More than two decades have passed since the creation of MNCARS, the most important national museum of contemporary art in Spain. But it is only only in the last two years that it has been able to compete on the competitive international scene. The museum’s director Manuel Borja-Villel (who has been in charge for three years, following ten as head of the MACBA in Barcelona) isn’t so much interested in turning the MNCARS into a national museum along the lines of Tate Modern or the Pompidou Centre (models of similar scale and budget), as he is in taking on a role that no institution in Spain has been prepared to play when it comes to engaging in an exercise that he considers critical: moving the boundaries.

The Reina Sofía, a former 18th century hospital, is a space of mammoth proportions, but it’s vast scale has both advantages and disadvantages. Effective spending of resources requires efforts proportional to its size, while the design and structure of its galleries, in direct opposition to the white cube, offer an unrivalled opportunity to set up unpredictable relationships and underline the transverse character of contemporary art.

This exhibition, curated by Alice Creisher, Andreas Siekmann and Max Jorge Hinderer, is a project that tackles the slippery subject of the origins of modernity within very distinct time / space contexts. A walk through the museum confirms that the show is just one piece of a complex conceptual mechanism, a rhizomatic universe of associations through which the museum wishes to manifest its interest in transcending the limits of dominant historiography, immersing itself in other histories, which have been buried for decades in an occidental context. It definitively declares that the canon has been negligent in its avoidance of a large section of artistic practice in the south. The exhibition can be understood as the foundation stone of Borja-Villel’s discourse. Interestingly, the gallery leaflet, curiously written by him and not by the curators, is a useful tool for getting closer, not only to the exhibition, but to the decalogue of the museum.

The Potosí Principal takes place during the bicentenial celebrations of Latin American independence, something not to be taken lightly considering the Reina Sofía is the Spanish National Museum. While some may have clear motives for this celebration, on this side of the Atlantic, we Europeans, (as the historical driving force behind the huge economic system which has powered the world’s markets for 500 years), can only lament. Because capitalism, the curators tell us, was already foretold in the immense Bolivian city called Potosí. There, in the city’s silver mines, obscene numbers of labourers worked under terrible conditions similar to those which still exist today in more than a few places not far away. They also remind us of the King of Spain’s evangelist proselytising in South America, with its unchecked profusion of images distributed to every corner of every colony; don’t you remember, they insist, the transparent strategies based on the fear of those who serve the neoliberal programme?

The curators propose a timeless and historic space, because nothing seems
to have varied substantially in five centuries of history. Religious paintings from the colonial era are mixed with contemporary works from South America, Asia or Europe in a barely divided space. The exhibition is risky and complex. There are guides and a leaflet with instructions typical of Andreas Siekman—essential for not getting lost—that suggests a determined route between the different works and tries to mitigate the initial apprehension of the spectator. The gallery is rather festive, with, what seems at the beginning, an excessive number of works, but we soon understand this as a deliberate device that attempts, as the director explains, to revise the term ‘baroque’.

If this leads us to understand a certain perversion of clarity, the disappearance of a central reference point, or the manifestation of a darkened and divided reality, we are obliged to consider the tools of power used during the era of colonisation, under this very same light. And, of course, the allusion to the Latin American method of installing exhibitions should not go unnoticed. Nor should we ignore the complexity of Latin American social context, yesterday and today; a confused magma of realities, irregular, kaleidoscopic and uncertain.

Javier Hontoria is a writer based in Madrid