When a subject carries such a devastating intensity as it was to turn modern art into a tool of torture, it is likely that any exposition about it will defraud us.
But it can also happen that, as in Pedro G Romero‘s “Room”, the playful lightening of the weight of History predisposes us to more flexible and audacious readings, freed from moral servitudes and invented truths.
During the Spanish civil war, the checas were centers of detention of the Republican side, on whose torture techniques would be distorted by the national side, on which rivers of terrifying literature would flow. The Falangists, obviously, did not remain in the shadows about martyrizing techniques, but they lacked an “art director” like Alfonso Laurencic.
Pedro G Romero regains the Soviet name, Cheka, to refer to the three “psycho-technical” cells designed by that elusive Yugoslav figure who frequented Parisian avant-garde environments. The chekas occupy a prominent place in the curious archive that the Andalusian artist has been developing online since the ’90s (Archivo FX), where he relates concepts of radical art and revolutionary politics with images documenting anti-sacramental iconoclasm in Spain during the first third of the century.
Iconoclasm and religious fervor are the obverse and the reverse of the same impulse, the one that gives images a supreme power. The double nature of acts when they are extreme, the friction that make to collides certain polarities or antagonisms, the traps in which emancipatory ideals fall into, the dogmatic position of libertarian rhetoric … are aspects that in one way or another have interested Romero and that in the “psychotechnics checa” reach their maximum expression.
The Military Information Service of the Second Spanish Republic settled its checas in previously confiscated monasteries and churches. The profanation of these sacred places was compounded by the desecration of the ideals of art, when Laurenicic had the idea of applying the psychological effects of the form and color theorized by Kandinsky and other members of the Bauhaus to the inmates.
A replica on a 1:1 scale of two of these “checas” dominates the exhibition at the MNAC. Originally located, respectively, in a church in the Zaragoza street of Barcelona and in the convent of Santa Úrsula in Valencia (1937-39), one of the cells consists of a floor with bricks placed vertically between which there is no room for a foot, forming a kind of labyrinth that aims to make it impossible to stand. In the other, the concrete cots hurt the back of the prisoner with its fluted surface, in addition to being inclined to hinder to rest. A powerful full-time red light and the incessant ticking of a metronome contributed to cause a nervous breakdown.
The walls of the Vallmajor’s cheka are “decorated” with abstract paintings of suspected hypnotic and maddening effects. In one of the photographs of the printed sheets of the F.X. we see Himmler with other Nazi officers inside the prison cell, along with a checkered composition and multicolored spots. It is a representative image of the moment in which the “checas” were opened to the public to keep a record of these “horrors of Soviet inspiration”.
In the monitors, two propaganda films made in the 1940s are dramatized in which the tortures perpetrated in the communist cells are dramatized. The Franco regime shows here also ability to “be modern” in the avant-garde use of the expressionist and even Eisensteinian language when the script demands it.
Along with these pseudo-documentaries, a showcase presents a handwritten notebook. The attached display informs us that the notebook was found in a Barcelona market, and explains the text along with a lot of footnotes of the cryptic content. The chance finding of this “relic” among old books, in which Laurencic records his learnings in the Weimar Bauhaus, of his immersion in the theories of Kandinsky, Klee, Theo van Doesburg …, fascinates us. But the suspension of our disbelief takes only a few minutes.
The hoax of Juan José Lahuerta (author of the notebook) unsettles us for a moment, but also warns us about the failures of historical memory and how easy it is to falsify or misrepresent the facts, with their heroes and anti-heroes.
Lahuerta, with his interpretations of the apocryphal text of Laurencic, freely enters the mind of a character who is imagined attending classes at the Bauhaus, perhaps as a student or perhaps as a false journalist in order to appropriate psychological studies of color, light and architecture, of the avant-garde integration of painting, music and scenic arts, and finally pervert the good intentions of the moderns.
With a similar ludic tone, which delegitimizes the official History, Romero has displayed on the walls declassified documents of the General Cause against the “red domination”, following a minimalist pattern whose arrangement in grids and the title itself (Chess) refer us to a game involving death, memory and oblivion.
A cut-out on paper from Vallmajor’s cheka takes to the extreme this critical bet to de-dramatize the memory.
The thesaurus entries of Pedro G Romero also point to the dangers of “applied” art, where the three chekas are conceptually intertwined with artistic projects: Marcel Broodthaers ‘Decor, Barraçao de Helio Oiticica and Robert Morris’ Notes on sculpture.
From disparate backgrounds, these three artists shifted attention from the artistic object to the viewer’s space and to the theatricality: Morris with his expanded concept of sculpture, Oiticica from the favela as a model of minimal architectures where to experiment new forms of relationship, Broodthaers linking war and comfort, art and imperialist rhetoric.
The cross-reading of the texts about the inner space of the “checas” (“body-fitting sizes”, “changing sensation of space”) and the descriptions of the experimental proposals of these artists (“oppressive corridors”, “networks that imprison the body” in Oiticica, for example) activates a double meaning in each word, in each phrase.
The bars and grids of minimalist and conceptual art expand through space, evoking the idea of hallucinatory seclusion. Lola Lasurt, one of the invited artists, presents a pictorial frieze as frames inspired by the end of Anton Giulio Bragaglia “Thais”’s film, where the woman dies due to her own delirium. Constructivist designs and futuristic evanescences act as a reflection of Thais’ psychic collapse. Between the smoke and the hypnotic effects, images of Vallmajor’s cell can be glimpsed.
The adjective “revolutionary”, both in art and politics, is ambivalent and subordinated to the schizophrenia of events. We remember the aviator poet with which Roberto Bolaño builds a fragmentary story set in Pinochet’s time where extreme right and artistic happening, art and crime, disproportion and new order coincide, where evil and good are too close to each other, where everything transforms in its opposite like in a dream.
We left the exhibition more confused than we entered if we try to understand conflicting episodes of the past, but accepting their unsolvable condition adds charm to the paradoxes that art and history offer us.
Habitación. El Archivo F.X., las chekas psicotécnicas de Laurencic y la función del arte
A project by Pedro G.Romero
with Lola Lasurt, Patricia Gómez & María Jesus González and Álvaro Perdices
curators: Ángel Calvo Ulloa y Nuria Enguita
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, MNAC, Barcelona
in col·laboration with CA2M (Madrid) y La Nau (Universitat de València)
until 28th April 2019