Born in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the multidisciplinary artist Concha Jerez studied piano at the Real Conservatorio Superior in Madrid and political science at the Universidad Complutense, also in Madrid. Since 1973 she has been creating multidisciplinary works, focusing her practice on expanding the notion of installation, conceived from a site-specific approach. In the early 1980s, she widened her scope to embrace performances, which she has staged in museums such as Landesmuseum Mainz, MNCARS (Madrid), MACBA (Barcelona), IVAM (Valencia), TEA (Sta. Cruz de Tenerife), MACA (Alicante), Museu D’Art de Girona, Tabacalera (Madrid), MUSAC (León), and CAAM (Las Palmas). In 1989 Jerez began alternating her solo practice with works co-authored with the musician and multidisciplinary artist José Iges, including sound and radio art pieces for radio stations like RAI, ORF, Radio France, YLE, ABC of Australia, WDR of Cologne, and RNE, as well as sound and visual installations, performances, and intermedia concerts. Since 1977 she has combined her artistic activity with teaching, and from 1991 to 2011 lectured at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Salamanca. Concha Jerez was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit in Fine Arts in 2010; Spain’s National Fine Arts Prize in 2015; and the Velázquez Visual Arts Prize in 2017. In 2018 the Cabildo de Gran Canaria awarded her the honorary title of Hija Predilecta of Gran Canaria.
Born in Madrid, José Iges is a composer and multidisciplinary artist as well as an industrial engineer who holds a doctorate in information sciences. He directed the programme Ars Sonora on Radio Clásica (RNE) between 1985 and 2008. He was a founding member and coordinator of the Ars Acustica / UER group (1999-2005), and president of AMEE (1999-2002). He has created installations, performances, intermedia concerts, radio art, videos, and graphic work on his own and in conjunction with the artist Concha Jerez. He has composed works in various formats for soloists accompanied by live or pre-recorded electronics and for instrumental groups. His engagement with sound art and radio art includes giving conferences, courses, and workshops, as well as writing essays and working as a producer, organizer, and curator of events and exhibitions.
Concha Jerez an interview with José Iges
During the last few years several major exhibitions of the work of Concha Jerez have been mounted in Spain. Our intention here, however, is to put on record some of her individual activities in various countries, principally in Europe and Latin America, from the early 1980s to the present. This overview in the form of an interview, though neither exhaustive nor chronological, examines the recurring strategies, themes, and genres of the artist’s practice.
José Iges (JM): Looking at the list of your international projects, we find no less than four works in Graz, Austria between 1993 and 2017, for an institution called ESC. This would seem to indicate an ongoing commitment with its directors, a crucial factor to be taken into account by an artist. At the same time, over the span of these twenty-odd years we see in your work such substantial themes as time, the idea of interference, utopia… Would you say that they sum up your concerns and methodology as an artist?
Concha Jerez (CJ): It’s true that, as a general rule, if an institution in Spain invites you once there is usually no second invitation. Obviously there are exceptions, like, for instance, in my case, the Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, where I had several projects between 1984 and 2005. On the other hand, outside of Spain, when an institution is interested in your work you usually get repeat invitations. This has been the case with ESC, as you mentioned. Those interventions were always underwritten by my interest in the specific place within the framework of the issues addressed, but one can also see in them the evolution of my concerns over the course of the years.
The first of the interventions conceived for ESC explored the concept of interference, and was in fact called Interference Landscapes. It was held at the Künstlerhaus in Graz during a symposium of women artists who work with technology. My installation was actually used during the symposium itself, because the attendees sat on 78 chairs that I had arranged in the space. Behind each chair one could read “Interference Unit,” in such a way that each individual, when using the chair, became an interference unit. In addition, under each chair I placed a Barbie-type doll that was reflected in a mirror on which I had written the word “landscape” preceded by an ambiguous word. The dolls denounced the banal values that are still passed on to girls. There were also radio receivers that were activated by the presence of the audience and children’s alarm clocks that went off at different times. Finally, across from the group of chairs I placed a television set with a live broadcast that was regularly interrupted by the word “landscape” preceded by an ambiguous word.
I created the second work in 1994 in ESC’s initial space, which was run down and almost in ruins. The discourse was summed up in the title of the work: Walking through Interferences beyond Broken Utopias. It reflected an awareness of the collapse brought about by the Balkan Wars, which were taking place not very far away; those broken utopias made me think that the only way to survive was through the strategy of interfering in reality.
