Fulya Erdemci, 2016
Unlocking the Joints of the Real
Why aren’t we bursting into laughter in Maider López’s projects although most of them borders on the absurd and intensely humorous? People from diverse walks of life creating a traffic jam as they gather at the Aralar Mountains, suiting up at an Ottoland polder for an impossible football match on a pitch crisscrossed with water channels, or trying to navigate an unbroken line of 86 swimmers in a pool in Rennes.
Instead of guffaws, as in the films of French director Jacques Tati, López’s projects inspire a smile at the corner of our mouths and a feeling of subtle joy in line with her quiet style of humour. She makes us experience the state of things when their orders are slightly shifted, altered, or displaced. Through the tiny details of everyday life, the spaces that surround us, and trivial ordinary interactions between people, in her projects, we develop insight into the structure and order of things and are surprised by the fact that how fragile they are and can be simply otherwise.
Self-organisation creates collective ways
Models of Sociability
López’s work often involves, and is structured around, the active participation of the audience, with people from diverse layers of society creating unusual, contrasting, and mostly impossible situations. By proposing specific models of sociability, she is able to inspire people to do things: for example, using red beach towels in Zumaia, coming together to temporarily extend (and thus simulate) the architecture of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or making Budapest’s Chain Bridge disappear behind umbrellas the same colour as the Danube below.
‘So, each person came to the traffic jam for different reasons, and that’s what I am interested in. Normally, you go to a demonstration if you agree with an idea or ideology’, López stated in a conference , responding to a question on the Ataskoa project that she carried out in 2005 in the Basque Country’s Aralar Mountains. The project brought together diverse individuals, groups, community networks, classes, ages, and genders from all over the country, including Intza, the little mountain village. Even contrasting voices were present: both car lovers and collectors who enjoyed showing off their antique cars and environmentalists who took the event as an opportunity to protest against the automobile culture and the pollution it causes.
Although there appears to be an evident political cause for the environmentalist group in this project, the artist is actually not concerned with creating projects which walk the line between art and activism. She is more interested in the micro social models in which she foresees and creates possibilities for unexpected, intimate and unique encounters between people.
‘All works of art produce a model of sociability which transposes reality, or might be conveyed in it. So there is a question we are entitled to ask when faced with any aesthetic production: “Does this work allow me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist in the space it defines, and how?”’ Nicolas Bourriaud put forth the coexistence criterion when terming the art of the 1990s ‘relational art’, which he defines as ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’.
The ‘relationality’ of the artwork with its physical, urban, social, political and economic environment and historical context, moreover, its engagement with the publics, is also a focal point in López’s practice. In this respect, her work can be considered to be in the vein of ‘relational aesthetics’. However, although her projects are mostly based on mediating human relations, visuality and form are a significant part of her projects that embodies relational aesthetics with form. She initiates festive gatherings or event-based projects that allow micro socialisations in which there is always a strong visual component and in which spatial and formal organisation plays an important role, making each project a singular and unique work of art.
Articulating the politics of everyday life, in each project, she tailors specific strategies and plans in order to research and test how and in what conditions individuals from different parts of society can come together to act together, especially in the precarious times we are living in. However, López’s practice goes beyond cultivating human relations and empowering the publics to bring forth their capacity for change. She creates temporary situations to cultivate singularities and subjectivities, while creating a common platform that brings individuals together to act collectively.
Coexistence and hybridity underlie her work, as in the Football Field project that she developed in the context of the 9th Sharjah Biennial, 2007. Having converted an existing square into a football pitch in which the ordinary functions of the square continued to exist, and benches, lampposts and passers- by interfered with the game, she developed a situation where both the players and the square’s usual frequenters not only adapted to the situation, but also experienced the urban public space in an unusual way, one that created unique interactions and communications. Challenging the top-down design and set functions of architecture and urban public spaces, with slight alterations and interventions, she endeavours to reinvent public spaces through the actions, use and daily routines of diverse publics.
López starts her projects either from the spatial context and site-specific content of a place such as the Aralar Mountains, the polders in the Netherlands, or the bridge over the Danube river, and builds events from this starting point, or by spotting and highlighting existing public spaces that have the capacity for such temporary micro social confrontations and hybrid interactions. With In Situ (2012), for instance, she spotted 9 public spaces in Urdaibai where short moments of encounter are possible: for example, the water fountain where people went to fill their bottles, the level crossing where people would wait behind barriers for the passing train, and the two benches at the entrance of the Bermeo Town Hall that invite unusual encounters.
