An overview of art in Asturias today

Francisco Crabiffose


These spaces are strangely silent. It is Shrove Tuesday, carnival time, a public holiday in the city. Though forcibly confined, I nevertheless see this silence as an exceptional opportunity for a clear, unimpeded view of the architecture in the background, which deceives and eludes and deceives us, as if its real lines and dimensions vanished close to and the total picture gave us the feeling of being in the presence of a monumental optical illusion. I play the game of identifying elements and combining them in an attempt to solve the riddle and discover the key to this cocktail, but I can’t find it. Being perplexed is always the prelude to being dazzled, which happens here in a source of abandonment. The tiling intoxicates one’s gaze and the optical effect forces one to dwell on that staircase which, like a ballroom dance step, disrupts the serenity of the supposed classicism.

There was always something disquieting about Moya’s Christmas cards, as if the dream of reason inherent in that classicism had run riot and fanaticism had conjured up the hallucinatory monsters who, rather than building that utopian architecture, had to inhabit it. There was something about those drawings that recalled Piranesi turning from his placid Vedute , with the deterministic sense of their ruins, their frozen beauty, and escaping from that serenity imposed by time by embracing the prodigious imaginary world of the Carceri , so imbued with provocative modernity. In Moya, at last, man was once again the measure of all things, commanding his destiny and erecting the city in accordance with his own needs. Those greetings cards always contained a message of hope for the future founded on the realities conveyed, on the tangible heritage of every design that has been turned into architecture.

I step out into that patio-cum-square traversed by geometric barriers, and now there are three cats to provide a measure of this monumentality, which is a burst of laughter and a tribute to architecture, amid the flight of pigeons alighting on the headless statues of the chapel, bearing the message that it is impossible to introduce the city into the city par excellence. Liberated after my leap, I now stroll through the headquarters of the LABoral Art Centre, opposite a wall of Moroso boxes, and I come to understand this transformation as a highly significant local version of Wren’s “Resurgam”. In 1666, old St Paul ‘s Cathedral in London was destroyed by fire. While cleaning up the rubble for the rebuilding, the great architect Christopher Wren found a fragment of a stone slab on which was carved the single word “Resurgam”, which means “I shall rise again”. Wren interpreted this as a good omen and placed this word, underneath a relief of the Phoenix , over the porch of the new St Paul ‘s Cathedral.

I shall rise again with the artists, the architecture, the landscape, the languages of my time, extending presences and fixing aspirations.

The sobbing beside us conveys bereavement, as if announcing that the ashes will lead us to another life, and down the road comes a dislocated mask, a disguise which wanted to be a geisha with a red silk kimono embroidered with chrysanthemums, as if Úrculo had run away and come to live among the fogs of the north. This is definitely another opportunity, another period.

Guache, direct, laughing, but without the extreme resonance of those exaggerated guffaws which have always been characteristic of him, has his picture in the papers because he has been signing his latest literary work at the Book Fair in Madrid, his own city, far from his native Luanco, which distantly stirs his poetic nostalgia. He is wearing a youthful T-shirt with a printed design by his faithful sidekick César Fernández Arias, the illustrator who has accompanied him on some of his adventures in the land of doggerel and drollery, the festive poetry of those performers of monologues who are now being revived in popular festivities, a pioneering version of which was produced in Avilés in the early thirties by Ana del Valle, who enclosed her Pájaro Azul(“Blue Bird”) in a cage of provocativeness and absurdity:

With a bow of cinnamon
Minerva killed an acacia!
An Apollo in his underpants
Laughs at the Three Graces

A dog with tired eyes
Bites the feet of a clock
January of rice pudding
Is playing the drum!

Faced with this sea of thick whiteness, made harsh by the emptiness of the town on this dull, grey day, I recall some of the painter-poet’s poetic prose, from childhood, from a Luanco of trunks with mothballs and mahogany chests of drawers in which the maritime memory of his ancestors is preserved, complete with vases bearing drooping roses: the González Blanco family.

Years after that psychedelic London period, which is now being revived in funeral exhibits in the pantheon of the immortals, Guache went aquatic, inhabited El reino de Medusa (The Realm of Medusa) and walked through Mundos sumergidos (Submerged Worlds). These works of his were included in the Spanish entry for the Valparaíso Art Biennial in 1985. As so often happens, the entry as a whole was drawn together under an ambiguous and somewhat frivolous title: “Naufragios” (Shipwrecks), which referred to a common range of subject-matter, but also to the salvaging of a type of poetics which would prove in subsequent years to be quite fertile in minor movements in Spanish painting. When the works were exhibited at the Evaristo Valle Museum, there were some who considered this title disrespectful to the memory of seafaring tragedies and their victims, perennially present in Gijón and other Asturian ports, but these fears were soon dispelled by the very marginality of the art in question and its dissemination. In that pavilion at the Museum, there was nothing to fear from the marine pictures by the five artists, nor could they establish a dialogue with the few works on this kind of subject produced by Valle in the final decades of his life, such as that little oil painting of the boat beached in front of the cliffs, or the groups of fisherwomen chatting freely, or the sailors in the taverns sitting at tables laden with the remains of sea urchins and bottles of cider, an atmosphere which recalls the beautiful Gijón poemAguafuerte (Etching), by Ulpiano Vigil-Escalera:

The tavern
Is like an etching of a hallucination…
A north-westerly gale outside
And the stone and the breaker at war.

The bottles
On the pine table
Are a liquid residue
Of stars of wine.

The playing card marks
The feverish beat of a charleston …
A glass is broken on the wall of the inn.

I remember that exhibition and Luanco in that period, when it still retained the magical power of its attraction in winter, of its landscape, which would gradually fade in the memory and be reborn as something strange, alien to that beauty which had distinguished it among its peers, those seafaring villages that would also gradually submit to the uncontrollable pressures of the greed of outsiders, against which few voices were raised, having been silenced by the unstoppable changes brought about by progress, or so they said.

A belated, thoughtful and solitary voice is that which Avelino Sala has raised like a visual cry in this place which, at the beginning of the century, had a bathing beach called “Cabo de la Muerte ” ( Cape Death ). The cry is precisely one of ” Socorro ” (Help!), reverberating in light towards the waters like a lighthouse of referential devotion from the walls of the parish church and reaching as far as the Maritime Museum of Asturias, where it takes concrete form in two pieces of humble craftsmanship which the artist has transformed into works of art. That cry of “Help!” is the call of the shipwrecked sailor appealing to the consciences of local observers — of any observers — to clamour for the salvation of memory.

