Zeru bat, hamaika bide. Artistic practices in the Basque Country in the period 1977-2002

Zeru bat, hamaika bide. Artistic practices in the Basque Country in the period 1977-2002 Imagen: Ibon Aranberri. 'Gaur Egun (This is CNN)', 2002

From: Saturday, 08 February 2020

To: Sunday, 12 February 2023

Place: Sala A0

Zeru bat, hamaika bide begins in 1977, the year that marked the beginning of a period of major political, social and cultural milestones. The exhibition’s field of inquiry extends over a period of more than two decades and concludes in 2002, the year in which Artium Museum opened.

By linking artistic practices, cultural expressions and historical processes, the exhibition tackles, among other issues, the processes of institutionalisation that took place during this period, the participation of artists in creating cultural policies, the interchanges between artistic practices and social movements, the rise in feminist awareness and the tensions between the local and the global in debates on art that appeared in the late 20th century.

Zeru bat, hamaika bide has been designed as an open, inclusive narrative under ongoing construction, bringing together more than a hundred works of art, documents and archive materials in the Museum’s rooms and tracing a journey through the diversity of expressions that emerged in the quarter of a century covered by this project.

Laino guzien azpitik… eta sasi guztien gainetik

The spell-like nature of Joxan Artze’s phrase from 1973 indicated a defined field of action. What remained below all the clouds and above all the brambles was late Francoism. If the shot was made wider, it became clear that the untimely opening announcing the final phase of this dictatorship coexisted with another closure, which was that of modernity and its utopian projects.

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The limits and possibilities of the field of action that Artze’s phrase defined would be revealed at the beginning of Spain’s transition to democracy. Another phrase by the poet, Martxa baten lehen notak, provided the title to a song by Mikel Laboa in 1977, the year in which this exhibition begins. The song captures the mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty at the time: we were hearing the first notes of a march that had not yet been composed and was neither funerary nor military, but civilian. After four decades of silence, the streets began to fill with people marching together with demands of all kinds: labour, feminist, gay and lesbian, neighbourhood associations, ecologists... Political changes responding to popular pressure were not long in coming. In that same year of 1977, prior to the first general elections, freedom of the press and political association were decreed.

In a general atmosphere of unrest and violence, the Basque Country would be one of the most active centres of mobilisation in the State. Contributing to this mobilisation drive was a confluence of factors, such as a deep-rooted nationalist sentiment that had been repressed during the dictatorship or the problems arising from a declining industrial model. In addition to the streets, other surrounding spaces played a major role, thereby indicating the centrality of culture as a social driving force: September 1997 marked the staging of the 25th San Sebastian Film Festival, known as the “People’s Festival”, while in December of that same year, the Leioa campus of the then University of Bilbao hosted the first feminist seminars in the Basque Country, and in June 1978, the San Mamés football pitch was filled with people attending the Bai Euskarari festival in defence of the Basque language.

Within this context of uncertainty and potential at the beginning of Spain’s Transition, art was placed at the service of the needs of this new situation. The artists of the Basque School assumed the task of creating graphic symbols for popular demands and for these new institutions as the new political-administrative framework took shape. Their representations would also spread throughout the territory. Continuing the language of geometric abstraction, sculptural forms were so successfully embedded in the landscape that they would soon be viewed as distinctive elements of all things Basque, thereby showing the effectiveness of art in producing symbols of collective identification.

The involvement of artists in the Basque Country during the Transition was not limited to providing images with which to represent new realities. They also actively participated in designing public cultural policies. They therefore undertook the task of thinking about how artistic forms can be structured within social space and what the social and political potential of art is within a limited field of action.

At a time of exalting the figure of the collective subject and its ubiquitous representation as a gathering of bodies marching in the streets, certain practices would take alternative routes, geared towards the silent experimentation of the studio or the performance of actions by a specifically situated female body. Both would be presented as potential versions of that field of action defined between the clouds and brambles to which Artze referred. Rigorous, structural abstraction in the former version that was deeply influenced by conceptual art and the paintings of Elena Asins. Ejercicios corporales in the latter, a series of actions that Esther Ferrer would record in 1975 that shows the naked artist moving around a room. The artist and camera move towards the window during its final minutes, opening up to a view of the sky and the rooftops of Paris, another new perspective of that limited field of action.

