March 16, 2018 – June 10, 2018
Esther Ferrer (Donostia/San Sebastián, 1937) is a pioneer in performance art in Spain, as well as one of the leading performance artists in the country. She took the first steps in her career in the late 1970s. Since then, she has developed several lines of thought through a variety of forms and materials.
Her oeuvre is a part of the Minimalist and Conceptual Art movement. In the 1960s, she was under the influence of Stéphane Mallarmé, Georges Perec, John Cage, and the feminist theorists of the day. In 1967, she joined Zaj, a group established by Walter Marchetti, Ramón Barce, and Juan Hidalgo. With Zaj, Ferrer found in action art her main medium. From 1970 on, however, she returned to the visual arts in the form of staged photographs, installations, paintings and drawings based on the prime number series, objects and sound recordings. With straightforward, subversive and shocking performances, the members of Zaj stuck together until 1996, when the group dissolved after a retrospective at the Reina Sofía Museum (MNCARS) in Madrid.
According to Ferrer, performance art is “art that involves time and space with the presence of the audience—an audience that is made of participants rather than viewers.” She values the audience’s freedom above everything else. No conclusions are offered by the artist: only questions for the viewers to find an answer of their own, for them to generate their own personal interpretation of the artwork.
Throughout her long career, Esther Ferrer has participated in countless action art festivals and shown her works in many museums. She is also the recipient of a high number of accolades. She represented Spain at the Biennale di Venezia (1999) and was awarded the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas (2008), the Gure Artea Saria of the Basque Government (2012), the Marie Claire Prix de l’art contemporain (2014) and the Premio Velázquez de Artes Plásticas (2014).
Most of the works in this exhibition have never been shown before. They will be activated in special ways, by means of performances and interactions with visitors.
Entrance to an Exhibition (Entrada a una exposición, 1990/2018)
Esther Ferrer describes the nature and purpose of Entrada a una exposición as follows:
Life is shrouded in the skin, which is a human being’s first clothing, the frontier between two worlds, and, as Paul Valéry wrote, “the deepest thing in man”, but at the same time the most superficial, a word that comes from the Latin “superficies”, based in its turn on “facies”, a face. The skin is therefore like the surface of a mirror that reflects the depth of which the poet speaks.
Subject of love or aggression, memory, bearer of ritual or object of discrimination, the skin is also a sometimes unyielding source of information about our physical and emotional condition. Above all, however, the skin is the gateway to our sensations owing to its interaction with the nervous system, which transmits them to the brain.
The installation titled Entrance to an exhibition tries to raise everyone’s awareness of their own skin through contact with an external element, in this case the sensuality of feathers. The work is designed to arouse sensations, stimulate the viewer’s receptiveness, and increase his or her perceptive capacity by creating a state of pleasurable “alert”, a preparatory stimulus for the visit to the rest of the exhibition. “It’s a matter of feeling, not thinking; the rest of the exhibition is there for that.
Ferrer wants to make a clear distinction between the sensory experience delivered by the installation and the type of experience in the rest of the exhibition. What she shows next is dominated by sobriety, minimal materiality, and abstract concepts or ideas, such as the mathematical graphics underlying her Spatial Projects (Proyectos espaciales).
The Laughs of the World (Las risas del mundo, 1999/2018)
“Warning: Laughter can be dangerous for your illness.”
Humor is indissociable from the work of Esther Ferrer. Indeed, it is her absurd view of society, laden with an irony peculiar to the artist, which allows her to construct an artistic corpus with a markedly critical character.
For this installation, Ferrer has focused on laughter. She has hung a series of electronic devices from different points on a world map that is standing on the floor. These are thirty seven tablets showing images of mouths that belong to people of different ages, genders and provenances, while reproducing the sound of their laughs. The sound archives are activated by the interaction of visitors, since they are programmed to start every time they are approached, allowing the spontaneous production of what the artist calls “concerts of laughter”
The installation is also designed to activate different laughter groups at random according to the visitors’ position on the map.
The work is based on the sound of laughter as an ephemeral sound that can turn into a work of art. Ferrer takes a natural, organic sound—laughter—and extends it over time by means of the recordings, arranges it in space on the map, and leaves it in the hands of the viewer, who decides when each set of sounds starts playing as if they were elements in a musical composition.
