Memory of a nightmare

Joan Brossa made a sculpture “to boo” at Josep Maria de Porcioles, the pro-Franco mayor of Barcelona and one of the main people behind the property speculation of the 1960s. Although it was commissioned by the council of Sant Adrià de Besòs, the work endured censorship and various tribulations before arriving at the city’s Museum of the History of Immigration in Catalonia.

Photo: Albert Armengol

The ‘anti-monument’ that Joan Brossa dedicated to ex-mayor of Barcelona Josep M. de Porcioles, which has been an installation at the History of Immigration in Catalonia Museum in Sant Adrià de Besòs since 2004.
Photo: Albert Armengol

“Porcioles was looking at the first housing blocks that had been built, looking at the disgrace he himself had created, and he did it from the tray, with his head cut off.” That is how Paco Marín describes one of Joan Brossa’s lesser-known sculptures, although it is also one of the most aggressive and caustic. A work that denounces the lack of scruples of the ruling class and that highlights in a single image the reality of a neighbourhood that is home to flats where, according to Carlos Díaz, “up to 20 people live without food, without electricity and without water.” Record d’un malson (Memory of a Nightmare) is the condemnation of a neighbourhood that emerged as a result of the large-scale property speculation favoured by Josep Maria de Porcioles, mayor of Barcelona during the migratory wave of the 1960s, which affected the urban development of the entire metropolitan area. This is a story featuring two teachers who went through endless local struggles, as told by one of the most recognised Catalan artists and by a sculpture that was censored and seized time and again by the Catalan authorities.

As with any story, it must be told step by step. The La Mina neighbourhood forms part of the city of Sant Adrià de Besòs and borders Barcelona. It was built in the early 1970s to house slum dwellers from Montjuïc, Somorrostro, El Camp de la Bota – where El Fòrum is now located – and Pont del Treball. As explained by Josep Maria Monferrer, local activist and director of the La Mina historical archive, “blocks were built at full speed during Porcioles’s term of office, and, in just a few months, the neighbourhood – which lacked basic facilities such as schools or traffic lights – had 15,000 inhabitants from 68 slums in Barcelona and 268 towns in Spain.” The result is such a high demographic density in each block of flats that it is bound to create social problems on a huge scale. So drug dealing, theft, delinquency, violence between clans, prostitution, unemployment, truancy, unlawful activities, organised crime, poverty and lack of health and hygiene become the daily bread of the inhabitants of La Mina, the vertical shanty town.

To date, various comprehensive transformation plans have been started – by popular demand – to try to reverse the situation, yet they have all ended up having speculative objectives and residents see them as scams. At the same time, the authorities have made pacts of silence with some marginal sectors that have taken ownership of the neighbourhood: the Administration wins, the marginal sectors win and fear keeps people quiet. This is a unique “ecosystem” within the metropolitan area, a highly complex situation in which the lack of social, work and economic options creates a neighbourhood that does not have homes, but overcrowded flats, and that does not have inhabitants, but victims of a system in which scruples are a value that is hard to find. It is a dead end.

Joan Brossa could hardly have expected to encounter a neighbourhood like this when the mayor of Sant Adrià went with him to learn about the district. In 1989, during the term of the PSC (Socialist Party of Catalonia) in Sant Adrià Council, one of the cultural associations of the socialist group, led by Raimon Obiols, organised a dinner with Brossa and Antoni Meseguer, then mayor of the municipality. The request for the multi-faceted artist to create a sculpture for Sant Adrià to place near Barcelona came up informally. Brossa accepted. When he visited La Mina accompanied by Meseguer, he asked about the origins of the neighbourhood; upon hearing Porcioles’s name he exclaimed: “I know what I’ll do.” The budget for the commission was debated in a plenary session of the City Council and was approved. In 1991, the avant-garde artist, a left-wing character who was very politically involved, delivered Record d’un malson to the administration of Sant Adrià so it could be placed in La Mina.

The work, measuring 89 x 49 x 51 cm, consists of a marble bust of Josep Maria de Porcioles – still living at that time – positioned on a bronze tray installed on a notary’s chair – the profession of the ex-mayor. The symbolism of the piece, in the spatial context the author had chosen and with the name it bears, is extraordinary. Moreover, it a reference to the Biblical story in which Salome demands the head of John the Baptist – a figure who denounced corruption – on a platter; in this case, the head is of a corrupt person. This is Joan Brossa’s anti-homage to the pro-Franco ex-mayor of Barcelona, based around the construction of La Mina.

Seizures and counter-seizures

“We’ll let you know.” Those were the words Brossa heard upon delivering the commission to the municipal government. According to Paco Marín Rodríguez, then independent councillor for the PSC in Sant Adrià City Council, as well as spokesman for the La Mina neighbourhood association, “the council authorities were totally taken aback by it: how on earth could we put an anti-Porcioles monument in a neighbourhood, when he was already seen as a Catalan icon?” Then they wanted to hide – and possibly forget – Record d’un malson in the basement of the town hall, at a time of great political unrest (municipal elections were about to be held) and social disturbances like the intifada of Besòs, street protests against city planning policies.

