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Tratados de Paz/ Peace Treaties, Museo San Telmo, Donostia/San Sebastián, 2016.
Peace Treaties

The artist, curator and writer Pedro G. Romero opened Peace Treaties —the excellent exhibition he conceived within the programme for Donostia-San Sebastián European Capital of Culture— with a reflection on the white flag. What else could we expect from an artist who dedicates a substantial part of his practice to the nihilisms of modernity and its images of ruins? Surrender as a kind of zero hour of the future peace that must rise from the rubble of war, a zero hour that is by no means a blank page, but rather, as the exhibition constantly reminds us, is based from the outset on the relationship of specific forces established between the vanquished and the victorious. Or, as one can read somewhere, “there is no innocent flag”. As stipulated by The Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (1899), the white flag, also known as the flag of truce, vouchsafes the inviolability of its bearer. White against a white ground: an absence and at once a treaty, an agreement.

One of the first works we come across —if one can speak in those terms about an exhibition like this, divided over two venues, each one with numerous spatial and temporal ramifications— is a poem by Octavio Paz and the book-object Blanco (1967), bound as if it were an accordion. It comes in fact from Archivo F.X., by Romero himself, and not only connects with his passion for word plays —Paz and Blanco, literally ‘peace’ and ‘white’ respectively in Spanish, are in one way a kind of reverse détournement of the white flag— but also, on a structural level, with the “conceptual mechanism” of the exhibition, as Romero calls it, to which a separate publication is dedicated (just like Raymond Roussel, who divulged his compositional mechanism in Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, published in 1935).

The poem by Paz, which can be formally situated within the tradition of Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un coup de dés…”, begins with instructions that explain the mathematical structure on which the various possibilities of reading it are based. Likewise, the conceptual mechanisms on which Romero’s work in general (Archivo F.X.) and the project Peace Treaty in particular are based correspond with this kind of set-up, with a device that, complete with a mesh of tangled spools, fields, vanishing points and points of reference and coupled with multiple entrances and exits, generates a multiplicity of readings interspersed with discontinuities and unexpected associations. Without this concomitant combination of complexity and certain lightness, any exhibition aspiring to address such an unbounded and directly monstrous issue as war, peace and its formalisations through law, politics, art and history since 1516 within the framework of a wider project would be bound to fail: either by dint of banalisation or as a result of the complacent institutional fiction of an all-embracing encyclopaedic remit. After all, Romero’s work is sustained precisely on the model of the anarchive, which is structured around gaps and sinuosities, repetitions and divergences throughout a course of “bold pirouettes”, as he himself recognises: the same kind of motion that, within the frame of this description, he wished to replicate in the sense of a cross-country reading.

A constantly recurring theme throughout the various chapters, branches and venues of the exhibition is the map: whether this be a political-military tool for construction, division and control of space — like a “geography of war” that, in the words of the artist, at once fixes and establishes a “choreography for peace”— or whether it be in the sense of “anti-maps”, as devised by Aby Warburg in his celebrated Atlas Mnemosyne. This atlas is visible in the exhibition not only in the form of extracts —specifically, the panels referring to the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Catholic Church and Benito Mussolini— but also in the way it has been employed as a curatorial model for the constellations of objects in the space. Warburg’s atlas responds to a conception of images in which meaning and context are constantly changing and never fixed; and, according to Romero, in dealing with them, chorography —the art or science of representation of space— is as important as choreography.

The idea of the (anti-)map was also brought into play as the inspiration for a series of works based on language, notably the aforementioned poem by Octavio Paz or Codex Artaud XIII (1972) by Nancy Spero, mounted vertically, which is on exhibit, among other works, in front of the explicit drawings of the extermination of the native people of the New World by Theodor de Bry, published in the mid-sixteenth century to illustrate Bartolomé de las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias; the same illustrations that Artaud spoke of in his theory on the Theatre of Cruelty.

Cartographic compositions can also be found in La tierra es para todos / Estadísticas mortales (1986), the manuscript of an expansive poem, covering several pages, by the Basque sculptor and writer Jorge Oteiza, whose variations are plagued with erasures, additions, circles and changes of place, but also in Vitrines de référence by Christian Boltanski.

