It is a tradition that on the opening day of ARCO Madrid, Felipe VI king of Spain walks through the corridors and greets with a smile. It happened, however, in the 2019 edition that a hyper-realistic sculpture with its appearance and its scent stayed for the entire duration of the event in the stand of the Prometeo Gallery Ida Pisani. Presented by Santiago Sierra and Eugenio Merino, the work, El Ninot, almost five meters high and made with combustible materials (wax, resins, wood, fabric and natural hair), was destined to be consumed by the flames until leaving only the ashes and a fireproof skull. On 12 October 2020, the day of the Spanish national holiday in which Hispanidad is celebrated, the Spanish culture spread in twenty-three nations of the world, the Ninot of King Felipe VI, behind his dark jacket and a ” campaign smile”, caught fire. It happened in the municipality of Berga, in Barcelona, immediately awakening the great media flames.
If it is inevitable, from a media point of view, that Sierra and Merino’s operation triggers a series of discordant reactions – the anti-monarchists praise it, the pro-monarchists cry out to lese majeste – it is equally urgent, from an artistic point of view, to claim it as an idea that has manifested itself with something perceptible, having the function of a sign that embodies a concept and transforms it into a metaphor.
If we look at the art of the twentieth century, we realize that although it is still radical, the approach that rejects the identification of the artist’s work with the finished definitions that precede and determine the work, it is equally aware and known, finding its precursor in Marcel Duchamp, that it has deprived the artistic questions of their morphological character to give them a functional one.
Let’s try to transform “what is beautiful?” in “what is art?”: we recognize first of all that Ninot‘s Quema (burning) is a real action, that is, no matter how planned and organized, it is not a performance. It is an action transformed into a work of art, a metaphor for something that Sierra and Merino have considered important and that we perceive, touched on an emotional or cognitive level by a suggestive aura of meaning, regardless of aesthetics. The gesture of the two artists, who personally put themselves into play, actually involved something risky, extreme and compromising, to let the veil of fiction fall and make the truth appear.
Which truth? Perhaps the dreams and desires of a large part of the population to get rid of an obsolete institution? The Ninot, traditionally, is a figure with human features, made with combustible materials and old clothes, which since the eighteenth century has been the centerpiece of the festival de Las Fallas in Valencia, whose purpose was to set fire to all the monuments, or the fallas infantiles and fallas mayores. The two artists have remained faithful to the spirit with which the Fallas are burned in popular culture, that is to get rid of the old and the corrupt to make way for the new.
However, there is something more, something enigmatic, which refers to the idea of the ephemeral, widely understood as an intrinsic element of the media identity of the action that results in its inevitable evanescence. The question is whether the work resides in the meantime or in its documentation. When we consider the ephemeral, we cannot ignore its co-determining relationship with the archive, which proves to be a gnoseological tool to understand what Sierra and Merino have put into play in the way of building the work.
Which work? The quema or what remains? Recognizing that the ephemeral nature of this work is not in antithesis with its possibility of archiving but, on the contrary, it is guaranteed by the documentation that survives, the focus of the investigation shifts to the components in which the ephemeral resides. If the work lasted the time of the quema, then the photographic documentation that remains guarantees its persistence over time, accentuating, among other things, the perception of ephemerality, as well as the character of a historical document of our time.
Santiago Sierra and Eugenio Merino, who joined forces and merged styles to produce this work, are among those who – inside and outside the label of “political art” – have moved a strong criticism of the power and attitudes of a a system that, now more than ever, seeks to strengthen itself to continue supporting itself beyond its means under the slogans spread by the Spanish authorities of “social discipline” and the “new normal”. The paradigm-image they have produced is minimalist, easy and affordable for everyone, and what’s left of it in the form of photographs, a video and a skull is iconic but without identity, as if to say that no one can be anyone.
The naked king is burned.
Estudio Santiago Sierra
Prometeo Gallery Ida Pisani
For all the images: Santiago Sierra ed Eugenio Merino, La quema del Ninot. Courtesy of the artists and Prometeo Gallery Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca
She believes that art is a continuous search for expressive forms to depict the world in ways that we do not yet know. Graduated in Literature, she first specialized at the University of Bergamo with a thesis on what remains of a performance, then attended the curatorial school at the University of Malta. Since 2013 he has collaborated with associations, exhibition spaces and galleries as a cultural producer and independent curator.