Through the slats

Mental images. They are necessary. It is a kind of conceptual network for the thoughts so they can throw themselves into the void with no fear of disaster. It is impossible to stop to imagine something, to elucubrate, without using them as cards to shape our thoughts. The challenge is to bring them to reality. Give them a material form. Make them leave the ethereal sphere of ideas, the cloud of thoughts, to give them physicality. To a great extent, this is the main work of an artist and a starting point for projects of Roberto Urbano (Granada, 1979).

As opposed to other artists, Urbano does not consider adopting grandiloquent rhetoric or persuade us to embrace a cause. No; his thing is channelled more into ‘illustrating’ concepts that are often slippery or elusive proposals which, nevertheless, influence us and determine much more than we can contemplate. This is not a trivial challenge, especially when the final result has weight and form; when, in its modesty, the concepts fight for turning into icons. Although Joan Fontcuberta is warning us against the excess of images that we handle nowadays, which are ultimately of digital, fluid and liquid nature, we should think of the responsibility of creating a new object for an already saturated world which consumes voraciously and does not give second chances. The difficulty doubles: how to give form to a mental image, something that only exists within the sphere of ideas, and how to choose the correct ones. How to determine which images are necessary.

In case of Roberto Urbano, images usually come from philosophy and literature, not so much from music, despite the great evocative power of this art which is perhaps the most complex one to express itself rationally. In his career Urbano has focussed on such intangible and elusive concepts as ‘truth’, ’authenticity’ or ‘utility’. (And what is there more blissfully useless than art, in contrast to the obligation of usefulness of design? However, just like Urbano has already done, it is also worthwhile to revise our understanding of the useless, especially when we associate it with artistic creation and when we refer to a turbo-capitalist society which evaluates everything in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.) These concepts might seem distant to us due to its pompous echo, but in fact they are perfect names to define the project of society we are building, where virtuality, virality and individualistic egocentricity are the order of the day.

The project presented by Urbano in Palacio de la Madraza in Granada centres itself round one of these philosophical concepts which a priori may seem ungraspable due to its complexity, but are essential for ontological thinking and try to determine what an individual is. It is Sorge, a basic precept in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy and the fundament of his book Being and Time.

This is one of the most fundamental works in Heidegger’s career as well as in the Western modern philosophy. That was to such an extent that many subsequent currents, such as existentialism, have been considerably influenced by it, mostly because the text offered some terms or concepts from which all subsequent philosophical thinking has been shaped. But what is Sorge? It is difficult to sum it up here. In his essay, Heidegger deals with the matter of being: what does it mean for entity to be? What is the reason why there is something instead of nothing? These questions, which are fundamental in ontology, have been tackled since the days of Aristotle and defined by Leibniz. In fact, the German philosopher centres the question round the temporary. Time is what the human beings are subject to and death at the end of it gives them back the awareness of themselves and questions about their own sense of existence. This way, it is the temporary nature of what is of major importance and Sorge (translated as ‘care’, although some authors opt for ‘concern’ or ‘cure’) is ‘the way of living in’ the temporariness. Therefore, accepting our (finite) temporary nature is an act of bravery because it requires courage and decisive attitude towards the evidence of death. The idea of being and ‘being of existence’ are not simple and therefore neither is the sense of care. But exactly because of that, artists have more possibilities to develop their illustrative rhetoric.

How does Roberto Urbano transfer all this into an exhibition room? By creating powerful images in form of pieces, of course. They are new visual poems in which, in this case, the scale is a fundamental ingredient. Also, let’s not forget the space where these artworks are shown: a room belonging to the old madrasa, a school or space of knowledge in arabic culture, which make us think of a soundbox amplifying the message and making the tackled matter echo even louder.

We should also take into account the interest the author has in certain syncretism; the introduction of some therapeutical elements in the sculptures; his interest in crossroad of cultures which made him spend large periods of time in Central America and the Caribbean, from where he brought some symbols and characteristic features to his work such as windows, later turned into balconies. One of them was featured in his ‘site specific’ installation called Desbordamiento, a resounding project presented at ECCO in Cádiz (Spain) in 2015.

From this allegory of what we keep in our identity and what we project or finally let go, even though we try to prevent it from happening, we remember the categorical monochrome of Desbordamiento. Muted colour tones are retrieved in Sorge. Undoubtedly, the lack of other colours makes it easier for us to focus on the sculptures and prevents us from getting distracted by superfluous details. It could even be said that because the final message send by the author has to do with death, that is the most convenient range of colours. However, that can’t be further from being true. Urbano does not aim to convey a pessimistic or gloomy message. As he said, his proposal consists of an opportunity of living the existential pressure (which Heidegger talks about) outside the world of objects and sham in modern society. It means a commitment with the truth, which he finds fascinating. 

We doubt whether Urbano’s works are sculptures or not —as they are made of steel— or paintings —as some of them are structured into a window frame— but others are extended on the floor or leaning against the wall. We can notice how its parts are organised in a way similar to how a painter lays out his brushstrokes over a canvas. Urbano has always liked losing the limits of one technique in another. As we get closer to the surface of these works, we find out its aggressive and defiant character. In case of the main piece laid on the floor, it occupies a large part of the surface of the room as if it was forcing us to recognise the inexorable passing of time, a black stain which gets greater and greater and soon will cover the surface we stand on. Looking once again over its limits —which are always sharp, sometimes rusty and worn out by natural forces— means being aware of certain temporariness: it has this appearance now, but it could look different soon and it actually did in the past. In fact, as our eye moves attentively from one roughness to another, each of them in different shade, we read the piece as if it was sheet music. Urbano —just like other authors of reference for him such as Richard Serra, Juan Muñoz or Bruce Nauman or thinkers like Ernst Jünger and his concept of ‘going into hiding’— encourages us to enjoy an experience of immersion in sculptures, interacting with the space and finding space for us in front of the piece. It is not only about looking at it or contemplating it, but also feeling and perceiving.

Gone are translucent materials from other series as well as the handcrafted appearance of works in pursuit of more ‘industrial’ finish. The arrangement of steel sheets, like gentle swells of the sea captured in a static picture, makes us think of the balcony in Desbordamiento as the artwork raises from the floor and also extends itself on the wall. Urbano admits that he has always kept a balance along the fine line separating figurative and abstract art and this time he tightens the potential that both languages offer. That piece, like all of them in the series, is a new curtain, a limit that separates us from something. Its edges are aggressive, defiant and sharp. However, as if it was a venetian blind over a window, if we are able to overcome anxiety and fear, not to paralyze, not to delight in impossibility, we will discover that these slats and gaps will show us nothing but other reality. Only fear and distractions stop us from reaching what is on the other side. Urbano puts these steel sheets as reference to psychological strata of human beings facing their own finite nature and expiry. Distractions? Ego, narcissism, fear, vanity, pride and all kinds of arrogance, superficiality and vice, which prevent from living life to the full. They stop us from putting our fingers between the slats and seeing through them to realize what really matters. 



Javier Díaz-Guardiola. Madrid, 26 January, 2018

Javier Díaz-Guardiola is a journalist, critic and curator of art exhibitions. He currently is the chief editor of Art, Architecture and Design column in ‘ABC Cultural’ and the author of a contemporary art blog ‘Siete de Un Golpe’.