From Medieval monks to neon lights

If you’re looking for an example of Gothic and eighteenth-century architecture integrating seamlessly with twentieth-century art, check out Deuce Coop by US artist James Turrell. It is free and open to the public.

The neon installation imbues a lustrous calm, inviting monk-like contemplation

The neon installation imbues a lustrous calm, inviting monk-like contemplation

To reach this installation, you may choose to follow one of Barcelona’s oldest routes, the Roman Via Augusta which ran along what are now the carrers (streets) of Carders, Bòria, Llibreteria, Call and Boqueria. Monks of the order of Saint Augustine built their convent in stages between 1428 and 1589 on the spot where this way crossed one of the city’s main supply canals, the Rec Comtal. Profiting from alliance with the area’s main guilds—textiles, tanning and other leatherworkers—the monks modified and extended it throughout the seventeenth century.

After the War of the Spanish Succession—which was disastrous for Catalonia’s autonomy—partial demolition of the district was ordered to make way for the Ciutadella fortress, and in 1718, Philip V’s military engineers rebuilt the site as a training centre, erecting a sober rationalist façade to face the Ciutadella. In the mid-eighteenth century, Joris Prosper van Verboom refurbished it as an Academy of Mathematics. So the building is an eclectic blend of over three centuries of architecture.

The oculus is an iconic Turell reference, as is his use of neon

The oculus is an iconic Turrell reference, as is his use of neon

Turrell’s installation adds a further layer. It is sited in the entrance hall of this historic building, which now operates as a civic centre. The neon installation revitalises and accentuates the old architecture. It contains an oculus—an iconic Turrell reference—while his use of intense neon light is also characteristic. This lustrous calm encourages you to take your time to appreciate the installation at a meditative pace. The view of the Gothic cloister within adds to this sensation.

Deuce Coop (1992) by James Turrell. Centre Civic Convent de Sant Agustí, c. Comerç, 23, la Ribera. Opening hours (from dusk): Mon to Fri until 10 pm; Saturdays until 9 pm.

Location

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.

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The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

Walk through a poem in Horta

Poetry, theatre, prose, sculptural works and even experimental film: his output was prodigious in all these media yet Joan Brossa described himself solely as a poet, and he is remembered as one of Catalonia’s greatest. So to understand Brossa’s sculptural installation, his visual poetry as he called it, you need to understand a little of the man.

Set among olives, cypresses and carobs, this Mediterranean poem in three tenses visually conjures a Greco-Roman past

Set among olives, cypresses and carobs, this Mediterranean poem in three tenses visually conjures a Greco-Roman past

As a child and adolescent, though unable to apply himself at the several schools his parents enrolled him in, he was an avid reader at home. His other lifelong passion was magic, and he would visit Barcelona’s first magic shop, El Rei de la Magia – one of the city’s oldest businesses – which still operates today at C. de la Princesa, 11. It’s well worth a visit if prestidigitation is your thing.

During the Civil War, he gave free magic performances at different centres of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) until he was called up to serve on the Lleida front in 1938. A few short months later, he was wounded in the eye at the Battle of the Segre, and invalided out of action.

In the late 40s, in a country still devastated by the Spanish Civil War, Brossa burgeoned as a poet. He was able to do so thanks to the tutelage of J. V. Foix, a brilliant noucentista poet, and by joining a clandestine study group, where he learned Catalan, which had been outlawed by Franco’s dictatorship.

The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

The capital A’s sharp lines erupt from the vegetation like a futurist manifesto

As a founder of the Dau al Set (seven-spotted die), an artist group and magazine which included Catalan artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan Ponç, Brossa penned their revolutionary manifesto, “La presència forta” (The Strong Presence), a quasi-futurist attack on the rigid retrograde values of Francoism that controlled post-war society. The Dadaist-inspired work they produced showed the influence of experimentation with surrealism and existentialism, and later, the political awareness of Marxism.

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art. The playful idea of a magic trick predominates in his Accessible Visual Poem in Three Tenses: birth, journey – with pauses and intonations – and destruction. It is a journey on which you are invited to embark.