The Cristo del Socorro (Christ our Helper or the Christ of Succour) is the local object of devotion par excellence. Its legendary origin lies in the finding of the image at sea by fishermen from Luanco, who salvaged it and attributed miraculous properties to it, making it the object of a formal cult which began in the mid-seventeenth century and reached its highest degree of veneration in the following century on the occasion of its miraculous intercession in a north-westerly gale on 5 February 1776. It is this Socorro , this “Help”, to which the artist refers us in order to stir our consciences, writing the word in neon on the walls of the parish church, which illuminate our faith in a different destiny, in our search for a different path.

It is a route that leads to the rooms of the Maritime Museum of Asturias. That salty air which sweeps the atmosphere reaches this spot, and inside it echoes to the sound of the Portuguese language, with the resounding speeches being delivered to a tour party which occupies every room. The museum is a box of wonders which, like the undertow of the sea, carries you back and forth from one world to another, dreaming of the oceans that shine in the light reflected in the glass screens, in those molluscs that contain the echoes of the sounds of the sea, in the conch shells that tirelessly repeat unfinished symphonies. Among the treasures of the past, which the tide of time has gradually deposited there like precious objects from our memories, Avelino Sala has placed his own work, another, no less valuable treasure, in order to be able to articulate his approach artistically. On the wall, like a Holy Face by Zurbarán, hangs a fishing-net which repeats the word Socorro . Penelope wove and unwove a shroud while awaiting the return of Ulysses from his long voyage, and the women of Luanco turned this task into a handicraft of their own to calm their anguish and despair:

Overcoming the furies of the sea
A fine shipment of fabrics
Which have been made for years
In Luanco, a town in Asturias ,
Has reached these shores

There are various different collections,
With fanciful variations,
And to embellish the weave
There are lilies, leaves, rosettes
Stars, flowers and branches

And there are also words like this finely embroidered ” Socorro “, which becomes doubly emblematic, alerting us to the loss of a handicraft which identifies this as a seafaring place. A museum piece, accompanied by another traditional pursuit: beside it, on a pedestal, is a bottle containing solid blue letters which spell the word ” Socorro “. It is the work of sailors on land, the product of nostalgia and dreams, a mysterious game which empties the space of ships and fills it with letters sailing at ease towards the glass, never to plan new voyages. It is another handicraft that is dying out but of which traces still remain, and which the artist has again salvaged in order to deliver this warning, which some people do not really understand.

There have been minor protests. Some townspeople cannot see the reason for that luminous sign and demand an explanation from the parish priest. None is forthcoming, but there, in that word, is the answer, like the light of truth. It withstands rain and storms. The north wind struggles to tear it down, but it stands firm. Meanwhile, in Gijón, Avelino Sala presents Arde lo que será. Fuego que camina conmigo (What will be is burning: fire which walks with me) at the Espacio Líquido gallery, as if the sea were on fire, in the manner of Gimferrer, and the artist were playing at kicking a flaming ball, an image of eternity in search of heroes, which becomes sublime with the moving image. In Madrid it is easy to articulate nostalgia and channel it in other directions, and at that distance the past is not a burden or a sin to be expiated. At the cry of Socorrothere is always a saint to come to our aid.

The rain forces us to leave, and as we walk away the electric blue outlines gradually fade until they finally disappear. The exits are more tortuous than one expects from that new, neutral kind of town planning, and they lead us to a roundabout, that device for rationalising the traffic which becomes a marginal space apt to serve as a rubbish dump. Here Juan Carlos Martínez has begun to transform it by inserting landscapes into the landscape, nature within nature, with the building works for the new road close by and the sea in the background.

Another sea, the same sea, was the dark frame in the distance accentuating the white wall which served as a screen onto which the images were projected. During the last few nights in August, when the atmosphere defies the climate to announce that those who have been on holiday are taking their leave, on that wall of light, with the repetitive murmur of the waves in the background, he recreated the latest innovations in gardening that could be seen at the Chaumont-sur-Loire International Garden Festival. The display involved challenging tradition and daring to introduce into garden design new materials and formulas explicitly related to current forms of artistic expression. This was the line that was already being followed by Juan Carlos Martínez in his mission to free the process of creating gardens from those ties to the past which weakened their potential, and to channel their design towards that modern vision which draws together public art, art derived from and using nature, and civic education, in order to identify gardens as common spaces capable of accommodating an experimental way of looking at urban landscapes.

Since then he has pursued the aim of establishing an honest dialogue, which has proved possible in Gijón, and his proposals have gradually materialised in the landscaping of the surroundings of a wide range of public sculptures, as well as in a study of the colour values of particular species and their application to the treatment of those new perspectives produced by current town planning. Another line of work he has explored is the recovery of popular, familiar species of flowers, such as the variety of rose bushes that are now challenging the dominance of greenery in hedges.

But his determination to further this link between the spatial formulation of sculptural elements and their connection with gardening as an art seeking to transform space through the changing energy of plant life is most explicitly and visibly manifested in his proposals for roundabouts, isolated spaces which tend, for that reason, to deteriorate, whose central function in the regulation of vehicle transit contrasts with their marginal status from the landscaping point of view. One of his most recent challenges has been to invest them with new value, and accordingly he has chosen for his project a roundabout near the town of Luanco , on the route of the coast road, which was in a state of virtually complete neglect. The strata of the terrain, with a top layer of filling material, did not seem to offer the most favourable conditions in which to bring to fruition those Reflections with which Juan Carlos Martínez was to illustrate his proposal, incorporating into the space a series of prismatic structures in corten steel with plant species inside them. The formal concreteness is in the service of a symbolic conception, in which the largest piece, with vegetation trimmed flush with the lines of the structure, turns out to be a paradigm of man’s control over nature. The second prism highlights the contrast between the qualities of living and dead nature, by means of dead walnut branches, whose silvery surface, with a metallic sparkle, contrasts with the surrounding green. For the artist, these twisted, tangled branches are to some extent an allusion to fig trees by the sea, which resist the force of the north wind, bending but not breaking, and give the landscape a distinctive character. Finally, the third prism attempts to subdue within its limits the power of a black bamboo plant growing out of a bed of white stones. The rigid verticals are broken by the movement of the lanceolate leaves, fluttering in the wind, and again the sea is referentially inscribed in the work through the use of bamboo by sailors for fishing, and also visible on the horizon between the masses of laurel. The artist is not immune to the fear of an attack by vandals, combining fire and water once again. He is afraid that the dead branches will go up in flames and end up turning to ash. In this way, chance introduces a potential fourth version of nature, the theme around which this work revolves: nature destroyed through uncontrolled violence.

