The two walls that make up a street corner in east Madrid have been involved in a wordless but fierce dispute for the last 11 months, mirroring the faultlines, battles, and ferocities of Spanish politics.
24 street signs honor poets and authors such as Federico Garca Lorca, Miguel Hernández, Victoria Kent, and Carmen Laforet on the left wall.
On the right, there are 25 more honoring people like Francisco Franco, his coup-planning colleague General Emilio Mola, and General José Millán-Astray, the founder of the Spanish legion who is best known for his spat with philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and his shriek of “Death to intelligence! Long live death!” A QR link on each wall directs visitors to complete bios of all persons depicted.
Mateo Maté’s work, Fachada derecha – Fachada izquierda, or Right Facade – Left Facade, is a Spanish conceptual artist who has long been interested in how nationalism can intrude and distort public and private spaces. Facade is a play on the term facha, which meaning appearance but is also slang for fascism.
What was supposed to be a catalyst for discussion and reflection on current society has instead become a hot topic. Almost a year after Maté accepted the building’s owners’ request to utilize the building’s exterior as he saw appropriate, Madrid city council has decided to end the discussion by ordering the plaques to be removed. It claims that the abundance of signage is confusing and that it alone has the authority to name streets.
This week, the ghosts of the 1936-39 civil war and ensuing dictatorship resurfaced in national politics. On Wednesday, Spain’s Socialist-led coalition tabled amendments to draft legislation that would effectively allow prosecutors to investigate crimes committed during Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, based on the fact that crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture are not subject to any statute of limitations under international humanitarian law.
The coalition said the new measures would help “put an end to Francoist impunity,” but the opposition People’s Party (PP) accused the government of attempting to divide Spain and “dynamiting” agreements such as the 1977 amnesty law, which allowed the country’s post-dictatorship transition to democracy.
Maté started the project by imagining how he would feel if he had to sleep on the opposite side of a wall with the name of someone he could never consider a hero. He also wanted to assess how far Spanish democracy had progressed following the murder of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
“By using the names of these people on both sides, the idea was to establish a dialogue about the kind of society we want to live in,” he said. “I’m not talking about left and right; I’m talking about the social models we’d like to see as a society reflected in.” It’s about street names with our heroes’ names on them and how they’re seen as role models.”
The reaction to the essay, according to Maté, speaks volumes. Not only has the municipal government intervened, but one of the tenants on the “military” side of the block has also been harassed and attacked, despite the fact that the artwork has nothing to do with her. Some of the generals’ names have been “intervened,” and posters with the name of Carlos Palomino, a 16-year-old anti-fascist activist who was stabbed to death in 2007 while on his way to oppose a neo-Nazi event, have been posted in their place.
“The work was to see if our democracy was truly mature and if we could talk about all of this,” the artist said. “It appears that the answer is no.”
As a consequence of both the 2008 economic crisis and the extremely divided political situation that followed, Spain is severely polarized, he added.
“All of the political tension and ill-will generated by the crisis has served as a petri dish for unscrupulous politicians on both sides, from both extremes, to generate more tension because it raises their profile and serves them electorally,” he added. “It’s only added fuel to the fire.”
The left and right have long fought over street names, many of which date back to the Franco period. The PP, which has previously rejected attempts to examine the crimes of the Franco dictatorship, has committed to repeal a proposed democratic memory legislation that would allow for the investigation of Franco-era atrocities. In addition, the party that administers Madrid and the surrounding area has recently engaged in revisionism.
In June, the PP’s national head, Pablo Casado, gave his own perspective on the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Republican government, portraying the Spanish civil war as “a confrontation between those who wanted democracy without law and those who wanted law without democracy.”
The extreme left has also showed a thirst for a confrontation, particularly when it comes to the PP and the far-right Vox. In May of last year, Pablo Iglesias – then the head of Podemos and a deputy prime minister – said Vox would want to see a coup in Spain but lacked the nerve to organize one. “You’re not even fascists,” he told the lawmakers. You’re nothing more than parasites.”
Right Facade – Left Facade had to be demolished, according to the Madrid city council, since it “affects how the city is seen and also confuses passersby because it features names that don’t correspond with the two officially authorised ones.”
Maté and the property owners are appealing the verdict, but the artist claimed he was tempted to cover up the signs to save renters from having any more difficulties. He will, however, leave the two QR codes in situ so that people may scan them and decide for themselves what the names and symbols mean.
“To tell you the truth, it’s all made me very sad,” Maté added. “I was a child during the transition, but I believe we are living in far more conservative, censored, and radical times in Spain and Europe than previous generations.”
However, not everyone in Pueblo Nuevo will be sad to see the exhibit go. “I don’t want to see those signs with Franco and Millán Astray’s names on them,” one lady who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life stated. “I prefer the other side, but I don’t believe either side should be here.”
She shook her head when asked whether she could see its worth as a work of art. “It’s just a little provoking.” And we already have enough argument.”