Punctuation symbols – “with pauses and intonations” – lead viewers on a journey, representing life’s many joys and tempests

Punctuation symbols – “with pauses and intonations” – lead viewers on a journey, representing life’s many joys and tempests

Joan Brossa was given this commission by his friend Esteve Bonell, one of the architects who designed the Horta velodrome. The poet conceived one of his visual poems for the adjacent park. The installation is meant to be experienced in three separate tenses: from the capital letter A, which forms an entrance arch sixteen metres high – on the crown of the hill to emphasise its stature – to the ruins of a similar letter, symbolising destruction, decline and of course, death. Along the way, a journey of punctuation symbols – exclamation, quote and question marks, colons and brackets – scattered across the grass represent the many ups and downs of life’s adventures. Brossa originally wanted swings instead of benches in the park, to accompany the Mediterranean vegetation – olives, cypresses and carobs – but a fear of vandalism foiled that idea.

Among other of his works scattered around Barcelona, you can see his Poema visual Bàrcino (Visual Poem Bàrcino, 1994) next to the Cathedral, Lletres Gimnastes (Gymnastic Letters, 1997) in carrer Rauric, and A–Z amb figures antropomòrfiques (A–Z with Anthropomorphic Figures) in the gardens named after the poet, up on Montjuïc Mountain.

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for the playfulness of magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art

Brossa’s sculptural and urban installations owe as much to his passion for the playfulness of magic as to his growing experimentation with conceptual art

Poema visual transitable en tres temps: naixement, camí – amb pauses i entonacions – i destrucció (Accessible Visual Poem in Three Tenses: birth, journey – with pauses and intonations – and destruction). Sculptor: Joan Brossa. 1984. Jardins de Marià Cañardo (Horta Velodrome) Coordinates: 41.437235, 2.148552
Other Joan Brossa work:
Poema visual Bàrcino (Visual Poem Bàrcino, 1994). Plaça Nova. Coordinates: 41.384167, 2.175000.
Lletres Gimnastes (Gymnastic Letters, 1997). C. Rauric, 6. Coordinates: 41.381392, 2.174852
A-Z amb figures antropomòrfiques (A-Z with Anthropomorphic Figures). Jardins de Joan Brossa, Montjuïc Mountain. Coordinates: 41.368117, 2.166818

The ruins of the once-majestic capital A symbolise destruction, decline and of course, death

The ruins of the once-majestic capital A symbolise destruction, decline and of course, death

References:

http://www.escriptors.cat/autors/brossaj/pagina.php?id_sec=3042

http://www.fundaciojoanbrossa.cat/

Actualitat literària sobre la revista Dau al Set a LletrA, la literatura catalana a internet (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)

http://www.fundaciojvfoix.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Arthur-Terry_Readings.pdf

Sited on the crown of the hill to emphasise its height, the capital letter A is the first hint you have that a Brossa work inhabits the vicinity

Sited on the crown of the hill to emphasise its height, the capital letter A is the first hint you have that a Brossa work inhabits the vicinity

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.

Caged in the rain

Art is the product of its surroundings, so even as the spreading trees form part of the experience, so too do the bikini-clad throngs

Art is the product of its surroundings, so even as the spreading trees form part of the experience, so too do the bikini-clad throngs

If you cross over Barceloneta’s Passeig Marítim in the direction of the sea, you will come across another of the Configuraciones urbanes (Urban Configurations) pieces. In the middle of an open square that serves as the main gateway onto the beach is what appears to be a rusty iron cage protected by four spreading trees. Una habitació on sempre plou or A Room Where It Is Always Raining, by the Madrid artist Juan Muñoz is also from that magic year, 1992.

Each of the five bronze figures inhabiting this double-arched aviary-like structure appears to grow from and remain rooted to a heavy semi-spherical base. Only a few details of clothing differentiate their anonymous yet virtually identical forms. Despite their strong sense of group, however, they appear curiously, almost wilfully oblivious to each other, consciously distant—as if expending enormous amounts of energy to avoid seeing the bars of their cell, or their fellow inmates. This concurrent unity and disparity of Muñoz’s figures evoke a group of political prisoners estranged by ideological differences. Their gazes never quite connect with any point, either outward, or with each other. Apparently the installation was meant to include water so that “rain” would perpetually fall into the cage, however, technical problems meant this feature was never implemented. Art is as much about its accidents as its intentions.