Adolfo Manzano devotes his work A los héroes que fuimos (To the Heroes We Were), which is being installed in the Town Hall Square at Pravia, to celebrating other feats and reflecting on other heroes. It is raining and I take shelter in the patio of the Town Hall. While continuing to wait for the work to arrive, I recall how the building and the surrounding spaces have changed. The Ventura Rodríguez building has lost that belfry, complete with bell and weathervane, which gave it an ecclesiastical look, and there is a greater rotundity in the dimensions of that bare neoclassicism which gives this architecture the simplicity of line typical of powerful people who nevertheless do not wish ever to pass unnoticed. I miss the old market with its modern roof, and that rich municipal archive scattered over the upper storey, silent in its truth in the face of vulgar shouts and whispers. In a doorway, an old peasant woman takes refuge and displays her wares: butter and cheeses wrapped in cabbage leaves. Nearby is that new fountain covered with coats of arms: fictional municipal heraldry. I also now miss the other hexagonal fountain, abandoned but still holding out on the old road from Grado to Oviedo , which used to adorn the landscape of this town. It was an innocent victim of a cholera epidemic, its waters being accused of causing and transmitting the disease. An Enemy of the People , by Ibsen, is opening in Madrid , that author whom Valle-Inclán, near here, in Grado itself, described as unbearable. Paradoxically, the work is opening in the theatre which bears his name.

More rain. It’s still raining hard, in bursts from the heavens. The sculpture arrives and its installation begins, with this untimely baptism. I run my hand over the surface and the sensation transports me to Navascués and to its characteristically perfect way of assembling wood. Adolfo tells me that it will not suffer from the damp.

It is also pouring with rain on the day of the inauguration. The narrow street leading to the square turns into a river, and there, looking as if it had always occupied that spot, stands the rocking horse on a monumental scale which is Manzano’s ironic comment on the statuary which colonised cities in order to exalt their local virtues through their heroes. Royal horses, triumphant horses, urban horses are here trivialised by this emulator of childish exploits in battles fought with wooden swords and paper helmets.

Standing on its pedestal, which has no inscription, noisily watered by the raindrops, the rocking horse begins its short-lived history on this Saturday. We approach and Pilar presses the switch and a childish voice begins to reel off what could be an inaugural address. We can hardly hear the girl’s words, which merge with the disrespectful sound of the rain drumming on umbrellas, when suddenly there is an increase in volume and we hear that line about how every cultural act is an act of barbarism, and the ghost of Walter Benjamin is here among us, having crossed the Portbou line. The text was written expressly by Fernando Castro, and perhaps the voice is that of his daughter, that precocious artist who exhibited her work in the Ego Art Centre, a portable museum-cum-exhibition room which, from Las Caldas, expanded the concept of taking a feverishly novel stance on art, magazines, exhibitions and falling in and out of love, until the group’s conflicting vocations and desires led to its dissolution. Everything that had been lost in the final falling-out seemed to be summoned back into existence by that thin little voice repeating itself with mechanical sonority, until here too barbarism made its presence felt, not by knocking down the monument, as would befit one of the crucial moments in its history, but by setting fire to the plastic material of the switch and thereby silencing the words of the critic transmitted to the audience through the girl. This act, according to Adolfo, confirms the prophetic truth of Benjamin’s statement that every act of (un)culture is certainly an act of barbarism, and the sculpture, temporarily truncated, still stands firm on its pedestal as we walk away towards Grado.

The new town is another example of the upheavals in town planning which have convulsed our region. In one of those streets which always seem to have arisen from nowhere, on a corner, at an angle, stands a decorating shop which, as a gimmick to advertise the products on display inside, uses a multicoloured rocking-horse, with that false, dirty patina designed to suggest that it is an antique, waiting on the whim or the preference of whoever may wish to purchase it.

Our destiny now leads us down cobbled streets towards the traditional heart of the town, the Chapel of the Sorrows. There, on the front door, like Luther’s theses nailed to the noble timbers of the gates of Wittenberg Castle , stands that town plan with coloured dots designed by El Estudio de Fernando Guitérrez. Inevitably those racial and geographical polka-dots lead us to recall that artist whose For the Love of God has filled pages and pages of reflections on luxury, death and the banality of the art issuing from the YBA, with those like Chapman who pitilessly delight in the Disasters of War , as if advocating new massacres. It is not the Damien Hirst of the formaldehyde and the bloody flesh in Beyond Belief , nor of High Windows , that is reflected here, as if holding out the promise that inside, in the memorial chapel of a noble family from the Ancien Regime, we shall find everything that combines blood, death and spirituality:

And let mortal eyes look on
These mortal remains
And see the greatness of nations
Reduced to dust.
It was these who ruled

No: this Damien Hirst is that peaceful and apparently unprovocative artist who filled his canvasses with multicoloured polka-dots, as if he were designing a fabric for a forthcoming Spring Summer collection by Valentino, and one of those purple holes corresponds to this chapel and to the work of Natalia Pastor, that Octavia o la ciudad suspendida (Octavia or the Suspended City) which Italo Calvino imagined as one of his invisible cities and which the artist has used to create an atmosphere in which pasts and futures are combined.

One woman observing it found the inside of the chapel reminiscent of Roman architecture, in the play of colours of different types of stone and marble combined with fanciful shapes and the transforming power of light. Grado does not seem southern today; it lacks that preciosity which draws the light towards it and which is submerged on this occasion in the most commonplace shades of grey. Here, specifically, light was a problem. There were some shiny bronze monumental lamps of a vulgar medieval design blocking the view of the work. They had to be patiently dismantled in order for the space to return to its true state and provide a natural setting for this secular reredos by Natalia Pastor, with its boxes bearing industrial landscapes, standing out on which are red silhouettes of women in tense postures. On a side wall, an extension refused to remain standing, and as it came tumbling down it seemed like a metaphor for that struggle against decadence, the basis, along with its literary foundations, on which the artist has constructed that graphic discourse in which the surrounding landscape, the landscape of her life, shares the leading role in this narrative with womanhood immersed in an atmosphere of transformation and struggle. The beautiful ruins of restructuring take on a new meaning here as traces of the struggle, on several fronts, which has placed unprecedented strains on this region of the Coalfields, changing not only the landscape but also the perceptions of a population which manages to keep going between despair and hope.

