Exhibition text

This exhibition presents recent work by Asier Mendizabal (born Ordizia, Basque Country, 1973). Mendizabal has made a new work based on a text to frame this selection from the last five years of his practice. For this, he has recuperated a letter from 1953 written by Basque artist Jorge Oteiza, addressed (but unsent) to the jury of an international competition of the same year at the ICA in London, to select a monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner. Oteiza was shortlisted for the competition but was not given an award by the jury. Mendizabal uses the strange poetic clarity of Oteiza’s prose to visit an historic argument about the relation of abstraction to political representation.


Mendizabal researches the visual symbols by which cultures represent themselves, and through which they are represented. Especially he is interested in oppositional and sub-cultures, which are often defined by their adherence to such symbols. A text work from 2010 describes, amongst much else, how the symbols of Punk and Skinhead culture were constructed, but also retrospectively transformed the self-identification within these cultures. Mendizabal’s work is the result of un-picking and re-imagining cultural signs, questioning the relation of collective identity to its symbolic representations. An impetus for his research has been the way in which Basque culture uniquely adopts the abstract sculptural forms of late modernism to assert its identity. He finds an analogous relationship between how symbols become used to represent a culture, and the way in which certain kinds of abstract art originate in representation. There is a flow of references in his works – from the most inchoate representations of the collective to a state’s monuments and flags – that echoes an oscillation between representation and abstraction.


While many of the works can be read in terms of sculptural abstraction (in dialogue with its modernist legacy) a viewer might still register half-familiar symbols and codes extrapolated from various cultural canons. For instance, La Ruota Dentata [The Cogwheel] refers to a widely used symbol linked to collective effort and solidarity, which has appeared in sometimes opposing political or cultural contexts. Mendizabal has stripped the symbol of its references, reducing it to an imposing abstract material core, with a platform just suggesting potentiality. He is interested in what endows such a sign with the power to represent and symbolise so broadly and effectively. Some of the titles of the works provide a further allusive layer. Untitled (Targu Jiu) uses the name of Constantin Brancusi’s home town in Romania, and the site of his Endless Column, to cross-reference the work with an historic monument of abstraction. Le Trou [The Hole] is the title of a 1960 French film about a jailbreak, but the material and dimensions of the work replicate the hole which Basque prisoners make to escape in another film. Mendizabal often makes work which draws attention to simple techniques of engineering – deployed by a group using materials at hand – representing the origins of collective action.


Mendizabal locates the gathering of the crowd as a place where (oppositional) cultures can first find, and are first given, visual representation. He is interested in such moments when symbols of collective representation are born, although even at their most established and highly coded, as in their flags, the signs of a culture have a circumstantial genealogy. Various crowd scenes are photomontaged in Mendizabal’s series Figures and Prefigurations, and then filtered through

templates derived from a selection of early modern photomontages, the earliest political representations of the mass.


The works Untitled (Memorial) and Otxarkoaga (M–L), as well as Mendizabal’s new text work, link British and Basque situations. Untitled (Memorial) copies a structure, originally containing a bust of Lenin, designed by the architect Berthold Lubetkin, which he reportedly buried under a housing block in Islington in 1954 after his proposed name for it, Lenin Court, was denied. The photograph in Otxarkoaga (M–L) records the positioning of busts of Marx and Lenin in a suburb of Bilbao. In order to enable their placement in the street, a neighbourhood association housed the busts in a crude but efficient mass of stone. At some moment both these monuments were stripped of their busts, leaving behind only their sculptural casings, as improbable symbols and an implicit recognition of the impenetrable power of abstract form.