London

Juan Cruz

Matt's Gallery

Born in Spain in 1970, Juan Cruz has lived in the United Kingdom since he was eight, and his work so far has been a painstaking rumination on Spanish culture. Yet as a cultural ambassador he would have to be counted a distinct failure. In 1996, he sat for ten days at a small desk in the basement of the Instituto Cervantes in London (the Spanish Cultural Institute), reading aloud for three hours each day from Don Quixote, simultaneously translating the original text into English and thereby slowing the novel down to a donkey's pace. Subsequently, Cruz went to Spain to make a documentary, Sancti Petri, 1997, about a coastal village, using slides and voice-over; it was shown at Matt's Gallery in 1998. But the village was hardly a pretty tourist spot: It had been abandoned in the '70s when the tuna processing plant that was its raison d'être closed down.

Cruz's latest attempt at repackaging Spanish culture is ostensibly more conventional and glamorous. Portrait of a Sculptor, 2001, is a travelogue—deploying DVD, video, photographs, and written text of a recent trip to Madrid in search of Velázquez's Portrait of a Sculptor, 1635. Yet this is far from being an inspirational visit to the Prado, with snappy visuals and rousing commentary. It is a protracted, Sisyphean stalking operation, in which the actual object of desire remains obscure.

The text explains in deadpan detail that the portrait fascinates Cruz because Velázquez did not finish painting the bust on which the sculptor, Juan Martinez Montañes, is shown working. This bust of Philip IV of Spain was sent to Italy (along with a portrait of the king by Velázquez) to help the sculptor Pietro Tacca get a good likeness for his majestic equestrian monument of the king. On Cruz's first visit to the gallery, he draws a blank: He is not permitted to film the picture. Most of the text is taken up with Cruz's desultory conversation with a copyist who claims to have reproduced the portrait for an American first lady. They talk in the gallery by the picture, and later Cruz buttonholes him in the museum café.

On a monitor, a video showed Cruz's taxi journey from the airport to find Tacca's equestrian monument in a park in Madrid; the digital projection was an hour-long observation of the statue, high up on its plinth. This vigil at the base of the monument may have been the culmination of the whole project, but it was the first thing we saw. The strain of holding the camera made Cruz's hand shake increasingly, so that the king seems to quiver like a leaf, barely controlling his steed. Eventually a bird lands on the king's head; finally a military band strikes up, making the whole mise-en-scène even more absurd.

On one level, Cruz's work is a laconic meditation on his own distance from Spanish culture: An emigrant who cannot instantly translate or assimilate, he is doomed to get the wrong end of the stick. But on another, perhaps more interesting level, he is all too immersed in this culture. Like a pilgrim who seeks to make his journey to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela as difficult as possible, he wallows in self-made obstacles, false starts, and dead ends. His shaking camera hand is a bid for sainthood.

James Hall