Reflecting on this living environment, Natalia Pastor has made it one of her most consistent lines of work, documenting the aesthetics of advertising for prostitution, recreating the horizons of industrial production and using the conventions of tourist postcards to reveal the other perspectives that can be taken on this environment of mining towns, subverting the concept of reality with the other realities created by crises in various sectors, restructuring, protest and struggle. Octavia in neon red floods the whole space with reflections of the beyond from this setting which was a religious retreat and is now a public stage.

That recent historical process, of which the restructuring of the mining sector was the emblematic example from the perspective of that period, provided the argument on which the Catalan artist Francesc Abad based his installation S. A.in the Nicanor Piñole Room at the Antiguo Instituto Cultural Centre in Gijón in 1992. Lumps of coal and symbolic recoveries enhanced the significance of walls painted an oppressive black, which endowed the space with an emotional charge creating remarkable effects that were not lost on some viewers, who described the work as a “joke”. Months later, Maite Centol occupied that room, which still had that black paint on its walls, giving them the quality of a blackboard which the artist exploited to create one of the most unusual works of that period, No morder las superficies pintadas (Do Not Bite the Painted Surfaces), a masterly exercise in the power of geometry, of those lines traced in chalk embracing and capturing the magic of the gaze.

Maite Centol fell under the spell of geometry with a calmness unusual in her generation, uncompromisingly, as if engrossed in the paths followed by her lines and in pure forms. Now she is looking for different signs. The impact of religious architecture, its survival as a testimony of the past adapted to the present, and the degree of identification of those who commit themselves to the conservation of their historical and artistic heritage in the area of the town council of Villaviciosa, constitute her guiding principles for bringing to fruition a piece of work in progress. In her work, the involvement of the various groups who maintain the spiritual value of that architecture is paramount, and it explains their prominent presence in those group portraits which give the work its ultimate meaning. A Eutopia emitting rays of incandescence, the utopia of that age of enlightenment scanning the new horizons of the continent in order to make them its own. The parish priest of San Juan de Amandi joined this quest, turning his pulpit into a platform for the education and progress of his congregation, sowing the seed of liberating enlightenment which, unfortunately, did not bear much fruit.

Maite Centol belongs to that tradition which was inevitably to lead to a Romanticism that affected both the significance of the landscape and architecture and the “picturesque” value of those figures who live in and give meaning to that environment. She seems to me to be on the same track as Parcerisa revealing to us the serene, rotund mass of the Monastery of Valdediós in chiaroscuro, between the leaves of a chestnut tree, or Pérez Villaamil painting that interior of the church of San Juan de Amandi in his studio in Madrid, as a recreation combining truth and dreams, based on those delightful watercolour drawings executed during his visit in 1846. These are dominated both by the formal values of the Romanesque architecture and by those figures in prayer that are scattered around the scene, establishing the setting of the composition and documenting the religious practices, the commitment and the fidelity of a generation that inherited and passed on the faith of its ancestors. That faith, with the accretions of time, is the same as is manifested now, that faith which Maite Centol has salvaged as an argument through which to convey the validity of the emotion and the evocative power of the architecture.

During the Civil War, iconoclastic fervour took hold with particular virulence in Villaviciosa, and some of the statues in the Romanesque facade of Santa María de la Oliva were decapitated. The action gave rise to a protest from the Republican authorities responsible for protecting the country’s monumental heritage, and the immediate response was to shoot the militiaman who had perpetrated the outrage. This tragic episode — one more death among so many others — serves now as a reminder of the attack on Pablo Armesto’s work at Covadonga. Created by the artist for a particular location in the Parque del Príncipe National Park at this Royal Site, specifically on the stairs of one of the traditional footpaths which were transformed by ill-judged alterations into pretentious artificial itineraries, the work was mutilated and some parts were stolen under cover of night. The feet climbing the steps of the steel staircase and the light illuminating those steps leading towards the Cave invest the work with an aesthetic charge, the full dimensions of which are only felt here. The historical and religious resonances of the site, which provoke superficially radical attitudes through their connotations of tradition, achieve a no less radical spiritual modernity in the meanings of that pilgrimage in search of truth, of the discovery of the sources of that wisdom which can finally argue the pilgrim’s ultimate cause, his very destiny.

As a sanctuary, Covadonga was the first “spiritual magnet” for Asturians and an indispensable point of reference for Spaniards, who mythicised the origins of their fatherland as a kingdom. It was that spiritual, and particularly Marian, motivation that in the Summer of 1865 attracted the Catalan artist Luis Vermell y Tusquets, the self-styled “Spanish Pilgrim”, who was to die in Barcelona three years later. Vermell, a somewhat irascible personality prone to isolation, stayed at Covadonga for almost a month, openly expressing an enthusiastic devotion to the Virgin in various guises and leaving a permanent memory of himself by carving his name on the jamb of one of the doors of the Colegiata, a building which must have served as his lodging during his prolonged visit.

The memory of this constant presence of artists as pilgrims is what Pablo Armesto seeks to capture in this work situated on the path, in the heart of the wood in which pilgrims coming to celebrate the festivity of the Virgin during those middle years of the nineteenth century used to light a number of bonfires, around which they organised the danza prima (primal dance). Many of those pilgrims carried painted votive offerings which they placed before the image, testifying to its miraculous intervention in illnesses and dangerous situations; others expressed their gratitude by presenting small metal or wax offerings representing legs, arms, heads, breasts, eyes, and so on, to indicate the curing of illnesses affecting those parts of the body.

Cuco Suárez, an artist who delves into all sources of violence and its extreme manifestations, has created in his work a sanctuary for denouncing the bitter fruits of postcolonial armed conflicts, those localized wars, away from the metropolis, which are the most visible result of centuries of exploitation mercilessly harrying an always defenceless civil population to the point of exhaustion.

