With their steel-mesh grilles, iron walls, welded containers, sheets of lead and glass panels, Susana Solano's sculptures look as though they have been designed and fabricated for some specific but unnamed purpose. The uses to which these sturdy objects might be put are not exactly innocent: they are readily seen as devices for the containment and display of the human being. The only figures in Solano's sculptures are their viewers, and we are simultaneously excluded and tempted to imagine what it would be like to enter her works: to lie on the cold, high table, stand or squat on the raised platform in the narrow cage, stare back from the glass from the other side in the double-cell.
The sealed, empty cage; the immense table with its protective plastic covering; the galvanised troughs and gigantic iron hearth all represent psychological thresholds as much as physical barriers. The viewer must step beyond what is known, what is visible and concrete, into the dangerous territory of imagination and fantasy, 'ART', Solano says, 'WOULD NOT EXIST WITHOUT THE MYSTERY OF THE INEXPLICABLE.' The formal orchestrations of Solano's work deal with apprehension and delay. Apparently simple arrangements of anonymous materials are welded, bolted and slotted together using the most basic manual skills, and the sculptures are constructed almost diagrammatically. We can frequently describe her sculptures as though they had some quite obvious use; but their purpose is always withheld. She makes inexplicable machines, objects from an imaginary factory, a sanatorium, church or prison. Objects whose order depends on hidden laws.
We begin to see ourselves as the possible inhabitants of her works. The opposite is also true - her sculptures become features in our own mental landscapes, the furniture of our own minds. Perhaps they are even portraits: of beings trapped within themselves, filled with chambers, anti-chambers, sealed boxes and the objects and symbols they have carried with them from the past. Some things must not be remembered.
Niches, clefts and cavities. Hidden spaces, at once mysterious and comforting, where a child might play: under the kitchen table, or the odd wedge of unused space beneath the stairs: the old stone wash-tank at the side of the house; a laundry basket. Beguiling spaces: the space without a name between the arch of a bridge and the water below; that magical place at the side of a church, beyond the decorated iron grille, through which a child peers, face pressed to the bars, the ornaments and gold and embroidery. A rack of unlit candles. Solano writes that she believed in God till she was 22, and that all her family were atheists. Threatening places and forbidden places: the confession box, a closed door, a cell. Barriers and interdictions, things left unsaid, unspeakable things.
I NEVER HAD A CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER. NEITHER DID HE SPEAK...
Solano writes, and, later,
HE CONTINUED IN SILENCE TO THE MOMENT HE DIED.
There's no biography in the catalogue to Susana Solano's Reina Sofía exhibition, a show travelling from the Palacio Velázquez in Madrid's Retiro Park to London, Malmö and Grenoble. Instead, alongside the usual list of exhibitions, a bibliography and a couple of essays, Solano writes a series of cryptic recollections - on art, life, love and death, supplemented by family snapshots and photos of places to which she has been; A granary in Burkina Faso, a street-vendor's baked-potato oven in Istanbul, the runway of Seville airport. Her texts, laid out like poems, are printed in upper case throughout. As though they were commandments or injunctions. As though she were shouting.
Childhood. A photo of three children cooling themselves in a deep stone sink on a hot day. Warm round knees on the hot stone. Water so cold it takes your breath away. The children grin at the camera over the end of the sink. The caption names them: Josep Maria, Susana and Anna. A blister on the print blurs Susana's smile. She too has a daughter called Anna. More photos of the artist as a toddler, with her parents, perhaps in Tarragona.
DO YOU KNOW: J.R. B.S. D.S. S.S. R.L. T.T. C.P. T.B. I.R. A.F...? WELL THEN, YOU DON'T KNOW
ANYTHING ABOUT ME.
She reveals her private thoughts, her history. She reveals nothing. Closures and disclosures.
I LEARNT VERY LITTLE FROM MY LOVERS. THEY LEARNT SOMEWHAT LESS FROM ME.
She tells us, again and again, that we cannot know her, yet tantalises and regales the reader with facts, anecdotes, aphorisms.
STEPS ARE THE BEST SEAT TO TIE YOUR SHOELACES ON.
By the time her retrospective reached the Whitechapel Gallery, it had been cut down to a selection from the mid-80s onwards, losing the earlier, intimate bronze and iron pieces which form the basis of her formal lexicon - a series of box-like forms, some closed-in on themselves, some with openings top and bottom, others with corners opened-out, one with a raised, welcoming, doorway. Clearly hand-made (I guess from slabs of clay), these progressed to a series of 'interior landscapes' from which turd-like, tooth-like, prick and clitoris-like forms, small steps, and a hollow mountain-shape sprout from flat bases. I imagine them having the mass density of old-fashioned flat-irons. The mountain-form reappeared again, in a group of chicken wire and plaster pieces, Colinas Huecas - in which the plaster seemed to represent snow-clad peaks, while the wire and iron support below took the form of a cage. If these are landscape sculptures, they are landscapes of the mind. Solano spent much of her childhood in the countryside, near Tarragona in southern Catalonia.
