Sinéad Spelman

A fairly common site in the city of Barcelona is the amputated chimney: these are the tall free-standing chimney stacks that once puffed industrially revolutionising smoke, but that nowadays perform the role of cultural witness to Barcelona’s industrialised past and are a last remnant of the factories and workshops that they were once attached to. There is one such specimen in the courtyard outside the small gallery space in Barcelona, the Galeria Alegria, where Sinéad Spelman exhibited Chimney Song  in May 2011 . For Sinéad the chimney is a physical manifestation of the structure of memory, it could also resemble an amputated member or limb and suggests the phantom limb that severing causes. We often overlook these red brick columns but they have specific formal and spatial attributes: down the tubular stack pours the air while concurrently it also blows upwards and escapes through the cracks in it’s covering. The drawings for Chimney Song are dispersed around a large white sheet of paper, the action taking place in each one is separate from the next: we see a woman standing on an over-sized sink plug or a normal-sized chimney plug as it hovers in space, we see her pulling it up a ladder behind her, we see a man pick up a disk that may be a manhole cover (or is it the plug?) – in each picture the figures find a new possible use for this strange object. All of the drawings on the sheet are self-contained and they all seem to float in space like the figures on the walls of ancient Roman villas. The main object of Sinéad’s enterprise is her drawing, the elaborations upon the inspiration for these drawings, in the form of objects or videos are secondary in her mind to the drawings themselves, the videos and objects are the real remnants of two dimensional worlds. Against the wall, below the sheet of drawings there is a black, seemingly silicone, object. This object, on first impression, looks like a Mexican mariachi hat but on closer inspection it appears to be solid all the way through and made of some kind of black plastic. It could resemble an over-sized plug for a sink, a child’s soother or even a small (taking into account the relative scale) model of a butt plug, however in the end it seems more likely to be a plug for sealing off the chimney stack from above.

Sinéad Spelman, Chimney Song.

At the base of the chimney is the oven or kiln where the fires once burned, and within this cavernous box-like space the artist has made a video of herself singing a love song to the chimney. There is a sense of the very physical sensation of pleasure or satisfaction to be within that space just as many of the drawings give form to a physical sensation whether real or imaginary, possible or impossible. We gain a sense of the gratification and satisfaction felt in touch, the tactical nature of our senses and the haptic element in visual art. There are other drawings by Sinéad that encourage us to appreciate (and deplore) the sensation of being enclosed in a space – one depicts the woman inside a network of orange lines that make up a pyramidal form, she seems both trapped and protected at the same time. Another is a drawing of a man in a coffin which is made up of red lines, in this instance he proffers his hand and the drawing is titled ‘Goodbye‘. This drawing encapsulates the failings of language in the clash between the horrifying fact of the death of a loved one and the inadequacies of language to express these feelings, the polite gesture of the raised hand belies this inadequacy.

Pyramid Colour


The chimney has been amputated from its history, while it supposedly represents the industrial past of the city it has in fact become woven into the post-industrial present.  This is not the first time that Sinéad Spelman has made work about amputated appendages, disembodied members or removed organs. Some of her drawings depict arms, legs, penises, unidentifiable appendages and pieces of flesh or flesh-like objects. We see them suspended on pieces of string or floating in space. These severed appendages seem to question the reality of the ‘whole’ subject, they go back to a moment before the subject thought of herself as whole, perhaps to the libidinal stage in infancy, but they do this in a dream-like way and in the present. In addition to this these drawings incorporate the grisly realisation that this appendage or organ has been severed or removed and that it is offered up for our scrutiny by the blank stare of the woman and man in some of the drawings. In other words these are philosophical deliberations; the lack of emotion on the part of the characters presents these dream-like worlds as a working through of certain facts and feelings and these are distinctly female. Sinéad has also made a video, ‘Song for my leg’, about a severed leg – she sings to it as though it has been amputated and fantasies about preserving it or making it tasty with pastry! Like ‘Chimney song’ it is a surreal love song and a song about death and the death of a phantom limb. The songs point to the common-place nature of death, the shock of it and the realisation of being flesh.

