Having first encountered Gustavo Alemán’s project (No) Soy De Aquí, or, I Am (Not) From Here in English, during the portfolio reviews at PhotoIreland Festival 2013, it was clear this work possessed a number of recognisable characteristics of modern Spanish life; the seemingly endless landscape, the arid weather, the dystopian humour and a sense of surreality.
The book is beautifully produced with superb offset printing and attention to detail such as the inlaid gold font on the cover and spine (where you’ll find a tiny logo-like map of Murcia, the subject of the project). The inside cover, both front and back are that same gold, shimmering in your hands and each reflects the image on opposite page. By incorporating the reflective surface into the book itself, Alemán’s own words from the book are visualised: “I hope that, by facing such foolishness with its distorted reflections we can find some way to escape this endless cycles. [sic]”
The images do indeed hint at acts of foolishness and a certain uncaring attitude, a feckless attitude, which again alludes to a subtext of poor economic management now well documented. Spain is the ‘S’ in the PIGS acronym, a term used to group the four main economic basketcases of Europe (the others being Portugal, Italy and Greece). It is hard not to pick up on this context when we see images of insane Disney castles and Greco-Roman pillars for houses and ranches situated in a deserted landscape.
All of the subjects depicted in Alemán’s images are sculptural in nature, with half-built or half-destroyed concrete structures whose purpose appears to have evaporated by that hot southern Spanish air. Abandoned vans, dull vegetation and remnants of some momentary physical interjection scatter the roadsides and outskirts of towns. The only visible life, apart from that vegetation, is a confused looking horse facing its own shit on the road. The other characters – a porcelain guard dog, a stone lion, Olympian discus thrower, Christ with outstretched arms and a soft Santa Claus toy – are all substitutes for life and meaning. They are empty shells, hollow gestures, much like the socio-political decisions that leave areas like Murcia is this state.
In another allegorical gesture, there is a hint of life; it is probably the most optimistic image in the book and that is the fly-by of seven jet planes in circular formation. From azure sky they come whizzing toward the viewer, above fields of weed and dust, suggesting maybe some known or unknown force will sweep in and clean up this mess, fix the problems, clear the streets and get the place working again. But this is optimism and not necessarily reality, so for now at least, Alemán’s “dual attraction/rejection” of the territory will have to remain undisturbed like the subjects of his photographs.