Juan de Nieves
Juan de Nieves (A Coruña, Spain, 1964) lives and works between A Coruña and Madrid. He graduated from the University of Santiago de Compostela in 1987 with a BA in History of Modern and Contemporary Art. From 1994 to 1998 he was curator of the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea. From 1999 he was Head of Exhibitions at Espai d’art contemporani de Castelló, and its Artistic Director from late 2004. In 2013 he was appointed Artistic Director in Rupert (Vilnius, Lithuania), and in 2015, Artistic Director of the SUMMA Contemporary Art Fair (Madrid). In 2016 he was an invited guest curator at Artpace, the international artist-in-residence centre in San Antonio, Texas. Juan de Nieves has curated exhibitions and projects with Rosa Barba, Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, André Guedes, Daniel Buren, Angel Vergara, Dora García, Rubén Ramos Balsa, Paloma Polo and Daniel García Andújar, among others.
In 1730, fifteen families from Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Palma in the Canary Islands set out from the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on a voyage to Veracruz, Mexico. From there, the settlers continued their journey towards what is now the state of Texas. Some nine months later, in March 1731, they arrived at the fortress of San Antonio de Béxar, where this small colony of Canarians settled. Not long afterwards, what we know today as San Antonio was founded, located on the trail then called el camino de los Tejas. The Alamo mission in San Antonio de Valero, the aforementioned fortress, and the Acequia Madre de Valero, a canal, had been built at the direction of Fray Antonio de Olivares, a Franciscan missionary who, many years earlier, had written to the Viceroy of New Spain, urging him to send families of settlers to found a new town and thus keep the Native American population in check. From then on, until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, these territories were to witness successive settlements, wars, and border conflicts, along with waves of settlers from different countries and new languages.
Far removed from the course of history, the monarch butterfly continues its annual migrations, year after year, from southeast Canada and the Rocky Mountains to the Mexican state of Michoacán, and from the Great Lakes to the peninsula of Yucatán, travelling more than 4,000 kilometres in a little over six weeks and tracing in the sky a kind of funnel that gradually narrows until it pours out in central Mexico. These migrations are one of nature’s most surprising phenomena. All of a sudden, one day, as if guided by a powerful magnetic force, the butterflies set off on their journey south, crossing prairies, valleys, mountains, deserts, and cities, passing into Mexico along the Texas border, and converging in their millions on central Mexico, where the Sierra Madre Oriental meets the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.
Daniel García Andújar has employed The Butterfly Funnel as a metaphor to concatenate a project that he recently presented during his residency at Artpace, in the city of San Antonio. As we have come to expect from his work, this multi-faceted piece is grounded in a rethinking of public space and its diverse historical, socio-political, and economic implications. The project examines processes of colonisation, mobility, and cultural transmission from a historical perspective, yet with the purpose of analysing and re-contextualising these problematics in the light of the present day. In this regard, Andújar reflects on and forewarns us of our fundamental right to decide our destiny and our place in the face of the disappearance of public space within the world-capitalist order. The constant redefinition of what constitutes public space demands new strategies of thinking and action. Art, now more than ever, can afford us the tools to dismantle false narratives that have traditionally been constructed out of hegemonic worldviews.
The Texas Files, the core piece in this installation, is a fragmented and consciously asystematic layout of images, not unlike Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. Culled from archives, libraries and the internet, these images operate as a mediating mechanism between reality and its representation. In the piece’s apparently unordered arrangement, we are able to read a story in which past and present converge in order to trace correspondences and evoke analogies.
At the same time, Andújar does not pass up the opportunity to reconsider the physical and institutional space in which these archives and the rest of the dispositifs included in the project (which we will discuss below) are going to be deployed. Making use of an architecture conceived specifically for the space, the project presents us with a walk-through consisting of perfectly finished temporary walls alongside unfinished ones whose underlying structure has been laid bare. The walk-through begins along one of these “dismantled” walls, on which a plasma screen reproduces images of the empty space as it was before being intervened. These images were recorded in slow motion with a drone, the same drone that the artist used to record other outdoor scenes. Within the overall project, this Empty Space is a kind of statement about the imperatives of spaces that have, since the advent of modernism, been conceived for art. Andújar brings to the surface the frictions between the institution as a space for exhibition and contemplation and its new remit as a place for production and thought.
This, in fact, is precisely the project’s starting point: a laboratory displaying the results of research that has no pretension to being either conclusive or methodological. Instead, it gradually uncovers new layers of meaning along with their corresponding implications. In this way, if the project has one clear-cut trigger as regards the narrative of Spanish colonial operations during the second half of the eighteenth century, other ramifications are successively revealed and superimposed over other questions, such as restrictive policies regarding public space, the state control of borders, or the vested distortion — or even outright silencing — of the objects of cultural transmission.
