Publication:

The Guardian Weekly - 2021-11-26

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Street art row stirs political divisions

Spotlight Europe

By Sam Jones MADRID

For the past 11 months, the two walls that make up a street corner in east Madrid have engaged in a mute but bitter debate that mirrors the faultlines, fights and ferocities of Spanish politics. On the left wall are 24 street signs commemorating poets and writers including Federico García Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Victoria Kent and Carmen Laforet. On the right one are 25 others honouring the likes of Francisco Franco, his coup-mongering colleague General Emilio Mola, and General José Millán-Astray, the founder of the Spanish legion. Each wall bears a QR code that leads to detailed biographies of all those featured. The installation called Fachada derecha – Fachada izquierda (Right Facade – Left Facade) is by Mateo Maté, a Spanish conceptual artist long preoccupied with how nationalism can invade and distort public and private places. The title is also a pun: fachada means facade, but also contains the word facha – which means appearance, but is also slang for fascist. What was intended to spark dialogue and reflection on contemporary society, however, has itself become deeply controversial. Almost a year after Maté accepted an invitation from the building’s owners, Madrid city council has ordered the plaques be removed. It says the proliferation of signs is confusing, and that it alone has the power to decide on what streets are called. Maté began the project by asking himself how he would feel if he had to sleep on the other side of a wall bearing the name of someone he could never regard as a hero. He also wanted to see how far Spanish democracy had come since Franco’s death in 1975. “The idea was to establish a dialogue about the kind of society we want to live in by using the names of these people on both sides,” he said. “I’m not talking about left and right, I’m talking about the social models we want to see ourselves reflected in as a society. It’s about street names bearing the names of our heroes and how they’re seen as examples to follow.” Maté said the response to the piece speaks volumes. Not only has the city council stepped in, but one of the tenants on the “military” side of the block has been hassled and abused – even though the artwork had nothing to do with her. Some of the names of the generals have been whitewashed over, while others have been “intervened” and replaced by posters bearing the name of Carlos Palomino, a 16-year-old anti-fascist activist who was stabbed to death in 2007 while on his way to protest against a neo-Nazi rally. “The work was to see whether our democracy was mature and whether we could talk about all this,” said the artist. “The answer seems to be no.” Spain remains deeply polarised as a result of both the 2008 economic crisis and the increasingly fragmented political scene that followed, he said. “All the political tension and illfeeling generated by the crisis has served as a petri dish for unscrupulous politicians from both sides, both extremes, to generate more tension because it raises their profile and serves them electorally,” he said. “It’s just fuelled the fire.” Street names, many of which date from the Franco era, have long been a bone of contention between left and right. The rightwing People’s party (PP), which governs Madrid and the surrounding region, has engaged in bouts of revisionism in recent months. The PP’s national leader, Pablo Casado, offered his own take in June on the 1936 coup that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected Republican government, describing the Spanish civil war as “a confrontation between those who wanted a democracy without law and those who wanted law without democracy”. The far left has also shown an appetite for a fight – especially where the PP and the far-right Vox are concerned. In one of his characteristically blunt observations in May last year, Pablo Iglesias – then the Podemos leader and a deputy prime minister – suggested Vox would like to see a coup in Spain but lacked the courage to stage one. Madrid city council said Right Facade – Left Facade needed to come down because it “affects how the city is seen and also confuses passersby because it features names that don’t correspond with the two officially authorised ones”. Maté and the property owners are appealing against the decision, but the artist said he was inclined to cover up the signs to prevent any more problems for tenants. He will leave the two QR codes in place so visitors can scan them and make up their own minds about the names and what they represent. “It’s all made me really sad,” said Maté. “I was very young when the transition [to democracy] happened but I think we’re living through far more conservative, censored and radical times in Spain and Europe than the previous generation did.” Not everyone in the neighbourhood will be sorry to see the installation fade away. “I don’t want to see those signs with the names of Franco and MillánAstray,” said one woman who has lived in the barrio all her life. “I prefer the other side for sure, but I don’t think either should be here really.” Asked whether she could see its value as a piece of art, she shook her head. “It’s just a bit provocative. And we have enough debate as it is.”

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