Dennis Oppenheim’s and Sophie Ristelhueber’s works engage with the absurd and violent character implicit in the drawing of (always artificial) political boundaries, while Harun Farocki and Mario García Torres address the (global, general) bird’s-eye view or the perspective of drones as fictions of control, semantics and the legibility of space. There are also odd maps, like the ones to guide tourists through the battlefields of the First and Second World War, or others, like the depiction of the Siege of Breda made by Jacques Callot in the early seventeenth century —to which Peter Snayers would return around one hundred years later— are like a hybrid halfway between the theatrical panorama and the “objective” map.

One comes away from the show with the impression that it keeps returning to issues that oscillate between representations of peace and of war: playing down and minimising bellicose moments as if they were pastimes, spectacles or playing —we have, for instance, the unforgettable suite of gallant engravings by Jacob de Gheyn II of military uniforms from around 1589— or, on the contrary, idylls and celebrations of peace that subsume the rhetoric of violence, such as, for example, The Magpie on the Gallows (1568), the painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in which the (spatially impossible) figure of a gallows stands in the midst of a landscape of otherwise festive abandon, or the Column of Peace (1954) by Antoine Pevsner with its decidedly aggressive forms reminiscent of rockets or bent lances.

The basic undergirding of the exhibition, its map if you like, is grounded in three core coordinates: Francisco de Vitoria or what was known as the Iberian School of Peace; twenty-one European museums whose collections provide the main holdings and framework for this far-reaching investigation into institutional or social representations of peace (and of war); and a selection of sixteen historic exhibitions. The 600-plus objects on exhibit, including artworks spanning from the sixteenth century to the present, as well as objects from everyday life, from the military or science, are accompanied by a system of posters and brief texts that, more than fulfilling an edifying purpose, form part of a kind of poetic metanarrative replete with subjective commentaries, word plays and aphoristic expressions.

The theologian and jurist Francisco de Vitoria, founder of the school of Salamanca, or the Iberian School of Peace as it is also known, in the first half of the sixteenth century, and widely viewed as one of the fathers of International Law is introduced here in a highly interesting fashion in the form of the maquette of a decapitated monument—iconoclasm being another underlying theme of the exhibition. De Vitoria and his fellow comrades-in-arms were the first to question the legitimacy of war and colonialism, and laid the first stone in a politics of negotiation and agreement, and outlined a theory of “just war”. The doctrine and ideas of the School were influenced by the wars against heretics, by the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from Castile, by the colonisation of America, and by the beginning of an economy based on debt to fund the excessive wars of Charles V, but also by works like Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).

Today, five centuries later, the School furnished the titles of the nine chapters in which the exhibition investigates the ambivalences of the imaginings and treaties of peace from their original discourses: Territory, History, Emblems, Military, the Dead, Economy, Weapons, Population and Treaties. Among these ambivalences is the fact that at the beginning of diplomacy, agreements and international law is the colonisation of the “New World”, or that even the efforts of the colonisers for a peaceful coexistence with the native peoples was preceded by their expulsion and brutal annihilation. This can be well appreciated, for instance, in the case of Vasco de Quiroga (also known as Tata Vasco), the first bishop of Michoacan (Mexico) who built his utopian model of just co-existence, in peace and in freedom, on the rubble left by Hernán Cortés. Discovered barely eighty years after the publication of More’s Utopia, the so-called Lead Books of Sacromonte, which contain a new gospel written in a cryptic language by Morisco scholars and imagine equality and fraternity between Jews, Christians and Muslims, are however viewed as apocryphal by the Catholic Church. Until the year 2000, they were kept under lock and key at the Vatican Library. The exhibition follows the trail of the singular symbolism of these utopian books by means of a wide-ranging impressive presentation which is, along with the display cases dedicated to the poem written by Ernesto de Cardenal about Bishop Tata Vasco and to his interpretation of indigenous craftwork, another of the axis of the exhibition that connects with the idea of the museum: “[…] as a kind of parliament of things, managing the symbolic values and representations of a certain community”, as Romero tells us.

Since the opening of the Louvre, the first of the modern museums, which coincides in time with the invention of the guillotine (Bataille) and which, at first, was stocked with the spoils of war, the institution went on to become a guarantor of the democratisation of our cultural heritage (which is always the heritage of the victors). “There is something paradisiacal about the exuberance of a museum” Romero claims, “[…] in the same sense as the lushest gardens thrive where cemeteries used to be.”

