Driving out of Barcelona, into the rural hinterland of Catalonia, you soon lose count of all the Catalan flags flying from lamp posts along the highway. This isn’t the state-sanctioned Catalan flag, La Senyera, but the banned rebel flag, L’Estelada – red and yellow stripes, like the official flag, but with a rebel star upon it, like the flags of Cuba and Puerto Rica (two other nations that threw off the Spanish yoke, with variable results). Yet when you arrive in Lleida, Catalonia’s only landlocked province, and get talking to a few locals, it soon becomes clear that the Catalan independence story is actually a lot more nuanced.
I’d returned to Spain, after a few weeks away, to visit Sorigué, one of the country’s most successful and innovative companies. A family-run firm, based in Lleida, it’s a fine example of why Catalonia has become Spain’s economic powerhouse. Founded back in 1956, it employs 3,200 people, and boasts an annual turnover of over £358m (€400m). The business straddles mining, engineering, construction and agriculture (their olive oil is excellent) and they’re also a pioneering player in the Iberian arts scene.
Sorigué’s art collection includes a fine array of 19th Century Catalan painting, plus more than 400 works by some of the world’s foremost contemporary artists, such as Germany’s Anselm Kiefer and British sculptor Sir Tony Cragg. The range of this collection reflects Sorigué’s identity – sure, it’s a Catalan company, with deep roots in the region (or nation, if you’d rather) but it’s also a leading national – and international – brand.
Unlike a lot of wealthy art collectors, Sorigué don’t want to hide their art away – they’re keen to share it. They’ve got a gallery downtown, but their latest venture is far more exciting – an enormous new exhibition space called Planta, on the edge of a vast open cast mine. I was there for yesterday’s opening, and the scene was thrilling – a gigantic hangar, devoted to modern art, against a backdrop of trucks and diggers and men in hard hats and huge piles of quarried stone and sand. I’ve seen arts spaces in defunct mines before (Essen’s Zollverein springs to mind) but never in a working one. A very Catalan mix of culture and commerce, this is something new.
Yet this spectacular project also epitomises the paradox at the heart of Catalan separatism: how can you separate out Catalonia from Spain as a whole? You can’t, of course, and this company – and its ambitious arts foundation – is a perfect case in point. Sorigué has business interests throughout Spain. Even here, in Catalonia’s rural heartland, a good many of its workers commute from Aragon, across the border, in so-called Castilian Spain.
The opening exhibit here at Planta is Double Bind by the late, great Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz – first seen in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2001, and now on show for the first time in Spain. For Spaniards here it felt like a homecoming, but Muñoz came from Madrid. Double Bind, his final work, will be exhibited here for the next five years. In five years’ time, will he have become a foreign artist, an outsider in his native land?
Asking Catalans about independence is a bit like discussing Brexit at a British dinner party – people are reluctant to talk for fear of starting an almighty row. However off the record, the feedback from people I met here – a unique mix of arts and industry folk – was pessimistic. None of them want full independence (at least, none of those I spoke to) but they’re critical of the national government in Madrid, which has greatly reduced the scope for compromise. A few years ago, symbolic concessions, like allowing Catalonia to call itself a nation, and calling Spain ‘a country of countries’ might have helped mend the rift, but after the illegal independence referendum, and Madrid’s ham-fisted attempts to suppress it, the time for such fig leaves has passed. Greater autonomy is now the only solution that might possibly satisfy both sides.
Catalonia already has a great deal of autonomy – it runs its own schools and hospitals. The only thing it really lacks is the authority to manage its own taxes. Here, the example of the Basque Country (or Euskadi, as the Basques prefer to call their homeland) is instructive. The Basques have even greater autonomy than the Catalans – crucially, they raise and distribute their own taxes. Conversely, Catalonia pays tax to Madrid, and Madrid then pays (some of) it back. For the Basques, this solution seems to work pretty well, and it would probably work quite well for Catalonia. The problem is, Catalonia is so much richer than the rest of Spain that such drastic devolution would leave a huge hole in the national finances, prompting further cuts in poorer regions, like Extremadura and Aragon.
If everyone in Catalonia was pure Catalan, this might at least be good news for Catalonia – regardless of what the rest of Spain might think. Yet Catalonia has been the engine room of the Spanish economy ever since the bad old days of Franco (another topic Spaniards don’t like discussing) and for generations, people from all over Spain have been moving to Catalonia in search of work. Many of them stayed, and raised families here. Are their children Catalan? If so, what about their cousins back home in Extremadura? Don’t they deserve a say in Catalonian independence? From where does Catalonia’s wealth derive? From the four provinces of Catalonia? Or from all the other Spanish provinces who provided so much of its manpower?
Britons have been here before, of course, with Northern Ireland and Scotland, and now Brexit (maybe blue passports for Britons would have saved a lot of aggravation a few years back). And Spain has also been here before, with the Basques, and ETA. If Spain can resolve such a bloody conflict which killed around a thousand people, surely it can solve a peaceful conflict in Catalonia which has never descended into violence.
Yet the ghosts of Spain linger on, even in the quietest places. On a peaceful hill, looking out across the Spanish plain, across Catalonia and into Aragon, Sorigué are building another gallery, to house yet more of their great art collection. One exhibit is already there – a Bill Viola video instillation, in a dank cellar deep underground. I assumed this bunker was modern, built for some industrial purpose, but it turned out it was an air raid shelter, built by the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was hospitalised here in Lleida, fighting against for the Republicans against Franco’s Nationalists – shot through the throat on the front line a few miles away.
Naturally, the Catalonian independence crisis is absolutely nothing like the Civil War, but people here talk about a kind of kulturkampf, a deep and widening divide. There seem to be a lot of these kulturkamps in Europe nowadays, between Scottish Nationalists and Unionists, between Continental centrists and populists, between Remainers and Brexiteers. The European Union may have inflamed this crisis, but it’s surely not the only cause of it. What a fitting time for Sorigué to open a new arts centre here in rural Catalonia. These are troubling times, but there’s never been more to talk about – not only for politicians, but for artists and curators too.