Roberto Urbano (Granada, 1979) does have, like no one else, a real gift for not being present where he should be expected to be found.
This is quite usual for artists whose work and critical apparatus are under construction, but it’s particularly true in his case and it becomes visibly clear in his last exhibition: Sorge: Care and Cure held by the University of Granada in La Madraza at the beginning of 2018.
The first breach between the title and the artwork has to do with the Heideggerian concept of Sorge, which will further be developed on the following pages by Jan Canteras. Therefore, is there anything more remote from the notions of care and cure than these works made of steel placed either on the floor or on the wall, halfway between the painting and sculpture, looking solemn at first sight or enigmatic at least, nearly dangerous and definitely disturbing?
Let’s analyze the material nature of the artworks. They consist of elongated steel structures, placed on the floor or the wall, forming limited rails to which steel bars are fixed perpendicularly as if they were roller blinds, making up opaque windows which an eye would naturally like to see through if its wasn’t for the pitted texture of the material. The rusting metal on different overlapping layers lends to the artwork a mysterious yet mineral, organic and metallic life of its own. Apart from that, the phenomenon of metal fusion has made it possible to shape the edges of the steel sheets into rough pikes, creating an impression that, once again, under this ‘skin-shell’ there is a bustling yet mysterious life which the imagination associates with an army of lined-up troubled characters, a ghost town or irregularly eroded mountains.
If we get closer to the pieces, especially to Marina placed in the main room, making a counterpoint to the Nasrid archaeological remains in the rock bed of the building, we can notice that the metal bars are separated in a way that they allow to see the floor, delineating a form similar to an electrocardiogram graph which is an effect created by the phantasmagoric shadows of the pikes.
On the other hand, if we get far from the shore, the sea turns into a sheer painting and definitely establishes the work of Roberto Urbano out of any rigid aesthetic category, between the painting and the sculpture, although he himself worships the sculptures by Sergio Prego and Asier Mendizabal.
The matter gets more dense, the eroded layers give each metal sheet a life of its own and different vibrant chromatic shades.
It is life, a life, happening in front of us.
About Roberto Urbano
I have discovered Roberto Urbano’s work at his exhibition The Harp and the Shadow which took place in La Empírica gallery in Granada in 2017. It was a symbolic interpretation of the eponymous book by Alejo Carpentier, one of the most emblematic authors in the artist’s personal mythology which is intimately related to South American literature.
It was presented as a ‘visual collage’ and the exhibition brought attention to the idea of paradise, especially in the Caribbean, questioning stereotypes in order to analyze the impact of the ideas of the Enlightenment as well as religious syncretism in that part of the world. The exhibition evoked all possible symbols from the founding biblical myth to the lost paradise of childhood. Anyway, paradise we have been expelled from by mass tourism and especially by modernity which is no longer a promise of happiness.
At the entrance, a pelican was observing the exhibition, reigning in his majesty like an indestructible observer and yet doubtful facing the rest of the scene. On the other side there was a palm tree, whose leaves were already cut out of steel, placed in a guillotine. Finally, two essential elements prefigured the artist’s concern in advance: a metal sea of reduced dimensions was exhibiting its spiky waves and echoing in a golden mirror whose surface, cut as if it was a jigsaw puzzle, deconstructed the image of the observer.
While the exhibition in La Empírica gallery showed a historicist and symbolic vision of the world, the works in La Madraza are of more intimist and meditative nature and are related to the awareness of being evoked by these metal pieces which are mirrors we need to get through after having defeated our inner fear.
For the artist, these pieces covered with different layers of metal represent an opportunity to ask oneself about the reality of the material and find its authenticity. In this sense, the eye of the observer is eloquent because it reproduces this very same question.
From the distance, the observer faces a dark, vague and almost blurry sea and as they approach its shore, the danger becomes more perceivable because the steel sheets evoke an imminent danger. Paradoxically, there are gaps on the floor between the sheets which open up like corollas. The observer also realizes that this ‘army of pikes’ looks line a mountain that has been nibbled by erosion and the danger is finally relative. In fact, the metal continues its process of erosion, falling off is as if it were pieces of skin or tree bark covering the space of the floor between the steel bars.
The journey through the mirror has been made without obstacles. The reality of the material has made way for the being to find its own truth.
The mountain is a thousand meters high.
I decided to eat it up little by little. It’s just like every other mountain: vegetation, rocks, earth, animals and even human beings who go up and down its side.
Every morning I lie down over her and I start chewing whatever comes first. I spend hours like this. I come back home with a stiff body and shattered jaws. After a short break I sit at my doorstep and I look at her in the bluish distance.
If I told the neighbours, they would surely roar with laughter and would think I am insane.
But I know what I’m plotting and see very well that it’s loosing her roundness and height.
And then they will talk about geological phenomena.
Here’s my tragedy: nobody will admit that it was me who was the ravenous eater of the one thousand meters mountain.
Virgilio Piñera, Tales.