In 2010, in ESC’s second space, I was interested in underscoring the unrepeatable quality of the experience of time. I did so by using the four minutes and three seconds of John Cage’s seminal work to measure the total duration of the exhibition: 155 h 4′33″, which was also the title of the work. In this case the enumeration of the time in three languages, the insertion of ambiguous words, and a video with my walkthrough of the space were the elements with which I tried to raise awareness of this experience.
Last year, in the institution’s current emplacement, I made an installation whose very title, In Search of Lost Paradises, connected Proust’s celebrated literary classic with the concept of my work. I wanted to evoke those lost paradises—of freedom, of honesty, of happiness, and so on—by playing recordings in fourteen languages through an equal number of loudspeakers. In addition, I had written the names of the paradises on sheets of transparent film wrapped around music stands. At the time I was thinking about the drama of the migrants who were risking their lives in the Mediterranean and disappearing while trying to cross it in search of a better future.
JI: All of these works could be classified as installations, a genre you have been working with since the 1970s. In general, they are large-format works in which you use a variety of materials that you modify in different ways, for instance, with self-censored illegible writing. I imagine that you’re sometimes forced to use inexpensive elements because of limited means of production, but at the same time these elements allow you to better engage with the ephemeral nature of the work and its portable, nomadic quality. A good example of this would be the first installation you made outside of Spain, in 1983.
CJ: It was at the Norrköpings Konstmuseum in Sweden. Given the limited budget and transport, I decided not to take anything with me and to deploy my discourse in the large winding stairs that rise through the building from the basement to the first floor.
I’ve always been interested in stairs because of the various discourses that you can develop with them. In this case, it was the sensation of not knowing whether someone is going up or down the stairs, or whether it was more a case of climbing, like some people do in life. Hence the title: Would you like to climb up the Stair or descendre dans l’Escalier?, whose second part invokes Duchamp’s painting Nu descendant l’escalier. I started off with the letters of invitation I had received from the museum director and the curator of the Symposium of Experimental and Open Art, during which the work was created. Using an empty roll of the paper used to print a local newspaper, I made large-format open scores based on the content of those letters, which were continuously unfolded over the floor of the stairs.
I found some unused panes of glass in the museum’s storeroom, on which I made other scores by just drawing lines with references to those texts. By superimposing these pieces of glass in the hall, in front of the stairs, I produced an illusion of movement that referred back to Duchamp’s work. Finally, I gathered leaves from the garden outside the museum, some of them with bird droppings, in this way introducing a living element inside the museum.
JI: One can see from your descriptions that, unlike other artists who render their ideas in a clear-cut single object, you use various materials in your installations to construct a space-time narrative, as if they were elements of a language, a kind of grammar.
CJ: The stairs in Norrköping allowed me to present a metaphor of behaviour in life; it was also a paradigm. It’s true that this grammar you speak of is installed in the space that hosts the work, but there are always other references that engage with time, either through moving images, sounds or text.
JI: I’d like to take a look at an important work in your overall output but one which is largely unknown in Spain. I am talking about Goethe as a Voyeur, an installation on the façade of the Wiesbaden Museum in 1990, created as part of the international exhibition Künstlerinnen des 20. Jahrhundert, which focused on major twentieth-century women artists.
CJ: In that work I wanted to show what the museum was, both in itself and in its origin in relation to its home city. That’s why I made photographs of its architectural elements and its collections of fossil remains, which I placed on mirrors situated over the windows on the first floor. On them I also made mental portraits with the names of the artists in its collection. In this way, I brought out of the museum what it held inside. Together with all that, the concept of real time was reflected by video cameras installed in the hall whose signal appeared on monitors located outside, on either side of the statue of Goethe. There was another camera on the shoulder of the statue, which relayed signals from the street to monitors inside the building. Other elements alluding to real time were transparent perspex boxes with photos of the fountain that was the source of the city’s wealth as a spa town, as well as water from the fountain. These boxes were arranged between the twenty-four capitals of the columns on the outside of the building. In short, I brought into play how the museum had been conceived thanks to a suggestion by Goethe and how it was, at the same time, a reflection of the real, virtual, and mental time of the city of Wiesbaden.