On the other hand, with Making Ways (2013), which she carried out for the 13th Istanbul Biennial, she excavated the spontaneous collective movements of the residents of Istanbul at the pedestrian crossing in Karaköy, a central transportation hub where traffic and pedestrians coexist side by side. She made an aerial film of this pedestrian crossing, from which she extracted and highlighted the collective routes that pedestrians took randomly for two minutes and fifteen seconds between 6.03 p.m. and 6.05 p.m. on 2 August, 2013. Having revealed the latent potential in the daily practices of Istanbulites, the practice of self-organisation through simple daily actions, she created a ‘user’s manual’ providing possible instructions on how to cross the roads, and perhaps more: ‘Taking action is easier when a group is generated’, or ‘Self-organisation creates collective ways’.
The wall is our assumptions
Most of us are convinced of the need for social, spatial, and constitutional contracts that regulate common living practices. Moreover, we believe in their rationality and strict rules, underlying the architecture, cities (built environments), and societies we live in. From minor details to significant configurations, we aren’t inclined to question, but rather try our best to appropriate them. Taking such convictions as a departure point, López’s projects do not simply devise diverse places and situations to open up a genuine experience of space, but make ‘us conscious of what we agree not to see, i.e. take for granted’.
Regardless of their content and context, López’s projects focus exclusively on people and spaces, and how exactly they relate to each other. Her practice is marked by spatial interventions that subtly unfold this relationship that determine our perception, articulating the question of representational regimes with the experience of the audience. When we visit galleries or museums, our appreciation of and comments on the exhibition are almost always confined to the works exhibited and often do not touch on what we actually perceive: works of art and architecture. We usually perceive works on the walls of a ‘white cube’ that are physically abstracted and isolated from any possible connotations that can interfere with the form and content of the works. Thus, we tend to disregard the architecture and spatial organisation of the exhibition venue, taking them for granted as something which facilitates the ‘pure’ perception of the works. Furthermore, we are inclined to think that our perception is also unmediated and pure. In his iconic book on the ideology of gallery space Brian O’Doherty states, ‘The spotless gallery wall, though a fragile evolutionary product of a highly specialized nature, is impure. It subsumes commerce and esthetics, artist and audience, ethics and expediency… The wall is our assumptions’.
Through spatial interventions, López enjoys challenging our assumptions and expectations, interfering with the relationship between the audience, artwork, and space. She created unstable moving floors, influencing the initial experience of the visitors who stepped into the Italian pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennial in 2005, made extra walls occupying the whole exhibition stand leaving almost no room for audiences at the ARCO Art Fair’s Project Room in 2007 as an allegory of art fairs, and obstructed the exhibition space with 110 columns at the Caixa Forum in 2006. Likewise, in her most recent project, Displacement (2015), now at the exhibition hall at Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea, the unusually thick walls of the exhibition space are duplicated and moved forward by 140 cm and laterally by 190 cm. By doing this, she interferes with the perception of the audience, altering the relationship between space as the container and the artwork as that which is contained: the architecture becomes the artwork itself. As the walls are 50 cm high, they turn into abstract sculptural objects that can be viewed from above exposing the very size and scale of the walls with regards to the plan of the exhibition hall.
Her inquiries into the semiotics of space have been cultivated in a number of projects that she created for museums. Reading the entirety of gallery space as our visual arena, for instance, she pointed out the very existence of technical apparatuses such air-conditioning and security equipment, and the signs that visitors are supposed to agree to take for granted. In Vigo’s MARCO Museum in 2008, multiplying the already existing security cameras, she created an installation in which the placement of cameras mimicked fungus-type organisms that propagated throughout the museum space. And by attaching signs to signs in Christchurch Art Gallery within the scope of the 5th Scape Biennial in 2008, she pointed out the ‘user friendly’ policies of museums that sometimes go beyond the limits of their purposes.
López interferes not only with the physicality of the spaces to alter our perception of them but also directly with our perception through delicate shifts in perspective. In Off_Sight (2008), through an open call she invited the residents of Christchurch to come together in the city’s main open-air shopping centre on 4 September, 2008 to conceal the signs of the shops and companies. She choreographed the positions and postures of the people and had them hold ordinary objects such as an umbrella, a flowerpot, a birthday cake, a guitar, luggage, or balloons; from a certain viewpoint, all the signs disappeared. The project aimed not only to bring people together in a community atmosphere to cover the signs in the public domain, but also, in the artist’s own words, to ‘create an awareness of the capacity that people have to transform urban spaces and construct the city’.
