Anita Glesta: Gernika/Guernica
Arthur M Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beijing
27 September – 31 October 2013
By LILLY WEI
Lilly Wei: How did your Gernika/Guernica project come about? What inspired it?
Anita Glesta: My family and I lived across the street from the World Trade Centre and were among the many who were displaced after 11 September 2001. Two months later, I was invited to sit in on a consortium of renowned New York architects who were formulating guidelines for a memorial. Most of them favoured a gigantic skyscraper that would outdo the original, or a memorial, and were surprisingly conventional in their solutions, I thought. And they didn’t consider others, in other parts of the world, who had experienced similar violence. As the only artist present, I immediately thought about what I might create that would be more reflective of the 21st century.
LW: Tell me about the title you chose, Gernika/Guernica, which is politically fraught, language being an incendiary and persistent issue between the Basque separatists and Spain.
AG: Yes, in Basque, it is Gernika, but Picasso’s painting refers to it as Guernica, which is Spanish.
LW: It’s curious, as you said, that Picasso let it stand as Guernica, isn’t it?
AG: Yes, since he was so anti-Franco and a strong supporter of the Republican cause. And he would not permit Guernica to be shown in Spain while Franco was in power.
LW: I remember seeing it at the Museum of Modern Art, where it was from 1958-81, hung prominently but treated like any other painting. Then Tony Shafrazi spray-painted it in 1974. It’s been in Madrid since 1981, where I saw it at the Casón del Buen Retiro under bulletproof glass, protected by guards with machine guns. It was moved to the Reina Sofia in 1992, the security no longer extraordinary. What made you think of Guernica and Picasso’s painting?
AG: I had lived very near Guernica for several years as an adolescent so the bombing during the Spanish civil war always had specific resonance for me. After this brutal attack, this killing of thousands across the street from me, when we ran for our lives as debris from the towers fell on us, I wondered what effect a two-dimensional or three-dimensional image, a sculpture, might have now. I thought of Picasso’s painting, Guernica and Guernica itself. I went to what I thought was an anonymous website about the town. I wanted to see what might remain from that time, if there were fragments of bombs left, other evidence. In response to my questions, I received a message from María Oianguren Idigoras, the director of the Gernika Gogoratuz Peace Research Centre based in Guernica, which said: “We have been waiting for you.”
Six months later, I was invited to the congress commemorating the 66th anniversary of the bombing. In the room were survivors from that attack, although I didn’t know that at first. They looked like everyone’s grandparents. A German woman sitting next to me on the panel stood up and said that she was the daughter of one of the pilots who had taken part in the assault and apologised to the survivors in the audience. Their anger was palpable, even after all these years. When it was time for me to speak – and they were angry with me also – I said that my children were the same age as they had been in 1937 and frightened every time they heard a plane fly over. What could they tell me to tell them? That calmed them. And listening to them, I knew that no painting, no sculpture or memorial would be more powerful than hearing them speak, that they were powerful witnesses and that would be my work. So for five years, that’s what I did: I went back to the village two or three times a year, interviewed them and listened to their stories.
LW: How many survivors are there?
AG: There were just eight in attendance at the 66th anniversary commemoration, in their late 70s or early 80s when I began my project. I was interested in a dialogue about survival, about Guernica and New York. One of the six people I interviewed over the years was my adopted mother, Maria Dolores Tolosa Chausson, the woman I had lived with, whose father had nearly been killed. Her family lived in Irun, on the border between Spain and France, so she wasn’t really a Guernica survivor, but she provided a broader, less provincial perspective of what had happened in the region.
LW: And how did your project take the form it did?
AG: I grabbed a video camera two days after 9/11 – for the first time. I took footage of what was happening at the WTC and kept it. Later, when I was in Guernica, I realised I could use it. I didn’t want to make a documentary. I wanted to connect their story to mine, Guernica to New York, both places shattered by aerial bombardment, both events changing the course of world events. I thought of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as New York (and the New York art world) in their backyard. I thought to create a journey, marking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela at intervals between Guernica and Bilbao with speakers that told the story of the survivors. But after three years of official encouragement followed by delays, I decided to show it in New York at Chase Manhattan Plaza sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Centre and at White Box, a non-profit gallery, then in Chelsea, known for its politically engaged programmes.
LW: You said it was completed in 2007?
AG: Yes and shown as a multichannel video in April at White Box as a 70th anniversary commemoration of Guernica, and the steel sound boxes were installed at Chase Manhattan Plaza in June for two months. As an installation, there is also an undulation of red light, like a river, its dimensions variable, with projected shapes floating in it, representing all the shredded papers that cascaded from the World Trade Centre after the impact of the planes and the propaganda leaflets showered onto Guernica after the bombing. There was also a video of clouded skies repeated on a loop. And I included a reproduction of Guernica. In essence, I am deconstructing Picasso’s painting – my project intended to rethink the many complicated issues concerning war, human survival, memory and identity.
LW: On top of each steel box is a hand-sculpted bronze figure. Would you discuss that?
