Every time I get to a new city, it feels...excitingly overwhelming. Where am I? (Like, really, aside from on a location on a map)? Where do I start exploring? What are the best things to see and when?
I'm back in Paris now, getting ready for my upcoming trip to the Netherlands, but I got back Sunday night after 11 days in Spain; 5 in Barcelona, 6 in Madrid.
Both cities were great, but I especially loved Madrid; the vibe, the food, the sites, etc. What drew me into the city the most though, was the art. I was amazed (and artistically inspired) by the unexpected amount of art I kept stumbling upon, both conventional and avant garde that to me felt like the cultural undercurrent driving the city forward, creating both a tourist haven and a bohemian oasis in the center of Europe that was unexpectedly refreshing.
So, thanks to Madrid, I've deemed what I believe to be the best way to explore a new city as something called "Artsploration:" the exploration of a city through it's art.
My introduction to the artistic side of Madrid came from two of it's major museums, Prado and Reina Sofia. Of course books could be written on even just one exhibit in both of these so I'll keep my thoughts and analysis to a minimum, but two exhibits specifically--Goya's Black Paintings exhibit at Prado and Constant's New Babylon exhibit at Reina Sofia both struck an artistic chord with me for one reason or another; Goya's Black Paintings, with ambiguous meaning but dominant intrigue by almost everyone who has seen them, and Constant's New Babylon, a plan for a futuristic utopian society, are both worth investigating and reading about further for those interested in reflection (Goya) and creation (Constant) of a culture through various artistic mediums.
What I came to appreciate even more though than these central gatherings of creative interest were the "underground" and avant garde areas of artistic expression that could very well go unnoticed by those who aren't looking for it and almost certainly remain unknown to most tourists and even some locals who may not be tapped into Madrid's art scene.
That being said, it only takes one casual walk around the streets in and around Madrid's city center to notice the heavy concentration of graffiti that upon first glance (for the most part) seems childish and more defacing than artistic. It's everywhere and certainly adds something to the overarching energy of the city (be it good or bad), but what often goes unnoticed as a result of the heavy amount of tagging is the actually impressive street art, nearly all of which has cultural and or historical significance as it relates to Madrid. (Click on photo below to scroll through images).
Some, like the mural at the north end of the El Rastro flea market, is significant not just because of it's location next to the market, but because it's the first instance of public art/expression that was allowed on city streets following the Franco dictatorship that ended in 1975.
Others have either subtle or explicit mentions of Spain's politics, like the "Gente sin casa, casas sin gente" (People without houses, houses without people).
Both legal and illegal street art abounds throughout the city and while Madrid has yet to reach international acclaim in the street art category (like other cities such as Berlin or Buenos Aires), it's well on it's way and for those passing through, it offers an endlessly entertaining and alternative look at the city of Madrid, both historic and current.
I discovered the street art above through a lovely local named Chris and a few days later with the help of both Google and my sometimes "aimless" wandering, I stumbled upon another hidden artistic gem: La Neomudejar, a center for avant garde art and a residency for international artists. Upon first glance it looked like little more than an abandoned warehouse behind the Atocha train station and upon entering was a far cry from the pristine cleanliness of Prado and Reina Sofia. But that was what made it's so cool. It's defunct location and it's "dirtiness" were a part of the art and while I will admit that was displayed through this small, hidden, two story "museum" is extraordinarily experimental in nature and not something even those most avid art fan would fall in love with, I found it to have an unforgettable charm.
The artists in residence at the time I visited were all from Mexico. There were experimental art pieces that ranged from sculptures, to 3-D "still lifes" to very avant garde film pieces that experimented with both visuals and sound as it captured whatever it was the artist was trying to showcase. But the exhibits themselves weren't what made the museum appealing. The warehouse wasn't a place to showcase art, it was art itself. It's grungy haphazardly painted walls fit in perfectly with the experimental nature of the surrounding pieces and seemingly neglected upkeep of the rooms, walls and staircases was a perfect metaphor for the art being displayed; art that exists in a world that despite what it claims fails to financially appreciate the majority of artistic endeavors that stray from the comfortable and anticipated expectations of societal conditioning.
So back to "artsploration."
So much of my traveling has been focused on self awareness and discovery, which is maybe what caused me to inadvertently stumble upon these oases of artistic exploration.
Because art is the perfect metaphor for life. It's subjective, messy, beautiful and experimental all at the same time. Sometimes it's successful. Sometimes it requires revision. But the beautiful thing about it, is that the act of creation is ongoing, available to anyone who wants to explore. Life, like art, can be created in whatever way we want to create it, can mean whatever we want it to mean, and be whatever we want it to be. Time and time again artists, and those who take the time to appreciate them, show that there is always a place for those looking to create--and live--authentically and without boundaries.