Esther Ferrer. Female body conceives and crosses through space in non-stipulated time

Text made in occasion of solo show Entre intimidad y exhortación, by Esther Ferrer, at espaivisor. Until January 18th,  2019

With performance the natural amalgamation of body and space was inducted into art’s repertoire of expressions, which, up until then, had largely relied on two and three dimensions in its forms of depicting externality or of constructing narratives grounded in the real, including the most radical iconoclasm. Introducing the body and its movement through space, or its mere occupation of it, adds a time-based element to artistic representation, which is then no longer justdepicted reality and instead constructs a real moment. On the other hand, actions break away from the univocality of authorship and the ego, while at once questioning artistic fetishism, given that, in the best of cases, the resulting work is a recording of the action; but the time of this observation is of a different order, and thepresent vanishes and gives way to apresent. If we accept that determinacy includes an usduring the time when it takes place, then indeterminacy turns it into a result, a commodity. In this regard, when time and space converge, they construct something else that does not depend exclusively on one or the other, but on the indivisible presence of the two, taking on the character of prime numbers which can only be divided by one and by themselves.

Esther Ferrer (San Sebastián, 1937) has developed a free-spirited and coherent practice that cuts across various different artistic techniques while at once adding her body as a form of living testimony that defends the 1970s feminist maxim that “our body belongs to us”. Taking control of her life and doing so through the public exposure of a sometimes nude body, certifies not only the great social and political achievements of contemporary art after the sixties; it also questions the rather precarious defence of said achievements or their logical updating in today’s practices. At a time when individual freedoms are continuously under pressure from increasingly more reactionary laws, sustained on the euphemism of collective or national security, her works raise their hand to recover the simplicity of a gesture or the forcefulness of the random repetition of the same movement in a space. Her body of work is always fully engaged and engaging, inviting us to rethink all givens and to experiment with what presents itself as new and categorical. The inclusion of the everyday in art is conducive to a fusion between life and academia, or between individual and productive work, thus rewriting its principles and launching it towards areas still to be discovered, both as plausible physical action as well as a field of theoretical interpretation.

This exhibition, her second solo show at espaivisor, brings together some of the key works that activated this fusion between intimacy and urgency; between the minimalist sounds projected by the human voice and the silences that serve to suture them together again; between the conceived space and the surprises it yields up. Time here is tactile, prehensile and malleable, just as the space where they coexist is measurable. The selected works showcase several of Esther Ferrer’s signature lines of action, perfectly interrelated and interdependent, which provide an overall view of a highly diverse and fertile practice in which she has taken on the various mantles of artist, activist, writer, performer, poet, musician and teacher.

The first section is made up of works on paper generically titled Poemas de los números primos (Poems of Prime Numbers), reflecting her different aesthetic and technical approaches. These pieces unfurl a kind of geometry redolent of a set of instructions for creating polyhedrons, which are seen here unfolded, as much as the exact steps a body has to take in a space; and, at once, they have absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Numbers are inserted inside the parts of a whole which often make up a single geometric figure or a set of them. It would seem obvious that these variations on a theme draw from music and indeed dance: the continuous repetition of a hand on a keyboard or of a body memorising certain movements. Everything serves the purposes of an end which also seems to be a beginning, given that prime numbers evoke a space prior to any interchange, to any shared drive. By being divisible only by one and by themselves, they are almost a tautology in themselves, a repeated gesture that is increasingly further removed, like an echo or ripple that gradually fades away. The materials used, especially paint (as the base for the papers or canvases), marker, pencil and thread, speak to practices that have been associated with certain domestic chores but which, in this context, take on a presence that bypasses stereotypes as they become truthful, real possibilities for transcending their form.

As a transition between the first and the second block[1], we come across a couple of drawings which serve as preparatory plans for actions or sculptures. This is the case of Canon para 5 elementos: 4 sillas y una mesaand Homage à Fontana, which consists of a vertically torn paper later stitched with white thread. An evident reference, perhaps the only one, to the history of art in which, malgré tout, these works are inserted and which gives rise to a powerful symbolic and feminist charge. Also worth underscoring are two maquettes for installations made for the corners of any given space, in which the plastic intent of their provisional aspect is more than patent, and the magnificent Marco que enmarca un marco que enmarca un marco… [2]  a three-dimensional mise en abymeof mythical proportions. If the works in the foregoing section were almost exclusively concerned with two-dimensional planning of possible spaces that could be built or sculptures that could be materialised, these ones here clearly show the space at scale and the potential of acting in or through it. It is no accident that the inclusion of Piano Satieat the beginning of the show reinforces the importance of the object, as well as the key influence of music and of Satie for the artist, who believed him to be a precursor of the Minimalism which John Cage then took into unchartered territory.

To round off this series of profound works, in what we could call the third block, we find three self-portraits that turn the artist’s changing face over the years into a living presence. Autorretrato lacerado (maqueta)[3]is a collage presenting a photograph of her bust cut into thin horizontal strips which are then re-adhered onto a support, though slightly separated from one another. The effect produced by these gaps of a few millimetres somehow recalls early computer prints but also the possibility of a photographically reproduced sculptural bust. Autorretrato en el space (de la nada a la nada), 1987 and Autorretrato en el time, 1981-2014, represent the quintessence of Esther Ferrer’s photography-based work in which she conflates her whole artistic and vital philosophy. The first comprises 23 black and white photographs that gradually emerge from the blank paper until reaching a medium grey that allows us to clearly see her face, only to begin to fade until returning once again to the blank page. Over and above the evident connotations on identity, this series can also be read in terms of photographic latency. The second self-portrait comprises 49 photographs, also in black and white, organized in two groups: one row shows seven portraits of the artist at seven different moments between 1981 and 2014; meanwhile the second group, with six rows, show combinations of faces made with half a face from one year and half from another one, perfectly assembled, in which one can appreciate the coherence of the same gesture expressed over the course of four decades. The arithmetical progression of this series of portraits reinforces the mathematical component of Esther Ferrer’s work, as well as the historical association which this science has clearly demonstrated to maintain with music and with “certain chance”.

Translated from Spanish by Lambe&Nieto.

[1]The blocks or sections described here are just a pretext to create a walkthrough of the works included in the exhibition, but are not conceived as such.

[2]Though not included in this exhibition, these works are key to a proper understanding of the artist’s practice as a whole.