Here we find physical sensation of ciphering disjointed bits of reality, libidinal and erotic desires and the drive for satisfaction inherent in the day to day dealings with objects and with other people. However, these dealings could never be said to be independent of the ethical or political feelings that we carry around from day to day. The problem is that these two factors are inseparable, without recourse to one we are unable to consider the other. Critical thought is inextricably linked with the physical: for example if we are to protest against the wrongful imprisonment, torture or even execution of another human being or if we are simply horrified by the gruesome murders of a serial killer we will consciously or unconsciously have recourse to our own physicality. Sinéad sent me a quote from Susan Buck Morrs that succinctly sums up these feelings:

“You ask why the aesthetic is important for me today and what is at stake in its definition. That takes us back centrally to the question of politics. The aesthetic to me is a fundamentally cognitive experience. It is how the body senses reality, and I mean this in a rather animalistic, even biological sense. I know it is absolutely improper to say so, but this bodily experience is not always, already culturally mediated. To say so flies in the face of all received wisdom in the academy today, but I cannot deny my own experience. Ever since I can remember, my critical sense was nourished by bodily sensations-tense muscles, clammy feet, shoes too tight, breath too tight, holding back wanting to laugh-or to scream. Not feeling good in my skin was my way of criticizing the definition my culture was giving to the situation. Cultural meanings are sensed bodily as being wrong. Just plain wrong. How else are people capable of social protest?”[i]

On the opposite wall at the Chimney Song exhibition a selection of Sinéad’s drawings from the last year or so were also shown, they surround a short story written by the artist. Each drawing is like a vignette on a moment from life, sometimes a surreal moment – as depicted in the drawing of a woman stripping for a horse, sometimes concerned with surreal form,  as seen in the unfinished bodies tumbling together and the strange shapes that seem to come from the sleeping dream-state or from a daydream. Meanwhile the decapitated forms resembling sides of beef are reminiscent of Francis Bacon paintings. In one drawing the woman dislodges huge boulders while in another she impossibly intertwines her arms behind her back. These vignettes are often meditations on physical actions but they are also drawings of people in states of profound introspection or even melancholy, the key example of which is one of the drawings in the trio Edges of the invisble which depicts a seated woman staring into the darkness.

Edges of invisible

The woman sits precariously on a stool while meditating on the void beyond the edge of the box-like building beneath the heels of her feet. She looks down and into the void, all is metaphorical here – the woman could be looking towards the future and the unknown (just as when historians or economists speak of surviving a difficult impasse they refer to standing back ‘from the precipice’) or she could be brooding over a recent quarrel. On her website Sinéad has put this drawing together with two others that are also quite heavily reliant on metaphor, in one the woman ‘walks on egg shells’ before her male companion, while in the other something has been broken and the akward angle of the familiar foot tells us who has broken it. While these three drawings taken together relay those difficult moments within relationships, the melancholic bearing of the seated woman also points to an art historical reference. The drawing immediately brings to mind Dürer’s Melancolia I. The seated posture of the woman with her legs slightly spread and her back slightly bent over is very similar to that of the angel in  Dürer’s print, although while Dürer included all manner of references to melancholy, depression, genius and the saturnine disposition, Sinéad has replaced these with ‘the void’ pure and simple. The key comparison may be made in the glum seated position, it would seem as though this is a pose that we have carried with us since antiquity (as Aby Warburg argued that Dürer did). Nowadays this pose may be translated into a critical interest in the dystopic.  Sinéad’s work seems to interpret this tradition from a more personal point of view, working through the physicality and the psychology of these disjointed feelings.

[i] Aesthetics after the End of Art: An interview with Susan Buck-Morss by Grant H.Kester. Art Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 1997).

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El lloc dels fets (‘The scene’)

The Scene of the Crime[1]

In May 2011 the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Plaça Catalunya in Barcelona, following demonstrations calling for real democracy and an end to the ‘klepto-plutrachracy’, were inhabited by groups of protesters with the intention of staying until the local elections were over. Even passing the outskirts of the encampment at this time was refreshing, noting as one did that the statues and monuments of the square had been decorated and subverted with slogans and pieces of string, giving the effect that the neoclassical figures were joining in on the protest. During the weeks of the occupations assemblies were held and grievances were aired about all aspects of the effects of the handling of local and international affairs of power by the Spanish and Catalan governments.  Plaça Catalunya, a central point in Barcelona and where the metros and trains converge below, was an obvious choice for the protestors for many reasons. Some of those included that the square is surrounded by the larger banks such as the BBVA, the Caja Madrid or the Banesto bank as well as by the monolithic building of the El Corte Ingles. The stock exchange is a stones-throw away on the passeig de Gracia and almost every person that lives in or visits the city will probably need to pass the square at some stage.

