Art Forum, exhibition review, November 2010

Ronald Jones on Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena

The South Will Rise Again

Röda Sten, Göteborg

By the time an artist approaches mid-career we are accustomed to seeing them repeat themselves. The clichés mount up and with the shtick comes a fatal lowering of energy. Juan-Pedro Fabra Guemberena’s impressive photographic career built itself, more or less, on a single conceit: the art of human deception leveraged against nature’s artlessness. Camouflage was usually his pawn; soldiers disappearing into the landscape. Everything else being equal, The South Will Rise Again, Guemberena’s exhibition at Röda Sten, would be the inevitable step in the measured rise of a career. It is anything but.

Röda Sten, now an exhibition center - originally a 1940’s industrial building – has interiors hollow and mammoth; lightly renovated, it seems largely left as found: “abandoned.” Guemberena presents eight projects dating to 1997 including video and sound installations, but Röda Sten’s forsakenness cradles the centerpiece of this exhibition Three Kings, 2010. The title remembers the motion picture set at the end of the first Gulf War, but brushes up against the Biblical Magi who, in seeking the Christ child, blindly sought salvation. In this screw loose masterpiece Guemberena seeks too, but for artistic deliverance. Massive antique opera backdrops of forest scenes frame this glowing installation in a darkened hall. As if intruding, you slip between the scenery to discover Guemberena’s architectural trope; an improvised church interior; three snipers in ghillie suits, perched atop extremely tall plinths, take the place of saints. It’s essentially the stark lighting design that drives this intimidating search for meaning; glaring floods are blinding; illuminations rare.

Blinding is his extended metaphor, reaching back to deceptions. The scene set in the nave is between a Cabinet of Curiosities and a menagerie which manically inventories Guemberena’s obsessions and obsessivness. Two themes prevail. “Death” is represented by models of gallows, internal organs in formaldehyde atop eloquent 19th century furniture, skulls, taxidermy; attacking eagle, adult crocodile, sleeping rabbit, and pinned butterflies; I could go on. Add to “Death” things “Militaire;” a half-track tread on a base, a 1939 wooden plaque dedicated to the fallen from the Graf Spee, an actual hand-held missile launcher, an array of battlefield instruments for spying at great distances; I could go on. When your search crumbles into a squinting rummage dodging the callous lighting, instincts carry you towards the altar.

Passage through the massive altar screen is blocked by a cloudy antique mirror; you too have vanished. Slipping around the screen, the chancel and alter are occupied by a near life size gallows. Peering through the gallows towards the apse - a last hope for a deus ex machina - it’s all bleached pictures of sully; death, sex and war. Standing there, off balance by Guemberena’s triumph - this theatre of homemade sin - I recalled Jasper Johns’ collaboration with Samuel Beckett on Foirades/Fizzles, 1976. When Johns showed Beckett the endpapers he had designed using his signature cross-hatching and flagstones, Beckett studied them closely and as Johns tells it: “He said he hoped that I would place the cross-hatching design at the front of the book and the flagstones at the back. I asked him why. He said, ‘Here you try all these different directions but no matter which way you turn you always come up against a stone wall.’”