Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi

Richard Serra

San Francisco, USA, 1938
  • Date: 
  • Material: 
    Corten steel
  • Technique: 
  • Descriptive technique: 
    A work made up of four solid blocks of weathering steel, two square and two rectangular
  • Dimensions: 
    Part 01: 148,5 x 500 x 24 cm / Part 02: 148,5 x 148,5 x 24 cm / Part 03: 148,5 x 500 x 24 cm / Part 04: 148,5 x 148,5 x 24 cm
  • Category: 
    Sculpture, Installation
  • Entry date: 
  • Register number: 
  • On display in:
    Room 102

A Masterpiece of Mystery
By Juan Tallón

Here stands a vanished sculpture, at once present and absent. Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bangasi (1986) is a thirty-eight-tonne steel ghost that can be touched and seen yet remains hidden. It was realised by Richard Serra for the Museo’s opening in 1986, when the building that had housed a hospital transitioned to become an art centre, first of all, and then a National Museum in 1990, and for some denoted a masterpiece of Minimalism. For it to fit in the building, part of the façade had to be knocked down and re-built. In the meantime, Spain’s Ministry of Culture decided to acquire the work for four hundred and fifty thousand German marks. Carmen Giménez, the then head of Artistic Management, advised against it, believing it would take up a room in a building with space limitations — perhaps she foresaw its first step towards a future loss.

After a few months on display, the piece was placed in storage and then at the end of 1990 was exhibited again for another month. The Museo then withdrew it and moved it to an industrial unit in Arganda del Rey, thirty-five kilometres from Madrid, under the custody of Macarrón S. A., a company devoted to assembling, transferring, conserving and safeguarding works of art. The four pieces of Corten steel never actually entered the warehouse and were piled up at the entrance, outside with the elements, under a plastic tarpaulin, shifting it from art to scrap metal.     

The Museo lost track of it for a number of years, remembering it again in 2005, by which time it was not where it had been left. It had disappeared without a trace. Heaviness became lightness, the monumental portable, yet more things had vanished in this period: firstly, Jesús Macarrón’s prestigious company, which had fallen on hard times and gone under, followed by the industrial unit, upon which the General Archive of Spain’s Social Security was constructed. There was something surreal about this turn of events: the Ministry of Culture owed the company millions upon millions of pesetas and, as a result, it began to spiral and fall behind with its payments to the Tax Office and Social Security, which ended up taking possession of the site belonging to Macarrón.

Naturally, when news of the sculpture’s disappearance came to light in 2006, in an exclusive by ABC journalist Natividad Pulido, it sent shock waves through the art world, constituting a major crisis. However, there were no dismissals or resignations. The police searched desperately for the work, but with no consistent leads to pursue each working hypothesis always led to a dead end. After a few months, the search was discontinued and failed to reveal how it had vanished, who was involved or even when it happened. So many years of abandonment and disdain curiously meant that ultimately nobody was to blame. Despite its weight and volume, it faded sagely: a masterpiece of disappearance.             

The artist and Museo found, amid the turmoil, an urgent solution, as extravagant as it was audacious: to make the sculpture again for the Museo Reina Sofía Collection and this time keep it on permanent view as a form of atonement for the transgression. Serra authorised the replica in 2008, pointing at it with his finger, and making it, as if by magic, authentic. Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bangasi is at once copy and original, presence and absence, something undisputed, ghostly.

Now and again, over time, misfortune becomes a stroke of luck, the move from adversity to wonder. This occurred with the work, which, after embodying a kind of national embarrassment, has today become a source of happiness and beauty. As the years passed, a legend rose up around it, the kind only a handful of artworks manage. Few works are owners of such a powerful, indecipherable and beguiling narrative as this sculpture, laden with enigmas and amazement that flow beyond its physical limits and uncoil in the space, fill the room, and spread through the Museo, venturing into the world, like a true ghost.     

The sculpture expands through its own endless story. Its biography is also art, including not only its gestation and exhibition, but also the loss, the search, the debates its replica occasioned, the lives to which it was linked, the pages written because of it, all of which does not encompass and recount it entirely. And at this juncture, who would want to discover its whereabouts? For its beauty lies in this lack of discovery without closure: a masterpiece of mystery.     

If it were to appear one day, or if we knew without question that it had been destroyed, we would let out that initial sigh, utter that “finally!”, but surely it would be closely followed by the profound, nagging sadness that occurs when a great mystery is resolved, and everything feels reduced to some kind of crude trick.  

Its irresistible story sends the spectator’s imagination shooting off in different directions, in the thought that Serra’s work was smelted and turned into thousands of small objects — blades, furniture, pans, table legs, chairs, bridges, smaller-scale sculptures — or that it is hidden in a place where someone alone is captivated by it, or left in a solitary spot, or buried, and that one day in the distant future it will appear. It is not that implausible to think it was never lost or a copy was never really made, hence why it is in the Museo now, contemplating us, laughing, a masterpiece of humour.

At the time, Richard Serra turned his sculpture into movement, time and process, its wanderings over the years coalescing with the rest in these novelesque characteristics. And who knows if this is just the beginning and there are further layers to unpeel, for the best thing about legends is that they never fully dissipate.

Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi was specifically created for the Museo Reina Sofía as part of the exhibition Referencias. Un encuentro artístico en el tiempo, which opened the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 1986. The sculpture consists of four solid blocks of CORTEN steel; four aligned slabs with an elevation of 148.5 cm (the author referred to “equal elevations”), corresponding to the height of the windowsills of the building that houses them. Two of the four blocks are square, and the other two are rectangles of the same depth. Richard Serra positioned them in an alternating arrangement, leaving an empty central space between them similar in size to that filled by the blocks, allowing the viewer to perceive the sculpture as a work of physical experience of space and form. The title is unique among the artist’s body of work, Serra having clearly stated that his works do not refer to the memory of any person, place or event; yet while Equal-Parallel: Guernica-Bengasi evokes a spatial experience of the work, it also refers to the temporal parallel between two historical events, on the premise that they are equal: the civilian bombing in Guernica by the Condor Legion on April 26th 1937 and an event that took place at the same time as the sculpture was being made, the American Air Force’s attack on the Libyan city of Bengasi on April 15th, 1986. The attack, which caused civilian casualties, was a reprisal for a bomb attack on a Berlin discotheque attributed to Libyan agents, in which one woman and two American soldiers were killed. Weaving these two references together, Serra makes an allusion to the debate around the role of history: whether it begins and ends with the individual corporeal experience, or whether its retelling can function as a construction of the world.

Carmen Fernández Aparicio