KEPA GARRAZA - Kepa Garraza
17 Mayo - 8 Julio 2012
Art as the economics of attention
It is easy to distinguish between good and bad fiction; only the latter lies. Bad fiction just mixes up facts in an arbitrary way, replacing the author’s profound loyalty to his own intention with a clumsy thirst for entertainment. On the other hand, good fiction is a form of truth rather than a source of deceit. It doesn’t matter much that it alters empiric facts or that it invents from scratch, because its content acquires a certainty of its own and informs about reality with a greater consistency than a mere description.
It is good to be aware of this difference while approaching Kepa Garraza’s work. Its content is of course fictional. Kepa Garraza never knew Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat. In fact, he couldn’t have been photographed with them as a thirty-year-old in 1983, as one of the works has it, because he was born only four years earlier in Berango, Vizcaya. Further more, what we see is not a photograph either, but a painting based on a photomontage. So, not even the medium is what it seems. Kepa Garraza is not the international art star this series portrays, and he hasn’t appeared yet on the front pages of Vanity Fair or Artforum either. However, this strategy of fiction is rigorously and efficiently put into motion, making content achieve a consistency of its own that exudes truth. It might seem that Kepa Garraza is getting on an escapist entertainment train, an illusion of cocktails and flashes in order to enhance his ego; the truth is that he is informing on his working conditions with a greater harshness and honesty than those who proudly practice arts as a confession. There is more truth in Kepa Garraza’s costumes than in the less modest of exhibitionisms.
Fiction is not something new in his career. His last series (2007-2010) staged an International Brigade of Art Destruction (IBAD) that did attacks on the master pieces of Western pictorial canon. But there is something that relates both works on a deeper level, and it is the intention to deal with everything surrounding art; the things that, not being art, are indispensable in order for it to receive attention and recognition. We also find here the common factor of the works included in Fallen Angels (2006-2007) that reproduced the tragic deaths of Modigliani, Rothko or Van Gogh, underlining the mythification of the artist figure that assures such devotion towards some art work.
Policemen, security people or museum people in charge of preservation would often appear in the International Brigade of Art Destruction series, observing the damage caused by the actions of this group. This is how clearly the powerful surveillance measures that assures the public’s attention and respect towards art work is expressed (in its fictional failure). These measures – and ultimately, the state monopoly on the violence that supports it – are what defines an unquestionable border between what is and what is not art. In his new series, Kepa Garraza also deals with those things that not being art surrounds the work of an artist and brings him social attention. In this case it is not a surveillance or punishment mechanism that is being expressed, but a seduction mechanism; the public seduction that is executed through the media.
Every piece of the series feigns to be either a snapshot or a magazine front page. Some of the images take on the appearance of a pose (for example the Murakami piece) while others pretend to have been robbed by an insistent photographer. This imitation of an external medium is of course not casual. The mass media language is present throughout the series and is imposed even in the very election of the different settings. The works that are being presently showed has neutral, monochromic backgrounds that refer to the aseptic decoration of an art gallery or a fair or biennial. The characters could be in the middle of an opening or a round table debate; both being causes for media cover. The complete series (widely showed at the last edition of ARCO) includes cocktail and party scenes, awards and press escapes, and Kepa Garraza faces angrily the camera in several of them. The insidious presence (though a feigned one) of the photographer turns each image into a staging for the gallery: as much when the main characters seem to willingly look for it as when they don’t.
One is easily tempted to see a moralising message here. The series would then intend to reflect the theatrical, illusory nature of today’s art world. The documentation on the fictional Kepa Garraza’s career (we don’t see one single work by him) would reflect that today an artist’s success depends on circumstances beyond his work, more typical of gossip magazines. The series would condemn this kind of success for being unreal and it would be a protest against the art celebrity, a plea on behalf of the consideration of an artist for the intrinsic value of his work and not for other considerations.
Very well, this is an easy interpretation that does not only ignore the irony that Kepa Garraza usually adds (in a healthy way) to his proposals, but it attributes a message to him beyond his career. The question of the intrinsic value of the work of art does not seem to have interested him at any point.
In many of his paintings, master pieces of unquestionable quality are mentioned or suggested, but that is never the theme, what surrounds the work of art is; those things that, not being art, turns it into an object of reverential contemplation. The intrinsic value of the mentioned works is not claimed nor questioned, it is simply left aside. So, it would be very innocent to suppose that Kepa Garraza condemned the Guernica when he painted it half burnt after one of his fictional Brigade’s attacks. Or, on the contrary, that he shares the mythification of Basquiat’s or Ana Mendieta’s work because he portrays their tragic deaths in Fallen Angels. His attitude is always more restrained than it seems at first sight, and his tone, calmer.
Rather than insisting in a moral condemnation of the contemporary art world, this series exposes some of the inevitable tensions that affect the work of any artist today. Kepa Garraza doesn’t portray himself with Warhol or with Immendorff in their studios, watching them work, but in public events. In fact, not one single work of the represented artists appears in the whole series, which doesn’t mean that the work is irrelevant, but it does say a lot about how the rise of Kepa Garraza is expressed in this fiction. It is not the process by which a painter achieves intrinsic value for his work that is being showed, or how he creates his own style by assimilating influences of others within a tradition. The series does not deny that this has been the case of the fictional Kepa Garraza; it is simply not shown. The artists that appear are not representatives of a pictorial tradition influencing their work, but characters favoured by the social recognition that backs up Kepa Garraza or that competes with him. In this sense, his role is strictly the same as a famous gallery owner’s (as Leo Castelli), a model’s or a politician’s, all of them actors involved in a competitive struggle for recognition: agents of an economy of attention.
Before proceeding to being outraged over the supposed trivialisation of art that this would mean, one should meditate on the possibility of this situation being an obligation to the modern artist. As a matter of fact, artists have always aroused the public’s attention with aesthetic means. The effort made in order to achieve an unmistakable voice has not been but another means to serve this purpose. For a long time, artists sold that attention capital to the highest bidder, but since the patronage system collapsed in the 19th Century they were left with no other option than to take advantage of it for their own promotion purposes. It was this need that gave an unknown energy to the effort to build an unmistakable voice, which would end in the experimentation of the artistic avant-gardes. The competition for public attention is of course wasted in long terms if it is not accompanied by an original and personal voice, but this is something that one wouldn’t even look for if it wasn’t subordinated to the former. Today, the artist can protest angrily over the banalities of the media sphere, but more than ever before he needs it to support him. Instead of insisting in a hypocrite and self assured condemnation of today’s art world, Kepa Garraza exposes that hidden and inevitable economy of attention that encourages him. The series finds the way to incarnate its own truth. As all good fiction does.