Ilgora / Dead moon

Jorge Oteiza’s visual poem Plenilunio en Fitero records two moments when the moon passed through the sky on the night of 10 June 1981. On that same day, Spain’s Official State Bulletin published the decree law on industrial reconversion measures. The implementation of these measures in the years to come would lead to major changes in the territory. The dismantling of ageing heavy industry would lead to a landscape of post-industrial ruins in the Basque territory, with particular emphasis in the Nervión basin area. New at the time and now gone, this landscape would be accompanied by high rates of unemployment, widespread disenchantment and contaminated soils.

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While this new neoliberal economic model was being implemented, the world was heading towards a reordering that was certified by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Entering what was now being defined as the postmodern period, the end of ideologies was announced. In a world without peripheries, the logic of capitalism was imposed on everything, including culture. Several theorists warned of this change by indicating the problematic centrality that culture was coming to occupy in this new stage of capitalism.

Unrelated to all this, the moon continued to cross the sky and pass from one phase to another. This celestial body would become a recurring image in the postmodern 1980s. A symbol of twilight, of night and sparkle, its figure would be associated with subcultural transgression, hedonism, experimentation with drugs and the masquerade of gender. And also with death. “Light of the dead” is one of the etymologies attributed to the term ilargi, the word for “moon” in Basque. Together with the economic crisis in the Basque Country, the consequences of what was dubbed as the “Basque conflict” in the media cast a shadow over the landscape.

Despite the harshness of the moment, the political situation was opening to changes and movements. The first cultural policies were beginning to be applied. Since there was hardly any infrastructure, the basis of these would be what had already existed. The old Bilbao School of Fine Arts became a faculty. At a time marked by the nihilism of punk and postmodern relativism, a generation of artists who had passed through this faculty were now thinking about what to do, how to respond to the needs of the historical moment from an individual creative process. On the one hand, they had received local tradition, and therefore their own, embodied by the modern work and figure of Oteiza, both of which were powerful and alluring. While on the other hand, there were international currents that were similarly powerful and alluring to them, even though distant and cosmopolitan.

Between melancholy and ironic distancing, between a desire to belong and a need to distance themselves, these artists would respond to this received tradition by using the medium of sculpture. In 1983, the Association of Basque Artists (EAE by its Basque acronym) was set up in Bilbao and the Alava Artists Association (AAdA by its Spanish acronym) in Vitoria-Gasteiz. The EAE brought together a group of artists under a banner that highlighted the influence of the Basque School, as well as their desire to become involved in social issues. At a time of returning to studios and a flourishing market –the Madrid-based ARCO fair was founded in 1982– EAE assumed the gestures and ways of political activism and applied these to the context of art and demanded the involvement of public representatives in cultural policies. The group broke up in 1985. In that same year, the exhibition Myths and Crimes ushered in the label “New Basque Sculpture”, a name with which not everyone would come to identify.

The commitment of artists during these years was expressed in ways other than collective action. Some ran galleries, organised exhibitions by other artists and wrote about art. In the absence of structures and figures to mediate and reflect on the work of artists, it was the artists themselves who assumed this task. This attitude would serve as a model for the immediately succeeding generation, which had already grown up in the subcultural modes of self-management.

Issues that had hitherto been left out of public debate took centre stage in the mid-1980s. HIV, a virus transmitted through blood and sexual contact, was causing a global epidemic, triggering what would become known as the “AIDS crisis”. In the public imagination, this illness would go hand in hand with clandestine, nocturnal practices. Practices that transferred several features associated with early avant-garde art to the field of the body: experimentation, transgression and the breaking of established norms. There were few encounters and interchanges between the illness and art beyond that of private and personal stories. One of them –Carrying by Pepe Espaliú, a collective action conducted in the streets of San Sebastián in September 1992– placed the “ill body” at the centre of the discussion and underlined the potential of art to address the emergencies of its historical moment.

