In 1972, Jorge Oteiza was given one commission in particular: the creation of the monument to El Foguerer, a key character and representative of the Fogueres de Sant Joan, to be positioned in Plaza de España in Alicante. Commissioned by the local council, the work did not materialise, but Oteiza’s proposal offered a reflection on the meaning of art as activator and re-symboliser of public space, which remains in time.
The publication “Oteiza in Alicante. The Monument to El Foguerer, 1972” recovers the memorandum on this project, providing a full account and a wealth of unpublished documents that explain the story behind the failed intervention. Martín Noguerol and Joan Calduch are the authors of this work, which is the ninth title in the “Notebooks of the Oteiza Museum” collection. It has been published by the museum in collaboration with the City Council of Alicante and the MACA (Museum of Contemporary Art of Alicante).
In his project, in keeping with how he worked, Oteiza considered that the solution had to have an urban scale capable of responding in a way that would meet modern-day citizens’ need for spiritual enrichment. The aim was to create a new monumental centre to qualify the urban space, exceeding mere urban decoration with a sculpture. “The active sculpture is the entire plaza,” said the artist. “With the entirety of the plaza, the monument is an open and practicable structure of relations, spiritually coherent, symbolic, urban, civic and functional.”
For the author, the reference to the purification rites of water and fire, typical of the festivals that see off winter with the arrival of the summer solstice, extended the context of the project. According to Oteiza, “Probably, since Neolithic times, these fires respond to the rites of purification and represent the ritual death of winter and the triumph of day overnight.” He described his project as follows: “The thematic core is day and night. A vertical element symbolising fire; the sun as victor over night. This vertical sign has a large circular hole in the top. Night as a horizontal element, plastically articulated, vanquished, crossing over itself at the bottom, with four unequal holes, symbolising the four phases of the moon and standing as the origin of the appearance of water, like four fountains of the death of night and our rites of purification.”
Jorge Oteiza formed a team with Alicante artists (Adrián Carrillo as the protagonist), coordinated by Ernesto Contreras, art critic. The team’s work had characterised some of Oteiza’s most important proposals, seeking to give his works a dimension that exceeded the strict universe of sculpture, moving forward in quality and integrating in the design of the urban space. It is important to remember that his collaboration with architects and town planners has been essential in some of his most ambitious proposals, such as his participation in the refurbishment of the Basilica of Arantzazu (1951-1969), the tender for the Monument to Batlle y Ordoñez in Montevideo (1958-1960), and his project for the cemetery of Ametzagaña in San Sebastián (1984).
Differences were soon to appear between what the City Council expected and his personal way of understanding art as public work. The corporation simply wanted to solve a problem of urban viability, decorating the work with a sculpture that would be liked by the people and highlighting El Foguerer as the emblem of the festival. However, Jorge Oteiza was interested in problems concerning the creation of new modern monumental centres to qualify the city, as proposed in international architectural forums in the mid-20th century. The differences between the unlimited expectations of the local corporation and the artist’s global vision prevented the culmination of the monument to El Foguerer as conceived by the sculptor.
After a number of incidents, at the beginning of 1973, the unbridgeable gap between the sculptor’s ideas and municipal interests was confirmed. Jorge Oteiza’s complex and ambitious idea of creating a monumental urban centre on Plaza de España was reduced to simply doing a “sculpture”. Oteiza had travelled to Alicante on several occasions and finally rejected the commission of a monument that did not follow his ideas.
This work analyses in detail the entire process of the conception of the work and the ups and downs that led to the rejection of the commission. Once again, Oteiza’s commitment was complete, to the point where if he were not to be commissioned with the work, “they could use, if they wanted, his ideas, albeit not his name”.
Joan Calduch Cercera, holds a PhD in Architecture from Universidad Politécnica de Valencia and is Professor of Architectural Composition at Universitat d’Alacant. Martín Noguerol García is a plastic artist and Deputy Director of the Department of Art and Visual Communication “Eusebio Sempere” of the Alicante Institute of Culture “Juan Gil-Albert” of the Provincial Council of Alicante (1999-2003).