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Henrik Olesen, ‘Some Illustrations to the life of Alan Turing’, 2008, 16 digital prints

Since its inception in 1995, MACBA has been known for turning its back on canonical positions, and for resolutely focusing on alternative readings of art history. Working under a most enlightened slogan, ‘Less representation, more negotiation’, the museum has always paid attention to artists who have been cornered by the official grand narratives in a context where social issues and politics are at stake. MACBA’s speculations on the late developments and outcomes of the different ‘modernities’ have been constant throughout these years. It has worked its way into constructing its own ‘modern space’ through a discourse rooted on spectacle-free dialectics and a firm attachment to otherness.

In 1999, Art and Action together with LA MOCA, presented an extensive overview of performance stressing the role played by artists from South America, Japan and Eastern Europe. In 2004, Art and Utopia, curated by Jean-François Chevrier, outlined the relationships between politics and poetry with Mallarmé’s work as point of departure. In 2007, Under the Bomb gave shape to Serge Guilbaut’s thesis on the cross-over of artistic influence from Paris to New York in the postwar era. Solo shows by artists like Marcel Broodthaers, Gego, Stanley Brouwn or Jo Spence may also draw clear conclusions on the coherence of its position, a neverending journey to the centre of the margins, one might say, yet he has often been blamed for its scarce commitment to the enchantments of the visual.

MACBA now presents Modernologies, curated by Sabine Breitwieser, a group show that may stir confusion among the institution’s regular audience. After over a decade shedding light on a topic that has become an artistic genre in itself, MACBA has put together a show that stands out more like an introduction, than as a much expected twist in perspective. Its subtitle is revealing: Contemporary artists researching Modernity and Modernism . It echoes a pedagogical approach to the subject, an encyclopaedic account of individual and collective practices, as clear an exercise as it sounds. Christopher Williams’ photographs in the first room could not be more illustrative. From a conceptual stance, his views of architectural landmarks deal with modernity through its concept, technique and subject. If we take into account that some of the recurring topics in Breitwieser’s research are, among others, modernism in architecture, the artist as innovator or the intermingling of theory within the work of art (as in Runa Islam’s ‘Empty the pond to get the fish’, 2008, where the images must be perceived like words), Williams’ work lies at the very centre of her discourse.

Breitwieser sets out towards a sociological research of modernism rather than a scientific one. She claims to have followed Jameson’s will to find ‘narrative options and alternative possibilities of storytelling and of history-telling’. The show wants to be critical and the more incisive it is, the better results it gets. There are many works that deepen in the black hole of modernism, like that of Anna Artaker’s, and her statements on the role of women in the artistic movements of the first half of the 20th century. Others, like Louise Lawler’s, transcends modern emblems of art to present meaning in its periphery, where it is met by political and economic issues. And, of course, Gordon Matta-Clark’s action, ‘Window Blow Out’, 1976, a fierce attack on modern architecture, is one of the key works in the show.

There are many recent pieces by young artists here, but scant reference to postmodernity. Some artists are more willing to elaborate their own links to modernist symbols than to confront them through a critical approach. They focus on the possibility of keeping these landmarks alive rather than certifying their expiration. Sadly, there are those in whom modern issues look like a will to adhere to the trend. They evolve in the surface of things, dealing with questions related to nostalgia and memory but have serious difficulties when trying to reach further.

In this overview of contemporary artists dealing with modernity and modernism, the role played by Spain in the late developments of modernity, seems to be left unresolved. Only one Spanish artist is included, the catalan Domènec, who addresses Mies’ homage to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Another beautiful work, Falke Pisano’s ‘Chillida’ (‘Forms and feelings’), 2006, draws on the Spanish sculptor’s abstraction in relation to the Dutch artist’s inner perceptions. Unfortunately, this work is not in the show but on the floor below, where MACBA’s collection is shown, together with a good handful of works by Oteiza, Chillida and other Spanish modern classics. Modernologies does focus on modernity in Western scenarios and also the one produced in peripheral contexts. In the light of this show, Spain drifts somewhere in between, in no man’s land.

Javier Hontoria is a writer based in Gijon