Artwork censored, a rapper imprisoned, a book seized by a judge: is there freedom of expression in Spain?

Catalan MonitorAra, News Roundup

Photo: the empty walls left after the removal of Santiago Sierra’s “Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners” (Credit: Antoni Ribas)

By Antoni Ribas, Júlia Manresa and Ot Serra

Madrid, 21st February, 2018

1. The creator of the controversial “Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners” astonished at news of withdrawal of his work from the Arco fair

Santiago Sierra wasn’t expecting the controversy stirred by his work “Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners” at the Arco fair in Madrid: this morning, Ifema employees removed his work before the first professionals and collectors entered the premises. The piece was removed at the request of Clemente González Soler, President of Ifema, and the gallery owner who was showing it, Helga de Alvear, accepted the decision. “If Spain isn’t a dictatorship, it surely looks a lot like one”, said the artist, who answered a questionnaire by email on Tuesday afternoon, before releasing a statement on Facebook where he said that the removal of the work damaged “the international image of the fair and the Spanish state”. In addition, he believes that it shows a “lack of respect” towards the gallery owner and “the public’s intelligence”. “Actions like this give extra significance and importance to a piece like mine, which specifically denounces the climate of persecution that cultural workers have been suffering recently,” concluded the text.

The management of the fair assured that they acted with “maximum respect for the freedom of expression”. In an official statement issued after removing the work, Carlos Urroz, Director of Arco, expressed his disagreement with the decision, but was not able to return the work to the exhibition. In a meeting of the Ifema governing board, they decided not to display the work, despite a negative vote from the Madrid City Council.

As to the reaction of the Madrid City Council, they stated that the removal of Santiago Serra’s work from Arco was a unilateral decision by the President of Ifema, and that they only found out this morning. Sources from the municipal administration explained to ARA that they requested a reversal of this decision as soon as they knew of it, because they believe it is a mistake. According to the government of mayor Manuela Carmena, however, representatives of the Community of Madrid and the Chamber of Commerce agreed with Ifema and, faced with their request, believed that reversing the decision “would create more noise” and framed it as a decision by Ifema’s president, who preferred to remove a controversial work. Nevertheless, the City Council of the Spanish capital believes that art often has the role of generating controversy and insisted that the decision was in error.

Ifema didn’t give any reasons why they removed the work, but it is easy to imagine that it is due to sensitivity over the topic of political prisoners and because it addresses the conflict between Catalonia and Spain. “The fair understands that the controversy that the exhibition of these pieces has caused in the media is damaging the visibility of the rest of the art displayed,” said the statement.

Helga de Alvear is one of the founding gallery owners of Arco, and the director of the fair, Carlos Urroz, worked with her for 8 years. “I have always shown Santiago Sierra’s works without any qualms. This morning the president of the fair called me and they took it down”, said de Alvear, who denied any connection between the controversy over the Catalan independence bid and the fact that the Spanish king will inaugurate the fair on Thursday. But she did recognize that the police had dropped by her stand on Tuesday for security purposes and took notice of the piece. “All I want to do is sell art”, stressed de Alvear. Large format photos by German artist Thomas Ruff have been hung in the empty space left behind by the 24 pieces of “Contemporary Spanish political prisoners”.

Photo: Gallery workers hanging work by Thomas Ruff, where the piece by Santiago Sierra had previously been (Credit: ARA)

To Ferran Barenblit, Director of Macba (Barcelona Contemporary Art Museum), the theme of the work is secondary: “The theme is the least important thing. We must defend the right of art to address any topic. Art should make you uncomfortable; if it is complacent, it’s not fulfilling its role”, he said. This defense must be voiced by artists, gallery owners, and administrations: “Politicians have to defend art as a source of growth for the entire society”. Marko Daniels, the new director of the Joan Miró Foundation, agreed with Barenblit and believes that the removal of the work has caused an effect opposite to what Ifema wanted: “The intention was supposedly to silence the work, but they have amplified it. The piece opened the debate, which will continue, with the work on the wall or not”, he said.

Joan Tardà, ERC spokesman in Madrid’s Congress, denounced the censorship of the work on political prisoners, and compared the situation with Turkey. “Welcome to Turkey, welcome to the Erdogan regime”, he said in statements to the media in the hallways of Congress. Tardà announced that he will call on the Spanish government to withdraw subsidies and tax breaks from the Arco foundation.