Esther Ferrer explains the aim of this installation:
The installation The Laughs of the World is, by no means, laughter therapy. Its main goal is to make the viewer laugh and, at the same time, “listen to the laughter of the world”: children, adults, and old people from different countries and cultures laughing. For each culture, each language (some scholars believe that language developed out of laughter) gives shape to laughter in their own particular ways.
Besides, the viewer can use a Laugh Lab (Laboratorio de la risa) to create, in the words of Ferrer, “other amazing, different forms of laughter that are hard, or rather impossible, for human vocal chords to produce.”
Installations with Chairs (Instalaciones con sillas, 1984 and 2018)
This exhibition presents two installations by Ferrer made with chairs: one is from the 1984 series Installations with Chairs (Instalaciones con sillas), and the other from the 2018 series Suspended Chairs (Sillas suspendidas). Both projects are here materialized for the first time in an exhibition space. The artist clarifies the concept in the exhibition catalog, which reads:
I’ve always been interested in chairs, everyday and almost anodyne objects whose mere presence can nonetheless modify the space of a room.
I have always been struck by the number of models that have been created, and will continue to be created, for something as everyday and elementary as a chair. But what attracts me the most is its structure: wood, plastic or another material, folding or not.
Another interesting feature of the chair is its “anthropomorphic” quality of its structure, regardless of the material from which it is made. When stripped of upholstery and decoration, its “skeleton” forms a set of straight or curved lines organized in an almost organic manner. If the structural richness of a chair is combined in a set, either on a wall or in the round, the variety of resulting forms can be fascinating.
Perhaps my interest in chairs could be traced back to the flying chairs I used to ride on when I was a little girl. They moved at vertigo-inducing speed, hanging from chains attached to the rotating top of the swing ride.
I have created a number of installations with chairs. Sometimes, they are just different forms interacting with one another in space, hanging from thick or thin cables; other times, they carry a political or social meaning. I have set up installations and performances using just one chair or including other elements. I believe everyday objects are essential for performance art. Is there anything more ordinary than a chair? In any case, a chair has endless possibilities; it has even become a sound element in some of my acts.
Proyectos espaciales (Spatial Projects, 1990/2018)
Esther Ferrer began his Spatial Projects (Proyectos espaciales) series in the 1970s. The Museum is exhibiting the earliest installations in the series, where she used cardboard or foam board (like those in architectural scale models) and threads.
Ferrer puts it this way:
I’ve never been especially interested in carrying out my projects in a physical space or on a large scale. If the model works, the work is done as far as I’m concerned. If I can’t set it up in a real space, never mind. What interests me is the process.
During her creative process, the artist attaches threads to the different planes of the model, walls, ceiling and floor. She measured regular distances between the connections so that the threads will look like lines running across space in geometrical patterns. Their infinite variations are the motif that gives these works their serial character. By varying only small details, like the number of threads or the distance between them, the mathematical basis for the installation is completely modified and an infinite number of different results are obtained.
Threads, cables, elastic bands and string are fragile; some of them are ordinary and flexible, things that everyone has at home. Ferrer uses them in her installations, nailing or pinning them to the bare walls, the floor and the ceiling, fixing them with clamps or nails. She thus intervenes in the space with a minimum of elements, giving it a new set of characteristics that modify the viewer’s perception.
Ferrer subjects these elements to intense mathematical rigor, positioning the clamps at different intervals measured so that they will alter the way the viewer perceives space and how they move in it. With parallel threads that run from the floor all the way up to the ceiling, the artist creates geometric shapes and angles that break or fold at the corners.
About her Spatial Projects series, the artist says:
In some installations I decide to submit to a rule—it’s a way of eliminating my subjectivity as far as possible—or to a system I’ve decided on, such as the series of prime numbers. On the other hand, there are others I structure in an aleatory fashion, allowing myself to be guided by an intuition that determines the rhythm.
Catalogue of the exhibition devoted to Esther Ferrer, a pioneer of performance art in Spain. The catalogue includes a short essay and an interview with the artist, as well as images of the installation of the show in the exhibition space of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
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