Carolyn Farb stood smiling and chatting next to a mangled corpse on a gurney. The surreal scene took place at the opening of “Javier de Villota: DeHumanization Echo” at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.
Among the works in the show are three other corpses on gurneys and the artist’s nonrepresentational paintings. But the centerpiece is a frighteningly accurate and detailed tableau re-creating one of the most widely publicized atrocities of the Bosnian war.
Spanish artist de Villota, a former medical student, worked from photos of a massacre that took place 15 years ago, on February 5, 1994, in Sarajevo’s open-air Markale marketplace. There, a single mortar shell killed 68 civilians and wounded 200. Ten days later, de Villota first exhibited El Mercado de la Muerte in Madrid.
The installation about the Markale massacre includes exacting replicas of the dead. On a concrete platform, a wheelchair is overturned and empty, while mangled bodies of adults, a baby and a dog lie prone. The dead dog grins hideously, and a leg is all that remains of one body. Bent metal posts from the market stalls stick up from the concrete; fruit and vegetables rot on the ground, which is streaked red along with the wall behind. News video is projected over the blood-like stains on the wall, showing the explosion’s aftermath. It is mixed with other video from the war showing gaunt prisoners and bloodied children. The voice of a Bosnian news anchor reads a multi-ethnic role call of the dead.
In addition to socialite Farb, members of Houston’s Bosnian community were out in force at the opening. Sejla Bakalovic lived through the siege of Sarajevo and was among the attendees. I asked her how she felt when she saw the piece.
“I was just emotional,” she says. “It reminded me of everything. You don’t think about things on a daily basis. You kind of want to forget those bad things. When I saw it I had to go out, and I cried. I just remembered everything that happened.”
She points out, “That [Markale massacre] tragedy happened a long time after the war started. It’s not like they did it at the beginning of the war. That incident wasn’t unique, although maybe it killed the most people with one single shell.” Shelling and snipers were an everyday occurrence. “They would also fire shells on funerals, and there were funerals every day because people were dying every day. They would shell where people were waiting in line for water. They knew where we were lining up because they shut off the water. They would shell anywhere you could kill the most people. They were hitting us with grenades that are not for people but are for tanks. There were legs amputated everywhere.”
On the gory nature of de Villota’s installation, Bakalovic says, “We had art on the war’s subject, but it wasn’t that graphic. The reminder that it happened hurt me again and again; it reminds you of how the world is an unsafe place. But on the other hand, I was just so happy to see that someone not Bosnian, someone from Spain, would care enough about the subject to present it. That’s why I thanked the guy.”
Using graphic and disturbing imagery in art for political effect certainly has a history in Spain. The dismembered bodies of Goya’s Disasters of War is the primary example. Goya’s series is a powerful artwork that also served as a record of atrocities and an antiwar statement in the pre-photographic era. It was possibly the first time war was shown without glory. The other famous Spanish antiwar artwork is Picasso’s Guernica, which conveys the horror of that city’s bombing with abstracted imagery. Rather than realistically depicting events and delivering horror to the viewer, Guernica causes the viewer to conjure the horror from within him or herself.
De Villota is following Goya’s approach, but in 1994 there was photographic and video documentation available. He essentially created a life-size three-dimensional version of the photographs. It’s skillfully crafted, but it ain’t a Goya or a Picasso.
The timing and context of de Villota’s original presentation of the work are important, and they do make a difference. When he showed El Mercado de la Muerte ten days after the actual event, de Villota didn’t present his work in a gallery; he arranged his installation of bodies out in the open, on the streets of Madrid, as if it had just happened there. It was an in-your-face gesture of concern and outrage, bringing simulated carnage to the streets.
And attention needed to be paid. In 1994, Sarajevo had been under siege for two years. It was under an arms embargo. The city’s inhabitants were being starved out and picked off and had nothing to fight back with. As Bakalovic puts it, “We didn’t want anybody to save us; we wanted to fight for ourselves. But we couldn’t get any weapons, and if you aren’t giving us weapons, then you stop the killing. If you aren’t going to let us stop it, then why won’t you?” The siege of Sarajevo did not end until 1996.
The fact that de Villota pulled El Mercado de la Muerte together so quickly and presented it so boldly doesn’t make it more successful as an artwork today. Shown in an art museum 15 years later, it feels like something from a wax museum. The installation, for all its gore and literalness, lacks the power of a painted abstraction like Guernica.
The show also contains a large, dark painting by de Villota that bears graffiti-like scrawls of the names of sites where the innocent shed blood, like Auschwitz, Armenia, New York, Nagasaki, Gaza and Darfur. A bit of fabric striped like a concentration camp uniform is stuck to the canvas, as are several dark silhouettes of figures. Brushy, vaguely skull-like forms bubble to the painting’s surface. It’s a pretty good piece, and it somehow manages to more effectively convey the feelings the artist is going for with his far more overt installation. Funny that.