From Recognizing to Questioning Space
How can space, by definition an entity that is invisible, become a fundamental theme in abstract art, and in sculpture in particular? Both Eduardo Chillida and Jorge Oteiza, key figures of Basque modernism, earned international recognition at a time when other movements like Spatialism and Zero were devising their own strategies to explore similar questions. Even though artistic inquiry into space began with the historical avant-gardes in the period between the two World Wars, it became explicit with the post-constructivist debates of the 1950s and culminated with the development of “site-specific” practices in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Man reaching the Moon, an event that obsessed Lucio Fontana and many other artists, along with the 1968 premiere of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the publication of Art and Space shortly thereafter, signaled a particularly spatial time in the culture of the day, as did the publication of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965) and Georges Pérec’s Species of Spaces (1974).
Along with the selection of pieces by Chillida, this gallery also includes works by the great pioneers of contemporary art, such as Fontana, Oteiza, and Naum Gabo, and by figures whose works follow in the footprints of their inquiries, including Agostino Bonalumi, Sue Fuller, and Norbert Kricke. It also offers a selection of creations in which we can spot the renovation of the language of abstraction which took place in the mid- to late-1960s. It includes works by celebrated German-American artist Eva Hesse, here with a dozen “Studio Works,” and the Brazilian Anna Maria Maiolino, still active today. The generation of the great pioneers of Conceptual Art and “site-specific” interventions is also represented in this gallery with works by Gordon Matta-Clark and Lawrence Weiner.
The Ambiguity of The Void
The normalization of the Space Run moved forward apace with the development of globalization. From the mid-1970’s until the digital age, which began in the 1990’s, artistic propositions that questioned the legitimacy of abstraction proliferated on all continents. It is hard to know whether speaking about a form is equivalent to speaking about the empty space around it, which allows it to exist; whether the celestial vault is not simply a black surface with smatterings of white enamel. The works chosen here suggest a zig-zagging path through the elementary ambiguity of space.
Some of the artists from this period, in their early days, revisited the artistic tradition of abstraction—in any of its formulations: constructivist, neo-concrete, minimalist—yet without letting their practice be pigeonholed by associating with specific currents or movements. In the works of Waltercio Caldas, Mary Corse, Robert Gober, and Prudencio Irazabal, the artistic matter prompts encounters that verge on mirages, while the work of Vija Celmins explores the surfaces of the sky and the ocean in an attempt to suppress perspective and scale. The random encounter of Celmins’s painting with General Idea’s Blackboard underscores the boundary between figuration and the ready-made. On the other hand, the pieces on display here by Isa Genzken and Zarina reveal the tension between the model and the fragment, between the found and the built. In the case of Susana Solano, the idea of an “empty hill” connects motifs related to the indoors, like vaults and basements, with motifs that allude to the outdoors, such as valleys and inverted mountains.
In recent decades, the different facets of space have been as innumerable as the information floating in the air and permeating our homes, intangible. As cities grow vertically, air becomes denser with transmissions and networks. The world of objects becomes remote, giving way to its representations. Today’s art reflects this challenging, complex situation; it seeks to restore the connections between things and the memory they harbor, making a sort of archaeology of the present and exploring their metamorphoses, combinations, and possible places.
The works displayed in this gallery reveal constant fluctuation on the material plane and radical speculation on the conceptual plane. The incessant mutations of the canvas in the work of Ángela de la Cruz contrast with the indiscriminate way in which Jean-Luc Moulène uses all materials; notions from topology, politics, and cultural history collide in his sculptures. With a similar topological underpinning yet a more explicitly scientific focus, the works of Alyson Shotz seek to make the phenomena of physics visible, such as the undulation of spacetime and the entanglement of particles. Meanwhile, Agnieszka Kurant uses the surprising levitation of her meteorites to evoke the convergence of the artistic value of air (since Marcel Duchamp bottled Paris Air in 1919) with its real estate value in today’s economy. In the works by Pierre Huyghe and Asier Mendizabal chosen for this exhibition, emptiness and memory get tangled up in two kinds of operations. Huyghe’s Timekeeper perforates the wall of any space where it is installed to reveal the history of its scenographic transformations. Mendizabal, in turn, starts with Oteiza’s notion of Agoramaquia (fight against the void) to analyze the different states of a sculptural body; here it is lying down, while in gallery 201 it is upright, in its complete form.