In Valnalón he has placed an industrial container symbolising the ambivalent mode of transport of arms and corpses. The artist represents himself in the form of a full-length cast figure lying on the ground with the flame of memory, of vigilant truth, always burning. Above him are a number of orthopaedic items, in constant mechanical movement, emitting a cold metallic sound, a fitting image of the mutilation of combatants and victims. There is no need to remind ourselves that the direct, caustic German expressionists were the iconic source for that mutilated, defeating, suffering wave of humanity that filled the streets of German cities after the Great War. In modern Asturias , the last American colonial adventure led to a period in which orthopaedic workshops flourished, continuing with the no less tragic North African campaign, which provided its own gory toll of mutilation. Ramón Siero Cueto, from Oviedo, publicised his workshop in the newspapers with advertisements in which the central woodcut image was a reproduction of the front of his premises, accompanied, to the left, by a seated male figure with a leg missing, and to the right by the same figure wearing his artificial leg in a perfectly natural way, and the painter Purón Sotres achieved what is perhaps his best work with the interior of another orthopaedic workshop, recreated in the manner of magic realism. Perhaps this workshop is the one which was open in Asturias Street until a few years ago, and which displayed in its window a curtain with various orthopaedic items crudely painted on it.

Cuco lights the fuse, throws the banger into the air and takes to his heels. As he runs away he looks back amid the din and laughter. A few days later he is in the papers because of a protest he stages against the siting of an electricity pylon close to his creative arts centre. Appearing as a hanged man in immaculate white overalls, he is like a celestial vision: like an angel in a trance, serenely watching a miracle. This protest action, this sacrifice in response to an attack on his natural space, links up with that testimonial violence that runs through all his work. The simulation of suicide, the ultimate attack on oneself, takes on a new dimension. Here it is a representation of the struggle against evil and of a paradise partially lost: a lone fight which will end in defeat and make diffident souls say: “he was only cruel to himself”, but he has won the battle. At a crossroads, the inaugural banquet is held. The scattered locations have nevertheless attracted a mixed audience, keen to take advantage of the opportunity for a tour of what someone, in a well-chosen phrase, has described as the new sacred places of Asturian art. The visitor from elsewhere optimistically anticipates the impact it will have on local critics, and then weeks later expresses his disappointment at the silence which serves to confirm the worst omens. He says he doesn’t understand that attitude, which he goes so far as to define as “critical discredit”, but there is no way of explaining to him the peculiarities of the local situation, which would hardly help him to understand a scene of such complexity and such weak foundations.

Between opera and the Scottish Highlands, the coincidence of two rooms with cubic names, though with different colours, linking London and León, unredeemed Castile and other fantasies, the conversation at the table dwells on the wine label: a mass of circles emanating from the dismantled formal structure of the inside of a mattress. That circular structure is the one articulated by the springs, which become a device to draw the eye towards the wine. Britannia is in the background once again, this time reflecting on the impossibility of a politician of immigrant descent becoming prime minister, citing the example of Michael Portillo, ousted from the front ranks of the conservatives through an orchestrated campaign to expose his youthful indiscretions. Across the Channel, Sarkozy has broken with that republican tradition, but we are already familiar with the eccentricities of the British.

That label reminds us of Cuco Suárez’s “Chabolu”, the work which established what is now known as the “habitational solution” as a model of Asturian constructional identity: privacy, a shelter built with one’s own hands, recycled materials, the perimeter of the property marked by functional objects such as sprung bed bases, and the configuration of a landscape expressing nostalgia for one’s rural origins, something which emigration always brings to the surface.

LABoral has adopted a policy which has not, I think, been sufficiently emphasised: namely, to reclaim those Asturian artists that belong to this emigrant community. The architect Key Portilla-Kawamura gratefully referred to the call as a return from “exile”, a term which is not accurate as applied to his training and mode of working, but by including this extreme word in his speech he was aiming to reinforce the sense of his presence in the project as the homecoming of a son who had to abandon Mother Asturias in search of better horizons. The same is true of the presence of others, such as Patricia Urquiola, Fernando Gutiérrez, Chechu Álava, Aurora Suárez, Dionisio González and other artists included in the project.

Dionisio González personifies a particular kind of emigration within Spain , since in view of his Andalusian maternal origins, it was quite natural that he should settle in Seville ; but he has never lost his Asturian, and specifically Gijonese, roots. It was Dionisio, now returned, who presented his preoccupation with space and light in an installation in the Sala del Puerto which demonstrated his radicalism at the time in constructing a milieu which obliged the viewer to adopt attitudes in response to the feeling of protective warmth created using extremely modest material resources, which the lights served to enrich. The same intention was in evidence in the exhibition room at the Casa de Cultura in Avilés, a display space in which the shapes seemed to float, with that degree of absence that forces one to capture the original experience in order to immerse oneself in it. He was working at that time on his doctoral thesis, which I seem to remember was a study of the phenomenon of violence and how it is rendered photographically, a text which anticipated some of the theoretical trends that were soon to emerge in Spanish circles. Later came what for us would have been one of his landmark works, but which subsequently fell through. I refer to his proposal for a public sculpture project in Gijón. Of all the works presented, this was the most daring, the one which ventured into a new dimension, seeking different horizons for his native city. That utopian architecture, a hybrid of different idioms, hung from the cliffs like an observatory-cum-lighthouse exposed to the winds on all sides, from which one could gaze into infinity or await the sunrise and the twilight, in the best tradition of that romanticism in which the sublime seems to be consubstantial with the mists and stormy seas of the north in a celebration of nature. It was an architecture of recreation, provocative and brave in its freedom, ready in its individuality to confront those “bauble” buildings, cowardly in their conception, that cater to the prevailing tastes of the administration and the public.

