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DAVID BESTUÉ- I meet the sculptor Javier Arbizu (Estella, 1984) in Bilbao to talk about his most recent works. Javier, I think that we all have a line of force when we work, a goal. My line of force is not artistic and in your case I think that it isn’t either. Your pieces don’t register what inspires you to work, as if eventually you will separate from them a bit, a distancing. They are residues of something that perhaps you do not want to formalize completely and that I believe are connected to a sense of the unbearable.
JAVIER ARBIZU– Well, I like when a sculpture maintains a certain degree of power, when it doesn’t tell all. Perhaps that is why it has become difficult for me recently to work from painting, because in painting I see a very fixed, trapped image, a kind of dead end. I am beginning to think of the process of creation as a focusing of energy on something particular. In the process a lot of things happen that create a fairly large distance between what I want and what happens and also between what I do and how it is inserted in the world. This also might include a space of privacy that I want to respect in my work. I am a very reserved, insecure person. I feel that I have no need to express anything, although I do have the need to understand something.
Naturally, I am interested in losing control of the work at times. For example, when I create a body part from a bismuth mold, the result can never be predicted because it is a brittle material that wrinkles and changes color.
DB- How do you work with bismuth?
JA– Bismuth is a fairly heavy metal, almost as heavy as lead, and in a liquid state it can reach almost 280 degrees. In order to cover a whole mold, I have to turn it constantly during the 10 or 15 minutes that it usually takes for the metal to solidify. It is a very physical exercise that involves concentration (it is a very hot, heavy liquid). The molds that I use (silicone, clay and plaster) are soft and are “poorly” constructed on purpose so that in the heat they deform or deflate. The bismuth spills over and vapors emerge with a smell similar to the sweat that comes from the remnants of the model’s skin. Each cast is a roll of the dice in which many factors intervene and which make each piece different.
In this process, a series of layers of colors are generated that overlap, expanding and contracting between them, as in a pastry made from filo dough. In turn, the bismuth hardens in the form of twin crystals, with cracks and other textures that, on the surface, mix with the textures of the model’s skin, giving rise to a hybrid body. There is a certain vitality in the structural development of bismuth, a dynamic that is completely uncontrollable and that continues to fascinate to me.
DB- You mentioned to me that you have a limited quantity of this metal and that you have to recycle parts.
JA– Yes, I bought around 200 kilos that I melt and re-melt quite often. Certain works no longer exist and have been used to create new ones.
DB- This fluctuating mass of material, which takes on and loses shape, reminds me of the notion of plasma, something which has fascinated you for a long time.
JA– I like to think about the idea of continuity with which it is associated, the possibility that everything is continuously being transformed. It frees you from having to add meaning to something. Plasma is the substance of the stars, a very agitated state of gas, as well as a super-connector. It is a very ambiguous and abstract term that etymologically points to the idea of models or figures. Latour uses the word to designate “that which has not yet been formatted, that which has not been measured, socialized, set in metric chains, and which has not yet been covered, inspected, mobilized, or subjectivized. (…) It is an ’in-between’ and is not made of social matter. It is not hidden, but is simply unknown. It resembles a vast interior territory that provides the resources for any course of action that one wishes to carry out.”
DB- In what way do you think plasma can be used in sculpture, being that it is a material without image, shape or membrane?
JA- I think the act of making sculpture is in itself plasma, and the sculpture itself is, as well. For the Greeks, plasma was everything that could be molded, such as clay, wax, flour dough or metals such as bronze, silver, and gold. And, it also designated the finished work (that of baked clay, for example), implicit in the name of the material from which it had been made. That is, its name includes both the (moldable) material, the work (of molding) and the finished product (the figure of clay, metal, etc.).
The word plasma suggests the physical configuration of an immaterial world, that which is in a state of potentiality or coming-to-be. The act of shaping (plasmar, in Spanish) is the act of forming that which does not yet have a definitive form, that which does not yet exist as an action. The verb to err, or the words flat, plasma, pleasure, or place, all come from the same root, and aren’t they a perfect definition for sculpture?
DB- Apart from its more theoretical aspect, plasma is also used as a tool, right?
JA– Yes, I use it to cut metals. Plasma is like a jet of pressurized air that melts edges and creates iridescences. It is quite crazy to be able to cut steel as if it were butter, but it is very difficult to control the pulse since the cutting lines are always sinuous. It is very different from cutting with scissors, for example, with which you can control the place where you are going to cut and the pressure you are going to exert. Plasma cuts faster than me.
DB- In your recent exhibition in Okela you showed some pieces that looked like ribs or bone formations. Now that I think about it, your works are always related to the human body, or so it seems to me.
JA– I suppose so, even the most abstract pieces. One of the concepts that most interests me when I’m working is that of microcosm and macro-anthrope. Microcosm is the understanding of the human being as a miniature representation of the cosmos while macro-anthrope is the opposite. I understand this as a framework, which we constantly forget, but to which we are hopelessly committed. I like to think about the affinity between the human being and the world, between the exterior and the interior, the universal and the particular.
DB- In that sense, more than playing with representation, can your sculptural work be described as creating a filter between you and the world, and vice versa?
JA– Any aspect of reality that belongs to the world of the senses can only exist in relation to ’myself,’ since my senses are not an inherent property of things but exist only as a relationship between a subject and the world.