Though schooled from fourteen to seventeen by one of Madrid's foremost art critics, Juan Muñoz produced no sculpture of his own until the age of twenty-seven. His earliest works were surprisingly mature

Though schooled from fourteen to seventeen by one of Madrid’s foremost art critics, Juan Muñoz produced no sculpture of his own until the age of twenty-seven. His earliest works were surprisingly mature

At around the time he produced this piece, Muñoz was beginning to work with “narrative” installations, using figures only slightly smaller than life-size that were engaged in interaction. His installations invite viewers in, to interact, even to discreetly take part. Among other media, Muñoz wrote short narrative pieces. He published “The Face of Pirandello” in Urban Configurations, the book which came out in 1994, two years after the exhibition:

Allow me an image: the image of the face of Luigi Pirandello. Now allow me a second image that might explain the first: the image of a man who over a period of months buys several books by Pirandello. At first, he does so just to browse through his dramatic works. Later he purchases a few more books, this time not by Pirandello but about Pirandello. Perhaps to eye the framework. As the weeks go by, every time he takes one of the books from the shelf or puts it back, he stares for a few seconds at the face on the front and back covers of the books. As he goes from the shelf to the table and back again, his attention begins to become fixed, time after time, on the hat the Italian playwright wears in all his photographs.

If the image of Pirandello’s hat conjures fleeting visions of certain of Magritte’s works, it also highlights one of the essential processes of viewing art. First comes the impact, of an image, sound effect or other sensory perception. You interact with, even become obsessed with the image for its own sake – its form, colour, composition or subject matter. Then secondary questions overtake the primary ones: how and why override the what. Juan Muñoz forces you to ask “What am I looking at here? What does it mean?” The image above of unseeing political prisoners is only an interpretation, as valid as any other yet also as erroneous.

The placing of such a dour installation in the midst of this tourist beachfront might seem misplaced or at best ironic, but art is the product of its surroundings, so even as the spreading trees form part of the experience, so too do the bikini-clad throngs.

The concurrent unity and disparity of Muñoz’s figures evoke a group of political prisoners estranged by ideological differences

The concurrent unity and disparity of Muñoz’s figures evoke a group of political prisoners estranged by ideological differences

So that which is not art is an integral part of art, as Muñoz experienced here:

After I moved back to Spain, there was this man near my house who sold garden sculpture. I didn’t consider him a sculptor. I liked this contradiction because I was a sculptor who couldn’t make a sculpture, and this man, whom I didn’t consider a sculptor, considered himself a sculptor, and he produced a lot. He made cement lions and other statues for gardens. I bought a couple of things from him and cut and destroyed parts of his work to manufacture a work of my own.

Among his earliest and surprisingly mature pieces were his balcony works: statues installed high on the wall of the exhibition chamber, which thereby transformed the space into an artwork in its own right.

In addition to the plastic arts, Muñoz was interested in atmospheric sound pieces, such as the BBC Radio 3 commission he created in collaboration with British composer Gavin Bryars, A Man in a Room, Gambling (1992). He won the National Spanish Prize for Plastic Arts in 2000, but died of a heart attack in Ibiza just one year later, aged 48. At that time an exhibition of his was being shown at London’s Tate Gallery. His work can be found in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, as well as other Spanish and international collections.

Una habitació on sempre plou / A Room Where It Is Always Raining, Juan Muñoz, 1992. Plaça del Mar, Barceloneta. Coordinates: 41.374854, 2.189277

The installation was meant to include water so that “rain” would perpetually fall into the cage, however, technical problems meant this feature was never implemented

The installation was meant to include water so that “rain” would perpetually fall into the cage, however, technical problems meant this feature was never implemented

References:

http://juanmunozestate.org/

A revealing interview with Muñoz: http://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/042901.html

http://www.hangarbicocca.org/events/a-man-in-a-room-gambling/

Configuracions urbanes (print edition), Moure, Gloria. Edicions Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1994.

Get the guide BCN Free Art 01: The Port and Barceloneta! Go to www.poblesecbooks.com to purchase a print copy.