bread.” 2
Later, in 1954 he wrote Odes Elementales “… a homage to daily living and ordinary people” in an attempt to “…suggest an art as close as possible to life. They celebrate bread, wood, tomatoes, the weather, [….] Neruda’s ordinary people belong to some stage before the conveyor belt and the assembly line. They are sailors, bricklayers, miners, carpenters or bakers – all those whose work involves the handling of primary materials. The odes restore a sense of the wholesomeness of work and at the same time suggest that Neruda’s utopia is perhaps not very different from the community in which he grew up.” 3
In 1969 Neruda became the communist party candidate for the presidency of Chile and was active in the formation of the Popular Unity Party (PUP). He later stood down to allow Salvador Allende to become the party’s sole candidate. In September 1973 the democratically elected PUP was overthrown in a military coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Allende was executed at the presidential palace in Santiago and twelve days later Neruda died. Spain’s dictator was to die in 1975. In Chile the military regime of Augusto Pinochet continued into the nineties.
I came across the Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda in the late eighties when Latin America and revolutionary politics were important parts of my own life. In October 1989, a year before the first elections in Chile for twenty years, I cycled over the Andes from Argentina and down into the Atacama desert of northern Chile. There were two poems in the selection that I always returned to: Explico Algunas Cosas from España en el corazón and Oda al Tomate.
The Tomato: South American native but now a significant part of the vegetable culture of Catalunya, I believe.
The project ‘Model Farm’ has developed from these historical and personal connections using a working method that embraces the elements of chance, intuition and free association. Although my work could be said to be about a search for meaning, I am not seeking to provide answers in any didactic way. I am more interested raising questions, or setting up situations that hold the possibility of meaning being revealed through the interaction of an audience.
I come to Barcelona a stranger. My countries cultural history is one in which civil war and dictatorships have not played a part in living memory. I find myself having to confront a context and history I know little about. For me, one of the enduring narratives of the civil war in Spain is that of the mobilisation of artists against the forces of fascism. The myth of their heroic defeat remains. Laurie Lee, the English poet who lived a few miles from where I now live, made much of his involvement in the international brigade’s fight for freedom. Critics now cast serious doubts about the reality of the tales he told of his exploits in 1930’s Spain. But the need to mythologies the past, like the desire to idealise a future, is not only the prerogative of poets. I am here in Barcelona to present a project that will reflect and comment upon the situation and context that I find here. Yet culturally I am positioned outside of the context I am having to engage. Like Laurie Lee I am in reality a tourist caught up in the intricacies of a situation of which I can only scrape the surface. In all areas – language, history, culture – I am only grasping at understanding. I will work with what I have, a chance mixture of knowledge, experience and imagination, but the fallibility of the individual’s attempt to construct meaning always remains visible. An exploration of this commitment to lost causes, to the flawed ideal, is an ongoing theme in this and other works.
As mentioned above to take a view on a subject like modern agriculture is to take a political position. To stand in opposition to something necessarily means that one must acknowledge the possibility of an alterative, even if the alternative is unclear or absent.
It may be that Neruda’s unreconstructed communist politics are hard to swallow today. His stance on issues like Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe did, even to some of his contemporary’s, seem particularly naïve. When he comes out with a statement like “Fortunately, my party is not against expressions of beauty” it is almost laughable. But in a sense it is also indicative of the problems inherent in trying to integrate art and politics. Yet by dismissing the naivety of the idealism of the poet do we risk dismissing the relevance of the struggle against fascism and the great polemic of the twentieth century? And although Pinochet is still awaiting a verdict on his role in the deaths of thousands of Chilean civilians, the prevailing political consensus in the 21st century seems to be that We are now above such things. Is it inevitable that because of the failures of 20th century idealism all alternatives to the capitalist monoculture are now rendered redundant?
Maybe one of the final arenas in which we can explore these alternative or idealist models is through art. Of course it is an exploration that has to recognise the privileged yet impotent position within the mainstream monoculture that art, stripped of it’s own C20th idealist pretensions, now occupies.
The Model Farm proposes an alternative or idealistic system where by the potential consumers of the produce are asked to share in its production. Unlike the norm of the consumerist market place the outcome of this process is not dependent on individual purchasing power but on a collective acceptance of responsibility. Of course merely stating this does not guarantee that this ideal will be implemented. I/We cannot compel Metrònom visitors to subscribe to this idealistic experiment. But this is part of the process. I am setting up the situation, not dictating its outcome.
The model can be seen as the antithesis of the agro-industrial system of production. The installation will echo the vernacular micro-agriculture of the urban peasant or horticultural squatter. These semi-urban vegetable gardens can be seen in many peripheral locations around Barcelona. By referencing this phenomenon Model Farm also speaks of a contemporary reality as well as proposing ideal alternatives. In its proposed form the installation does not present the ideal as a perfect technological future but as an impoverished, ‘makeshift’ or improvised version. This imperfect Model highlights the fallibility of it’s own ideals. Less the grand revolutionary gesture, more the last ditch attempt to create an alternative space from the detritus of the hegemonic culture.
Lastly the role of the potential produce as food is a vital element in the project. The particular social and cultural space that opens up around the preparation and consumption of food, especially where these activities are a part of a voluntary collective process, can be seen as an alternative to the market driven consensus. The potential that the produce of the installation will at some point play a part within a social arena beyond the gallery is to fulfil the ideal of the Lladres de cosses project. The fact that time is required for the project’s complete realisation is also important. During the exhibition this realisation, that is, a feast of tomatoes, can only be imagined as a potential future, like a tiny utopian moment. It may be a moment that we may never reach in reality, but it’s ideal is a possibility that we can choose to pursue or not.
© Dominic Thomas 2005
1. Explico Algunas Cosas from España en el corazón
2. P. Neruda Memoirs, 1974 (translation 1977)
3. Jean Franco P. Neruda Selected Poems Penguin, 1975