DB- When you work with ’literal’ parts of a body, whether from a mold or otherwise, they always seem to take on a fragmentary character, as if you didn’t want to represent it as a whole.
JA– I don’t know, I think it would be very difficult for me to propose something like that. When I think of classical sculpture, I am not so interested in that which is apparently governed by a canon, such as the Doryphoros, but rather those that are broken or oddly shaped and which you have to walk around several times. It is as if their oddness gives them life. I remember an Egyptian sculpture that really struck me, an apparently normal head but which, with the help of an infrared scanner, it had been discovered that within that figure there were other heads of the same person at different ages, as if they were rings of a tree.
DB- Perhaps not completely investing meaning in or not fully finishing your pieces has to do with a fascination towards works from the past, disconnected from the present. This is a characteristic that your work, being created today, cannot contain, something like a feeling of a temporary disconnection that can only be accessed as a spectator.
JA– That may be. I find it fascinating that we are able to enter a work from the past so easily without necessarily knowing the codes from which it was created. The independence and magical quality that antique works exert and their ability to insert themselves into our world as unique objects is something that has always intrigued me. Lately, I think a lot about the archaeologist who found the tomb of Tutankhamun, Howard Carter. He wrote that on one of the masks he found there was a crown of flowers on its forehead but that, shortly afterwards, when exposed to room temperature, the flowers disintegrated.
DB- Ancient flowers but at the same time ’fresh.’
JA– Yes, for Carter, those flowers “wedded that ancient civilization to ours.” I can’t understand their thoughts but I can I connect with them. The Egyptian ’reserve heads,’ the portraits of Al-Fayoum, the plastered skulls of the Neolithic era, the statues of Ain Ghazal… standing before these kinds of artifacts I think we have all experienced a kind of simultaneity (a being-there with them) that I don’t really know how to explain. It has more to do with living something than learning something.
DB- You mentioned to me once that what would most thrill you would be to be able to reproduce that emotion, to sculpt within the logic of these ancient works.
JA- Yes, even though I know that it is impossible and a bit ridiculous. Lately, I think a lot about building carriages, gold-plating iron, making chain mail armor, or designing fragments for a frieze (there is something odd about the Aphaia frieze that really attracts me), activities that lead me to gather things together in my studio. These are things that I would do for myself and which, a priori, do not respond to the logic of an exhibition space.
DB- You talked about the sweaty vapors of bismuth and the shapeless nature of plasma. I don’t know why but they make me think about the idea of desire in your work, an ingredient that cannot be fully captured in an object. I remember that one time we talked about sculptures that make us feel something and how we would like to be able to produce something like that in our work.
JA– That’s true, there’s a kind of longing for solidity in desire, right? The end of desire is a transformation from liquid to solid, from wet to dry, a passage from the world of feelings to that of sensations. A kind of grinding down. The motor of desire is to achieve an end, but this in turn becomes the cause of its disappearance. When a sculpture becomes an inexhaustible source of desire, of excitement, it is because it cannot be fully grasped.
DB- When it seems absent or incomplete.
JA– When it has something that escapes me, that I can’t understand.
DB- There is a line by Cernuda that I really like which says something like desire flees when someone wants to fix it, and in a certain way I think that sums up sculpture’s inability to encapsulate that feeling. There is line by Lorca that complains of the burden of wanting to fix something in place or time, which he describes as “water that does not flow.” This makes me think of the gesture of pouring liquid material into a mold for it to solidify, like a river that stagnates but should instead run its course. I think that when you talk about plasma you refer to the idea of flow, which at a material level would be closer to the release wax or to oiling than to bismuth or resin.
JA– The moment bismuth solidifies it enters the realm of the senses as something separate from me. At that moment it has the ability to interact with me and to make me go from one place to another. It is a desire that motivates this momentary disappearance, and we enter another state in which the problem begins. This solid state is a kind of knot in the flow of things that will unleash desire again. It is in this state of a lack of gratification that we can speak of plasma. The idea of flow, to which you refer, I think is something easier to fix and understand and therefore to exhaust. It would be like looking at a flock of starlings, something that changes shape, that comes and goes. This is not quite the same as plasma, which has more to do with contingency and the possibility of changes happening within the known world. I understand the act of sculpture as a sum of accidents that affect each other.
DB- What you say makes me think of the novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and how at a given moment she mentions how she does not like to use the word “I” because it has a strange link to solids. Now that I think about it, her writing is quite similar to what you were explaining about plasma, about modeling something endlessly, like fresh clay that never dries out. Maybe that’s why you melt and recast pieces of bismuth. Which brings us back to temporality, both that of your work and that of the kind of sculptures you like.
JA– An image comes to mind. The source of the river that passes through the city of Angkor was intervened back in the 11th century by some monks, who, far from the city, engraved images into its bedrock. They created images of crocodiles, frogs, and bulls, but they also carved hundreds of forms of the Lingam and the Ioni, a kind of eternal principle of creation and regeneration, male and female indivisibility, Shiva and Shakti, consciousness and act. These concave and convex shapes still filter the river water, perhaps with the aim of purifying it. It seems as if they were knots that try to create a space or meaning in this flow of things. An in-between state of stopping the water and letting it flow.
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