Tata Vasco: A Poem and the Lead Books of Sacromonte are part of the sixteen benchmark exhibitions and shows that, in the form of maquettes, fragments and new interpretations, run through the discourses and themes of Peace Treaties. Here we also have, for instance, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, a place that reflects the “dangers of symmetry” between 1871 (proclamation of the German Reich; symbolic humiliation of the German people) and 1919 (Treaty of Versailles; symbolic humiliation of the German people); or the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles by Marcel Broodthaers, which, with its exploration of the emblem of the Eagle, stands as a counterpoint to the symbol of the dove of peace, which, on the other hand, is consecrated in one of the most curious pieces on view in the exhibition: a stuffed messenger pigeon which, during the Spanish Civil War, carried messages to the Republican forces captained by Santiago Cortés González who had taken refuge in the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Cabeza.

There are display cases dedicated to the museums of peace and (against) war by Jean Bloch (1902-1919, Lucerne) and Ernst Friedrich (founded in Berlin in 1925), or to La Vérité sur les colonies, the counter-exhibition staged by French Communists, leading Surrealists and others, which explicitly underscored the imperialist and racist connotations of the Exposition International Coloniale held in Paris in 1931. Also represented is the iconic exhibition The Family of Man, the “pacifist exhibit” engendered by Cold War rhetoric which UNESCO included in 2003 in its Memory of the World Register, alongside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which evokes peace from the perspective of the “zero hour” of the nuclear threat, while at the same time embracing the catastrophe par excellence and commercialising it as a tourist attraction.

Starting from the title The Dead, borrowed from the Iberian School of Peace, Romero has forged a curious pivot that acts as a hinge between the two venues of the exhibition and divides the section into two parts. Each one of the parts is assigned a reference exhibition that addresses the same catastrophe —the holocaust— but from two different perspectives: one official and the other subaltern, if you will. While in the San Telmo Museum (The Dead, part 1) the holocaust is viewed through the prism of the exhibition The Holocaust Against the Roma and Sinti, conceived by the Documentation and Cultural Centre of German Sinti and Roma, whose headquarters are in Heidelberg, and which has been touring since 2006 in the form of stele and wall modules, the reference for the second part in the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Centre is the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim. Here one can see, among other things, photographic reports of the “packs of European visitors” who visit the commemorative place of Auschwitz, among which were those four famous photographs of prisoners taken by the so-called Sonderkommando to which Georges Didi-Huberman consecrated his Images malgré tout (Images in Spite of All, 2004), as well as a selection of drawings by inmates, some of the most moving images on view in the exhibition. Particularly worth underscoring is Military Post by Franciszek Targosz, whose joyful sketches evoke the idyllic air of a holiday resort. In a kind of polemic between Theodor Adorno, Georges Didi-Huberman and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Romero investigates the possibilities and the limits of a representation of extermination camps over and above falling back on what is usually classified as “inconceivable”.

In the first part of the approximation to the holocaust, which focuses on the (long-ignored) genocide of European Sinti and Roma gypsies, Romero introduces, as yet another element, Flamenco as a form of resistance not only during the years of German Fascism, but also during Franco’s dictatorship: this is the case, for instance, of the work of the experimental company Teatro Estudio Lebrijano, which, in the 1960s, staged its works in factories and on the street.

First and foremost amidst the abundance and energy of the material that the exhibition [1] deploys before us —from works by old and modern “masters” to anonymous artefacts, everyday objects and Lumpenkunst— what is being questioned in this polyphonic murmur are the micro-histories, and, in doing so, the exhibition counteracts the idea of history and of peace whose hegemonic narrative is the narrative of the victors.

*Bake ituna/Tratado de paz is a project for San Sebastián 2016, European Capital of Culture, organised jointly by San Telmo Museoa and Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea. 1516-2016. Bake-itunak/Tratados de paz was held in two venues: San Telmo Museoa and Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea from 17 June to 2 October 2016. Based on an idea by Santiago Eraso, it was curated by Pedro G. Romero and coordinated by BNV-Produciones. The design of the exhibition space was by the artist Isaías Griñolo and the design of the catalogue and publications was by Filiep Tacq.

[1In this brief text it is impossible, not even approximately, to address the complexity, the countless references and the density of this exhibition, not to mention the overall reach of the Peace Treaty project, begun in 2013. In this regard, as well as visiting the exhibition, I would heartily recommend the sizeable publication, which I believe will, with time, become one of the most important sources on issues dealing with peace, war, art, treaties, museums and many other themes.


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