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07 June 2018

Antoni Abad: From Metre to Handspan

The metre, a length unit standard in the international system of measurement, reveals a constant relationship between time and space. The first modern attempt to create a system not linked to the human body tried to evoke this relationship through the swing of a pendulum. The standard metre, however, was eventually established as ‘the ten millionth part of the quadrant of the earth, i.e., the distance between the North Pole and the Equator.’ Just like multiplication tables, the definition was learnt by heart in schools. In Antoni Abad’s work, the trace of this early contact with length units of measurement was obvious in a number of works produced at the onset of his career. These works are now presented for the first time as a whole in a show entitled mesura X mesura (measure X measure), currently on view at the Zero Level space in Barcelona’s Fundació Suñol.

According to Abad, the first time he travelled to Paris in 1993 he decided to visit the Office of Weights and Measures before anywhere else. By then he was already obsessed with the units in the metric system and their standard. However, when he went down into the basement where the famous platinum-iridium metre bar was kept under strict surveillance he realised that both its definition and its function had changed. For quite some time this object, created according to universalist principles, had ceased to represent the immutability of nature and the equality of men in the eyes of the law. In just over two centuries, it had been corrupted by the economic and commercial interests of the manufacturing system. The definition of the standard of lengths was continually changing, and by then it had already been established based on a time unit, the fraction of a second that it takes for light to travel a metre.

In those early works Abad used a range of measuring instruments: foldable carpenters’ rulers, archaeologists’ extendable telescopic sights and metallic flexometers, chosen for their functional and material nature. Through his symbolic and constructive manipulations of such tools he tried to reflect on the art world: the role of the artist, the appropriateness of works and the relevance of spaces for creating, selling and displaying art. He began making sculptures taking the measurement of his own body as a starting point, transferring the function of the tool from metres to structures. He proceeded to delimit art spaces with his altered flexometers and sights. In Abad’s own words, from the place where ‘the sublime was produced’ (the studio) to the place where the work awaits to be sold (the gallery). He also carried out an intervention in the halls at the Fundació Suñol, before it opened to the public, where he measured Tàpies’ Butaca (Armchair) sculpture in the Suñol permanent collection. Last but not least, he planned an intervention, which was left unfinished, by means of which he hoped to span one of the main galleries in the Prado resorting to a similar method to those used in previous projects.

From then on, before devoting himself exclusively to video and the Internet, Abad made two more works. The first one was entitled Sísif (Sisyphus), a work in which the artist seemed to technologically reproduce the definition he had explicitly learnt at the Marist Brothers’ school he had attended, measuring the meridian arch between Dunkirk and Barcelona to grant the metre a new dimension. He achieved this by placing two GIFS animated with the figure of Sisyphus pulling a rope, one on a server in Barcelona and the other in New Zealand. The last work was Mesures menors (Minor Measures), a multiple work that derives from the verification of the problems related to the duplicity of measuring systems. It consists of three elements: the exercise of measuring his routine actions during the course of a day, the sculptural-metrical translation of these aluminium pieces, and a video projection in which we see a hand placed at the artist’s height, advancing along the wall of the exhibition space, measuring it in handspans.

This exhibition reveals that measuring is only a question of comparing, of establishing a relationship between what we want to discover and the unit we choose as a standard. It also proves that, even though anything can be considered a unit, those chiefly used over the course of history have been the limbs of the body and their movements (the handspan, the elbow, the step), and other units established by consensus and derived from nature and natural phenomena, such as the metre. In mesura X mesura, Abad depicts the human thirst for knowledge, and through the action of measuring, assigns a dimension to man and his surroundings.

Salim Malla is a plastic artist, researcher and teacher. His combined studies in science and humanities are reflected both in his works and in his texts, that focus on the ways in which human beings try to conceptualise their environments. Units of measure and their definitions, maps and their cartographic projections, and the theories surrounding the space-time tandem are some of the themes he is currently researching.

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