Dionisio now puts into port at Candás with other spatial preoccupations, other no less utopian architectures, in which one can detect that continuing concern to make everything connected with the habitational concept one of the central arguments of his work. With uncommon rigour, underpinned by solid thought, avoiding ideological leanings, his work has sharpened its focus, from thoseRooms , in which bodies accumulated in a succession of boxes, to the containers of Encriptaciones (“Encryptions”), as another twist to habitational design, leading to that Havana of the fallen columns, of the metaphorical ruins of the revolution, insistently present in his series Situ-acciones (“Situ-actions”), and culminating in an extension of that line of argument, which here diverges as powerfully as the Brazilian favelas serve as exemplars of their characteristic organic architecture. The process of construction-destruction-construction of the urban landscape stirs the consciousness of minorities and becomes a phenomenon which produces successive episodes of circumstantial richness. In Candás that transformation involved the disappearance of the original layout of the port, the surrounding houses with their south-facing galleries, the humble little community sprawling towards the sea, in order to erect those blocks desperately seeking a personality of their own. The humbleness of the chabolu connects with the favelas in that original motivation which meets the specific needs of those who build it and live in it, and in that quality of recycling materials which is an explicit lesson in sustainability. That Brazilian popular architecture argues for a specific identity and for the particular aesthetic values of a social community in which deprivation is given a markedly cultural character: it is an work of insurrection, spitting out its lumpen particularity at the urban landscape, at politically correct planning that imposes a conflict of interests in which collective verticality invariably triumphs, as an image of profit confronting the desire for alienation felt by minorities defending an individuality which always reflects a precarious and informal identity. Public housing policy in the municipality of Sao Paulo , evident in the so-called Cingapura Project, imposes alien models on the idiosyncrasies of those groups, forcing them to give up their environment for the sake of progress which disperses and depersonalises them, placing them in an alien context. Dionisio González argues and documents this process by openly defending that desire to make this constantly changing housing a defining image of a functional kind of architecture, full of formal values and constructive solutions. The artist turns the favelas, the customary image of destitution and the underworld, into an icon of a strange modernity, of an avant-garde born of destitution, and he makes it an explicit contribution of that vocation to reveal a hidden or even despised cultural context, capable of conversing freely and fearlessly with the latest architectural idioms. To see these works by Dionisio González in the rooms which, two years ago, were displaying the output of that avant-garde utopia of the thirties personified by Lecuona, is comforting and it opens windows onto genuinely possible solutions, and I am sorry that one of those windows has not been able to receive that proposal which completed the vision in praise of a certain future.

The coast path offers a view of some of those landscapes that are local reflections of that perversion of architecture denounced by Dionisio González with the retina of other hemispheres. In El Pito, the palace complex of Los Selgas, with its reminiscences of fin-de-siècle France in the architecture and the gardens, contrasts with the bleak brutality conveyed by the new buildings erected in the vicinity. The pavilion of tapestries is to be emptied of its hangings, which will be subjected to a process of restoration, and a course is being held on works of art and the law, including robbery, forgery and trafficking. It recalls the odyssey of El Greco’s Ascension , plundered during the war and found and recovered in the United States , and the peculiarities of our private collections.

The original cinema in Cudillero retains the charm of its location, its small size and the design of its facades in a sub-modernist style. It closed down, served as a warehouse, was later the site of a supermarket, and has closed once again. Its first closure was due to competition from a newly-built cinema commercially named “Cine Mari”. It was the mid-forties and one of the powerful local canning dynasties was looking for secure business opportunities in cinema entertainment. The town smelt of salting factories and the women used to walk in procession up the steep streets loaded with fish for the industry. The chimneys smoked and the new building paid tribute to the fashionable imperial style with Neo-Baroque elements and decoration on its facades. Here too the pressure of television took its toll on those generations that had grown up going to the pictures, and finally this cinema closed as well. It ended up becoming the Casa de Cultura (cultural centre) and its exhibition room was inaugurated with a selection of pictures from the Selgas collection. The splendour of those paintings, uneven in their quality, as was highlighted by the masterpieces, reappears now in the work of the sister and brother Chechu Álava and Juan Fernández, like an celebration of its evocative power, as if calling on us to pay tribute to a medium which remains immutable in its original virtues.

That intimate passion which needs to express itself on paper and canvas is revived with a communicative clarity that recalls Ramón Gaya at his best; Gaya trying to discover the alchemy of Velázquez in his solitary pictorial flight; Gaya losing himself in the secret labyrinths of the past in search of an interlocutor that will certify discoveries, dispel doubts, celebrate ecstasy and defend true tradition against the impostures of modernity.

A sister and brother, both painters, now take on a defence fought with unequal resources. It doesn’t matter. The dialogue flows in moderation, without shrillness or interference, but with the persistence of those who know that their argument is rooted in a whole host of artists who fought the same inner battles, sharing the same quests. Nothing new, you might say. True; but now the battlefields seem vast and the potential enemies form a larger contingent. It doesn’t matter, the pioneering artist Chechu Álava seems to have said to herself when she launched an explicit campaign in defence of painting in the title of her memorable one-woman exhibition in 1999: No estaba muerta, estaba de parranda (Elogio de la pintura) (“It Wasn’t Dead, It Was Out on the Town: In Praise of Painting”). At that time the party was conceptual, objectual, installationist and actionist, and she had fun provocatively reviving the supposed corpse which everyone thought was definitely dead. Hers was an intimist kind of painting which did not attempt to conceal the attitude, the vision of a woman artist opting for a visual narrative with figurative roots to defend her position.

Her younger brother Juan Fernández was to follow her example with a vehement defence of drawing and painting, producing some pertinent results which put his commitment beyond doubt. In a relatively recent text, which constitutes a clear confession in its very title: Sobre la necesidad de pintar en el siglo XXI (“On the Need to Paint in the Twenty-First Century”), Juan Fernández argues the merits of a technique steeped in history, allowing an apprenticeship in the masters as a continuous lesson in the value of looking, of discovery and of constantly returning to subjects that artists have always tackled, particularly the portrait genre. Hence the function and the usefulness of museums, which are refuges and schools and which permit contemplation as a basic precondition for the act of painting: an act that follows its own course, demands patience and allows us to go back over it as many times as necessary; an act that helps us to understand the world and the reasons for things. It is that world and those things that come together in this dialogue-a “kaleidoscope of different influences”, as Chechu defines it-in which one can feel the warmth of the intimate sphere of feelings, friends, landscapes and remembered circumstances which in Chechu’s case becomes mysterious or enigmatic while in Juan’s it enunciates the most specific reality. The two interpretations converge and are incorporated in a setup which facilitates that unmediated conversation which we witness as satisfied and convinced viewers, prepared to join in that defence.

Another painting. Painting with light. Our westward progress gradually casts a different light on the landscape. The slate roofs and the way they contrast with the whitewashed walls and the fertile green of the coastal fringe transform one’s mood, demanding silence. At La Caridad , in a room which is apparently functioning for the last time as an exhibition space, Carlos Coronas has deposited the last of his baggage after an unsuccessful journey in several stages. The first suggested destination was the church of Santa Eulalia de Abamia, in the municipality of Cangas de Onís . The light being cast at that time on the emblematic light emanating from the history of the first burial of King Pelayo and his wife was that of the Romantic genius of Roberto Frassinelli, who chose to rest there from the ecstasy of nature and artistic passion, which led him to capture those surroundings in meticulous drawings; the light which finally illuminated the representation of the Battle of Covadonga in the lost altarpiece: an impossible task, since the building is in the midst of a controversial restoration which has taken longer than expected, what with excavations and stoppages.

