No. 4 of Atalka-Atalka is a conversation between Martin Lahitete and the artist Esther Gatón. It was published on the occasion of her solo exhibition My Jaw is On The Floor, at Galeria Cibrián, from 14 September to 11 November 2023.
ML: This will be your second exhibition at the gallery. The first was titled Ugly Enemies and took place at the end of 2020. It consisted of installations, sculptures, and a video entitled El Que Monta Cargas (He Who Rides Loads), for which you transformed the gallery's rooms into a dysfunctional and performative cinema space. At the time, we were in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we didn't know if we would have to close the gallery and video was a safe medium through which to exhibit the work.
The starting point of My Jaw is On The Floor is the eponymous film, which you are currently editing. It’s the first time that you’ve directed a crew, composed of an actress and a small post-production team. We can start by talking about your relationship with the audiovisual media, since you are perhaps better known for your sculptural and installation work. I feel that producing a moving image or a static form are two methodologies that somehow come together in your work.
EG: In Ugly Enemies not only were we amid a pandemic, but the gallery was also located in another, very particular space. My work was a way of using the peculiarities of those rooms (the lift, the glass staircase, the shop window, the fake marble tiles) to our advantage, incorporating them into the exhibition and camouflaging them with the pieces.
We made a video that integrated them and turned the exhibition into a set. As you say, the health emergency encouraged me to make an installation designed directly for the screen.
This time, I propose an opposite and more conventional approach. The film is a piece I've been working on for some time, and the room is used to show the work after it has been completed. Even so, the new gallery has its own particularities, which I would also like to include in the install. When I think of the projected image, I imagine the way it will blend in with the space. The white walls will make the colours bounce and the ceiling will create some unavoidable echoes. Also, the entrance corridor, which I want to leave free to act as a tunnel, builds rather suggestive anticipation: the voice is heard before you see the image and, as you walk, you get closer to the character, as if you were entering her lair.
The sound will be all over the space, which is a single room, and will complete the form of the other wall pieces, which I am making now. It is possible that the gallery, precisely because of its unsuitability for watching the film, will amplify the qualities of the moving image and make them more noticeable. By this, I mean that the "suspension of disbelief" of the big screen is not generated here, and this might allow the materiality of the audiovisual medium to be exposed and uncovered. As soon as one enters, the space is permeated by the encounter with the work.
There are indeed similarities between the way I work with video, and with sculpture or installation. Both involve a lot of movement, and immediate reactions or decisions. You need to physically surround the sculpture, change your height, get closer or walk away. For the video, I work without a predetermined script, relying on the vision and its process (recording, reviewing and editing) to produce the form. This form is elaborated outside the story, following what happens on the way.
ML: There is something important that may connect the two videos. You have talked about the space in which a video is projected, but the space in which it was recorded has an equally important role. In My Jaw is On The Floor, it echoes the body and voice of the character, and seems to have the ability to respond and adapt to her movement.
This brings us closer to the thought of Gaston Bachelard, for example, who proposes a phenomenological approach to architecture, as well as to numerous works of science fiction and horror influenced by Bachelard. Maybe you can tell us about the importance of space in your work, and how can space be considered as a character.
EG: I think that to give you an answer I’d better tell you about the process. I started My Jaw is On The Floor with very abstract ideas, and I made decisions very intuitively. I began by writing a story about the formation of a ghost; someone who disappeared from the vision of others, over the course of a day, as he moved through a wasteland.
Long before I contacted Avril Corroon, who is a friend and also an artist, I was writing about this character who, at first, was going to be a man, a retiree. Then one day I had the idea of putting Avril in front of the camera, and this became key to the work, because she is a very magnetic person and emanates something similar to how I imagined this ghost. There is something magical and very strong in the presence of Av, and I also liked that she was not an actress. She does not know the right gestures and poses.
For the recording, I would tell Avril loose ideas, direct her intuitively, and write some sentences so she could start somewhere, memorising them and repeating them aloud. From there, she would deform them in her way. I did everything to make the circumstances weird. The sauna, the lightning, the water jets, the dress, sandals, makeup, etc. I presented a very open script to Avril which she could use to get carried away, adopting odd postures or attitudes, and we started to play.
Each space had its role in the sense that it shaped the action. We started recording in the house where I was living with some friends. It was a 70s house without renewal, one of those houses that is mainly rented to students. It has sort of a modernist American style, with dark wood and large windows. This space already had a character that reminded me of the films of David Lynch. We had spent a lot of time in that house, so we were comfortable and I think it was a good place to start.
However, a few weeks later, and without much thought, I decided to move our filming to a sauna where I had been as a client, and where I also had recorded fragments for Machine White Sun (2020), an older video work of mine. I told Avril and Aoibheann (another friend, who worked with the lighting) to go there during the day, while nobody was there.
