Intuition led creation.
Having lived and studied in Madrid, Barcelona, Belgium and now London, artist Esther Gatón has a multi-faceted educational past and artistic process. From engaging with traditional techniques to an anglo understanding of the creative practice; ambiguity, opportunity and change surround her work. Fluctuating between sculpture and film, dissecting each with the notion of environments, atmospheres and lived moments. Working within a self imposed unregulated process, using found objects and materials allows for such a freedom that sees a concept take form only after the projects commencement. The artist reflects heavily on people and routines, “…looking for paths that may connect what’s happening”. Combining a trust of the process with intuition; Esther allows space and environment to govern the process during conception. Depending on the atmosphere in which she creates, her work can take on a number of outcomes and intersect with issues surrounding fluidity, form and formulas. Consistently embarking on new artistic territory, guided by instinct and creative discernment; the artist approaches art with a well rounded ideology. Sitting down in her London based studio, we discuss everything from fascist Spain and Brexit UK to the importance of environmental understanding in relation to art and creation on the basis of inclination and an awareness of one’s surroundings.
Having studied in Madrid, Barcelona, Belgium and London. How would you define the differences in perspectives (towards art and art education) of each different city? How do you feel each has altered your artistic process?
My initial education in Madrid was a very academic one that followed the French methodology, which includes a lot of traditional techniques and the observation of objects. Then I went to Barcelona, which due to its avant-garde heritage, encourages a more con ceptual approach, while Liège (Belgium) offered comics, photography, and advertising. At the moment, I feel that the Anglo understanding of the contemporary art practice demands a consideration of the context and thus tends to favour goal-oriented practices that “know what they are doing”. However, London is a lot more than Anglicism; to me the city is an extremely eclectic environment – there is nothing like a centre or main approach here, many forms collide daily, and this is for certainly one of the things that I love most about it. This is obviously a super broad comment that summarises my personal experience. In any case, it shows that art is not at all universal, so the fact that it is taught in universities seems to me partly funny and inconsequential. Regarding my process, these different approaches are in constant operation, keeping questions of priorities always ambiguous and changing.
Born north of Madrid, in a dry, barren terrain. Do you think this landscape has influenced the mediums or aesthetics that you are drawn to?
Absolutely yes. I was born and raised in Castile, which is an unpopulated landscape in which castles in ruins are distributed. Some of them have been looted by the inhabitants of the villages, who pick up stones to make their own houses; there are villages made from castles, along with an ageing population, storks, Holy celebrations and an extreme climate. In the provinces, this landscape mixes with a specific developmentalism from the seventies that took place with the advent of democracy; a lot of architecture began to imitate – with low budgets and technical limitations – the image of progress from places such as Las Ve gas or New York. In Valladolid, the province where I come from, it is usual to find Renaissance wall or portico in which decorative silver balls have been inserted, or palaces on which a skyscraper has been built. The two epochs of splendour of the city (Renaissance and Modernity) engulfed each other alternately, giving rise to an urbanism of grafts
and collision between styles that, now that I think about it, disturbs a sense of time: what recently happened and what happened long time ago, takes place now. A particular aspect of façade ornamentation that has influenced me is Plateresque, which consists in manipulating the stone as if it was silver; stones that behave like silver, imitating its forms and folds. I believe this mimicry and confusion between materials also happens in my work.
Do you find it necessary to express your cross-cultural or Spanish heritage within your work?
On the one hand, I don’t think it is necessary or even possible for me to talk about a specific “Spanish heritage” since I don’t have an idea of what Spain is, beyond a great and ancient geopolitical convention. From my point of view, culture is always multiple and crossed. However, it is true that one cannot escape from origins, they always return in an aesthetic and/or emotional ways. It is difficult to determine how this happens without falling into gen eralities, but I remember visiting Porto, looking for Alvaro Siza’s buildings and realizing while I was walking around the city that it was no accident that Siza had grown up there. In many ways, his architecture includes a Portuguese way of behaving: quieter, more discreet, nos talgic, perhaps, as compared to other southern European countries. According to a Por tuguese friend, that different character is related to the waters surrounding each territory, and certainly the Atlantic Ocean is more intimidating than the Mediterranean Sea, whose surrounding countries are characterized by a thunderous population. It seems to me that it is from a relationship with the habitat that the place of origin helps to frame an art practice. Undoubtedly there are also religious, political, linguistic or biological inheritance that affects our production, but each family is a way too different a story, and I don’t think the term “Spanish” helps to narrow that down.
You mentioned during our visit that you have a love of materials themselves with the ability to work and manipulate them without a necessary purpose or outcome. Do you find this process separates the individual components from their original intentions? Allowing new purposes or meaning to be established?
Every material is conceptually charged. For example, it is difficult to dissociate brown clay from its classical origin or extruded polystyrene from the field of construction or prototype design, no matter how much one plays with them. So I do not intend to detach the material from its original intentions or connotations. At most, I distort them; mix them with other possibilities or disrupt their expected behaviours.