Lur azpiko urak, ur azpiko lurrak

The water under the earth, the earth under the water. Language allows us to play with the meanings of things, to alter them and to create new meanings. To turn the world upside down. To reverse the order. To change what is seen.

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A photographic series from the early 1990s. It shows a young woman in pyjamas with her head shaved looking inside a refrigerator. In Variation sur la même t’aime (1991-1992) by Itziar Okariz, the head is displayed as the Earth, the hair as the continents and the skin as the oceans. Hair as a figure, skin as a background and head as a sculpture.

Works of art operate with language and are thus acts of culture. As such, they produce disorder. Nonetheless, the discontinuities they generate have the rare quality of not transgressing the field of the symbolic, remaining at the margins of the general flow and not imposing any new orders. They are critical representations that were not present before.

During the same years in which Okariz’s work provided its particular version of superimposing background and figure, a number of quick, profound changes that would alter the shape of the world were at a nascent stage. Changes were accelerating. New technologies were making it possible to connect all points on the planet. Although access to these technologies was not widespread, the Internet was already outlining a virtual territory whose contours seemed to be infinitely expanding. And as digital space expanded, physical territory seemed to become compressed. With everything increasingly faster and closer, the processes of globalisation were blurring local characteristics. They also enabled encounters between hitherto different, distant people. Cultural translation was presented as a necessity within a globalised world.

In an era of global capitalism –also referred to as post-industrial, advanced, cognitive, financial, etc.– concepts such as delocalisation, outsourcing or precariousness were beginning to appear. The ways that artists worked were also changing, as was their workspaces. A studio could fit into a notebook or a computer. It was wherever artists were.

There would be a proliferation of new museums and art centres during these years and some would respond directly to the new needs of artists. An example of this would be Arteleku, a unique experiment and place of exchange. An exchange that would occur between practice and discourse, but primarily among artists. The workshops of this art centre in San Sebastián would therefore help local artists and those from other places to meet, as well as artists from different generations.

As demonstrated by New Basque Sculpture in the 1980s, the dialogue between one generation and the previous one must necessarily revolve around identification and response in order to be productive. One of the elements of rupture of the generation of the 1990s would be the presence of women artists working from an explicitly feminist consciousness. The theoretical framework of feminism as well as subculture and its tools –appropriation, economy of means, DIY, etc.– would become key references in constructing the practices of these artists, as well as their fellow generation members.

But the major element of discontinuity from these years would undoubtedly be the processes of globalisation. Within the Basque context, the tensions between the global and the local would be exemplified by the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, a symbol of the “Bilbao effect” and new city model. The building would become one of the new elements that burst onto the landscape and helped to accelerate the transformation processes generated by globalisation.

At a time when the trend towards homogenisation was increasing, as was an anxiety in the face of the disappearance of signs associated with the local, artists would use these very same signs as the subject of their works. Confronted by a changing landscape and increasingly unstable terrain, works of art would prove to be an effective means of exploring the tensions and uncertainties at the turn of the century. To produce disorders and discontinuities. To critically represent reality. To rupture order. To position oneself outside. To do so from linguistic procedures. Lur azpiko urak, ur azpiko lurrak. Groundwater, submerged lands.

In addition to works from the Artium Collection, the exhibition includes long-term loans, donations and acquisitions that entered into the institution’s possession over the past year, as well as a significant number of works from the Gure Artea competition, promoted by the Basque Government’s Department of Culture.

The exhibition also contains works and archives from private individuals and institutions such as Kutxa Fundazioa, Fundación Sancho el Sabio (Fundación Vital Fundazioa), Filmoteca Vasca, Fundación-Museo Jorge Oteiza, Artxibo Arteleku / Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa, ASAC – Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee (Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia), Universidad del País Vasco / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea and Centro de Documentación de Mujeres “Maite Albiz”.

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Curators: Xabier Arakistain, Miren Jaio, Elena Roseras and Beatriz Herráez
Project coordination: Daniel Eguskiza. Exhibition design: Gorka Eizagirre

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