From privacy to history
In that respect, the cuban author Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979) is also important in Roberto Urbano’s personal pantheon. Virgilio Piñera was a writer, playwright (prefiguring Ionesco’s theatre), poet and translator but he is mostly known for his short stories which are reserved, minimalistic and grim. Just like Alejo Carpentier, and even a few years earlier than him, Piñera is considered one of the first authors in Cuban literature who demystified the myth of the Caribbean as heaven on earth. He was silenced by the Castroist regime which reproached his nonconformism and homosexuality. In answer to 1961 Castro’s famous declaration ‘Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing’ from Words to the Intellectuals, Piñera answered with these laconic words, ‘I’m scared!’
By using black humour, the grotesque and absurd, his work is, nevertheless, a reflection of the human condition.
Roberto Urbano frequently refers to this author and I believe it is because of three reasons.
In the first place, indirectly and through metaphors, the author interrogates the irreducible and universal parts of human nature such as death anxiety (The Bathtub). Also, he describes daily life in Cuba, the hunger of its inhabitants, pushing his work into a political dimension without barely hiding it. (In Meat the author indirectly criticises the Cuban government which exports all meat produced in Cuba, leaving its inhabitants hungry. Finally, through different stories which evoke cannibalism, Virgilio Piñera confirms the animal and archaic nature of human beings from which they cannot escape despite a great deal of gesticulation.
This leads me to recall the thoughts of another author, a French one this time, who is politically opposed to Virgilio Piñera because of his association with the Cuban Revolution (history is sometimes deceiving and is the only one herself who understands the traps she sets): a writer, philosopher and mediologist Régis Debray.
To sum up his prolific career, let’s just say that Régis Debray was born in Paris in 1940 and after his secondary school studies he joined the Communist Party. In 1960 he manages to get to the famous Ecole Nationale Supérieure and joins the Philosophy department in 1965. The same year, he starts living in Cuba and follows Che Guevara in Bolivia before being captured in 1967 by the Bolivian government forces. His death penalty was commuted for 30 years of imprisonment thanks to an extensive media campaign carried out by Jean-Paul Sastre. After four years he is liberated and settles in Chile before moving back to France in 1973. Apart from other numerous commitments, in 2005 he creates a journal called Médium. Transmettre pour innover (‘Médium: Transmit to Innovate’) and is appointed the president of honour of the European Institute for Sociology of Religions which he had founded years before.
I mention the work of Régis Debray because in my interviews with Roberto Urbano appears a recent view of the French philosopher, developed in his publication called Madame H. (2015) (*1). ‘We have abandoned the economy of salvation looking for our salvation in the economy. Before we even realised and took precautions, the Christian era had finished, and great myths in our history were substituted for a city of success. Therefore, there is no point in looking for Mrs H. and chasing her. She has retired.’
For Régis Débray, history offers an organic unity of the past, the present and the future which is above all a matter of the imaginary. However, an era dominated by the economy does not move us away from fanaticism and violence, but causes it. For the author, the feature of postmodernism, which has emptied all beliefs, is that the past and archaism come back. These archaisms are built on religious, ethnic, linguistic and regional foundations. ‘As much as we hate earth and blood, they always come back!’ (*2)
Roberto Urbano’s piece Dasein placed in the vaulted room is solemnly presented and made sacred. A visitor cannot come closer and the work needs to be observed from a distance in its whole majesty and mystery. Hung on the wall and extended on the floor, it evokes a cloak of the king of some primitive and ancient civilization which disappeared in history.
It seems to me that when Roberto Urbano unfolds his metal sculptures, he asks himself about a possible way towards future irremediable archaism. When the rusting metal makes an underlying life emerge, unrestrained and uncontrollable, I cannot help thinking about what Régis Debray considers a limit in the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment: what they had not foreseen, and nor had the Progressivists later on, are ‘all these subterranean things that torment and eat human beings away.’ (*3)
Those subterranean things, underneath the skin of metal, are what Roberto Urbano is reflecting on. To my mind, and that is the strength of his art, it is a personal introspection and a historical point of view which intertwine and contribute to the construction of his artistic project.
Nathalie Pariente, Granada, January 2018
Nathalie Pariente is an art historian and independent art curator. She has been living between Granada and Paris since 2015 and is a member of c-e-a, (Commissaires d’exposition associés) in Paris.
*1 Régis Debray, Madame H, Régis Debray, Ediciones Gallimard, París, 2015.
*2 Entretiens France Culture – Répliques, Régis Debray and Alain Finkielkraut, «L’Adieu à l’Histoire» 21 November 2015. https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/repliques/l-adieu-l-histoire 8 (online)
*3 Entretiens France Culture – Répliques, Régis Debray and Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray est-il réaccionnaire?, 1st April 2006. https://www.franceculture.fr/emissions/repliques/regis-debray-est-il-reactionnaire-rediffusionde-lemission-du-01-04-2006 (online)