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A review of “Liquid Intelligences” organized by TBA21 at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid.

  • Nov 29 2023
  • Àngels Miralda Tena
    is a Catalan-American writer and curator currently based in Terrassa, Catalonia. She writes on curatorial and institutional ethics and organises exhibitions internationally.

On the 19th of October, Madrid experienced an unprecedented deluge of rainfall. Waves rolled in streams on the street in front of the Spanish Congress, a few meters away from the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum. The recently opened exhibition “Liquid Intelligences” takes over the museum’s dedicated contemporary gallery - a darkened basement space used by TBA21. Over the years, the foundation has focused on the intricate relationship between contemporary art production and the ailing climate. A specific emphasis on water and the oceanic has been developed through exhibitions, commissions, and educational programs.

“Liquid Intelligences” features works by Anne Duk Hee Jordan, Saelia Aparicio, Lucas Aruda, Ines Zenha, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Ana Mendieta, Jumana Manna, and Sofia Levy. The proposed language for storytelling, and a vital life-force of thought, digestion, and procreation, is water. The substance enables a form of knowledge existing outside our own form of human thinking, one that constantly produces strange new forms of life both precarious and unyielding. Chus Martínez, the curator of this exhibition, has long collaborated with the TBA21 collection, conducting independent research on oceanic themes, aligned with the foundation’s vision. This exhibition inaugurates a series that explores diverse facets of this subject, where the concept of liquid intelligence extends far beyond the ocean to infuse every inhabitable space. From the deep ocean to the human body, from the infrastructures of cities to the water-sculpted ravines of the Caribbean, water is like a fungal network that spreads from the trenches of the Atlantic to the torrential rainfall above Madrid. 

The first room is a darkened chamber filled with pillows and organically shaped furniture. Ziggy and the Starfish (2016-2022) a film by Anne Duk Hee Jordan, explores the subject of undersea sexuality. Society’s taboos disappear in coral waters where creatures ranging from starfish to barnacles show off their sexual organs to the slow soundtrack of romantic melodies. Fluid exchanges through thickened waters are the vitality of life as it blooms forth in a liquid cosmos. The film is directly followed by Bodies of Water (2023), a group of sculptures by Saelia Aparicio, among them a snaking glass sculpture that hangs from the ceiling. It is accompanied by standing androgynous bodies. Both snakes and humans represent the fluidity of gender and the constant permutation of identity.


fig. 1


In the center of the exhibition we find a single print by Ana Mendieta, Untitled, Iowa, (1981). Martínez explains: “The whole exhibition is an homage to her. She worked for a long time with trees and her work was described as overly spiritual or too vulnerable. In reality, her work is very political and pragmatic and shows the vulnerability of gender.” The print doesn't depict water itself, but rather prompts the viewer’s imagination to interpret the landscape as shaped by the force of torrents. Ditches carved out by flash floods and seasonal rivers slowly create the landscape of this portion of the artist’s famous Siluetta series. 


fig. 2


Similarly, the ceramic sculptures of Jumana Manna belonging to the series S-pipe, Mouth, Gutted (2021) may not immediately evoke an oceanic theme. Yet, the crafted pieces displayed lying on metal grates immediately open a channel from the imagination to the underground infrastructure of the cities, and the rains that pour down into the runnels and gutters of our man-made systems; like an enormous digestive tract, they funnel water, waste, electricity, and information across oceans to link populations together. Manna’s investigation of infrastructure relates the body as flesh to the complex networks that provide us with basic necessities – but also reveal the fragility of an existence that depends on the intricate collaborations of urban network systems carefully maintained and to be kept in operation. The connections between the works remain fluid in themselves; there is not a concrete focal point or investigation that ties them to each other. Rather than a curatorial text delineating theoretical connections, Chus Martínez accompanies these works with anecdotes, stories, and short texts that provide suggestions for the audience. The texts, conceived as accessible, still require knowledge of contemporary subjects to arrive at the conclusion that a work like Manna’s ceramics point towards a quasi-fungal global water network beneath the ground.


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Other works present clearer visual connections, such new paintings as Entanglements (2023), by Ines Zenha and Untitled (from the series Deserto-Modelo) (2019-2021), by Lucas Arruda, which respectively delve into the subjects of the sea and the rainforest. In Bird, Eat Me (Philoctetes), a 16mm film installation, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz relates the unchanging ancient relationship between humanity and the sea through myth. The grand finale - a new commission by Sonia Levy - is a work that connects the show back to TBA21’s various locations and educational mission. Her image-based visual essay We Marry You, O Sea, As a Sign of True and Perpetual Dominion, (2023) alternates between slow underwater pans and fast-paced transmissions of archival footage, recalling the aesthetic urgency of artists such as Elizabeth Price while translating the medium into a divergent tempo. 


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While the exhibition takes place in Madrid, this work points back to the collection’s other locations, including Ocean Space in Venice which takes a close look at the marine ecology of the beleaguered lagoon. Algae, fish, and other sea creatures feature in the melodic composition interspersed which with photographs of the men who built a petrochemical station close to Mestre, an ecological disaster on the shores of this sensitive ecosystem. We Marry You… highlights the contrast between intelligences that lie below and the reckless actions of the profiteers who paved the way for companies including Shell and Esso to transform the shoreline into chemical storage and facilities. This example of “non-knowing” connects to Martínez’s thesis on the intelligence of water as compared to artificial intelligence, another prominent theme in contemporary art discourse. In the curator’s words: “Artificial intelligence is a relatively new idea that is still dependent on our idea of technology as building tools. It takes the idea of intelligence to a level of something that can be programmed and controlled. Yet we are surrounded by other forms of intelligence – ancient intelligences, animal intelligences, and liquid intelligences, we not only cannot control, but we cannot even comprehend. Life is an embodied value, and we have no right to go into an environment and decide to extract and interfere. The exhibition expresses this idea, but always in a joyful and poetic way, through fantasy and storytelling rather than a didactic imposition.” This spirit is expressed by the path taking the visitor out towards the entrance, and, once again, through Duk Hee Jordan’s installation. This work leaves the visitor with a gesture of kindness, generosity, and hope in the ability of the biosphere to find solutions to human-made problems.

Liquid Intelligences” avoids a strong identifiable focus and instead, broadens discussion of its subject matter in expanded directions. This ambiguity however, presupposes that the viewer is already familiar and agrees with its overall premise. As a whole, the exhibition suggests  that liquid matter is not only far more intelligent than us, but is an inescapable condition of which we all form part. Attempting to resist submission to liquid rules is an attempt at the impossible.




    Cover: Anne Duk Hee Jordan, Ziggy and the Starfish (2016-2022). Courtesy of TBA21, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

    fig. 1: Saelia Aparicio. Entre el mundo de arriba y el mundo de abajo (guiño a Angela Carter), 2023. Courtesy of TBA21, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

    fig. 2: Ana Mendieta. Untitled, Iowa, (1981). Courtesy of TBA21, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

    fig. 3: Inêz Zenha. Entanglements, 2023. Courtesy of TBA21, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

    fig. 4: Beatriz Santiago Muñoz. Bird, Eat Me (Philoctetes), (2022-2023). Courtesy of TBA21, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.



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