The concept of empty space appears in many ancient philosophies from all over the world. The one that has had the most influence in the development of Western science is probably the theory of atomism promoted by Greek philosophers like Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. Thanks to them, the idea coalesced in the collective imagination that things are only solid in appearance, since they are actually made up of countless indivisible particles or atoms separated from each other by empty space. Breaking with the chronological groupings in the first three galleries of the show, this gallery presents works by artists from several generations assembled around the theme of atomization, the expansion of matter, the interstitial, and the minuscule.
The idea of displacement—and therefore travel—is present in our notion of space, which is inconceivable without movement. A visionary Robert Smithson coined the term “mirror travel” in 1969 based on the ephemeral compositions he made during his journey around the Mexican state Yucatán. The notions of travel and reflection also converge in this gallery through the two confronted pieces by Olafur Eliasson: one serves as a compass to magnetically guide us along the gallery’s north-south axis, while the other multiplies the image of its environs and, like a lunar cycle, gradually compresses it. On the other side of the gallery is White Bubble by Ernesto Neto, a penetrable, moving space inside of which one loses the sense of the outside world, as if returning to the womb. Finally, two time markers flank the gallery: the video-survey made by conceptual artist David Lamelas the same year as Art and Space was published, and a steel and water sculpture by Nobuo Sekine that he started in 1969 and has undergone constant changes since then.
Heidegger wrote in Art and Space that we must “learn to recognize that things themselves are places and do not merely belong to a place.” In this gallery, there are three impossible places. Cristina Iglesias’s sculptures suggest an idea of hospitality and private refuge, in this case under a structure of alabaster, perhaps the warmest of all minerals. Bilbao Circle by Richard Long is made with fragments of slate and inspires us to imagine a ritual setting, perhaps a cromlech or the circle representing an invisible community. To Lee Ufan, the canvas is the place where the vibrations of the mind, body, and world converge in the guise of lines.
From Frame to Wall: Closed Space
Chillida spoke about a “rumor of limits” in the space of sculpture. Walls and limits are, indeed, fundamental elements of space. We may imagine our planet as a gigantic web of limits, our bodies as an accumulation of membranes nestled inside each other. In recent history, works of art have often sought to assert themselves within their own, autonomous “frame,” enclosed within themselves through a strict geometry. In the 1970s, Bruce Nauman created a number of installations in which the viewer’s perception of their own body was drastically affected by an anomalous, uncomfortable space, like his Green Light Corridor; he also produced videos based on instructions given to actors in which he played with similar sensations. In that same decade, painter Robert Motherwell—one of the leading figures in Abstract Expressionism— began to mark large surfaces of color with modest boxes, alluding to the ancient purpose of painting as a window onto the world. Later, Peter Halley made the cell his leitmotiv to express modernism’s distressing obsession—both artistic and architectural—with geometry, a “grid-like” obsession which many of the earliest conceptual artists, such as Sol LeWitt, had painstakingly explored. Young Chilean artist Iván Navarro revisited this notion in many of his neon tunnels, which are as inaccessible as abstract paintings. Some of Matt Mullican’s most emblematic works are his series of abstract banners, which he sets forth as icons for a society controlled by large agencies and corporations.
Galleries 201 and 204, Atrium and outdoors
Several works from the Collection occupying different locations in the Museum are also included in the exhibition Art and Space, which is mostly presented in the galleries of the second floor. Both the Atrium and one of the terraces feature two large sculptures by Eduardo Chillida: Advice to Space V (1993) and Embrace XI (1996). Also the Atrium and several scattered places of the second floor will house different components of Sergio Prego’s Sequence of Dihedrals (2007), an automated device specifically conceived for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 2007, accompanied by models and drawings.
Agoramaquia (The Exact Case of the Statue) is presented within Art and Space in two versions. Gallery 201 features “the complete version” of the work, which includes a concrete base and a poster with an essay by Mendizabal on the trials and tribulations of the production of Jorge Oteiza’s last sculpture, whose shapes are evoked by Agoramaquia.
As for Marcius Galan, the Brazilian artist Marcius Galan intervenes directly in the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery by means of tints and plays on light that create the illusion of a glass panel that bisects the space diagonally.