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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

“Ninot 2019”: ARCO Art Fair’s Flair for Controversy, Provocation, Bad Taste

MADRID – An artist who had one of his works removed from Spain’s top art fair last year has returned for this year’s edition with a creation that has labeled him as the bad boy of the world-renowned trade fair.

Santiago Sierra has drawn attention to himself at a fair where it is difficult to stand out because some of the world’s top artists also exhibit there as the co-creator of a 4.5-meter (over 14 feet) tall papier-mâché effigy of Spain’s head of state, King Felipe VI.

The effigy, which is like a giant puppet known in eastern Spain as a “Ninot,” has earned Sierra the moniker of the ARCO art fair’s “enfant terrible.”

The large and majestic “Ninot” comes with a price tag of 200,000 euros ($227,360) and also an important contractual demand.

Once bought, the new owner must proceed to burn the Ninot in public within a year.

A “Ninot” is a traditional satirical figure made of paper and wax, wood and polystyrene foam, either as a stand-alone figure or integrated into a larger theme-inspired flammable structure which can take a year to build, up to five stories high, and later burnt as a kind of firework or bonfire during the traditional “Fallas” of Valencia which are known for their passion for fire and loud, explosive noises.

Last year, for the first time in its history, IFEMA, Madrid’s exhibition halls authority, requested the withdrawal of a Serra piece titled “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain,” a set of 24 black and white pixelized images allegedly representing “notorious” political prisoners such as the pro-Basque separatist youths imprisoned for beating up two Civil Guards (Off duty, on an evening out with their girlfriends) in Alsasua (Navarre) or secessionists such as the Catalan independentist leader Oriol Junqueras (currently on trial in Madrid).

The artwork was finally purchased for 80,000 euros (plus tax) by Tatxo Benet, a founding partner along with fellow Catalan, Jaume Roures, of Mediapro, a major Spanish mainstream audiovisual production company.

In 2010, Serra turned down the Spanish National Award for Plastic Arts stating he was “a serious artist” and has described the withdrawal of his pixelized artwork as “censorship” which “seriously damaged the international image of ARCO and the Spanish state.”

For this year’s ARCO art fair, Sierra along with fellow artist Eugenio Merino, unveiled their “Ninot 2019,” the larger-than-life papier-mâché puppet of the king, which took a year to build and shows a hyper-realist figure of Felipe dressed in a dark suit, green tie, grey shirt, and black shoes.

Their Italian gallery owner, Ida Pisani, occasionally passes by and sprays the figure with a whiff of the king’s alleged favorite eau de cologne.

ARCO is set to be officially inaugurated Thursday by the very head of state that “inspired” the “Ninot.”

Over the years, ARCO has seen artworks come and go seeking to denounce, provoke or become an exercise in bad taste; custom-made to generate controversy.

Such was the case of Sierra’s 2018 “Political Prisoners in Contemporary Spain,” or Eugenio Merino’s 2012 controversial artwork titled “Forever Franco,” a hyper-realist sculpture of General Francisco Franco in uniform and sporting sunglasses inside a Coca Cola freezer, for which the artist was taken to court by the Foundation bearing the name of Spain’s late head of state.

Merino also authored the Arco installation “Fidel zombi,” showing the late Cuban dictator Castro returning from the dead or his “Stairway to Heaven” that earned him a protest from the Israeli embassy.

Also French artist, Yann Leto (Bordeaux, 1979), a Zaragoza resident who last year denounced he had been “censored” in prior ARCO editions for his 2014 “Congress Topless” art performance that showed two women dancing on top of a bar “recreating the typical venue where politicians, the Havana cigar (social) caste, meet.”

In 2013 Leto returned with an installation representing a green farmacy sign with a swastika on it and in 2017 he returned with “Francis” a 2.60m by 2 m painting after Pope Francis’ papal election where the Vatican and the United States White House were also represented.

Wednesday’s preview of the Royal “Ninot 2019” was met by various reactions such as ARCO’s director, Carlos Urroz, who said “other things can be bought at the fair,” adding he would rather “focus on the positive.”


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