Asier Mendizábal @ Raven Row

Raven Row showcases the largest exhibition of Basque artist Asier Mendizábal outside Spain to date. This includes a collection of previous and other works particularly chosen for this exhibition, all spread over the gallery’s three floors. A translated letter written in 1953 by another Basque artist Jorge Oteiza may be regarded as the conceptual core of the exhibition. Oteiza addressed his letter to the jury of London’s ICA for the selection of a sculpture as a monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner and although it was never sent, Mendizábal revisits the text and its argument for political representation via a channel of abstract art.

With clear references to the visual language of Oteiza, the impressive ‘Hard Edge #5 and #6’ (2010) welcome guests at the reception area. The larger room hosts ‘La Ruota Dentata’ (2009), an iron and concrete sculpture of a fragmented cogwheel whereas on the opposite side we find the ‘Bigger than a Cult, Smaller than a Mass’ (one, two backdrops, 2006), an assemblage of 16 national flags merged into one larger flag and hung in front of a newspaper collage, almost covering it in full. These are two powerful works representing a repertoire of synonyms for cultural distinctiveness, joint (or related) history, political symbolism and representation. The adjacent room is dominated by the presence of a bulky and weighty concrete tyre, ‘Untitled (Targu Jiu)’. This reference to Brancusi’s sculptural ensemble of Targu Jiu, built in memory of the Romanian heroes of the First World War in conjunction with the unsuccessful attempts of the local communist government to demolish the ‘Endless Column’ creates another parallel between abstract sculpture and the representation of political circumstance. Is this concrete tyre an allegorical narrative of those real truck wheel tyres that nearly razed Brancusi’s sculpture? Or is this Mendizábal’s demonstration for the metagenesis and metamorphosis of a politically related object into sculpture, freed from its former properties, strengths and weaknesses?

The exhibition is also complimented by a series of photographs and prints (‘Auñamendi’, 2006–10), photomontages (‘Figures and Prefigurations’) as well as other sculptures (made of concrete, stainless steel, chipboard, fabric, tiles, etc.) in smaller rooms such as ‘Untitled (Memorial)’ (2009), ‘Reformzirkus’ (2008) and ‘Le Trou #2 [The Hole]’ (2009). Throughout the exhibition one gradually conceives Mendizábal’s exploration of the triptych “nation-politics-abstract art” filtered through his great interest in cultural symbols and identity of the masses, as well as the implication of political occurrences. This visual survey and analysis leads to a stage of an aesthetic elevation where artistic abstraction turns into the vehicle for challenging and reshaping the political and social consensus.

Asier Mendizábal talked to REVma -/+ about his exhibition at Raven Row:

REVma -/+: Your exhibition showcases works from a variety of different media, including photomontages, graphics, wood, metal, concrete, etc. Do you feel that each of the media has its own purpose in the representation of a certain ideology and symbolism?
A.M.: If a big part of the task inherent in my work is to present the irreducible materiality of signs, the way in which every aspect involved in the actual construction of the signifiers matters, then it seems unavoidable to regard the processes chosen, what you call “different media”, as a signifying choice in order to distance from assumed representations.

REVma -/+: Your exhibited work at Raven Row involved the human presence within a political context, which you have managed to associate with abstract sculpture. To what degree do you think politics and cultural identity can correlate with aesthetics, and, have your origins played any role in the process of generating and producing your work?
A.M: I very much like how you say that I “have managed to associate” one thing with the other. It implies an unnatural, forced exercise of connecting unrelated terms. I could claim that they are, of course, more related than we tend to imagine; but I prefer to stick to that suggestion, implicit in your question, of an effort in building unnatural relations.
As to the origins, they are epochal as much as they are cultural, so what my origins share with others’ and what they do not share is equally important. I am as determined as an artist by the fact that I was born in a conflictual geographical and cultural situation as I am by having been born in a historical period of a reactionary consensus.

REVma -/+: Being an artist from Spain and having had your work showcased in plentiful art spaces and events outside of your home country – including the 2011 Venice Biennale -, do you feel it is easier or more difficult for your work to be penetrable and accessible by diverse audiences and cultural groups?
A.M.: The reception of my work outside Spain tends to be less biased by cultural preconceptions, and rarely meets the unjustified defensive reactions I often encounter in Spanish criticism. Nevertheless, there are some particular aspects of some particular works that could be read more specifically by those familiar with the concrete references at play, e.g. the specific history of Basque formalism in sculpture or the visual codes of 80’s American Hard Core. But this viewpoint would not necessarily mean a vantage point to confront the work.
Some of the codes alluded to in my work come from contexts in which a certain opaque codification is already part of the representation of identity they propose, one of exclusion and inclusion: those who can and those who cannot read a given sign according to the context. The viewer should not be spared of this estrangement as part of the experience of the work.