MADRID — The Crystal Palace, situated at the heart of Madrid’s Retiro Park, is an evolving landscape, like the green space around it. Its temporary exhibitions, which rotate approximately every six months, change the feel of the environment completely. I had grown so accustomed to the wooden ships and sculptures of indigenous gods from Kidlat Tahimik’s exhibition, which filled the Crystal Palace from October 2021 to March 2022, that I was initially unsettled by the incredible transition to Carlos Bunga’s Against the Extravagance of Desire. After spending time with the work, however, I became amazed by the unique ways it engages with the space.
The Crystal Palace was built in 1887 for the General Exhibition of the Philippine Islands. It was meant to be a greenhouse for botanical specimens from the archipelago, however most of these plants did not survive the long sea voyage from the Philippines to Madrid. Industrialization in the 19th century enabled the construction of architectural projects similar to the Crystal Palace, innovative structures built of iron and glass. These architectures incorporated prefabricated elements that allowed the building to be both assembled and dismantled quickly, complementing the fleeting nature of then-popular events like World Expositions, which are inherently linked to systems of industrial capitalism and colonialism. Bunga questions and challenges such architectures “that history has tried to ignore by erasing their record” by creating his own version of them.
Bunga’s ephemeral constructions seem both integrated and discordant with the palace’s architecture. The colossal scale of the pieces, their outer walls covered in stark white paint, is cohesive with this palace made of glass and ceramic tiles. The effect suggests architecture within architecture. Upon closer inspection, however, Bunga’s monumental walls are revealed as cardboard and packing tape constructions. In this way, the installation challenges “the concept of architecture as a language of power,” as it creates the facade of stability and strength yet is actually ephemeral and even fragile.
Bunga’s use of deconstructed cardboard is reminiscent of a tradition in Philippine culture, the balikbayan box. It is a form of connection and a reminder of the love between overseas Filipino workers and their family members in the Philippines. In the tradition, everyday items that would normally be given to loved ones throughout the year are delivered in bulk for Christmas in a large cardboard balikbayan box.
While unrelated to this cultural reference, Bunga’s work is driven by similar themes of migrant identity and adaptation to transitory spaces. Refugees from the Angolan War of Independence (1961-75), the artist’s family lived in a refugee center in Oporto, Portugal, before being rehoused in prefabricated dwellings provided in 1983 by Portugal’s Housing Development Fund for low-income Portuguese families and some Angolan refugees. Bunga’s understanding of nomadic architectures is formed in part through his lived experience. The tension between the Housing Development Fund’s ostensible support and the actual instability of these perishable housing structures, which leads to the erasure of “politically uncomfortable communities,” is reflected in the contradictions in his installed architecture.
On the outskirts of the installation stands a sculpture by Bunga entitled “I’m a Nomad,” a human body with a house in place of a head. The work suggests that the notion of home is a mindset, rather than a physical location — and that nomad identity is a way of seeing and experiencing the world.
Carlos Bunga: Against the Extravagance of Desire continues at the Palacio de Cristal, Museo Reina Sofía (Paseo de Cuba, 4, 28009 Madrid, Spain) through September 4. The exhibition was organized by Museo Reina Sofía.