Describing your sculptures as ‘unidentified forms’; they are not just independent sculptures but objects within an environment. Do you feel the shown environment influences the sculpture or the sculpture influences the environment? Or both?
They act on each other with the same constancy and intensity. I don’t think space can ever be ignored since I don’t believe neutral places exist. In fact, rather than sculptures or spaces, I imagine environments, atmospheres or even moments. I think a show or piece in relation to the time of year or time in which it will be visited since I find very important to con sider the type of bodies/visitors that will appear: frozen, sweaty, in holidays mood, close to the coast… Is depending on these that I choose one or another means. As in making clothes or food, it seems to me that there is also something quite seasonal regarding plastic production.
Much of your work, namely your current film projects, deal with ideas of fluidity and the notion of water. During our visit you posed the question, “can we really see form?” and spoke about the concept of fluid mechanics. Would you say your water based projects are an investigation into the visualisation of what could be described as a structureless and ambiguous matter?
Haha, well, we can definitely see forms. What I wonder is if how effectively we are able to look at things that don’t have a stable form, such as fluids. Filming fluids came from a desire to enjoy form in an expanded way, though a substance that makes both form and vision impossible to “grasp” and yet mesmerising. A couple of years ago, I asked curator Julia Morandeira Arrizabalaga to write a text for a show that was still to be done. I remember that at the beginning she proposed to write kind of a treatise on voluptuousness. Certainly, voluptuousness is still present in this film. To better answer your question, ‘Machine White Sun’ (2020) is not a film about water. Rather, it makes use of the attributes and behaviour of this unstructured and ambiguous substance (I like how you put it), to stimulate a type of humour. It seems to me that the ease with which liquid slips between form and colour invites a state of infinite transformation, and thus facilitates analogies between scenes and stories.
Transitioning into film from sculpture, there is still a significant relationship with materials in terms of colour and sound and the interaction of the two. What is the importance of these elements in your films?
They are crucial to the extent that part of the filming is wilfully only about them. About covering surfaces of textures, reflections and ambient sound until these occupy the projection space and dominate the narrative’s time. Therefore, although the films I am making have a documentary cut and therefore record specific scenarios (the beach bar flooded from a fake beach in Valladolid, the cleaning of a sauna in Canning Town, the manufacture of a foam shower…), contexts are interspersed with moments of hallucination. Etymologically speak ing, being in the scene is about “wandering around among false lights”. I say “false” not as something less valid, but because none of the lights that are created in the scene can be considered truthful. As you say, the film experience links to the type of sculpture I make. In essence, if we want to talk about what is happening in a place, I believe “hallucination” is the only possible word.
On the back of that idea of ‘colour as an object’; this was evident on the walls of your studio which were covered with cut outs; allowing you to arrange and rearrange both your research and created content. In this new realm of moving image, does colour play a similar role to that of form in your sculptural pieces? As well as being a tool to build narrative?
Colour is always central. In sculpture I have worked with colour through light, paint or chemical processes. However, during the installation of the pieces, what becomes clear is that colour is both impossible to capture or define. It changes at every step. So, with sculptures I resign myself to the fact that one can, at best, produce “a vibe”, but never something like a precise colour. On the contrary, the screen gives us the misleading feeling of being able to control colour. Such a feeling encourages me to use chromaticism as one of the central elements of the narrative. Yes, my films are chromatically structured. Answering your first question, I do not believe that the colour on the screen supplants or equals the function of the shape in space. Their similarities are very complex, and shape and colour are not easy to dissociate.
Working from a very inquisitive mindset, you have an open process with no predetermined outcome for your work. Instead you allow the process and materials themselves to determine the result. With no succinct plan of action, how do you approach the commencement of new projects?
I do not know what each project is really about before I have done it. I don’t even pretend to know or tell myself that I should know it. Actually, I think I shouldn’t. At the beginning I spend a lot of time kinda nurturing myself with what may be relevant at that moment through specific readings, people, and routines, and then I look for paths that may connect what’s happening. I know that there will be ways to make sense of these and just trust the process.
Approaching your practice almost like an athlete in training, there is a need to ‘prepare’, both physically and mentally. Using the hours before an exhibition install to extensively explore the area, or swimming before time in the studio, you “can’t just wake up and go, you need to warm up first”. Can you explain how these routines affect your practice?
I like it and I need to charge myself with whatever I want to generate. Experience it in the first person before trying to say anything about it. And do it often, until it becomes some thing accustomed to and thus real. For example, for the Extended Spaces exhibition at Irene Laub Gallery in Brussels, Sérgio Fazenda Rodrigues, the curator, asked me to make a central sculpture that would direct the route of the show. In other words, my sculpture was not only an object but signage for the entire show. A type of signage, I thought, not systematised but more like the kind of orientation that one has when walking among trees: sunlight enters through several places and one moves around following gaps. So every morning, before I went to make this sculpture in the gallery, I walked through Bois de La Chambre until I felt that I had understood a way of wandering that I could replicate.
How imperative is the notion of found objects to your work?
