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Matchbox Artwork Sparks Censorship Calls at Madrid Museum

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Mujeres Públicas, “Cajita de fósforos” (2005) in ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ at the Museo Reina Sofia (image courtesy Museo Reina Sofía, 2014)

International museum associations have come to the defense of Spain’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía after a provocative artwork drew fire from church groups. Displayed as part of a recently opened exhibition, Really Useful Knowledge, Mujeres Públicas’s “Cajita de fósforos” (2005) consists of two matchboxes depicting, on one side, a burning church building, and on the other, the slogan: “The only church that illuminates is one which burns. Contribute!” (La única iglesia que ilumina es la que arde. ¡Contribuya!). The presentation of the piece by Mujeres Públicas, an Argentine feminist collective, was equated by one religious organization to a use of public funds by the state museum to “insult Christians.”

In response to these and other agitations, which were reported in the Spanish press last week, the Reina Sofia museum issued a release stating that “the works of art … reflect only the opinions of their authors,” and that the exhibition is protected from censorship by the principles of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Spanish constitution.

Two major international associations of arts institutions — CIMAM, the modern art committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and L’Internationale, a confederation of six major European art museums — have now also responded to the calls for censorship with statements pushing back against the pressure from church groups. An online petition addressed to the Spanish ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport being circulated by CIMAM approaches 1,600 signatories as of this writing.

“We don’t know how far [the protest] will go, but we thought that we had to show our concern and use the opportunity to say something serious about what museums can do and what they should be doing today … not as lifestyle institutions but serious places,” Vasif Kortun, a board member at CIMAM and partner and incumbent president of L’Internationale, told Hyperallergic.

In a statement provided to Hyperallergic earlier today, L’Internationale critiqued the myopia of the calls for censorship, writing, in part:

Like the many other pieces that make up the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, “Cajita de fósforos” alludes to the transformative and emancipatory power of something small and modest (such as a box of matches) when understood within a network of subtle historical references. … L’Internationale believes that a democratic society should expect and require that its public museums are nor merely vehicles for the legitimisation and reproduction of established discourses and views of past and present power.

Mujeres Públicas is among 36 artists and collectives represented in the Really Useful Knowledge exhibition, including such diverse practitioners as Ariella Azoulay, Trevor Paglen, Chto Delat?, and D. A. Pennebaker. The show, organized by Croatian curatorial collective What, How & for Whom (WHW) opened October 29 and continues through February 9, 2015. The “knowledge” the title refers to invokes the label applied by workers’ organizations in the early 19th century to the bodies of knowledge not directly related to productive labor, like politics, economics, and philosophy.

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