A year-long investigation

Despite the fact that the imprisonment of the Jordis, Junqueras, and the Catalan ministers is the most controversial aspect of “Contemporary Spanish political prisoners”, the Catalan process was not the inspiration for the piece: “The investigation and gradual publication of the results began a year ago, and we didn’t expect that it would have this outcome”, said the artist. “The flood of prisoners connected to the process began at the end of our investigation –he added–. We were the first to be surprised, because it wasn’t the typical profile of a political prisoner”. “I consider myself a citizen of the world, and I have a tough time with the idea of a small country. But evidently they are the ones who have to decide for themselves what they want to be, of course”, added the artist in regard to the Catalan independence bid.

Photo: All portraits in Sierra’s work are blurred in pixels and none of them shows the name of the political prisoner (Credit: FERNANDO VILLAR, EFE)

All things considered, he has a very critical view of nationalisms: “Homeland and identity are obstacles, disadvantages, things to overcome. With walled borders, nations seem to me like prisons. I travel a lot and every time I enter a country I have the feeling I’m entering a prison, based on the border controls. I would prefer a world without these inconveniences”.

The “hypnotic mantra” of the denial of political prisoners

“Contemporary Spanish Political Prisoners” is the first work in the history of Arco that has been removed. Even the controversial “Franco Inside a Soda Cooler”, by Eugenio Merino, resisted. “There is censorship at Arco”, said Merino, before reminding that the lawsuit that he received over the Franco work included a letter from José María Álvarez del Manzano, who at that time was president of Ifema.

The goal of Sierra is to shake up the public, but on this occasion he has been devoured by political pressure and the market: “There is an entire entertainment industry aimed at keeping our minds occupied with irrelevant events, and it is very successful in its efforts. The hypnotic mantra keeps repeating that there are no political prisoners. And that is what is commonly believed”, concluded Sierra.

2. Rapper ‘Valtonyc’ to appeal his prison sentence before the European Court of Human Rights

Rapper Josep Miquel Arenas, known as Valtonyc, saw his sentence of three and a half years in prison confirmed this week by the Spanish Supreme Court, and announced he will take it to the European Court of Human Rights. In an interview on TV3, Valtonyc explained that he will ask that court for justice, as he “expects nothing” from Spanish justice. Yesterday Spain’s Supreme Court ratified the National Court’s verdict that sentenced Valtonyc to three and a half years in prison for “justifying terrorism, slander, and grievous injury to the Crown, and threats against Jorge Campos, President of Actúa Baleares”. Valtonyc’s lawyer announced yesterday that he would appeal the sentence before the Constitutional Court.

The rapper also explained that he feels like “a political prisoner” and demanded freedom of expression in artistic creation because “art mustn’t have limits”. “There is no violence in the songs; art has to be provocative to denounce the problems and for there to be social transformation,” he said.

3. Madrid judge seizes book on Galician drug trafficking

Judge Alejandra Pontana has requested a provisional ban on sales of a book titled Fariña [Blow], by journalist Nacho Carretero, at the request of José Alfredo Bea Gondar, former mayor of O Grove (Pontevedra). The book, which can be found in many Catalan libraries, explores the history of Galician drug trafficking. In January, the former mayor of the Galician town sued Carretero and publisher Libros del K.O. for having allegedly tarnished his good name. Following the court’s decision, the book became number 1 in sales on Amazon.

Fariña mentions the former mayor for his alleged links with Galician drug trafficking. For the moment, the book cannot be printed or sold. On the other hand, the judge denied Bea Gondar’s request to block the broadcast of a TV series based on the book, and argued that the broadcast date of the series is uncertain and the script unknown. The judge believes that the contents of the book and the alleged inaccuracies denounced are enough to seize it. The plaintiff, however, will have to deposit 10,000 euros to cover any damage that this provisional measure may cause to the author’s assets.

Bea Gondar led a list of independent candidates in 1983 and won the municipal elections. He governed O Grove until 1991. That year he again received the most votes, but three days before the new city council was formed, the police arrested him because they had detained a man carrying 30 kilos of cocaine in a car rented by Bea Gondar. He was proclaimed mayor but was in prison. In the end he was removed from office because he could not appear to formalize the new local government. Madrid’s National Court found him guilty, but the Supreme Court overturned the ruling because one of the witnesses was disqualified. This is part of what Carretero explains in his book.

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