Arco, Madrid's 29-year-old contemporary art fair opened its doors to the public February 18, amidst the uncertainty provoked by Spain's dismal economy and debates about the quality of participating exhibitors. Galleries like Marian Goodman, Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, and Sao Paulo-based Luisa Strina, one-time regular exhibitors at the fair, all absented this year's edition. The Spanish art fair retained the dubious title of "world's most crowded art fair," with 150,000 visitors in just five days. Reliable controversy might be the podium on which that laurel stands.


In 2005, Arco's top controversial work was The Democracy Shop, a wood and polyester life-size replica of infamous American soldier Lynddie England humiliating a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, by Spanish art collective El Perro (now rebranded Democracia). A year later, the tabloids' favorite was Christ with a Missile, a small Jesus Christ figure holding a missile in one hand and guiding an army of toy soldiers by Spanish artist Oscar Seco. 2010's hot potato was Eugenio Merino's Stairway to Heaven,a human-size epoxy sculpture of a crouching Muslim, topped by a kneeling Christian also topped by a Jew in prayer. Adjacent to it, there was also a sculpture of a Menora cast on the barrel of a metal replica of an Uzi, the signature machine gun invented by Israeli Army official Uziel Gal.  IMAGE COURTESY THE ARTIST.

Shortly before the opening of the fair, the Israeli Embassy in Madrid released a letter to the organizers of ARCO condemning Merino's works as "offensive to Jews, Israelis and possibly others," and alleged that the piece, although protected by expectations of freedom of expression, might "serve as disguises for prejudices, stereotypes or mere provocation."

The Israeli Embassy's message, which did not request the removal of the artworks, was ignored by the art fair. ARCO spokesperson Marta Cacho declined to comment. But it contributed Merino's international visibility  and made Galería ADN's booth one of the most visited at the fair. According to gallery director Miguel Ángel Sánchez, all the works by the artist in the booth had been sold on the first day of the art fair. Stairway to Heaven sold to a Belgian collector for 45.000 Euros (approximately $62,000).