I don’t see much difference between finding and buying, apart from logical economic savings. What’s more, my feeling finding things (whether on the street, the screen or a store) is similar to what I have when I find a person, an idea or a word. In any case, the experience of the “encounter” does prevail in my process. The word is close to “being against” (controversy, controversial, contrary) so, to me, that moment acquires slightly violent or negative connotations. At times, I feel that if I find a material or subject, it is because I do not understand it, I do not agree with it, it does not fit my world views or I cannot stand it. As if attraction connects with repudiation.
Working with The Ryder Projects in both Madrid and London, you were recently involved in the show, ‘Moss Vychissoise’, along with fellow artist Nora Barón. A very performative encounter saw the two of you create an interactive space. Using minimal light to create an eerie presence, an uncomfortable atmosphere emerged. Is this play on the disturbing something you are interested in exploring further? Do you think performance will ever play a larger role in your practice?
Yes, I enjoy the disturbing aspect of an artwork a lot. Both creating and experiencing it – I want to push it more. Maybe there is something corrupted in this, but I find the feeling of something coming but not being identified what (not being able to see the trick) thrilling; like turbulences in the airplanes, or when diving around you briefly lose the notion of up and down. As for working with performance, at the moment I do take into account aspects re lated to “action art” such as the distortion of the actions and spaces in which I work. How ever, performance as a recognisable discipline is not something that I am doing. In any case, I’m glad not to know what will happen to my work in the medium term. Then, who knows? Regarding Moss Vychissoise (which comes from the piece Túnel Rabo de La Sartén, Madrid 2019), this a work done through very excessive conversations and with much ignorance. In general terms, Nora directs the performative part of the work while I take care of the space. In this process we constantly talk about things that are not necessarily related to that piece, but something constitutive of our collaboration is that both Nora and I accept modifications of what was planned at all times, and we are willing to be affected by unintended comments. For example, at The Ryder, I made a central sculpture with long mirrors that I had just found near Whitechapel. I had noticed those mirrors be cause Nora asked me to include materials with which to generate rumble, so I was kinda thinking of that first. The search of sound brought in the main visual form. Ours is a collaboration based on trust, contagion, and immediate reactions. I do not know many of the actions that the performers will carry out. And what’s more, hiding them from me is something that Nora does on purpose so as not to deprive me of the enjoyment that surprises bring. It is fair to point out that we have been able to work like this thanks to our hosts and gallerists, who have shown us great generosity and trust at all times. Rafa Barber and Pati Lara at The Ryder Projects London, and Elisa Celda and Gabriel Ruiz Larrea at Pilarica Madrid.
On visits back to Spain, the fascist nature of the government is heavily at play; whilst back in Lon- don, a Brexit UK looms. During our visit, you spoke about the ideas of safety, intuition and formulas. How do you see each of these affecting the way people and communities move through the changes of both troubled political systems?
I get the feeling that many of the conservative votes come from a desperate need for order. There is a longing to being told what the limits, definitions and classifications are. As a result, clear, direct ideas have been received as promises of salvation and are triumphing inter nationally. Electoral processes and results show a definite infantilisation of the public, who seems not to deal with uncertainty very well. Limits are perceived as safety while the un known is immediately rejected. In a non-direct or measurable way, I believe that one of the outcomes of the relationship with new sensitive forms, such as those that can be produced from art, is that they favour a more receptive attitude to what’s different. And this may lead to a less fearful type of vote. It is no coincidence that conservative governments manifestly undermine the intellectual field. I find it imperative to work on new formulas to face and, hopefully, transform an increasingly segregated society.
How has the environmental impacts of some of your chosen materials affected your continued use of them?
I make more ethical decisions regarding the acquisition of materials and the means of production. I tend to recycle most of my objects and reduce the use of polluting media. For instance, many of the materials with which my sculptures are made of or coated with, come from leftovers. Any kind of leftover can be useful: I recently was using paint remains from a fellow sculptor friend. Also, art leftovers are very welcome lol. I was directly using her palette on my pieces and that “contagiousness” made a lot of sense.
Having recently delved into film, are there any other areas that have sparked some interest for experimentation?
Yes of course. In April I will present in Madrid two audio pieces that I developed throughout 2019. They are songs created from involuntary and/or shameful sounds that occur when our digestive system encounters the voice tract, such as hiccups, belching, throaty, bubbling noise, murmurs, salivation, and other noises that have no proper name. The two melodies were made thanks to the participation of people with a superior intra-tracheal development, such as singers, beatbox artists or tuba practitioners. They spent hours in a recording room forcing throat sounds, with the help of some liquid. Later, these sounds were selected and edited in the songs that can be heard in the room. So that’s a present example.
On November 2020 I will have a solo show at Cibrián, the gallery that represents my work in San Sebastián, Spain. Around that time, I will present a book in collaboration with poet Leticia Ybarra, by Caniche Editorial and a edition with La Dominación Mundial, accompanied with a text by Louis Mason.
Words by Emma O Brien