As an alternative, the artist suggested another no less attractive site: the recently refurbished coal loading bays in the port at San Esteban de Pravia. Putting it there would have meant recovering the meaning of lights in a setting replete with artistic and literary connotations, from maritime signs to the recreation of that milieu which was a paradigm of the Asturian landscape for the artists of the Colonia de Muros and their successors, as well as for Altamira and José Francés. There are also the twinkling lamps of the boats engaged in fishing for elvers at night, and the memory of the feverish activity in the port when coal, in a wartime situation in Europe , reached its greatest strategic value and enriched mining companies and middlemen during those glorious years. And what remains as a vestige of that period is these curious structures in which Coronas was proposing to place his work, but the easy accessibility of those installations and the fragility of the material he was using to create his work made it a potential target for wanton destruction. This new location having been ruled out, the artist discovered through the sculptor Herminio that the room at La Caridad was available to present his work on a long-term basis.

The room is an unusual space, situated within a building which combines public cultural activity with the most diverse assortment of commercial, hotel and catering outlets, in a conjunction which seems decidedly odd. In this room an intelligently programmed series of artistic exhibitions were held, making it a point of reference in western Asturias . I remember the exhibition-cum-installation produced there by José Antonio Cabanella, almost a secret artist at that time, who clearly displayed his creative potential on that occasion with a work which was a judicious fusion of the evocative power of objects and their instrumental function.

Now Coronas has turned it into a chapel where the silence is constructed from the radiation of light; or rather, into a secret chamber whose sole mystery is the way the space is occupied by light.

Before making neon his emblematic material for “painting with light”, Coronas had followed a career marked by the search for a marriage of form and colour. His wooden elements traced shapes in space, lines defining volumes that gradually opened up to colour like an original debt or an indispensable substrate for them to reach their full formulation. That search culminated in this gleam which the first minimalists sought to achieve in the early sixties when they placed their fluorescent tubes against the wall and the vibrant field of sparkling luminosity lent the wall the quality of a canvas. A canvas that our artist tints with a varied range of colours which he distributes in pure geometric patterns and on which he projects the lines of neon, first in parallel and then in a complex interplay of combined verticals which finally bring about a complete effect of occupation of space by light, a light which tinges one’s gaze and bathes the viewer in emotions and sensations.

Nothing could be further removed from the temptation of decorativism and dramatic effect. The materiality of light is diluted here like the mystical flame of perfect love, like encountering the ultimate meaning of colour, of painting. In every rigorous project such as that of Coronas, doubt is an indispensable ingredient in the reinforcement of risk, and his carefully-thought-out proposal for this space has also been subjected to the anxiety of the void. The empty space without fluorescence is like a refuge, a discovery that points towards an initial state of purity which light has not yet contaminated with its explosion, with its totalitarian vocation. It is that waiting time, that non-place, that gives a dimension of authenticity to this pictorial projection, using light as an ungraspable colour element.

Time and geography. As you travel towards the far west, the pulse slows and the landscapes stand still, as if they were asleep. Figueras, on the border, maintains the basic characteristics of its profile on the banks of the Ria del Eo. The same is true of Castropol; but not of Ribadeo, which has been disfigured, concealing the twinkling domes of its modernist architecture. This nucleus of Figueras, with its solitary houses and hidden gardens, has a strange bastion in the form of the clocktower, whose architecture becomes confused with the tall, slender classical parish church towers, of foreign origin, which were so much in favour in refurbishments and new building works carried out at the end of the century, when the triumph of the indianos -the nouveaux riches lately returned from the New World-became more visible. This building, raised like a lay temple to education and learning, is itself indiano in origin, with its bell ringing for a kind of progress that reconciled tradition, anticlericalism, republicanism and bourgeois consciousness. Today, following its refurbishment, it is once again fulfilling that same cultural destiny, and its covered area is used as an exhibition room.

Aurora Suárez has brought to this space some of the works which quite a while ago were already revealing her preoccupation with the ruin and disappearance of industrial architecture as a metaphor for capitalism’s insatiably voracious tendencies, for ephemerality and for the quality of time as a destructive mechanism. The comparison between luxury, in the parts covered with gold leaf, and the primitive effigies and devastation, carried that subtle element of irony which always mitigates the corrosiveness of direct criticism and reveals a conceptual intelligence always ready to manifest itself at the right moment. It is perhaps that irony and her elegance of thought that have saved her from the unjust tribulations to which she has been subjected by Asturias, which has not always paid strict attention to the fruits of her artistic labour or to the uniqueness of her brilliant theoretical contribution, something which, moreover, is always rare in the Asturian artistic community. This artist has borne her marginalisation with a detachment which has not lessened, but has rather enhanced, the vigour of her ideas and her intelligent perspective on the circumstances and undercurrents of the regional artistic scene. Hence the uniqueness of her work and the significance of her output, which draws on sociology and contemporary art theory, without disregarding any field.

The collection of works she presents under the title Tsentaciones revolves around the reconstruction of desire through the filter of advertising. Those sensations-temptations referred to in the title of the exhibition are summed up in the text in the manner of a slogan fixed to the wall: “People forget that consuming culture is a new pleasure that hooks their dreams. Become your dream”, and in the mosaic of manipulated images, icons of incandescent advertising that devours signs, in which the immersion of contemporary popular culture takes place. These images are a compendium of the ingredients which are appropriated and distilled by the media: multiculturalism and globalisation, the economy and the fictions of capitalism, feminism and gender issues, the role of technological and post-industrial society, machines, the advertising paradigm as a model for living and utopias without slogans, revisionism in the history of art, the perversion of the image, emotional attitudes, phantom architecture, transformation as alchemy, icons and vanitas, expressions of fear and the mythologies of Gore. All this is recapitulated in a two-way altarpiece, that of the advertising image and its double, which extend in a sequential series over Lucas Abelas’s concert in a reflection on the risk artists run and the fleetingness of time. Abelas extracts sounds from a piece of broken glass which he holds in both hands, running his lips over the surface, kissing it and exaggerating the gesture at the risk of injuring himself, seeking blood as a metaphor for perplexity and for the tensing of the senses which all dreams require. Nearby, a screen shows moving images of great plasticity, repetitive in their abstraction, fugitive, escaping across an unlimited space, while the sounds remind one of a symphony of water birds gathered here.