The weight of that space was so heavy, so strange. Avril wore the same dress she had when filming in the house. It’s kind of the stereotype of a woman from the classic cinema, consisting of a green velvet dress, short and tight, which I think was left to her by a friend, sandals with heels and purple lipstick. Her femininity was exaggerated, almost caricatured and out of place. She doesn’t usually dress like that, and I think this inappropriate costume also helped her get out of herself.
It was odd to enter the sauna during its closing hours, when it was not activated for relaxation and had all the lights on. The space has a lot of sound and a lot of color. It is located in an industrial area, literally embedded in a large warehouse and surrounded by cranes. Arriving in the space, after walking through the heaps of scrap and machinery, is quite an uncanny experience. Neither Avril nor Aoibheann had been there before and I don’t think they expected it, so we showed up first thing in the morning with that cheerful feeling of discovering a new space (or in my case an old space under a new light) and started recording.
Once we got going, with all the noise from the machines and the water jets, we could hardly hear each other. That was, eventually, not so important. We communicated with gestures, we took very long shots and Avril hardly asked for any direction. At some point, I stood in another room, separated by a glass window, and didn’t hear anything while recording. Nobody could hear anyone, and I think this let the three of us get even more carried away.
So, the character, the vision (let's say, the camera), and the lights that Aoibheann moved, gave form to the space. Let’s say that it imposed itself on us and we passively adapted. The shooting combined the phrases I had written for Avril to repeat (which are mostly sourced from the internet and private chats), the way she makes them her own, almost lets them possess her, and adapts her movements to the surfaces of the slippery benches, her soaked dress and those little sandals which, come to think of it, were a bit dangerous. The sounds, the environment, the phrases that the ghost utters and that provoke somatic memories in him, the absurdity of our plan; all of this put Avril into action.
It seems to me that in this case, the camera, instead of generating shyness, amplified and intensified Avril’s performance, as if the character’s behaviour is exaggerated by the fact that she knows how to look. There is excitement. The character ceases to be the friend I know and becomes a being that oscillates rapidly between masculine and feminine positions, moves forward in non-bipedal ways, goes through contradictory emotions, adapts to the furniture like a worm, and is outside of herself.
I am now editing the piece with Ajla Yi. We have been going through all the hours, recorded over a year ago, and talking about how it doesn't look like Avril, but like the sauna manifesting itself through her. I think that this piece is a kind of excited documentary, of what orality does to space and vice versa.
ML: You used to involve the viewer on an emotional level in your work, especially your installations, where ideas like this can unfold. For instance, for your exhibition Hail She Who Holds My Tongue, held at La Casa Encendida in Madrid in 2022, you proposed an installation that fell in love with the viewer. That was at least your first intuition.
More generally, I’d say that you’re interested in the intense emotions that govern us physically. They’re very short reactions. The substances that we secrete while experiencing those emotions are rapidly draining, it’s a matter of seconds at most. I would like you to talk about this temporality, as an artist, generating static forms.
EG: Yes, you are right: several times I have presented exhibitions as if they were attractions at a fair, like a rollercoaster or arcade; or I have imagined them as such. I'm attracted to these formats that are designed to organise moments of intensity, in a very precise way. I'm not so much interested in the emotions as themes, but in the bodily state of whoever arrives in the room; that immediate intensity you're talking about. When I proposed an installation that fell in love with the spectators for La Casa Encendida, I wrote it with some irony. I imagined the sensation, a little violent, of how it would feel to enter a space that feels that way about you, once you are inside, and reacts.
Unlike the entertainment industry, the kinds of intensity I like to produce are not clear, nor do they expect a concrete outcome. I prefer to facilitate an ambiguous relationship with each arrival in the space. It consists of something that somehow happens to me while I work, which then rubs off on the piece and, from there, on the viewer. I trust in that contact between bodies, which is constructed through work. One has made it and the other has looked at it.
When I work, I try to charge myself with what I think is useful for each project (light, movement, rhythm, relationships, readings, gymnastics), because I think it transfers to the work. This is the ideal but, of course, ‘what happens to you’ is not usually something consciously chosen. What happens is different from the idea, and what's more, it happens the other way round; it's the pieces that write you, that give you the intensities.
As for my interest in horror novels, it began when my friend Santi recommended a gothic novel, which he said reminded him of my drawings on canvas. When I read these novels, I thought that the state of alertness that fear induces can be a useful position to relate to art because, after all, fear broadens our perception. It makes us read our surroundings differently, more minutely, paying attention to things that normally go unnoticed and making us suspicious of what is normal. I like to walk into an exhibition and notice that things might be deceiving us, or showing what they are not.
ML: You’ve said something interesting about fear, which makes you alert, and also about the sun. You used to live in Madrid, where solar radiation is much higher than in London, where you live now. You told me that this has had a real impact on your work. Can you talk a little more about your experience? Do you think that the constant state of alertness, which London produces, is related to the fear you just described?
