Beloved Country – A Review of Alberto Garcìa-Alix’ Patria Querida
An empty seat of a swing sways in the late afternoon sun. An elderly couple dances slowly. A dog barks. A desiccated tree juts up into the sky. A girl glances sideways and then crosses the street. Enigmatic, lonely, tender and profoundly sad. These are some of the images in the series Patria Querida [Beloved Country] by Spanish photographer Alberto Garcìa-Alix.
Currently still on at the Electricity Museum in Lisbon is this extremely moving exhibition, which I happened to visit quite by accident. Whilst wandering the streets of Lisbon during my recent holidays, I glanced down an alleyway and noticed a massive banner on display, advertising the exhibition. As it was too late in the day to go and visit, I decided to try and return at an another time. Even so, it was a close call. After all, I had visited Madrid in December 2008 when Garcìa-Alix’ work was on show at the Reina Sofia. At the time I did not know what to make of it. I thought Garcìa-Alix’ photography was too harsh, too confrontational, and too explicit. At the same time his pictures seemed to have too much posing going on. It was as if he was trying too hard to depict a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, to document fake excesses of an exaggerated counterculture, to portray an underground which I did not believe actually existed. It all seemed to me to be too provocative, too visceral.
It was as if he was trying too hard to depict a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, to document fake excesses of an exaggerated counterculture, to portray an underground which I did not believe actually existed. It all seemed to me to be too provocative, too visceral.
Despite seeming to have much in common with Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, Garcìa-Alix did not grip me as the other two photographers did. Perhaps my misunderstanding of Garcìa-Alix’s work was also caused by my lack of knowledge of recent Spanish history, not having grown up in a country that up until the mid 1970s was a dictatorship. The death of Franco led to freedoms and possibilities in the 1980s and 1990s that were exciting, exhilarating and frightening at the same. La Movida was unleashed, a counterculture particular to Madrid and Spain more generally. Garcìa-Alix found himself in the midst of it, living it and capturing it with his photographs.
So it was with some misgivings and low expectations on my part that I entered the Electricity Museum. Patria Querida completely took me by surprise and quickly turned my apprehension into admiration. The exhibition is somewhat different though to his earlier work. Perhaps is has to do with the aim of the series. Garcìa-Alix was commissioned by the Fundación María Cristina Masaveu Peterson to make a portrait of the autonomous regian of Asturias, as the first photographer in a series. It provided Garcìa-Alix with a hunting ground for new experiences, new places to see and new people to meet.
La Movida was unleashed, a counterculture particular to Madrid and Spain more generally. Garcìa-Alix found himself in the midst of it, living it and capturing it with his photographs.
Perhaps Garcìa-Alix has also softened up the older he gets, as the images are more gentle, dreamier and more poetic than his earlier work. Whereas in the past he preferred full frontal portraits of his friends living on the edges of society, Patria Querida contains relatively few portraits. They are more intimate snapshots of people he encountered. Faces are turned away, staring in the distance or simply looking at something else. The landscapes are of a quiet beauty, stunning and empty and sad. The architectural shots are tight and nearly abstract. There is a surprising number of animal portraits in the show too. It drives home how much animals have disappeared from a western, urban, 21st century landscape, but here these animals are just as much part of the landscape of Asturias as the people, the built environment and the natural vistas are.
The exhibition consists of a mixture of about forty medium and ten large sized matted and framed photographs. As they are generally not accompanied by captions, it gives the viewer complete freedom to interpret the pictures. The result is refreshing and mesmerising at the same time. This is enhanced by the way the photographs are lit, making them look like light boxes. The exhibition ends with a ten minute film consisting of more pictures from the project accompanied by a haunting musical score, which deepens the enigmatic experience even further. As the exhibition is shown in a large hall of an old power station, the images wonderfully interplay with the beautiful interior industrial design, giving them space to breath. Patria Querida is an absolute joy.
Patria Querida is still on until 18 August 2013.