Framed by its leafy avenue, Feníxia by Silvia Gubern stands like a totem over Barcelona, a solid stone portal supporting a clear glass oval garlanded with coloured fronds or feathers. It stakes a claim on its setting, defining as a symbolic crossing of paths what otherwise might be just a transitive space. Gazing out over Barcelona, the sculpture seems like a magical portal floating above the city, ready to transport you into another time or some fantastical parallel reality, constructed of Barcelona’s terracotta bricks and Catalan Modernisme. Approaching from this direction – along Passeig de Jean Forestier (that flat terrace below the MNAC) – its yellow and red plumes seem to be reaching up, yearning for flight.
Artist, poet and designer Silvia Gubern (Barcelona, 1941) has attained a number of firsts in Spain. In the late sixties, she was the only woman in El Maduixer, an arte povera group of artists that included Antoni Llena, Jordi Galí and Àngel Jové. The group was named after the house they lived in, the Jardí del Maduixer, where they presented their pioneering works. She created one of the first shows to be classed as conceptual art in Catalonia (1969), while a year later, her Primera Mort (First Death, 1970) became Spain’s first piece of video art. Throughout her career she has tackled ground-breaking design projects, such as the logo and interior design of the mythical band venue, Sala Zeleste – with collaboration from her five-year-old son – as well as exhibitions in the iconic Barcelona design store, Sala Vinçon, both of which have now closed.
Having passed this sculpture daily on my way to and from the Picornell pool, I have seen first-hand how tempting it is for vandals: two attempts out of many to smash its ellipse have been successful, while the now-reinforced glass bears the regular marks of balls and other projectiles.
The name, Feníxia, a feminising of the masculine noun “phoenix” places the focus on these very female symbols: eggs, a portal, feathers. Yet the stone gate, conjuring up all the eternal and solid power of matriarchy creates a strong contrast to the fragility of the glass and the yearning growth of the young plumes rising skywards. But feathers may also become quills. So it is worth remembering that this installation was donated to the city as part of a 1993 book promotion campaign by several writers’, editors’, book distributers’ and librarians’ associations. In fact, this unique view over Poble Sec and beyond can only inspire writers whatever their gender.
Poetry is a central concern of Gubern’s artistic practice and these words, written in 1990, seem to reflect the installation’s soul:
“agulles d’or volen per l’aire
em caic per un forat i suro ingràvida recreant-me en aquesta dimensió”
[“plumes of gold fly through the air
I fall through a hole and float weightless recreating myself in this dimension”]
Feníxia (1993) by Silvia Gubern. Artificial stone, laminated glass and painted resin.
Passeig de Jean Forestier, s/n., Montjuïc. Location