EG: Now that you mention it, I think what happens in My Jaw is On The Floor looks like what happened to me when I moved to London; the sense of inhabiting an oversized monster. And yes, I think that this city demands that you be too alert, too attentive, and then you get used to perceiving things in that way.
The city has so much movement and so many different speeds; you move through it and move between lights going in all directions. When I was filming this piece, I cycled every day through a construction site, also industrial, next to the river. You ride through puddles and sand, with the feeling that the city might sink or swallow you up.
As there is less sun here in London, the surfaces are not clear. Rather than the distinct contours and sharp edges that dark shades produce, we are often surrounded by fog and grey skies, by greater light pollution, with its mixtures of colours, or sheltered behind a crystal covered with condensation and mist. Gleaming and phosphorescent materials, used to improve visibility on the road, multiply and produce reflections everywhere. Then the day unfolds under a paler and much more changeable solar radiation, and the soil feels less stable; it is wet and deeply irregular. This also happens because the asphalt in the area where I live is very deformed and full of cracks. A palpable influence can be seen in my work: living in London I use bright colours, and the silhouettes that I engrave and draw tend to be blurry.
ML: Where does your desire to move into what you describe as a monster come from?
EG: I don’t know how to give you a logical answer. I think desire comes from the realm of the unknown: you don’t think it, but you are. It’s not good or bad, it suits you. I find this confusing territory, which I described earlier, very stimulating.
ML: You usually bring to view mechanisms that are not made to be seen. Mechanisms or materials. You’ve had work experience in London where you worked on the filming of a big production series, where whole worlds are built at night and destroyed before dawn. I have the feeling that you have a passive/aggressive relationship with this entertainment industry...
EG: I don’t know if it’s passive/aggressive or just something I pay attention to because I learned it late. I grew up in a province, in a rather uninhabited and outdated area of the peninsula, with the population aged and religious, during the years of the housing bubble. As children we had enormous enthusiasm for consumerism, and love towards what is considered low culture (jelly beans, fairs, cartoons, advertisements, toys that came in food packaging…). It was "the new" and it was tangible. All this excited us and contrasted sharply with how our parents and grandparents had grown up in that same region, which was then mostly agricultural. At the same time that we consumed all these artifices and flavours, I began my first training in classical art, in a very academic way. So the relationship between these two sensitive forms was strange, almost contradictory. Outside the great centres of art, in which the transitions towards the new way of life had already been managed (pop, post-minimalism, kinetic art, entropy...), and their learning had been normalised in education, I suppose that those of us who studied at the beginning of the 2000’s in Madrid lived with a huge dissonance between how we lived and the formation of sensitivity; especially if we did not come from an art-related family.
The life we had and the art they taught us were two completely different things. We had access to theoretical classes and more contemporary readings, of course, but we drew sketches of statues, carved wood and alabaster, and made our painting materials. We were aware of that tension, so we invented the connections between our life and our work, on our own. At that time, I was pleased to hear that the Greek statues, in their origin, were covered with colours and trappings. A teacher told us that Athens had been the equivalent of Las Vegas today, and the idea that the classic was something rather vulgar reassured me.
That classical education seems useful retrospectively. I think what it teaches, deep down, is the habit of spending a lot of time watching (a kind of gymnastics), and a love towards aspects of making that have nothing to do with direct representation, or with the message, but instead produce something that you want to spend time with. It’s not exactly abstract, it’s about valuing qualities that go beyond consciousness. Harmony, for instance.
I relate to the entertainment industry through the filter of my classical education. I am interested in qualities such as its beauty or its humanity. I would say that they are not so much in the finished product they offer, but in their means and in their ‘tricks’, which invade everything and are powerfully baroque. Surely that’s why, as you say, I often show the machine that produces the effects in my work. This engineering of the body and its vision, as a somatic organ - nothing objective - is what anchors my interest in artifice.
ML: Today you discovered the new gallery space for the first time. What are your impressions of both the gallery and the neighbourhood?
EG: I like that it is in a residential neighbourhood. I think that the key is the access corridor, which takes you to such a bright space. It looks like the city, which is nestled between the mountains and the sea. Both have a kind of placidity or kindness, and the feeling is different to the experience given by a gallery in the centre of a larger city.
It seems to me that this kindness is transferred to the space, and as I speak it occurs to me that during the installation it will be convenient to respect this modulation with the work. I imagine an exhibition that does not try to impose itself, taking advantage of the softness of the site, and instead lowers its tone. I think this gallery and its location allow time to look. I like to think of the corridor as empty, leaving it in its function as a transitional space and not interrupting the journey with other pieces. One of the most desirable things that we will work on during the assembly is going to be the journey between projected image, sound, and low-reliefs, and on how you turn between them.
ML: We will be able to see it soon. Thank you very much, Esther
EG: (laughter) Thank you.