In Catalan a pedris is a stone bench, such as one might find at the edge of a field - a place to rest whilst out walking. It can also mean a well. Yet Susana Solano's sculpture of that name, Pedris no. 2 (1985), is more like a cot. Neither a cot nor a seat nor a well. A metal structure, something knocked-up on the farm, perhaps as a bier for hay or a farrowing-stall for a sow. The high-sided metal frame is wattled in chicken-wire and crudely daubed with plaster mixed with hair to give it strength. Three small ledges, like steps, climb one wall of the sculpture while the frame has been left open on its opposite side - the back, presumably, to be shunted against the wall. The frame is rusty and the rust has stained the plaster. It has the air of an object which was once useful, but having been stored for years amongst other rubbish at the back of a leaky barn, has been brought out for the last time, to be disposed of, broken-up, thrown into the local midden, where car doors, burst sofas and smashed TVs squat amongst the nettles in a wooden gully. Out of sight, out of mind. It is an object which belongs, perhaps, to someone's past, disinterred from memory.
The connotations of Solano's earlier works undoubtedly call to mind the welded-iron sculptures of Gonzalez and the works of Tapiès, where impoverished materials and rough, aged surfaces lend the works an instant nostalgia and evocativeness (the surfaces of his paintings recalling the stained, graffitied walls of Barcelona's labyrinthine Barri Gotic). But it would be too glib to slip Solano into this handy lineage. Gonzalez drew on local artisanal iron-working traditions, while many of Solano's later sculptures utilised the techniques, materials and skills of the 19th and 20th century industrial, manufacturing base of modern Catalonia, skills as common in Düsseldorf, Chicago and Birmingham. And she draws her imagery from beyond the city-state - it is the imagery of the modern world, a kind of minimalism muddied by the dystopic view of technological progress, an essentially associative imagery. The work takes the form of the machine as often as it does the confessional. Solano has looked at Smithson, the sculptures of Robert Morris, maybe even some works of Phillip King, Caro and Tucker, as much as at Catalan Modernism, Tapiès or Miró. (If there can be said to such a thing as 'Spanish Sculpture', I'd like to know what it is, beyond the fact that it is as diverse, and as variable, as what goes on in New York or London.)
I PREFER NOBODY TO KNOW ABOUT ME, IN CASE IT DID NOT TURN OUT THAT I COULD BE ANYONE.
ART HAS NEITHER NAME NOR FACE.
The final 'memoir' reproduced in the catalogue is as follows:
DEATH AND ILLNESS ARE CIRCUMSTANCES. THEY HELP ONE TO SEE BUT NOT UNDERSTAND.
A VISIT TO A MORGUE. OBJECTUAL. DAMP SPACE, SILENCE.
JOSE MARIA DIES AT 30. HIS FACE DOES NOT AGE IN MY MEMORY. IT FROZE IN TIME.
MY FATHER IS DYING. I SUGGEST THEY SHAVE HIM.
DEAD CHILDREN ON TRAYS INSIDE A REFRIGERATOR.
A TUNE IS REPEATED, OVER AND OVER AGAIN. SOUND AND TIME STAND STILL.
SUSANA SLEEPS IN THE SAME DOUBLE BED, BESIDE HER DYING HUSBAND. SHE LEAVES THE CEMETERY AND GOES BACK HOME: I WANT TO BE ALONE AND FACE REALITY.
A STRETCHER PASSES. UNDERGROUND. A CORPSE, ITS FEET UNCOVERED AND STICKING OUT OVER THE EDGE. IT CROSSES THE PATH OF A FOOD TROLLEY.
HANDLING A 9 MONTH OLD BABY. BUBBLES CAME OUT OF ITS MOUTH.
GLASS CONTAINERS AND DISINFECTANT.
MEASURED MOVEMENT OF CORPSES.
DENOUEMENT. ORGASM. LAST BREATH.
IBRAHIM OF DARKOYE OFFERS ME A BOWL WITH WATER AND MOON.
Several recent works refer to hydrotherapy, Russian Baths, spas. Gutters run around the base of the large table titled Euxut. The title means surly, ill-tempered, dry. It is a malevolent table, an object on which a body might be manipulated, sluiced, even sacrificed. Estacio Termal no. 1 is a bench or altar on which one could not possibly lie: it is much like a hi-tech sarcophagus. If 'taking the waters' is a therapeutic occupation, it equally confirms that the patient is sick, or afraid of being so. Images if purification, cleansing, healing, baptism and pleasure (children playing in the old stone sink) are countered by images of dirt, illness, drowning, death, embalming. 'Taking a shower' suddenly sounds like a horrible euphemism for the Holocaust.
A child is caught in a snapshot, blown-up to fill the base of a deep, mesh-sided container. A sheet of glass covers the container, reflecting like water. It is uncertain whether the child in the photograph is playing or drowning. The ceiling is reflected on the glass. Looking down, we see the ceiling above us. We might be underwater, swimming for our lives. A very recent piece, Veo Lo Que Queda (1993) (I See What Remains) looks like nothing so much as three tombstones standing against the walls. In front of them, resting on the floor, is a metal shaft with a lead spade at each end, one larger, one smaller. All that remains are these objects; the rest is about someone I do not know.