You can glean everything you need to know about a place – or so the wisecrack goes – on the drive from the airport to the hotel. This seemingly reductive suggestion on the journey into Murcia provided an unexpectedly instructive overture to ‘Estratos’ (‘strata’ in Spanish), the first of this compact city’s Proyecto Arte Contemporáneo / Contemporary Art Project (‘PAC’s) – what promise to be lean biennials in all but name. From a terminal that was brimming with Brummies and other Brits who had arrived from a rash of low-cost flight destinations, past the several dozen monstrous new golf resort-towns which draw them here near the Costa Cálida, the impression was that this Spanish region is just the latest to undergo a rapid leisure property invasion. Yet, set against curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s context for ‘Estratos’ as a lateral consideration of contemporary archeology, the invasive ‘golfing’ of the landscape surrounding Murcia seems like just the most recent in a layer of civilisations. Perhaps future excavations of 18-holed ruins will portray them as baffling sacrificial structures?
I cannot imagine Robert Smithson would have ever taken to the fairways, but such spurious unearthing would doubtless have amused him – or at least his sardonic ‘ruinologist’ act of Hotel Palenque (1969–72). Though Smithson’s art was visibly nowhere in this 21-artist multi-venue art project (the loan of Hotel Palenque apparently fell through), his influence was simultaneously everywhere throughout the two main ‘keynote’ exhibition displays, as well the several satellite venues and public spaces throughout the city. Cyprien Gaillard’s practice is haunted by Smithson’s legacy – no more so conspicuously than in The Smithsons (2005), a crepuscular video of housing developments along the New Jersey riverfront. Also hosted in the Espacio AV venue, exquisite work by Ilana Halperin spun out from a study of the Icelandic island of Eldfeld – a volcanic accretion that was ‘born’ in 1973, the year of the artist’s birth, and Smithson’s death. Through a series of graphite drawings, charts, photographs, mineral sculptures, a publication and a screening of a 1970s’ documentary by the ‘Global Volcanism Programme’, Halperin interwove narratives of eruption and Smithson-coincidence with the history of both herself and the Icelanders whose houses have been buried by lava. Sited in a former church, Allan McCollum’s The Dog From Pompei (1991) – 45 contorted plaster sculptures made from a ‘mould’ formed during the 1st-century eruption of Vesuvius – similarly resulted from spectacular geological sculpting. Nearby it was artists themselves that were about to be buried, as the intrepid (or foolhardy) Abraham Poincheval & Laurent Tixador prepared to spend almost a month holed-up together in two conjoined cargo containers underneath a roadside verge.
The city Archeology Museum hosted a new project by Mark Dion – both the venue and the artist were surely shoo-in choices. Dion had replicated a cell, graffiti and all, from the city’s prison alongside facsimile toothbrush-weapons and other improvised inmate tools. Among the other newly commissioned elements of the project – only five of the artists in total – Marjetica Potrc had perhaps responded most directly to the social context. She channeled her production financing into A Farm in Murcia: Rainwater Harvesting (2008), allowing an agricultural facility located outside the city (the site itself was closed to visits) to capture rainfall. Judging by the sign that read ‘Agua Para Todos’ (water for all) on the Casa Constitucional in Murcia’s historical centre, Potrc’s modest act intervened into a fractious civil-resource war.
Several contributions provided an indispensably oblique take on the archeological tenor of ‘Estratos’. Paulina Olowska’s Accidental Collages (2004) and Joachim Koester’s film Tarantism (2007), for example, dealt respectively with remnants of cultural evidence concerning the artist’s own unresolved projects and the convulsive dance known as the Taranta. Yet three similarly more tangential selections that seemed promising in principal – Keith Tyson, Paul Noble and Verne Dawson – were betrayed by a rather mean choice of work. Elsewhere, while Eve Sussman’s slick film The Rape of The Sabine Women (2005) strained for its vaunted epic dimension, Lara Almarcegui’s Rubble Mountain, Murcia (2008) – a seven-storey school building converted into the huge mound of demolition debris which sat between narrow city streets – seemed almost effortless. Angered by his fellow artist’s critical writings, Donald Judd once distributed badges which protested ‘Smithson is not my spokesman’. Though Smithson would doubtless be suspicious of the contrasting impulse of Bourriaud’s ‘cultural confinement’ (as the former once labelled curating) of his legacy in the formal gallery displays part of ‘Estratos’ – he would surely have felt ruinously at home with Almarcegui’s anti-monument to the processing of our cultural inheritances. Max Andrews
First published in Issue 116