Although the resulting scene (with people in strange poses with different objects in their hands stretching, sitting, reading, walking, or standing on top of a post to cover the commercial signs) creates a situation that would be extremely improbable, even absurd, it still signifies our ability to transform the environment through our actions, even though they may seem insignificant at first glance.
Follow someone wearing glasses until they arrive somewhere
The complex relationship between structure and chaos, the rational and irrational, causality and coincidence, marks López’s practice, which highlights the surprising need for coincidence and the influence of chance happening on events of life. A situation that appears to be quite improbable may actually be the one that is most likely to happen, yet the excavation of such situations requires serious patience and effort, as exemplified in her Crossing project, which she carried out during a 2006 residency programme in Rotterdam.
Having noticed a juxtaposition between the colour of the clothes of a person walking in front of a building and the colours of certain elements of the building, she began to think about this relationship, which generates a camouflage for the person walking by. In order to increase her possibilities of finding such juxtapositions, she either spotted a person wearing garments with a distinctive colour and followed the person until such a coincidence happened, or she selected a building facade whose colour seemed promising and waited for someone to walk by wearing clothes the same colour as the building (or containing a similar colour combination). Although we may not be able to understand if there are any rules behind such chance happenings, or make deductions on the inhabitants’ cultural choice of colours in this case, at least we can have an idea of the process of creating such a project, how the artist interacted with the city, ‘drifting’ from one place to another, following or searching for one colour after another. She creates her own game of wandering around the city, similar to the Situationists’ drift (dérive), an unplanned tour of the city following the feelings that a specific architectural feature, the urban texture of a corner, or the spatial organisation of a street evokes, rather than following official city maps, which not only categorise the cities in accordance with commerce, tourism, and ideological interests, but also frame our experience of them.
‘Follow someone wearing glasses until they arrive somewhere’ is one of the ‘instructions’ on the postcards that she produced for the Another via project carried out in Jerusalem in 2009. In giving such specific instructions referring to extremely common features that we can come across very easily at any moment in any city, López aims to unleash the boundaries of a given structure to allow us to get lost and enjoy this ‘planned’ unplanned tour of the city. She furthers her tribute to the Situationist International in How Do You Live This Place? (2010), producing a ‘psychogeography’ map of the town of Huntly in Scotland created by its inhabitants. She asked people to place colour-coded stones (for example, red stones meant ‘I would like to change or improve this place’ and blue ones indicated ‘Something important in my life happened here’) in different parts of the town in accordance with their unique remembrances and experiences of these specific places, seeking to generate a collective map of the town which would make the town’s residents’ invisible subjective perceptions visible.
In the Moving Stones (2015) project, she alluded to the invisible transformation of the landscape in Uçhisar, Cappadocia, an extraordinary geography with unusual geological formations and soft rocks that resulted from super-volcanic explosions and other natural phenomena. It is said that the surface of the rocks erodes by two or three centimetres each year due to rain, snow, and wind. Inspired by this invisible yet considerable change in the landscape, she performed daily walks during which she moved stones from one location to another. Her unplanned, spontaneous routes were documented through dual GPS coordinates and photographic duos recording the original location of the stone and the place she moved it to. ‘It is not any special stone’, she says, ‘it is just a stone, it becomes special from the moment it is chosen and carried’. The stones were not particularly special or valuable, nor did the movement of small stones make a substantial, visible change in the landscape. Just as, for instance, marble from Italy is transported to other parts of the world to create art and architecture, and obsidian is taken from Anatolia for speculation and to create precious objects that are also out of sight (and therefore invisible to us), she moved stones that would otherwise stay in place for hundreds or thousands of years until a natural phenomenon occurred. From this perspective, she changed nature physically, ‘measurably’, and permanently, though on a very small scale, reminding us of the inevitable impact that our tiniest actions may have.
Through minute details, López inspires us to map out and untangle the complex web of the relationships that structure the way we live. Her projects lie somewhere between the useless and the impossible (but they are never unserious or loose), between the irrational and the coincidental (but they are never nonsensical or unreasonable), and between the triviality of everyday life and existential metaphysical questions (but they are always tinted with wit); her work unfastens the joints of the real to expose the possibilities of the imaginary, which can actually transform reality.