Fran Meana, The Immaterial Material #3, 2014, metal shelving units, plastic grid, concrete, 162 × 80 cm

In Fran Meana’s recent exhibition, ‘Reasoning Well with Badly Drawn Figures’, three sets of concrete slates inscribed with geometric forms sat in the gallery in runic quietude. Displayed on modular shelves, the slabs appeared, by turns, like tombstones or archaeological findings, waiting in makeshift arrangements for their status to be determined. Their crude appearance was a perfect fit for NoguerasBlanchard’s Madrid space – all béton brut and exposed bricks. Such rawness, on previous occasions, has slanted the reading of Meana’s work.

The quirky title of the show was borrowed from the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré, who was notorious for his supposed inability to draw despite his evident gift for geometry. It invokes the peculiar pedagogical methods employed in a Catholic school that was established in 1913 in Arnao, the small mining town in the northern Spanish province of Asturias where the artist grew up. A group of large concrete reliefs, decorated with geometric and geographical motifs designed by the educator Andrés Majón, was built on the school grounds for students and teachers to gather around and discuss. Meana’s sculptures (all works titled The Immaterial Material, 2014), are fragmented reinterpretations (or ‘translations’, as the aritst prefers to call them) of those reliefs, which he had the chance to investigate in depth during a residency last year at LABoral, a local art institution.

Documentation of the pedagogical practices at the school was also present in the show in the form of old black and white photographs. Alongside maps and diagrams that describe the topography of the mining compound in Arnao, these were displayed in two sets of panels made from the same material as the shelves, suggesting the notice boards one finds in offices and other work-related communal areas. The photographs, with their haunting patina, show the original reliefs being pointed at with sticks in school assemblies that seem more esoteric than educational. The school has been abandoned for the last few decades, and recent photographs reveal a psychogeographically charged space not dissimilar to the mythical ‘Zone’ of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), with its wild vegetation, leaden skies and dereliction.

During his research, Meana also discovered a handful of ethnographic studies that suggest the ‘progressive’ education imparted by these religious schools, which flourished during times of political unrest in mining areas, was aimed at appeasing local protests against 12 hours shifts and low wages. For Meana, this strategy was a harbinger of the transition from an industrial to an information economy. The artist believes that, with the rise of the cognitariat, the highly cultured but isolated freelancer is no longer able to assemble with co-workers to fight against the precariousness of his or her working conditions – a situation that has paved the way for the neo-liberal dismantling of the welfare state. ‘The Immaterial Material’ works strive to create an archaeology that embodies this crucial change in our modes of production and work relations.

The use of documentation is central to Meana’s approach: the artist is as interested in historical narratives related to labour as he is preoccupied with experimenting with traditional methods of displaying archival material. But, after a period of a few years in which images – assembled, re-composed, framed or collaged – have been the artist’s principal media, his shift towards a spatial activation of the archive by means of sculptural installations is a welcome development. The work in ‘Reasoning Well with Badly Drawn Figures’ constructs an archival experience that manages to be simultaneously flat and sculptural.

‘Memory is a dangerous function. It retrospectively gives meaning to that which did not have any […] But if these events retained their original, enigmatic form, their ambiguous, terrifying form, there would doubtless no longer be any history’, wrote Jean Baudrillard in Fragments (Cool Memories III, 1990–1995) (1995). The fragmentary quality of Meana’s reliefs compelled me to revisit Baudrillard’s words, but, in this case, I have to disagree with his beautiful aphorism. Meana’s sculptures are enigmatic mementoes of this northern Spanish region’s relationship to industrialization, which has left so many workers unemployed since its demise in the second half of the 20th century. His work is the proof that some histories, like the ones of the miners and their children, remain embedded in inorganic objects that seem to contain a thousand muffled voices.

Lorena Muñoz-Alonso is a writer and editor based in London, UK.