In October 2011, as part of the exhibition El lloc dels fets/ The Scene, Paco Chavinet created an elaborate fiction about the future of the Plaça  Catalunya titled ‘Alternativa X’. A black poster upon the wall of the gallery space is emblazoned with the words ‘Aquel que es invocado’  and another with the number ‘2076’, telling us that something religious or spiritual has been evoked and will come to pass by the year 2076. On the floor below pyramidal stacks of packets of bird seed with black stickers depicting pigeons may be taken away by gallery-goers, the seeds, we read in the exhibition publication, when fed to the pigeons, will begin a process that will eventually hasten the deaths of the weaker of the human species and accelerate the coming of the third messiah. The largest monitor exhibited by Paco Chavinet shows a video resembling a vignette of the Plaça Cataluny, beneath dark clouds the large revolving clock atop the BBVA bank has been replaced by a malevolent fiery eye like that of Mordor in the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Thus the eye watches over and controls the continued consumer-driven hell below. The smaller monitor, in the style of a ‘Ghostbusters’ film shows the hulking heights of ‘El Corte ingles’ and its neon green sign overlooking the square, as it crackles neon green forked lightning into the inky night sky it controls the weather, we are told by an on-screen written narrative, to ensure the maximum sales of this season’s trends. The whole concoction is reminiscent, in parts, of a science fiction novel, comic or film and a poster in the style of movie promotion adds to this effect. At the centre of the poster is an evil-eyed pigeon, surveyed on both sides by the panoptical devices of the BBVA bank and the Corte Ingles department store signage. The world in 2074 thus appears to be completely controlled by an evil god, similar to Tlokien’s Mordor, who is in turn aided and abetted by religious fundamentalists, the rule of commerce and the pharmaceutical companies: a nightmarish natural conclusion where conspiracy theory meets the fantasy movie. This is a nightmare that could remind us of what Slavoj Žižek voiced at the recent U.S. demonstrations: that the dream of capitalism is turning into a nightmare and that in order to stop the nightmare we must simply wake up.

In some ways the dark drama of this work also reminds us that with certain  types of disaster or apocalyptic movie we find “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”[i]. Chavinet’s work differs from the plot of the average blockbuster film as there is no hero, happy ending or seeming redemption of any kind, however, Alternativa X reminds us of our weakness for conspiracies and for reveling in a sort of melancholic nihilism. In this way the work, like that of George Orwell is anti-Utopian. Power is monumentally portrayed in the flaming eye and its concentration in conspiracy in the portrayal of secret societies; however like any nightmare it has some basis in reality, and the powerlessness that people really feel in the face of lost pensions and jobs is very real indeed. Chavinet’s work seems to take the form of allegory and in order to make his point he seems to both ridicule and take part in the categories of ‘Evil’ and the inferred ‘Good’.

When, on May 27th 2011 the Barcelona city authorities tried to evict the protestors from Plaça Catalunya it was in order to avoid the conflict that might occur if sports fans were to descend upon the square after the European Champions league final against Manchester United. In this way the authorities rallied the old favourite, the opiate of the masses, the one that instills the libidinal capitalist dream in the heart of all of its fans: Football. The associations between religion and football are well known (and exemplified, for example, in Maradona’s hand of God!), but the artist Antonio Hervàs really elaborates upon the thesis in the most entertaining and imaginative of ways. While there are hundreds of football clubs around the world that instill illogical and feverish love in the hearts of men and women (but mostly men), Football Club Barcelona often seems to take these emotions to new heights. In Mes Que un Club Antoni Hervàs entertainingly tries to explain the cryptic message in the football club’s motto with the theory that the replica of the 1992 Champions League trophy is in fact the Holy Grail and that there is documented evidence that Himmler, while on a Nazi junket to accompany Hitler on his meeting with Franco, visited Montserrat in search of said Holy Grail.

