Now the Catalonia conflict has also reached Spain’s art and cultural scene. On Wednesday, the 37th Madrid Contemporary Art Fair ARCO opened with a polemic about political prisoners. It was triggered by a photo work by the Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, never embarrassed by provocation.
Sierra wanted to criticize the political arrests with the photo series “Presos politicos” (“Political Prisoners”) at the stand of gallery owner Helga de Alvear. Among other things, the 24 pixelated portraits depict Catalan politicians and separatist activists who are currently in custody for their participation in the independence referendum in Catalonia and the declaration of an independent republic in October.
They are Catalonia’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras and the two leaders of the separatist civil movements ANC and Omnium Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart. On the pixelated pictures the persons are not to be recognized exactly. However, the outlines make it clear which persons are depicted there. In addition to the Catalan activists, there are also imprisoned sympathisers of the Basque independence movement and the terrorist organisation ETA, as well as trade unionists and left-wing radicals who participated in or even called for violent protests.
Catalonia’s separatists regard their imprisoned politicians as “political prisoners” and even used them successfully in the election campaign for the regional elections shortly before Christmas, in which the separatists once again achieved a parliamentary majority. This made the reaction of the conservative ruling PP party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, but also that of the opposition socialist PSOE, all the more violent on Wednesday. Spain’s Secretary of State for Culture, Fernando Benzo, made it clear, in view of the polemical work of art, that “there are no political prisoners in Spain”. The pressure from the parties and the Madrid city government was apparently so great that Sierra’s factory was removed shortly before the opening of the ARCO fair.
However, gallery owner Helga de Alevar denies that the work was censored for political reasons. “No, it wasn’t censorship for me. I was nevertheless surprised by the request of the fair management not to show Santiago’s work,” said Alvar, who did not want to burden the relationship with the fair management due to future fair participation. From a purely commercial point of view, the controversy surrounding the work was positive for the gallery owner. It was the first work she could sell. For 96,000 euros including taxes, it went to a Spanish collector.
Sierra sees censorship endangering the reputation of the fair and the state
However, the withdrawal of the work provoked an outcry in the art scene for “freedom of expression”. Santiago Sierra, one of Spain’s best-known artists, has already spoken out: the fact that his work is no longer on display “seriously damages the reputation of this international fair and the Spanish state”. His photo series “Presos Politicos” (Political Prisoners) had been censored.
The ARCO fair management contradicts this. The gallery owner was asked not to exhibit the work, as media interest was already so focused on the polemical photo series that it affected reporting on the art fair in general.