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Collecting soil from a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War with Aranzadi in Oteiza, Navarra, Spain.
Cultivating medicinal plants from seed in Artium using soil obtained from the mass grave.
Seeb Bomb Workshop (Guerrillla Gardening).
The Spanish community adopting the medicinal plants at the end of the exhibition.
Medicinal Plant Etching.
Using soil obtained from a recently exhumed mass grave from the Spanish Civil War, Canadian artist Robert Waters cultivated 36 species of medicinal plants in Artium, a contemporary art museum in the capital of the Basque region of Spain. At the end of the three-month exhibition (January - March 2011) - part of the "PRAXIS" exhibition series curated by Blanca de la Torre - the medicinal plants were adopted by the Spanish community where the soil and seeds originated. By physically demonstrating the cycle of death back into life, Waters created both a functional healing environment within the museum and a new metaphor for Spain’s ongoing transition from fascism to democracy. Through the transformation of flesh to soil to plant back to flesh, the exhibition proposed an ancestral communion of sorts, where the wasted lives / bodies of victims of fascism were perpetuated to help remedy the living.
Inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ Spanish translation of "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman, and referencing the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was killed by Franco’s fascist regime and buried in a mass grave, Waters’ project combined the disparate fields of history, poetry, philosophy and science (anthropology, botany and medicine) to consider our inevitable connection to nature in life and death. In addition to caring for the plants during the exhibition, the artist created medical illustrations based on those of Dr. Adrian Vander from the 1940’s, indicating how the plants being cultivated could be used to benefit the human body. Particular importance was given to Gingko biloba, a plant that has been proven to enhance memory.
CURATORIAL TEXT BY BLANCA DE LA TORRE
(translated to English by Artium)
After getting in touch with the scientific society Aranzadi and attending some conferences on the subject, we quickly obtained a permit to remove earth from the mass graves of the Spanish civil-war and post-war period, where the remains of victims were being exhumed.
Armed with this permit, Robert Waters set off on the task of visiting the graves, whose history was suppressed by fascism, and collecting earth from them. His aim was to start planting this earth with the seeds of local medicinal herbs, including some that help to recover memory.
Waters’ project is to create a therapeutic atmosphere in the Museum. The visitor comes into an area rather like a living room where the soft murmur of water provides a ‘soundtrack’ for the pieces of the ARTIUM Collection and the project documents. The aim is to play with the curative attributes of art.
One of the literary references chosen by Waters is Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855). In his critical study of the book, Guillermo Nolasco Juárez tries to analyse its philosophical structure. In it, philosophy, religion and science coexist in an amazing way, although they are traditionally considered to be directly opposed to each other. Juárez also explains how this correlation makes sense in the work of the New York poet because although the three approaches are very different they all share the same final objective: understanding the mystery of life. Waters proposes an act of transformation that fits in with Whitman’s way of formulating change, the process of becoming and the possibility that all things have of transforming themselves into other things.
Walt Whitman had a good understanding of the most profound mysteries of existence. He knew that evolution and metamorphosis are both levels of change, and his fine intuition led him to create a philosophy based on change and not on stratification. This interest in transformation processes is also a constant feature in Waters’ work. He places them in the context of the current development of post-industrial society, structural changes in society and epistemological developments in order to examine the process by which human beings have been tamed.
His work first explores the biological world and connects it with what is human, mind and body, and with the human desire for transcendence. The human relation with nature is presented in a conflictive way in Waters’ work, especially the connection between human mortality and nature. This point will be reinforced by the cycle proposed by the project, in which plants grow from the earth containing the remains of the victims.
The project’s interest in preserving historical memory can also be related to The secret life of plants (1973), in which the authors, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, suggest that memory exists in the plant world. This book also contains a summary of the theory Goethe put forward in Metamorphosis of Plants and proposes an emotional and even spiritual interrelation between plants and human beings.
For the fanzine that accompanies the project, the artist has created a series of illustrations inspired by Dr. Adrian Vander’s book on herbal medicine, establishing a metaphorical connection between plant cycles and human bodies associated with recycling the earth from the mass graves.
The fact that quantitative change leads to qualitative change is now a universal law. It would be impossible to change, to be ‘something other’, if each thing were not both itself and its opposite. uncover RECOVER thus constitutes an act of reparation towards the war victims, their families and the public itself - above all, a communal act that serves as a metaphor for the recovery of historical memory.
The Spanish Civil War began on July 18, 1936, when a group of conservative generals led by Francisco Franco (the “Nationalists”) rebelled against the established government of the Second Spanish Republic. With help from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Franco won the war in 1939, at which time his conservative authoritarian dictatorship began. While the death toll of the war was only around 50,000, the transition to Franco’s dictatorship brought with it 500,000* more murders. The majority of these executions, known as “White Terror,” were carried out by the Nationalist regime. Often pitting families and communities against one another, the war became an excuse for resolving longstanding feuds. Executions of people who were caught on the “wrong” side of the lines became widespread, and the corpses were usually abandoned or interred in common graves dug by the victims themselves.
With the death of Franco on November 20th, 1975, Juan Carlos de Borbón became the absolute King of Spain. He immediately began transitioning to democracy, with Spain becoming a constitutional monarchy articulated by a parliamentary democracy. In 1977, the first democratic government elected after Franco’s death passed an Amnesty Law, which exempts responsibility to everyone who committed any offence for political reasons prior to this date. This law ensures that all crimes committed during Franco’s dictatorship cannot be prosecuted.
In 2000, at the request of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, the first official exhumation of a mass grave was carried out by Aranzadi, a non-profit scientific society and research body based in the Basque Country. Led by Francisco Etxeberria, Aranzadi have since exhumed over 250 of the 2052 (these numbers are constantly growing) known mass graves in Spain, all at the request of living ancestors and carried out with the assistance of volunteers. In 2007 Spain passed the Historical Memory Law, which includes provisions of state assistance in the tracing, identification and eventual exhumation of victims of Francoist repression whose corpses are still missing.
In 2008 the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón opened an investigation into the executions and disappearances of 114,266 Spanish citizens between July 17, 1936, and December 1951, one of those people being the poet Federico García Lorca. This investigation proceeded on the basis of the notion that this mass-murder constituted a “Crime Against Humanity” which cannot be subject to any amnesty or statute of limitations. As a result Mr. Garzón was himself accused of violating the terms of the general amnesty and his powers as a jurist have been suspended pending further investigation.
In September 2010 an Argentine court reopened a probe into crimes committed during the Spanish Civil War and during Franco’s dictatorship. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe and United Nations have all asked the Spanish government to investigate the crimes of Franco’s dictatorship.
* Figure varies greatly depending on the historian.
For more information on the subject, an excellent reference is the Mapa de la Memoria, which offers information on the sites of mass graves, historic buildings, military architecture, Francoist symbols, battles, detention centres, concentration camps, and other points of interest in Spain related to the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship.