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A Cultural Tradition in Spain Has Become a Symbol of Strength During Coronavirus Pandemic

A monumental sculpture of a meditating woman produced for Valencia’s Fallas festival was partially incinerated even after the event was canceled.

The lower half of Escif’s sculpture was burned as part of an annual ritual in Valencia, Spain. (all images courtesy of Escif and the Valencia Council Press Department)

When the Spanish artist Escif first conceived of his public artwork “Açò també passarà” (“This too shall pass”) last year, a 65-foot-tall wooden sculpture of a woman meditating, the novel coronavirus wasn’t in the picture. Designed as part of the Fallas festival, a commemoration of Saint Joseph held every year in Valencia, Spain, his work would be part of one of the celebration’s oldest and most iconic traditions: the burning of public monuments to welcome the arrival of spring.

Mid-installation, however, the Spanish Ministry of Health ordered the Fallas festival cancelled to contain the virus’s spread. As a response, Escif and his collaborators, artists Manolo Martín and José Ramón Espuig, quickly outfitted the sculpted bust with the ubiquitous accessory of the coronavirus pandemic —  a protective face mask.

“Suddenly this image became a symbol of peace and calm, unity and solidarity,” said Escif in an e-mail to Hyperallergic. On social media, the artist and his followers called for the monument to remain standing until the festival could take place, and a Change.org petition to Valencia’s city council reached more than 4,500 signatures.

The two halves of Escif’s sculpture before the burning ritual.

In an extraordinary move that underlines the power of art during times of crisis, the Valencian government decided not only to maintain the sculpture in the city’s main square, but to go ahead with the burning ritual. Rather than setting the entire piece ablaze, though, only one part of the monument — the lower half of the woman’s body — went up in flames. Her face, still donning a face mask, will remain as an emblem of resistance.

Only one part of the monument — the lower half of the woman’s body — was burned.

Dating back to the 18th century, when artisans and carpenters would burn pieces of wood to welcome springtime every 19th of March, the Fallas festival is considered an intangible cultural heritage of humanity under UNESCO. The event usually brings together more than 400 fallas, or public burns of large-scale artworks and figurines.

The woman’s face, still donning a face mask, will remain in the city square as an emblem of resistance.

In a text for the Change.org petition started by Manuela Heinen, she writes that Valencia’s falleros community is made up largely of “small family-owned businesses that can maintain their jobs throughout the entire year thanks to the Fallas celebration, on which depend their future and that of their employees.”

An image shows the wooden sculpture’s lower half being consumed by flames.

“The artwork symbolizes calm and tranquility,” she explains, “something that’s more than necessary in these difficult times in general and for the falleros and the Valencian community in particular.”

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