In two glass-topped display cases relics of the present day are displayed: the newspaper clipping detailing Himmler’s escapades, tinted screen prints with drawing on tickets and in larger formats and the photos and paraphernalia of match-going. A projected DVD film by the artist shows the ‘Grail’ being escorted by two young men wearing traditional shoes, from a crevice in Montserrat and quite miraculously through the green screen at the Barça museum (where you can pose for your photographs with the football stars) and placed upon an altar to the black virgin of Montserrat. A conversation between Julietta Denotone (the ‘tutor’ or curator who worked with the artist) and Antoni Hervàs, printed in the publication, sees the artist draw many similarities between the narrative myths of the past and those of Barça. One of the drawings depicts the L’avi del Barça (the Barça Grandpa), the patriarchal mascot of the team who holds the Camp nou at his naval as he strides above Montserrat. The artist teases out the attraction of the nineteenth century Catalan romantic historicist artists to the themes of Wagner: that Montsalvat, the castle where the Holy Grail resides in the ‘Parsifal’ opera[ii] could have been Montserrat. The importance of the symbolism of the Camp nou and Montserrat in Catalan culture is doubtless and thus it is not too difficult to give some credence to the theory (however fantastically) that when the supposed talisman was threatened it was necessary to move the Grail from its position in the mountain to its heavily protected and unsuspected position at the Camp nou museum. In this way Hervàs seems to manipulate the real – we are told that mysterious things happened to Himmler, the housing of the Grail just happened to coincide with the 1992 Olympics which was one of the most internationally renowned and locally controversial moments in the recent history of Barcelona. The fascist overtones of the longing for the Grail are subtly interweaved, while the strident heroism and the exuberant propaganda of the Club’s culture portrayed by the artist is a wonderfully cynical relief for all of those who have to live perennially with the religion that is Barça.

In the first part of the exhibition we stand in a large area and we are surrounded by the large windows that allow passersby to look in noncommittally, and on the other two sides, three large flat screen TV monitors emitting the exploits of Marta Burugorri. The artist performs several actions that encompass the inversion of domestic activities to absurd effect. For instance she performs the act of cooking meat without turning on the heat or eating without utensils or she mimes making a noise while playing the recording of previously making the noise. There is a sort of capering humour that the artist hopes will appeal to all audiences, even those who do not regularly attend art exhibitions. This humour is also reminiscent of certain low-fi art that often has some sort of gag or joke hard-wired into it, specifically the work of David Bestué and Mark Vives and in particular Aciones en casa/Actions at home where we see the artists doing slightly crazy things in a flat. Burugorri’s work appears to also find bedfellows with the video diaries that sometimes go viral on the internet.

The artist Gerard Ortín with Budellera has also chosen to make work about his very immediate surroundings: in this case a suburb of Barcelona. The work, consisting of two videos projected almost simultaneously, depicts this nearby area during the day and by night. By day the camera has managed to capture a family of wild boars as they trot across the building site and churned up ground of the seemingly advancing residential estate. By night a more dramatic scene appears: a drum sounds, a figure is seen in the flashing light and dry ice rises up. According to Alexandra Laudo’s essay in the accompanying publication, this work attempts to subvert traditional documentary and narrative as well as town planning, it also is claimed to be very concerned with form.  It was slightly difficult to appreciate these films as they were presented at the Sala d’art Jove because an invasive light detracted from them and I felt that if they were to have this dramatic effect of breaking with expectations and subverting the documentary form then they needed to be projected dramatically and in darkness. While the other works in this group show seemed to work well together, with their raucous sound and humour, Ortín’s Budellera could well have done with a bit more isolation so that the form and sound could be experienced fully.

This exhibition was part of an annual cycle by the successful applicants to a call by the Sala d’art Jove in Barcelona and thus creates a much needed platform for young and ‘emergent’ artists and cultural workers (curators or ‘tutors’) in the city. Currently the contemporary art scene in the city is suffering not only from the same cuts and austerity that have affected every city in Europe and elsewhere, but also from political decisions that have interrupted the provision of an arts council (after many years of discussions and research the council was launched but has had its fiscal autonomy taken away) and of a space and budget for contemporary art which was promised at the last change of government. While the artists in this show are metaphorically tending the scene of a crime, it would not require any stretch of the imagination to understand who the perpetrators are both in terms of the political and cultural control of the city of Barcelona.

*All images courtesy of Sala d’Art Jove

[1] El lloc dels Fets, translated as The Scene, and according to the accompanying publication referring to The Scene of the Crime (29.09.11 – 10.11.11). Exhibition at the Sala d’art jove in Barcelona ( This is a group show with the artists Marta Burugorri, Paco Chavinet, Antoni Hervàs and Gerard Ortín. The show has been co-mentored by Azoteca (Ane Agirre and Juan Canela), Alexandra Laudo [Heroínas de la cultura] and Julieta Dentone.

[i] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. (London, 2005) p. 199.

[ii] Performed at the Liceu (Opera house of Barcelona) after the 30 year ban on its appearance anywhere other than Bayreuth was lifted; the Liceu is home to a substantial Wagner society.

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