Four years later, in 1995, Brossa visited Sant Adrià council, then governed by mayor Jaume Vallès under a coalition formed by the opposition parties (Convergència i Unió, Iniciativa per Catalunya, Partido Popular and Grup Municipal Independent del Besòs) to cast out the former socialist government led by Meseguer. The artist went to the deputy mayor of Sant Adrià for urban planning, Paco Marín – then independent councillor for Iniciativa per Catalunya – as he was interested in the work and expressed his desire to exhibit it. Marín, who during the plenary session to approve the project had not supported it as he considered it too expensive given the deprivation suffered by the neighbourhood, forwarded Brossa’s request to Jaume Vallès. The mayor’s reply? That it was an offence to Porcioles and that Record d’un malson could not see the light of day.

Given the negative response, Marín called Brossa and asked him: “Where do you want us to put it?” The artist and the councillor then took the decision to defy the administration and to denounce the pro-Franco ex-mayor’s disastrous urban development. The first step was to choose the most suitable place to exhibit the work: a pedestal in Besòs park that had been built to hold the monument in the first place, four years earlier, when the municipal government refused to exhibit it for the first time.

The second step consisted in getting their hands on the piece. In other words, seizing the seized work. On Saturday 10 June, Brossa, Marín and the councillor for culture, Consuelo Blanca, also from Iniciativa per Catalunya, went into the basement of the town hall, took Record d’un malson and hid it in sections: the bust and the tray in a private home; the chair in a youth organisation. That is when the deputy mayor received the first threats from some officials trying to force them to take a step back. But the councillor declared that “positioning the work would be the last act of that government”: Jaume Vallès’ term was reaching its final weeks and Marín would not remain on the council.

Which brings us to the key date: 11 June 1995. That morning Paco Marín and Carlos Díaz, then director of the Institut Barri Besòs secondary school and trusted friend of Marín, collected the bust, the tray and the chair from their hiding places, assembled them and put the work on the pedestal. Díaz, laughing, speaks of the event with irony: “We were Brossa’s workmen, and the head weighed a tonne! Human history is full of busts to honour and glorify historical figures; in this case, it was for public ridicule.” While they were waiting for the cement to dry, accompanied by some local residents, Brossa appeared. The significance of that moment was so great for the three men and for the history of La Mina – and for freedom of expression, it is worth noting – that the artist refused to attend an exhibition of his works in Germany so he could he could be present as Record d’un malson, finally, played the role for which it was intended: in the words of Marín, “denouncing the person who had created the suffering of thousands of people and hundreds of families for decades.”

Photo: Historical Arxive of la Mina

Demonstration by residents of La Mina neighbourhood in the 1980s, calling for better living conditions.
Photo: Historical archive of la Mina

The next day, the morning of 12 June to be precise, the Institut Barri Besòs received calls from two former students reporting that the sculpture was being taken down from the pedestal. The local police, accompanied by the Sant Adrià council team – including Mayor Vallès – were smashing the cement that joined the piece to the base. The authorities did not even let Marín and Díaz get close. “They could have destroyed the entire monument! They were using axes, picks… It was an act of vandalism by the mayor and the police themselves,” says the then councillor and La Mina resident.

On 13 June, the day after the piece was seized again, the press was quick to summarise the events, with different biases and positions. ABC, on the one hand, in an unsigned op-ed piece cleverly entitled “De mal busto”, using “bad bust” as a play on words with “bad taste”, supported the mayor’s orders to remove the bust and called the sculpture an eyesore and an offence to a figure of Barcelona’s history such as Porcioles. It also criticised Paco Marín and Carlos Díaz – without mentioning their names – assuring that “they were communist representatives who had nothing better to do that weekend.” On the other hand, an op-ed piece published in El Periódico de Catalunya with the title “El retrato” (“The portrait”), Josep M. Cadena defended the fact that “any effort to silence free expression becomes a stimulus for protest”, although he pointed out that Porcioles was not as terrible as some other politicians during the dictatorship.

From the basement to the library and the museum

After the uproar, the government team decided to hide the visual poem in the basement again, although the shamed Sant Adrià Council finally chose to put it in the lobby of the district’s public library. It was not exhibited as a monument, but used to put advertising leaflets on top. Years later, a women’s association filed a formal complaint because they considered that the violent connotations of the work did not make it suitable for exhibition in a place visited by so many children. The Museum of the History of Immigration in Catalonia Museum (MhiC) then wanted to give it a home. Its director, Imma Boj, says that Record d’un malson was of interest to them “because it denounces the urban planning that took place in the metropolitan area as a result of the influx of migrants and the disorganised and speculative construction promoted by Porcioles.” Record d’un malson has been on display in this museum since 2004.

History shows that art is a strong instrument for expression, one that is capable of denouncing abuses of power and of mobilising the public. And in the words of Joan Brossa himself, “there are sculptures that are used to applaud and others that are used to boo; the latter is the case with Record d’un malson.”

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