Seville in bid to rescue Expo ’92 art

27 Abr

Por Sarah Rainsford. Corresponsal de BBC en Sevilla

It was the first thing that caught a visitor’s eye at the entrance to Seville Expo ’92.

Either side of the main gate for the fair was a bright-coloured ceramic mural. Featuring fantastical creatures, it was an original work by the acclaimed Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta – one of many pieces of art commissioned by Spain for the World Fair of 1992. But, on the eve of the opening of the Shanghai World Expo 2010, there is a sorry story to tell.

Today, many of the tiles have been smashed or prised from the cement by souvenir seekers; there are weeds poking through the cracks and one end of the wall has been knocked down to create a cycle path. It’s the most vivid example of how the international artwork bought for Expo has fared. But there’s another, nearby.

The Isla Magica theme park opened several years after Expo ended, transforming part of the site into a fantasy-land for children. But when the developers began creating the park they discovered a 15 metre high tower where the rapid river ride was meant to be. Abandoned, it was being used as a public toilet so the developers destroyed it.

“Building for a Void” was an original sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor and David Connor, created specially for Seville Expo.

“It was a place of calm. Amid the noise and festivity of the fair, it was like a monastery,” remembers local art critic, Juan Bosco Diaz-Urmeneta.

“Once you were inside it had a marvellous shaft of light. That building should have been preserved. It’s terrible that it was destroyed.”

‘Colossal waste’

The structure, reminiscent of a helter-skelter, still features prominently on the web-page of designer David Connor who collaborated with Kapoor.

He says it took six months to build and “wasn’t cheap”.

“Why go and buy an expensive sculpture, then knock it down?” the designer wonders.

“But our work is just a drop in the ocean compared to the other things built on that site and then abandoned.

“It’s all a colossal waste.”

It’s difficult to discover who exactly is responsible for allowing “Building for a Void” to be destroyed, or failing to protect other work commissioned for the fair. But the attempt provides a hint of the chaos that reigned when Expo closed.

A body set up to manage the site soon divulged responsibility to national, regional and local government. For years, the Expo site had many masters – and none.

A spokesperson for the group currently overseeing the site, Cartuja 93, told the BBC: “If any of the sculptures had been catalogued in any way, their destruction would have been impossible.”

The current director of Isla Magica says the Kapoor tower was never listed, despite its value.

“We made the destruction to make a new project,” Antonio Pelaez explains, saying the sculpture did not fit the theme of the amusement park.

“The tower […] is very interesting for Expo 92. Then some people take the decision that it cannot co-exist in a park located in 16th century Seville and America,” the director says.

He argues that it was physically impossible to move.

Football goal

World Fairs are extravagant by nature, each spectacular event costing the host country billions of dollars. Billed as the biggest World Fair to date, Seville was no exception.

Expo 92 marked 500 years since Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain for the Americas. For six months, Seville swarmed with more than 15 million visitors.

Ilya kabakov sculpture destroyed

But when they left, the Expo site was abandoned, its original artwork among many other valuable assets neglected for years.

A piece by Ukrainian artist Ilya Kabakov is one of the survivors – but only just.

“Woman with a Blue Plate” is a square wooden canvas which once depicted a woman and a donkey. The plate of the title, once attached, was stolen before the fair opened.

You can still make out the faint outline of the figures. But the wood has rotted and warped. It’s smashed in parts and daubed with graffiti.

Local children now use it as a goal, to play football.

Rescue effort

“Nobody respects contemporary art here,” complains art historian and restorer Carlos Nunez Guerrero.

“Everyone respects the Baroque, the Renaissance. Ancient art is very important for Seville. But this is something recent and unknown for people,” he explains.

Belatedly, the city authorities have begun a rescue effort. Mr Guerrero was part of a team that’s already restored eight statues, now on display outside the monastery where Columbus planned his historic voyage.

Having spent a small fortune commissioning the art, Seville is now spending more trying to salvage it.

A ceramic artist is looking at re-creating Matta’s mural from photographs. Officials have even enquired whether Anish Kapoor might rebuild his ill-fated tower.

If so, they could contact German artist Stephan Balkenhol too. His work was one of four sculptures displayed in the Gardens of Guadalquivir.

Not any more.

“There was a statue – Man with white shirt and black trousers – cut from this wood,” says Maria Victoria Bustamante, from Seville city council, pointing at an empty tree trunk.

“It cost 200,000 euros. The whole statue has been stolen.”

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