Eugenio Merino's Response to a Franco Foundation Lawsuit: A Franco Punching Bag

Eugenio Merino's response to a lawsuit by the Francisco Franco National Foundation (FNFF), seeking €18,000 in damages for his sculpture of the late dictator preserved in a Coca-Cola refrigerator? A group art show--mounted just days before the trial is set to begin--of anti-fascist art, including the debut of Merino's own depiction of a punching bag shaped like El Generalísimo's head.

On July 11, 2013, Merino will appear in civil court to discuss his presentation of the artwork Always Franco at the ARCO international art fair in 2011. FFNF--a group dedicated to "la difusión de la memoria y obra de Francisco Franco" ("dissemeninating the memory and work" of Franco)--is suing the artist and the fair for a work FNFF's vice president, Jaime Alonso, characterizes as a "serious offence against the former head of state." The work, he told Spanishi media, "generates hate and confrontation" and turns the 40-year military ruler into "a caricature, a puppet." The July 11 proceeding is the third and final hearing on the case.

But before it begins, Merino will show his never-before-exhibited Punching Franco as part of the three-day Jornados Contra Franco, July 5–7, 2013, mounted by Artistas Antifascistas in Madrid. More than two dozen artists--including Alejandro Jodorowsky, Santiago Sierra, and Tania Bruguera--will exhibit works about censorship and fascism.

For Merino, controversy about his art is nothing new. Known for an on-the-nose approach to hot-button issues from religion to politics to consumerism and poverty through satirical sculptures, his works often raise hackles. His hyperrealistic style has rendered a disco-dancing Osama, a machine gun–toting Dalai Lama, a George W. Bush punching bag, and a homeless man asleep under an Ikea box. And he's had his share of ARCO outrages prior to this one: In 2009, he showed a sculpture depicting artist Damien Hirst, entitled 4 the Love of Go(l)d. Riffing on the blue chip artist's For the Love of God, a £50m diamond-encrusted human skull, Merino sculpted Hirst's figure--presented in the British artist's trademark glass case--moments after his imagined suicide, a pistol still held to his bloody temple. "I thought that, given that he thinks so much about money, his next work could be that he shot himself. Like that the value of his work would increase dramatically," Merino said at the time. Another piece, Stairway to Heaven, stirred controversy at ARCO 2010. A totem pole of of sorts, it stacked a praying Muslim man, a Catholic priest, and a Rabbi, but with one twist: each held the holy book one of the other figure's faith. While reportedly purchased by a Jewish art collector in Belgium, the work was condemned by the Israeli Embassy in Madrid as "offensive to Judaism," although Merino says he was exploring "the coexistence of the three religions, joint in a common effort to reach God, in a literally [sic] way."

But despite the furor over his work, "Franco in the fridge," as he calls it, is the first time he's ever been sued for his art.

"In Spain, anything is possible, even the existence of a foundation that supports a dictator," Merino said via email this week. "Yes, I was surprised because it seemed to be something stupid to make all of this fuss over an art work. Now I know that art may be really effective."

Always Franco echoes the soft drink giant's ad campaign slogan "Always Coca-Cola," putting Franco in a refrigeration device that will keep the uniformed caudillo fresh. "I thought it reflected well the idea of the permanence of Franco even after his death -- a kind of immortality," says Merino, who was born in 1975, a few months before the 40-year dictator's passing. He notes that the fascist leader and his ideas continue to make headlines today.

He lays out the issues the lawsuit represents: "First, there is a Franco Foundation that receives public subsidy. Second, they have the power to sue anyone who talks about the dictator. Third, art is global, so the world may notice that the dictatorship is still a big issue here, although our politicians look the other way. And fourth, they have power and they act in politics, arts, and society." Plus, he notes, "the actual government has never condemned the dictatorship in public." 

Merino's art gets mixed reviews from critics; one European curator I talked to used Francesco Bonami's recent words about Ai Weiwei's art -- that he should be jailed for it, instead of for his dissidence, and that he "exploits his dissidence in favor of promoting his art" -- in sharing his thoughts on Merino's work. But regardless of one's opinion on Merino's aesthetic, the Franco Foundation's attempt to punish free expression is alarming. That point is echoed in the manifesto by Plataforma Artistas Antifascistas:
[I]t is striking that the foundation that protects the “legacy” of a dictator -- who harshly persecuted the exercise of liberties and was directly responsible for the suffering of hundreds of thousands of exiles and victims of reprisa -- is attempting to restrict freedom of speech, especially when the very existence of this organization and its systematic justification of the fascist legacy should shameful in a society that claims to defend liberties. Secondly, it seems inappropriate for a foundation of these characteristics to set itself up as judge of artistic expression, when the only aesthetic contribution of the Regime they vindicate was the destruction of all critical culture, accompanied by the cry of “Death to treacherous intellectuality."  
This situation makes us wonder if these lamentable events can only happen in a country like Spain, incapable of evaluating with distance the disastrous consequences of the military dictatorship that controlled the country for 40 years. It is hard to imagine an Adolf Hitler Foundation in Germany persecuting the work of Gerhard Richter, Maurizzio Cattelan and so many others for criticizing Nazism. 
Therefore, we wish to express our firm support of Eugenio Merino, our desire to defend freedom of expression – in the visual arts but more importantly in any area of social life- against the increasing assaults by totalitarian attitudes, while clearly manifesting our profound rejection to the heirs of the dictatorial regime, who today represent the most abject values of Spain’s recent history. 
Given the silence of the Spanish media stablishment, determined to maintain the amnesic silence with which the transition restricted any attempt at critical analysis of the Francoist past, we wish to denounce this perverse maneuver by the heirs of the dictatorship while urging every member of society to defend and expand our rights and freedoms.

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