A flag is a colored cloth. But a flag is also the symbol of a nation, a community, a political party, a soccer team, a human group. So, in dealing with flags, we are dealing with the difficult relationship between the physical and the metaphysical, between the material and the symbolic, between the atom and the idea. A fertile field for art or design, which often manipulates flags with results, generally controversial.
In the History of Art, flags have always appeared, although their presence has been rather circumstantial. For example in Freedom guiding the people, by Delacroix, a woman with a bare chest carries a French flag in the Revolution of 1830. The flag is part of the scene, but it is not the main theme, much less the material with which the work is made. In some branches of contemporary art, on the other hand, the flag began to be used as the very theme of the work or the physical medium with which it is made.
One of the most famous representations of the flag is that of the pop artist Jasper Johns, who created several works of the American flag. In these pieces he reflects on what a flag is and what it represents, for some, the aged appearance of flags. The use of the encaustic technique – a mixture of paint and wax – suggests, for some, a critical reading of the symbol. For others, on a more simplistic reading, a display of patriotism can be seen here. Other pop art artists, such as Rauschenberg or Lichtenstein also used the flag motif. In 1990, the artist David Hammons created an African-American flag, the same as the American one, but with colors more typical of the African continent: red, green, brown.
“Art with flags tends to play with people’s ideas,” explains the artist and curator Carlos TMori, who has researched this branch of art. “For example, the African-American flag of Hammons in Spain may be a curiosity, but in certain conservative communities in the southern United States it can be controversial.” TMori, meanwhile, has designed flags for countries mash up, mixed, on which it works. For example, the flag of Applekistan, which mixed the Apple company and Afghanistan, or the flag of the Nacid Empire, which mixes Nazism with the acid house, and therefore carries a smiley instead of a swastika.
Are these times of the rise of national and socio-cultural identities more conducive to art made with flags? “In fact, flags have been used constantly in contemporary art,” explains TMori, “another thing is that in these times there are more people who notice these works, who understand the ironies or are offended by them” .
All flags have a mental component, the content that the mind of each one adds to the cloth. But the work of Matt Mullican is curious, who in recent years, within the Banners project, has been designing original flags that do not describe political states, but their mental states, assigning colors to different thoughts: the physical is green, the red is subjective, the everyday is blue, etc.
In Spain several active artists have worked with flags. For example, the always controversial Santiago Sierra, who created a Republican flag with black cloth. Disgusted by the existence of borders, he raised another black, anarchistic flag at the geographic South Pole. Mateo Maté embroidered flags with floral motifs, as if they were tablecloths or napkins, or, conversely, he turned tablecloths into banners, in a kind of “domestic nationalism”, removing all solemnity from the symbolic. Rogelio López Cuenca invented a new flag for Europe, which instead of a circle of stars showed a circle of rare symbols, or placed the word poetry next to the flags of various countries.
One of the latest and most controversial cases is that of the artist Marcos Gutiérrez Cru. The scandal ignited when various media spread the (false) news that the Madrid City Council had spent 12,750 euros to renew the deteriorated flags of Spain that neighbors hang on the balconies. It did not sound implausible, given the taste of the current City Council for the national flag, which it has placed wherever it could, but the reality was different: that money was an aid to the creation obtained by Gutiérrez. “With my work I want to question the importance or not of a flag as a grouping entity”, says the artist.
Indeed, his project consists of collecting the old flags, but to make with them a work of art that is still in process. Gutiérrez was surprised by so much love for the country and that later the flags were made a mess. “I have collected a lot of frayed and sunburned flags,” he explains. “I do not give as much importance to the flags as the people who hang them, but if they do, the logical thing is that they keep them in good condition.” Gutiérrez Cru had previously worked with flags, for example, in the project Black flags (Black flags), which included various actions in different countries. One of them took place in Jaén, within the framework of the Art Jaén festival, where he changed the flag of Spain that was flying in a square for a black flag, a kind of non-flag. “Supposedly we had the permits for the action, but the firefighters lowered the black flag and operated a strange censorship: none of the media present that day reported the action,” explains the artist. Touching flags, even in a work of art, strikes a chord with many.
Irene Mohedano has also worked with the Spanish flag in public space in her action Wash Lies All. In a central street in Valladolid he placed a basin and knelt to scrub a national banner, to the outrage of part of the conservative sector of the city.
In their work Herencia, Julia Eme and Byron Maher created red-and-yellow flags that on the one hand showed the preconstitutional harrier and on the other the faces of politicians (Rato, Aznar…), to show their connection with the Franco dictatorship. The comedian Dani Mateo, in The intermediate, he made the gesture of blowing his nose with the flag and suffered a notorious persecution in networks; perhaps this action could be framed within the discipline of performance.
“Although there are previous elements similar to flags, for example, in ancient Egypt or the Roman Empire, the vexillos were woolen banners and could not fly, the origins of the flags themselves are military: they were used since the Middle Ages to identify warships or troops ”, explains José Manuel Erbez, secretary of the Spanish Society of Vexillology (SEV). The flags were associated with kings, dynasties, not countries. With the arrival of the idea of the nation and the nation-state, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the flag began to identify a large number of people living in a territory. “In nationalisms the flag is very important, therefore, if there is none, it is the first thing to be created,” says Erbez.
From this use, the flag was used to identify other groups, political parties, soccer teams, cities, sexual or ideological options and even fictitious countries, such as that of Modernonia, a fictional republic popularized by the comedians of the radio program La Vida Moderna (it has even been seen on some balconies).
Regarding their format, the flags are usually rectangular or square, although there are some stranger ones, such as the Nepalese, made up of two non-equilateral triangles. The most common motifs are horizontal or vertical colored stripes, or straight or diagonal crosses, easily identifiable. The first to become popular was the Dutch (horizontal stripes, red, white and blue), due to its maritime power, which served as inspiration for the Russian. After the French Revolution, many nations took their flag (vertical stripes, blue, white, and red) as a template for their own. The countries were imitating each other in the choice of their flag, according to their philias and phobias. The Scandinavians, for example, were adopting the characteristic cross of St. Olaf, off-center to the left of the cloth. Some newer flags are much more designed, and therefore more difficult to reproduce, such as those of Brazil or Turkmenistan.
The Spanish flag, the red and yellow, was chosen by Carlos III in 1785, looking for colors that would make it unmistakable in the sea. Previously there was no single flag associated with Spain, different flags were used within the military sphere. One of them is that of the Burgundy Cross or San Andrés (diagonal red cross on a white background), later related to the Carlist movement. From the Navy the red-yellow came to symbolize the entire country. In the War of Independence, the Spanish people used it to differentiate themselves from the invading French.
The Spanish flag raises passions in various political directions. The philosopher Santiago Alba Rico, in his recent book Spain (Tongue of Rag), theorizes about the national flag and its meaning. In his opinion, it is a failed flag, Spain does not have a flag, since not all citizens compete to appropriate it. In the United States, for example, all political currents want to make the flag their own. Meanwhile, here, in certain sectors of the Spanish left there is still adherence to the flag of the Spanish Republic defeated by Franco, whose lower strip is not red but purple, and the nostalgic far right still takes the red-yellow with the emblem of the harrier for a walk. “The flags have a double facet”, concludes Erbez, “it is true that they serve to unite a community, but also to separate it from the others: to divide”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.