Fina Miralles Is Everything We Want an Artist To Be

But why do contemporary art institutions only show rebellious art from the 1970s?

Fina Miralles, Imatges del zoo (Images from the Zoo), 1974/2020. Collecció MACBA.

Fina Miralles seems to have gone largely unnoticed, even in her native Spain. “Undeservedly so,” the team at MACBA in Barcelona must have thought, since the museum has produced an exhibition which has now travelled to Sweden where it is being shown simultaneously at both Index and Marabouparken in Stockholm. Yet another exhibition featuring an overlooked conceptual artist who wasn’t based in New York or London. Index has previously had similar shows with artists from Finland and Poland.

That said, I have never seen conceptual art as cruel as Miralles’s work Matances (Slaughter, 1976–77) at Marabouparken. It consists of collages and a video displayed on three walls which surround the viewer. The collages are made of photographs, texts, drawings, and shooting targets. The word bullseye is penned in emphatic letters, as are the Spanish words for fear, justice, death, shoot, and breathe. Images depict snipers, executioners, and their victims: animals, a man in a wheelchair, women with their faces hidden, and a picture of the artist as a child dressed as a bride with crosshairs drawn on her forehead. I read the work as accusing viewers of looking at art instead of protesting against living conditions during Franco’s regime. The unreality is emphasised by the drawn contours of a dead body on the floor. It is as if the whole installation is unhappy in the art context, like a caged animal or a woman living in patriarchy, and is eager to get out on the street.

Fina Miralles, Relacions. Relació del cos amb elements naturals. El cos cobert de palla (Relationship. The Body’s Relationship with Natural Elements. The Body Covered with Straw), 1975. Collecció MACBA.

In Petjades (Footprints, 1976–77), a short film shown at Index, we follow Miralles’s steps out on the street. She is wearing a pair of sandals with her name on the soles. These are somehow filled with ink and with each step the artist’s name is stamped on the sidewalk. The audio track tells us that this is a protest against ownership, which controls our lives down to the most intimate relationships. With every step, the artist appropriates a piece of public space. But the action is double-edged. On the one hand, it highlights the possessive attitude behind the system of ownership and the absurdity of letting our lives be shaped by such madness. On the other hand, it appropriates liberalism’s idea that ownership is a prerequisite of freedom – that people are only truly free to do what they want in relation to what they own. What the work does is to detach this idea from individualism, since, in theory, everyone could have their name on the sidewalk. Which would be unnecessary if we took the idea seriously and considered ourselves collective proprietors of society, together. Thus, the work transforms ownership from being a means of individual power to being a means of freedom and equality.

I am moved by the short film, thinking that going out on the sidewalk will feel completely different from now on. It didn’t. Although Miralles’s themes are as relevant as ever, her work doesn’t seem powerful enough. For the true conceptual art enthusiast, her image suite about everyday life’s contact points with nature might be a poetic gem: the water that flows from the tap in the apartment; the plant kingdom that fills the lungs via the cigarette smoked in the kitchen; the wood in the stair railing, etc. An installation on Marabouparken’s upper floor further develops the idea by covering a furnished room’s floor with straw, replacing chair cushions with grass, and leaving a large potted plant tucked into the bed. It’s interesting and pretty. Excellent art – but toothless. The works seem deflated, some fifty years on. In fact, the whole exhibition leaves me largely unmoved.

I start to wonder what the idea of ​​showing Miralles in Stockholm is in the first place. Two answers are given. The first is that “the exhibition wants to restore her place in art history.” That might be true, especially for the Spanish iteration. But from a distance, the exhibition doesn’t say much more than that there was the same art in Spain as in so many other places. But I, who am not an art historian, have a hard time seeing anything that could be of art historical significance. Miralles’s reworkings of the relationships between natural and artificial are not by any means groundbreaking: arrangements of potted plants, some living, others fake; documentation of how she moves sand from the beach to a field. The artistic significance of those activities must be quite marginal in the readymade tradition, and I associate their ideology with the 18th century in France, when many writers were preoccupied with nature as artificiality, triggered, for example, by the park in Versailles.

Fina Miralles, Paisatge, Mar (Landscape, Ocean), 1979. Collecció Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona. Installation view from Marabouparken. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Another and more important motivation seems to lie in Miralles’s relevance today: “We can read her work from our time,” the Marabouparken folder says. And Index gives a description of her practice that suggests a polemic against the current situation: “A hostile and limiting environment in which censorship […] controlled all forms of expression for so-called moral reasons. Miralles broke with the academicism taught in art schools and with the established behavioural norms of that time.” In many ways, she represents what we in Sweden want an artist to be: someone who stands up against injustices and the ruling class; someone who breaks with what the institutions want them to be; someone who does not compromise, who works with simple technology, who stands their ground. The obsession of contemporary art institutions with art from the 1970s can perhaps be explained by the fact that the problems that artists criticised then persist today, and that their way of being artists was exemplary.

But I can’t help to think about why those artists who live up to that model today aren’t exhibited. While chatting with the director of one of the venues, they gesture towards the large image in which Miralles and various pets are sitting in cages next to each other and say: “A work like that could never be made today.” It doesn’t become quite clear during our conversation where that impossibility lies, but in the end we seem to conclude that it is the institutions themselves shun such art for fear of damaging their brands. 

Fina Miralles, Translacions. Elements naturals en un espai no natural. Llit-arbre (Translations. Natural Elements In a Non-natural Environment. Bed-Tree), 1974/2020, Museu d’art de Sabadell & Translacions. Dona-arbre (Translations. Woman-Tree), 1973/2020, Collecció MACBA. Installation view from Marabouparken. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.

Here, Miralles’s critique of the role of ownership comes in handy. The heads of public institutions seem to voluntarily behave as if they were owners of for-profit companies! It is thus conceptual commercialism that prevents publicly funded venues from showing artists working today who, like Miralles, go against art school academism and “established behavioural norms.” If I allow myself to speculate, it seems like the directors of art institutions want art that is rebellious and dares to give injustices a blaring voice, while at the same time preferring not to work with such artists. Instead, they prefer to offer up the 1970s as a substitute. How much of a risk is it to show 50-year-old work, where you can always point to the art-historical significance if some Franco supporter should disapprove?

In Sweden, an entire generation of unruly and defiant – often feminist – artists from the turn of the millennium has been pushed to the sidelines during the 2010s. Artists like Joanna Rytel or Dorinel Marc – why don’t we see them anymore? Sometimes, I think that the real political art of the last decade was made by unknown bloggers who exposed police abuse and corruption. Most certainly, there have been interesting things done in relation to, for example, the yellow vests. Still, contemporary art institutions always choose the lamest forms of political art: a shelf of revolutionary texts from 1920s Russia and a table next to it for discussion, and so forth. When public venues pretending to be brands cannot handle political expressions other than at an historical distance, institutionally speaking, art’s time may even be over.

Fina Miralles, Naturaleses naturals, naturaleses artificials (Natural natures, artificial natures) (front), 1973/2020, Museu d’Art de Sabadell & Imatges del zoo (Images from the Zoo) (back), 1974/2020. Collecció MACBA. Installation view from Marabouparken. Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger.