Jeff Koons didn’t know how right he nearly was when he told a reporter from El País that his monumental flower sculpture Puppy had an ‘untamed’, ‘belligerent’ quality. The next day, Monday 13 October, a florist’s van pulled up outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and two men proceeded to unload a delivery of shrubs as if to stick them onto the giant dog looming over the esplanade. It so happened that Koons, though failing to produce the works for the Jeff Koons Room inside, had kept to schedule with Puppy and no more greenery had been required since Saturday. For this reason a member of the autonomous Basque police, the Ertzaintza, checked the numberplate of the van – and found it to be false. When he asked for identification, he was shot in the back (and died the next day). Three men fled; one was caught later with the help of passers-by, while 12 anti-tank grenades and a remote-control device were found in the pots.

What was the idea? None of the scenarios seems plausible in the light of the security operations around the museum, which has been angrily likened to Fort Knox. But the vision of Puppy blasting off missiles at the great symbol of a new Basque cosmopolitanism, ripping through the building’s gorgeous titanium skin towards millions of dollars’ worth of New York art ready for the grand inauguration on 18 October, was too much for Koons, who told me sorrowfully that he was ‘just an artist’ who had no idea what was going on. Others did, or should have done. In 1994, ETA documents were found which named the Guggenheim as a target. Two years earlier, when the Foundation’s director, Thomas Krens, was finalising a deal with the Basque authorities, he received a letter from Herri Batasuna (HB), the party widely regarded as ETA’s political wing, asking him to postpone the project until a more inclusive consultation about the museum’s financing and management had been held. At the time, Krens thought it enough to reiterate the Foundation’s lack of imperialistic intentions. ‘The show must go on,’ he declared on 13 October, when his lunch was interrupted by the news. His main fear, he admitted, was of seeing the word ‘terrorism’ emblazoned all over the New York Times.

The Guggenheim Foundation was induced to open its European branch in a low-level war zone rather than in Salzburg by a good, some would say grovelling, offer. So eager was the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to bag the Guggenheim as the flagship of a resuscitated Bilbao that it spent £96 million of public funds on Frank Gehry’s building, use of the Guggenheim name, access to the Guggenheim collection and a few Guggenheim pieces with which to start its own. The Basque Autonomous Government, helped by a trust fund of private companies, will also foot the bill for the museum’s massive running costs, predicted deficit and extravagant insurance. In return, the New York office has only to design, curate and present the exhibitions any way it likes. How could a fly in the ointment like ETA spoil such an idyll?

Dissenting voices in the three Spanish Basque provinces have pointed out the many social and cultural needs in Euskadi – Basque country – on which a fraction of such sums could better be spent and it’s not only HB who have objected to the secrecy of the negotiations, but the protesters have all been dismissed as party poopers, begrudging the new image of a modern, outward-looking Bilbao hoovering up foreign investment: an image launched in 1996 with the very nice, if not very long, Norman Foster metro. It is true that a majority of Bilbainos and many war-weary folk outside the Biscay province who would quite like a decent image for Euskadi find their political or cultural objections outweighed by an understandable pleasure in the Gehry building. It romps and gleams along the scarred urban riverside, with a ruggedness that can even seem quite Basque, while its turrets curve upwards and outwards in a way that has readily been interpreted as denoting rebirth. Nevertheless, globalist cheer-leading cannot quite explain the funny nationalism that hands over most of its tax revenue earmarked for culture to a powerful New York institution. Or the nationalism which under the slogan ‘A Certain Notion of Country’ wants Picasso’s Guernica for the museum (though it was only after the Basque town of Gernika’s bombardment that the name was chosen for the painting), yet excludes that country’s grand old artists: Jorge Oteiza because he hates the Guggenheim, and Agustín Ibarrola because he was not considered up to scratch. Only Eduardo Chillida, well-known on Fifth Avenue, gets in, with the young Cristina Iglesias as token promise. People may barely notice, because for decades the PNV’s nationalism has been rousingly defined by exclusion rather than inclusion: that is, by opposition to the Spanish state, from which it has wrung juridical and fiscal privileges that other autonomous governments, even Catalunya, have not. This more recent gamble on non-Spanish forces that the PNV thinks it can control reminds me of the conquest of Mexico, when the semi-independent Tlaxcalans gave up their ritual War of Flowers with the Aztec empire to join forces with those helpful foreigners. Will the Basques have cause to rue the day when they hoisted the banner of transnational private enterprise with a McMuseum logo?

ETA’s bid to blow a hole in the PNV’s pet ideological project does not, however, make it the spokesman of the conventional Left (now mired in factionalism) or of those uneasy, for whatever reason, with the American dawn. To attack a building that has won every heart (even Oteiza was spotted grumpily looking it over the other day) will only be perceived as an intensification of ETA’s perverse ability to misread the mood and alienate the public, drawing further attention to its political isolation and the anachronism of its methods. Last July, 24 years and hundreds of deaths after democrats thrilled more or less openly to the murder of Franco’s centralist interior minister, Carrero Blanco, ETA killed another Blanco. But this one was a fellow Basque, a young, insignificant councillor from the right-wing People’s Party (PP) that took over from Felipe González. He was executed after a public countdown of 48 hours (in revenge for the Civil Guard’s liberation of a prison official kidnapped by ETA and kept in a hole for almost two years.) Thousands of countrymen flocked to the councillor’s home village of Ermua, as the hours ticked away, in a futile plea for ETA to desist.

ETA misreads that gathering and the motives of millions of people who mobilised across Spain as sentimental false consciousness, a symptom, they say, of the PP’s imposition of a ‘single thinking’ on democracy. There are real grounds for concern about authoritarian manipulation by Madrid since the PP came to power. President Aznar’s obsessive persecution of the media conglomerate, Prisa, for instance, and of anyone else connected with the Socialists, exposes the anti-pluralism of a Right eager to settle scores. And since Ermua, a deplorable cross-party pact with the media to cease all reporting on HB because it failed to condemn Blanco’s murder has given HB and ETA further ammunition.

There may still be ‘two Spains’. But a grassroots movement like ETA is ill-advised to condescend to its social base, and the surge of revulsion around Ermua, echoed by several imprisoned etarras, showed that the base is no longer prepared to ratify the boys’ sanguinary efforts on its behalf. The sense of a shared, realistic political goal has been lost somewhere along the way. For the first time, HB offices and marches are being attacked and ETA, while still a way of life for many and attracting much disaffected Basque youth, seems reduced to increasingly wild coups to prove it can still function. Half of these it fluffs, like the attack on the Guggenheim, for the best brains are in jail, and the organism is as tough and stunted as a bush whose growth is being lopped off before it can develop.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Guggenheim, the battle of images, reduced to the cipher Art or Blood, was clearly engaged. ETA’s move was a way of reappropriating or graffitti-ing the museum, quenching its hubris with a reminder of the region’s older, unfriendlier guerrilla image, insisting that it cannot be magicked away along with unresolved historical conflict. The PNV now sees no electoral peril in pitting its conservative, entrepreneurial nationalism against ETA’s radical version, and immediately accused it of seeking to discredit the new-look Basque country by ‘blackening one of the most transcendental events in our history’ – the museum inauguration. All that the genuine Basque now wants, in this view, is to get rich by day and commune with world culture by night; ETA is a bunch of savages who have no respect for art; everyone knew they didn’t like power or money, but to profane art is a sin of quite another order – a position challenged only within the narrow ambit of the Basque Movement for National Liberation (MLNV), which includes ETA, HB and allied groupuscules.

Back at the museum the string of triumphal pre-inaugurations went on, though the tour offered to ‘Basque politologists’ on 14 October included a minute’s silence for the policeman who had died that afternoon and, as a further mark of respect, the canapés were sent to charity. The authorities were now claiming that the floral missiles had been intended for King Juan Carlos on the coming Saturday, though it’s unlikely that ETA could have thought that three large unordered pots would sit there for five days unnoticed by the security men or sniffer dogs deployed everywhere. Is the PNV trying to reassure the Guggenheim Foundation that the local terrorists have it in for the monarch, not the museum? At any rate, no Decembrist gesture disturbed Saturday’s royal inauguration in the presence of eight hundred notables; the only reported cloud was too many ‘dowdy’ Basque business leaders and not enough foreign celebrities: Cindy Crawford and others had cancelled in fright, and Dennis Hopper was around but not present at the transcendental event.

Fewer column inches were devoted to the afternoon protest of the PNV youth, ‘for the Guggenheim, against the King’, and of two thousand MLNV die-hards calling for the defence of ‘Basque culture’ under the slogan ‘ni yanquis ni españoles’, an update of the hallowed ‘ni Francia ni España’. Here it must be said that Basque culture in its present state would be hard pressed to compete. Unlike the Catalans, for example, the Basques don’t have a sophisticated arts tradition. They are reputed to be good at business, food, and brawny rural sports like stone-lifting or log-splitting and an impressive bare-handed squash. This is culture, too. But such high art as there is will not be encouraged by the crushing presence of the Guggenheim, or by the 7.45 per cent cut in next year’s culture budget. In the eyes of a government that absurdly claims the museum to be as Basque as Gernika peppers, local art may no longer be necessary.

The alleged Basqueness of the Guggenheim and the counter-Basqueness of its opponents show how indispensable it is for all the political forces to invoke the myth of a unique ethnicity, whatever the issue. Basqueness is rhetorical creation that would bear analysis on several levels were it not considered axiomatic, untouchable, a notion carrying a massive propagandist freight – never mind that any meaning has become dissipated among contradictions. A more plural, consensual approach is essential for reconciliation, as the MLNV keeps saying, pointing with a wounded air to progress in Northern Ireland. But given that organisation’s own rigidity and its endorsement of violence, the dollar-signs in the pupils of the ruling PNV, and the hard-line attitude of the Aznar Government, the possibility of dialogue becomes fainter all the time. In Tuesday’s El Correo, a close-up of the policeman dying on the grass was printed above an ad placed by Hugo Boss, one of the museum sponsors. It showed Jeff Koons dressed in a business suit by this more modern ‘HB’, grinning blandly over a maquette of Puppy and congratulating ‘the Basque people’. Until this people comes to grips with all the divisions that the blanket ethnic fantasy denies, these two depressing images may continue to be the only alternative in Euskadi.

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Vol. 19 No. 24 · 11 December 1997

I was digusted to learn, via Lorna Scott Fox’s Diary (LRB, 13 November), that the work of Agustin Ibarrola has been deemed ‘not up to scratch’ for inclusion in the marvellous new Guggenheim in Bilbao. Since I came across a sample ofhis drawing in from Burgos Jail, in 1964, I have thought him to be a supreme draughtsman, who balances wonderfully between ‘distortion’ and the lifelike in his images of people hunched and metallised and scorched by durance, whether in prisons, coal mines or the armed forces. His 15 black and white images in that booklet have remained with me as distinctly as Picasso’s drawings, ten years earlier, of an old man and a young woman, perhaps more distinctly.

Ibarrola drew faces sculpted into dark stones by hunger and torture, arms and hands growing into bludgeons, bayonets or clumps of barbed wire. The inflictors are as denatured as the victims. Although he had tried to kill himself after interrogation and torture in Burgos under Franco, he could still look without blinking at the lineaments of brutality. His images are smeared without loss of clarity, his lines broken yet strong. Some of them were done on flimsy paper apparently with charred stubs, then smuggled out of his cell. It is not a matter of sympathising with him because he was a martyr: it is a question of seeing the distinction of his style, whatever the subject.

It looks as though the people who selected for the Guggenheim, whether in Euskadi or New York, are the usual cosmopolite pseuds and poltroons whose taste for tat and kitsch has made a desolation of so many galleries over the past thirty years.

David Craig

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