As regards this last aspect, Andújar has examined the importance of food and taste as primary vehicles for structuring cultural identity. The gastronomic tradition of the Guanches — the native inhabitants of the Canary Islands, descended from the Berber tribes of North Africa — was adopted, following the conquest of the islands by the Spanish, by new settlers from Castille and other European peoples. This cuisine, heavily spiced with chile, cumin, and coriander, was in turn transported by the Canarian colonists who settled in the region of San Antonio in 1730. The characteristic flavour of cumin-seasoned meat was introduced by women from the Canaries who cooked their spicy meals in the main plaza of this first settlement. Together with other crucial factors, like language, this form of cooking is one of the most deeply-rooted signs of cultural identity on either side of the border between the US and Mexico.
Andújar introduces into his project a non-visible piece which nonetheless permeates the entire gallery space. It is a perfume or essence that reproduces the characteristic aroma of chili con carne and impregnates the space by means of a diffuser like those used in stores, boutiques, and even restaurants. The odor acts as a subtle yet highly effective lure that appeals directly to our emotions and, in a strictly commercial sense, stimulates our consumerist appetites. The use of such a strategy in an art context engages ambiguously with visitors, who have to decide between being consumers or active receptors. This is accentuated further when they discover that this familiar and persistent aroma has also been bottled, in the manner of an exclusive fragrance, and placed inside an illuminated display case. With this piece, Andújar not only questions the role of the audience but also that of the art institution itself, and indeed of the market, as both are foreclosed by the immaterial, critical quality of an intervention of this nature.
With the series of photographs Misión San Antonio de Valero. San Antonio de Béxar. March 1836, Andújar once again cross-examines the role of the institution in its mandate to conserve and control the truthfulness and originality of the artwork. Simulating nineteenth-century photographic techniques, the artist has created a series of close-ups of the reconstruction of the Alamo that is on exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas. Employing the props that are usual in these kinds of phantasmagoria, this scale model reproduces one of the most symbolically-charged events in the history of Texas, the famous Battle of the Alamo, around which numerous myths and counter-myths have been built, favouring either the Mexican or the Texan side. The museographic endeavour to reproduce as faithfully as possible the state of the compound after the battle affords Andújar a chance to link together a series of reflections and actions of wide-ranging significance. First of all, it lays bare a merely formalist and tendentious understanding of an ideological system — the museum — based on the past, not only on an aesthetic level, but also on an ethical and political level. Secondly, the images created by the artist subvert the art-representation relationship, questioning the supposed aesthetic quality inherent to photography that confers on it the status of the medium par excellence for representing reality, which, in this particular case, is moreover merely a fictionalisation. Thirdly, by means of an operation of presenting this series of photographs in an orthodox fashion within a new context, which we have already defined as a space of production, the strategies of control exercised by the art institution are weakened and called into question.
A new appropriationist strategy is also undertaken in The Texan Files (Lightbox). Here it consists of a series of historic photographs that the artist purchased on eBay, which are displayed backwards, silencing the images, which, nevertheless, can still be indirectly intuited because of the way they are arranged in a lightbox. What truly matters here, though, is the information added to the reverse of the images. Based largely on typewritten notes, these “inoffensive” micro-narratives nevertheless radiate a whole series of ideological appreciations which are consubstantial with the methods of classification and ordering of conventional photography archives.
In Camino Real, a double projection that records, on one hand, a section of the old Spanish trail on a private ranch near Laredo, and, on the other, the ruins of The Hot Wells and Spa, an early-twentieth-century establishment that was a noteworthy precursor of the spectacular US leisure complexes that followed it, Andújar once again focuses on ideas of displacement and the growing dispossession of public space. In both cases, there are barely any remaining traces or memory of the trails that were used by the native peoples before the former were named and controlled by the colonial apparatus. The camera that records them, from a bird’s-eye view and using the same drone that Andújar employed to record the empty space of the gallery, operates succinctly and effectively over a territory that has been banished, rendered unproductive, and stripped of its history, like a zero level with no way back.
Each of Daniel García Andújar’s projects demands from us an active, critical observation and opens up multiple directions and changes of register at the same time. The Butterfly Funnel operates as a complex system that incorporates different temporalities and discursive levels, forcing us to take a stance on historical narratives and their politics of silencing and exclusion. His practice eliminates the distances between the artist, the work, and the environment, between the environment and the interpreter, and so on in turn.