JI: You had already used video to record images of other cities, as for instance Osnabrück, in 1988. And then in 1991 you returned to another German city, this time to Ludwisburg, taking it as the main focus of your work Mirage Limit, capturing it in photographs on old windows on the inside that dialogued with the real windows of the building. How and why does this interest in the city where the work is hosted appear in the work itself?
CJ: My first installations explored the space in which they were made. The next step I took was to consider the outside space within my work. Later, I started to take into account almost the totality of spaces within a building, like those in Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart in my project from 1986. Finally I started working with the host city as a location where transcendental historical events took place.
In 1988, I was invited to take part in the first Media Arts Festival held in Osnabrück. I was interested in working in depth with what was, to my way of thinking, the very definition of a city, one that had played a pivotal role in the salt trade, and one in which the peace treaty ending the Thirty Years’ War had been signed. That’s why I chose the room in the Town Hall where the treaty was signed as the emplacement for my installation. I placed two video monitors on either end of the large table in the room, and between them I put old clothes lent by the people of Osnabrück. The videos were made with visual and sound recordings made in the city, analysing and systematising the aspects that, in my view, could define it. In one of the videos the main criterion was more narrative, but suddenly the image was interrupted by the name of the city against a black backdrop, a strategy with which I sought to reflect the mental images of the city. In the other video I undertook a deconstruction of recordings of moving images and photos, using as a kind of plot the title of the work, OSNABRÜCK: OSNA-BRÜCK, which referred to the bridge over the river Osna.
In 1992 I made a very different representation of another city, in a work called Inmaterielle Landschaft, which I did at Galerie Lüpke in Frankfurt. The focus of my discourse in that work was the idea of the landscape of the city, but in immaterial rather than descriptive terms. My concern centred on the real, virtual, and mental time with which I had been working since 1989, wishing to define these three concepts from various angles. Here I introduced electronic time, which I incorporated with the aid of two video cameras. One showed the inside of the space outside on the street through a monitor located in the window between the plaster head—split in two—of an anonymous renaissance woman, while the other camera showed images of the street on a monitor inside the gallery.
JI: We have spoken of your installations, but not of another important aspect of your practice, namely, performance. In addition, you have carried out performances that round off your installations or comment on them. Ranging from those you made in Aalborg and in Copenhagen in 1984 all the way to your latest ones, in Berlin and in Mexico City in 2012—to continue referring to your individual works made outside Spain—there are recognisable patterns of an individual style in a genre that has been revitalised over the last ten years. What is behind your interest in performance?
CJ: I started to engage with performance because of a need to show in public the actions that I had done in private while I was making my installations. Processes of transforming one material into another, like, for instance, burning texts I had written and then incorporated as residues into the installation. I began to think that this activity ought to be carried out in public as the conclusion of the work. I did this for the first time in 1984 in Aalborg, Denmark, in Thou are, are(n’)t you, me or…, which was based, like the Thou Art festival to which I had been invited, on the issue of you and I. In it I invited the audience to write their names with me in large formats and then to burn those papers.
In other cases the performance had an independent life of its own, though it’s true that it was produced within an “environment” that I created and in which I developed my actions, as also happened in Aalborg with the performance called Music for the Memory of a Meeting, a kind of encounter with myself in which the sounds were produced by my own actions.
I was never a compulsive performer, but I have done performances whenever I believed it necessary for the internal logic of the discourse.
Among the independent performances, even though they were associated with an installation, I would underscore Paisaje de Palabras. In it I invited participants to read out loud poems of their own choosing, in such a way that the private, intimate act of reading literature was transformed into a public act in the public space. The time of the action was conditioned by my making of an artist’s book with self-censored writings, referring to those books that never see the light of day due to self-censorship. Outside of Spain, I did versions in Berlin (2003), in New York (2003), and in Belgrade (2006). In 2005, for the 125th anniversary of the Círculo de Bellas Artes, I managed to bring together 125 poets to read their own poetry in what used to be its ballroom.
On the other hand, there are the performances 4 visitas guiadas de 4′33″, which I undertook in museums and art centres, such as for instance at MUAC in Mexico City in 2014. In them I walked through some of the halls, making various kinds of verbal interferences—including, reading ambiguous words previously written on playing cards which I handed out to the audience—while at the same time I was carrying portable equipment that played a recording marking the passing of time. Therefore, in consonance with the rest of my work, my performances also reflect on space and time.