For over twenty years, José Arturo Martín (1974) and Javier Sicilia (1971) have been reflecting upon the contemporary individual. Through auto-fiction, this artistic duo holds masks in their hands, creates trompe l’oeils as they go and provides us with a mirror built from paint layers. It may seem that their goal is the most orthodox representation—two artists portray themselves in their paintings and, what’s more, they use traditional figurative language for this purpose. Yet, when we see their images, we witness a fracture in the foregoing statement, since incongruities, noise, silence, riddles and more crawl into their work… Nothing in their representations is literal. From this point on, we have an entire web of meanings to unravel.
They began working together in 1995, when they opened the exhibition Nos ponemos por los suelos [We Tear Ourselves to Threads]. It was a whirlwind exhibition that lasted seventy-two hours and opened the first page of a story that is still adding storyboards to the lives of these characters. We only know their surnames. Yes, one is Martín and the other is Sicilia, but we can’t recognise them anymore—they have exchanged their identities so many times that they have come to set up a search method based on the dramatisation of a simulated autobiography. As opposed to the idea of a personal diary, these artists have painted complete pages full of fiction using their own experiences and their most direct, day-to-day environment as feedstock. They’re doing the right thing. Perhaps the few glimmers of a reality that escapes us given the apalling situation of collapse of the postmodern individual may only slip through those strokes of invention, superficially, for a second, albeit with lethal forcefulness. Accordingly, through figurative narrative painting, but also through other languages such as photography, drawing or installations, concepts such as the death of the great tales, identity, the crisis of masculinity, fear, uncertainty or capitalism are dragged into the spotlight in order to provide us with a map coordinates where answers are not written but rather a batch of questions as a starting point for a way to be charted.
The first question in this journey is posed in their tryptich Tutorial para la construcción de una mesa [Tutorial for Building a Table], which acts as an overview of the evolution of the West through the representation of three historical events: the ancient world, represented by Saint Joseph, a charpenter by trade; the modern world, featuring Henry Ford, the father of modern factory system; and the postmodern world, starring Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea.
The paterfamilias par excellence, Saint Joseph, created a home and a world with his hands. Constructing a home for the basic western triad meant building walls and objects in a traditional manner, that is, with hands that made a known and delimitable world: hands, home, a wife and a son—and a God at the same time—that gave shape to an identification-permeable universe. Amidst these walls, fire, the metaphor of home, centre, warmth, family and unity. A fire that, on the other hand, in other stories through which we tell ourselves, entailed the possibility of knowledge, and we all know that eventually everything went up in flames. However, before everything blew up, the world represented by Saint Joseph was interrupted by the advent of modernity. From the artisan to the worker, from the peculiar object as unique to the homogeneous object of mass production. The producer was also homogeneised. A blurred, unfocused character appears in the background of the second painting, which features a table in the centre of an assembly line in a furniture factory. Benjamin said that modernity imposed an impoverishment of the experience—it seems that now Ikea is the closest to the idea of “building” a home, thus giving rise to the same old change of scenario: the community of modernity has faded away, and the new individual is now alone and cannot remember anymore how things were done manually. He has, if anything, an instruction leaflet on recycled paper and a box containing some pieces that, joined together, will give shape to the illusion of a table that will decorate a home full of emptiness of meaning and tales: mi house is, as yet, the same house as every house on this planet.
The representation of ‘home’ is a constant feature of Martín & Sicilia’s work. It makes reference to the daily immanence of these actors, who are also us—where am I and where do I go?—yet it goes beyond what’s merely domestic by also operating collectively. En el recuento de los daños [At the Moment of Damage Count], our bed ends up on fire. The bedroom, as the epicentre of our most private space, is the place where we go to rest at the end of the day, once the light is switched off and we are left alone with our soliloquy. It’s a personal fire, yet at the same time a fire in the walls that contain it—may God forbid us to think badly—where concepts such as state, economy, language, religion or science burn after the collapse of these great tales that govern modernity, thus consummating the drift of contemporaneity.
We are the new Robinsons of the 21st century, and following Michel Tournier’s update of the myth of the shipwrecked sailor, after the storn we have woken up on a deserted island and we don’t know well whether to behave as happy animals and return to the uniqueness of the world which we call natural or, faced with loneliness and immensity, reproduce the codes and conducts imprinted on us by culture. This is a slippery slope, certainty has mutated into uncertainty, and there are no more holistic programmes illustrating who we are. In the face of this absence, painting the surface of the canvas white—Dele color al difunto remake [Give Colour to the Deceased Remake]—allows Martín & Sicilia to portray a flight into the future, erasing the traces of the past, as if to say: What if we begin to write History again?
Where to live, then? Where to recognise what surrounds me and lay the first stone that gives meaning to my world, my existence? Martín & Sicilia end up living in a car—a holiday home—after being evicted from their homes by capitalist imperatives, and as deprived shipwrecked sailors, they build up a house that no longer has walls, and they struggle to accommodate the rooms between the seats and the boot, because in between shifting sands we can live in a rented borrowed house or, why not, spend our holidays inside a painting of illusion with beautiful trompe l’oeils from the most recent catalogue of ‘the independent republic of your home’. We are witnessing a daydream dramatisation where strangeness lingers on in everything they look at, a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare that goes beyond simple bugs. After finding themselves absent in their bedrooms they carry everything on their backs and end up camping in rooftop terraces—Somebody Is Watching Me—in a last attempt to start over. Still, they don’t seem to recognise the place they are occupying when those who look back at them are animals appearing out of nowhere.
A set of figurative images, all in all, which update the catalogue of less than autobiographic stories of Martín & Sicilia, full of conceptual enticement. Dramatisation is still dominant, with a relish for suspense that immerses their characters in the aftermath of the loss of meaning of the contemporary world. After sweeping the forest, they have painted again the canvas white: we are all invited to rewrite History.