Aurora wanted to take her work up into the tower, but the refurbishment works prevented it. The marine horizon, the ria as a boundary, take on a sombre colouring today. The wind drags the clouds along and opens up clear patches in the sky. Tomorrow the light will be different. Today is a complete novelty after months of grey skies. The journey along new paths towards Grado reminds us of the other traditional road close to centres of population and the courses of rivers. The heat is dispelled with a yellow fan fluttering inside the car like a captive butterfly, now set free on land in the shadow of the ancient city wall. We meet the Chapel of the Sorrows once more, that memorial chapel which until a few days ago had been inhabited for three months by Octavia, the invisible city imagined by Italo Calvino and reinterpreted by Natalia Pastor in images from the geography of her life. If the background to the landscape was then chimneys, factories and gigantic ruins, it is now the eternal profundity of the blackness that allows the repeated silhouette of Soledad Córdoba to stand out on those four light-boxes with the mystery of a pagan staging. It is a secret place . That is how the artist herself has entitled this series, the explanation of which opens with a text by Heinrich Heine in which the literary character prowls at night around the idea that he is a corpse and is burying himself, and struggles against the nightmare, closing his eyes “to escape into the land of dreams”. That cunning romantic argument, that passage to the unknown, is an invariably inconclusive attempt to escape from reality and from oneself in order to experience other worlds in which magic enables one to explore the poetics of beauty, which it finds, in an equally romantic way, in fertile nature fed by the oneiric. It is a constant feature of her work in which the autobiographical figure, the image of the artist herself, becomes not only an instrumental vehicle but a constant protagonist of that experience in which reality and imagination, normality and paranormal phenomena, the everyday and the extraordinary, the artificial and the natural, the recognisable and the unprecedented, are fused into a whole, summed up in “sinister beauty taking control of the scene”.

That beauty is a birth, another fruit of fertility, which develops in that secret place, in that black chasm where the event is forged in the body-cum-chrysalis of that bust of the artist herself, repeated in the composition, situated in the bottom right-hand corner with her eyes closed and her hair flowing down over her shoulders until it covers her breast. Her mouth opens, promptly expelling a mass of butterflies with metallic blue wings, a melody of light shining on the depths proclaiming the vertigo of that magic, of that secret which reveals the most extraordinary dreams.

If there is one thing that characterises the work of Soledad Córdoba it is precisely that ability to convey the extraordinary in its atemporality, in its status as a fortuitous event which discharges the weight of reason, however heavy, and renders thought weightless, as if space-time found there a formulation beyond the parameters of this funerary architecture, erected to bear witness to eternal dreams.

On the way we talk of those eternities and of the exceptional quality of the light today which allows one to see into the far distance and reveals the wonders of nature harbouring everything one has imagined. Behind its facade bearing witness to past greatness, the Monastery of San Salvador in Cornellana conceals the silence of ruins. The cloister has acquired every shade of black, grey and green that breeds from damp and neglect. The Baroque stuccowork smashes on the cobbled paving and dark canvases cover the timbers and withdrawn images in storage, conserving the Romanesque tombs. The monastic church has a portrait of the donor on one of its altarpieces, in profile, kneeling in prayer, holding a rosary in his hands. He appears cloaked, with his hat at his feet. The devotion of former times is being revived by the new pilgrims walking the route to Santiago . The monastery’s other face is a hostel for those who turn faith into a journey and an experience, built within the confines of the former religious community: an austere and respectful conversion which dignifies the site. In the background, looking as if they are closing off a passage, are some perforated sheets of metal, a work by Legazpi. On a balcony, a blanket is being aired in the sun. And a similar blanket covers an anonymous body on a ventilation grille in a large photographic image. That urban image of present-day displacement and deprivation is part of the installation created in this space by Fernando Redruello. He too was obliged to move. This was not the original site assigned to him. His home town of Luarca had recently hosted his work. In Navia the municipal council chamber was not suitable. It seemed that the A. Veiga Museum might be able to provide a worthy solution to the problem of his definitive placement, but this too proved impossible. The artist conducted his own pilgrimage with exemplary stoicism, and ended up here, once again displaying his commitment with a work combining all the ingredients which make him so influential a figure in our contemporary art world. I have been asked why Redruello was chosen, given that he is years older than all the other artists included in the exhibition. The first reason is that his work anticipates all this generation’s concerns and modes of production, surpassing his own generation to become a sort of bridge or link between the two. And secondly, because his career and his contributions exemplify better than anyone else’s the confluence of those thoroughly degraded and ineffectual ethical and aesthetic topics which he turns into a focal point for attitudes, commitments and consequences that are brought together once more in this work produced specifically for this space: a work of denunciation and respect, of complete identity, which closes the circle on the referential and emotional capacity projected by art as a way of documenting and recreating the artist’s own times and his memory. The language of contemporary signs, icons of a rampant city that needs to impose messages and obligations, is disorientating. The detail of that body seeking warmth and sheltering from the cold until it loses all identity is complemented by a location perspective showing in the distance a poster for an exhibition by another savage like Gauguin in a gallery in Madrid. A further means of conveying information, a light box, includes advice and reflections tinged with judicious irony.

Amid the gravel that covers the patio, concealing its whole past, is a cherry wood bed, with its extendable side beams recycled out of those barriers that are placed to indicate danger or prohibition. The foot section glitters with the gold perfectly applied to one of its decorative elements. Without a base or a mattress, the surface of the bed is the gravel, a fragment of those metal railings from Madrid and a patch of grass. Counterpoint. Grief and anger. A kind of votive object combining the anonymity of current deprivation with personal memory, a tribute to the father and the deprivation and persecution suffered. Here a consciousness of the value of art, of its effectiveness, of its ability to be open to dialogue and dissent, to stir consciences, finds its purest expression. In that arid space, traversed by walkers, in the environs of a lodging, and meeting, place, this memento shines with the intensity of those who unmask dissimulation and bring injustice to the attention of the faint-hearted, of those who look but are incapable of discovering the truth.

The journey continues. Paco Cao was unable to be with us.