The Nature of the Beast

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Installation view of Goshka Macuga: The Nature of the Beast, exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery, 5 April 2009 – 4 April 2010.

Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast exhibition features a large tapestry of Guernica. The tapestry is in the care of the Rockefeller Trust and has hung in the United Nations Headquarters in New York since 1985. On the 5th February 2003 US Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his fateful speech in the U.N. Security Council on weapons of mass destruction, signaling the invasion of Iraq; significantly the tapestry of Guernica was covered up in advance of this speech with a blue curtain. When a diplomat was asked why the tapestry had been covered up they were quoted as saying in The Washington Times (3 Feb. 2003):

“It would not be an appropriate background if the ambassador of the United States at the U.N., John Negroponte, or Colin Powell, talk about war surrounded with women, children and animals shouting with horror and showing the suffering of the bombings.”

This literal cover up of the tapestry in 2003, 66 years after Picasso’s original creation, conveys Guernica’s ongoing power and extraordinary capacity to signify the suffering of many civilian populations: from the Spanish Civil War to the second Iraq invasion and beyond. The cover up also shows the value remakings of Guernica have accrued in their own right, as they accumulate their own historical and political significance linked to their location and use.

The Whitechapel Gallery successfully sought permission from Mrs Nelson Rockefeller to borrow the Tapestry after Guernica for the Macuga exhibition from the 5 April 2009 to 4 April 2010. In the exhibition, the tapestry was placed in front of a blue curtain that matched the colour used in the 2003 cover-up. A bronze statue of Powell giving his speech was also in the room. The gallery space incorporated a circular meeting table designed to evoke the assembly room in the U.N. Security Council. The gallery space could be booked by groups and individuals for free, but remained open to the public to observe the meetings. Many of the groups who used the room were local and the documentation of the meetings demonstrated a strong presence of collective action in the area. In the 1930s the East End of London was home to a great deal of protest activity and the Whitechapel Art Gallery played it’s part, including hosting Picasso’s Guernica in 1939. This history was integrated into Macuga’s exhibition; for the meeting table also functioned as a display case for archival material, ensuring that the politics of the past effectively met the socio-political movements of the present through the meetings held around the table.

Guernica Remakings Videos

In Part 1 of the research videos on Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast the relationship between the Rockefeller Tapestry of Guernica and the Second Iraq war is explored.

In Part 2 how Guernica manifested in the exhibition as a tapestry, a year long art installation and an archive is discussed.

In Part 3 Cynthia Altman the Curator responsible for the Rockefeller collection of tapestries made after Picasso paintings, talks about the Guernica Tapestry (1955) and Picasso’s involvement.