AG: The bronze images are a further deconstruction of Picasso’s Guernica, as well as parts of my own body: a little head and hand from the painting; a life-sized hand and foot that are mine, an oak leaf, a shattered heart, horns, and an abstracted horse’s rump, all symbols of the town, although the latter two are more problematic, and intentionally so, as emblems of Spain more than Guernica. I learned that the oak leaf represented Guernica, and the horses and bulls that Picasso depicted represented Spain, at the time Franco’s Spain. I thought it odd that Picasso did that since he was vehemently against the regime.
LW: They also suggest dismembered bodies, detached limbs – death as well as life.
AG: To me, they are about both, but more about life and hope than death. The oak leaf is about survival, representing the legendary oak tree of Guernica, the ancient emblem of Basque independence that was miraculously spared during the bombings. Everything else represents humanity, in particular the compassionate heart, the hands that create and the feet that take us on our journey through life.
LW: Here, at the Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology in Beijing, Guernika/Guernica is installed as a video projection of your interviews with the Basque survivors, Itziar Arzanegi, Luis Iriondo Austelechea, Consuelo Aguirre Amayoa, Manuela Aguirre Amayoa, Miren Gomeza and your adopted mother and the stream of red light and floating shapes, a video of horses and bulls that you said are not so common in the area and panoramas of the countryside, a video of your 9/11 narrative, eight steel boxes that are meant to suggest 1930 radios – and a souvenir mug imprinted with Picasso’s Guernica. Was it different elsewhere?
AG: It was shown in New York first, then it went to the Instituto Cervantes in Belgrade, Serbia in 2008, followed by the Museo Nacional de Antropología in La Paz, Bolivia in 2009 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kracow in Poland in 2012. There were some differences in the installations. For instance, I added the stories of two Holocaust survivors in Poland since MOCAK was next to the Schindler Museum, but they have been the only additions and their stories were framed in the most universal terms. And the video of my own 9/11 experiences has been shown in two film festivals in New York.
LW: Does Gernika/Guernica reflect your Russian/Polish/Jewish heritage?
AG: Yes, inasmuch as this work is about needless violence and the destruction of lives – something Jews have long experienced. It questions the paradox of human compulsions and actions, exploring our sense of compassion, our cruelty and our ability to survive.
LW: Yours was the first exhibition of the new initiative of the Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology to show contemporary art with serious themes by international artists.
AG: Yes, and I was so excited to be invited.
LW: What were the strongest elements in the Beijing installation?
AG: I was thrilled that this project is not only in Beijing and China, but that it is at a museum of archaeology. The installation is literally flanked on either side by galleries of glass cases that hold the remains of ancient human bones and artefacts. For me, it summarises in a poetic way the universality of being human, of what we share, the essential theme of my work. The “nakedness” of the human bones from thousands of years ago lying in cases around the corner from my installation reminds me that, stripped of our flesh and our clothes, our fragile skeletal frames are the same. And, they make me think about what Luis, one of the survivors, said about the pilots who bombed Guernica: if the planes had not been so high above the people in the village that they appeared like ants, if they had seen them as human beings, maybe the pilots would not have done it.
LW: What have you learned from this; how have your perceptions changed over the 12 years of this project?
AG: One thing that I have learned, sadly, is that xenophobia is intrinsically human. The quote I used in the initial catalogue for the project, and in the documentary I made of the interviews with the survivors, was by Hannah Arendt who said: “The abstract nakedness of being nothing but human was their greatest danger.” I wanted to show that we are all human and not abstractly so, that the survivors’ individual stories would nonetheless reflect similar responses across cultures in the face of the tragic. Their stories did show that, but identity still informs politics and the issues that split the country in the 1930s when Guernica was bombed have still not been resolved, that the same impulses were responsible for 9/11 and continue to assail the world.
LW: Robert Hughes once said: “The most celebrated, widely reproduced, and universally recognisable political painting of the 20th century is Guernica, and it didn’t change Franco’s regime one inch or shorten his life by so much as one day.” Others have said that Guernica had a profound, if immeasurable effect on world opinion, which can translate into action, that it was a triumph of art over the horrific and a compensation for it. What do you think the political agency of a work of art is?
AG: I ask in my work about the power of an image to convey the horror of war. The painting, Guernica, was a fascinating paradox to me when I began the work. I wondered if an icon associated with the violent death of great numbers of innocent people almost 70 years ago in a small town in Spain can maintain its charisma, its power? I wondered after 9/11, which directly affected my husband, children and me, if that image would still have emotional resonance? I wondered if other New Yorkers would still find it moving, would even remember it? I wondered what else might be revealed by my project? I wondered if that image becomes a T-shirt, mug or postcard, would its meaning be diminished or lost? This matters vitally to me as an artist, wary of the seduction of the visual image with which I have a love/hate relationship. For me, a multimedia installation was the perfect resolution, allowing me to create a work of multiple meanings and dimensions, including that of time, in which paradox can exist as well as solace.
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Born and raised in New York from a Russian/Polish Jewish family, Glesta sees herself as wholly a New Yorker but with deep links to European history; in addition, she spent part of her teenage years in Northern Spain in the 1970s so feels an affinity for the experience of political turmoil there, and the legacy of Gernika. Her series of sculptures entitled Gernika/Guernica (2007), which commemorate the 70th anniversary of the horrific attack on Gernika by Nazi Germany ordered by President Franco.