Helen Acosta

Artist project

Helen Acosta

As the Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras said: “Things which are seen give us the power of seeing the invisible”1Anaxagoras (499 – 427 v. Chr.), griechischer Philosoph aus Klazomenai, Freund des Perikles. Zugeschrieben.

The series to which the Así como antes galaxy belongs was made with the cooperation of the Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics at ETH Zürich. The Cosmic Structure Formation is a group of doctoral and postdoctoral Astrophysics students established in 2016 as a part of the Swiss National Science Foundation Professorship Grant to work on a project called “From Cosmic Web to Galaxies: Illuminating the Gaseous Link between the Dark and the Bright Universe.” They have researched and worked together for years to make the invisible visible through simulations with artificially created light. By means of a computer program written specifically for this goal and mathematical calculations, they artificially throw light on parts of the universe that are dark, combining theoretical and numerical methods of radiation and hydrodynamics and casting light where none exists, lighting up stars, cumuli, nebulae and galaxies previously submerged in darkness.

Así como antes
Así como antes (Still the same). Thread on velvet, 130 x 140 cm, 2020. Photo: Leni O.

The idea of galaxies of thread on dark blue velvet came about from an accumulation of memories of my childhood in Gran Canaria: for me, the sea lapping against the shores of the island was not horizontal, but vertical. These liquid masses were blue walls that closed me in. And the only direction in which you could escape was always upwards, towards the stars.

With silk and cotton threads on velvet, I weave that memory and desire to flee vertically with the ancient tradition of embroidery in the Canary Islands, playing at crossing the vast expanse of the universe with my needle, breaking it open and making it mine a little, embroidering closeness and faraway at the same time, embroidering the sometimes visible of the universe that makes us insignificant in comparison and perhaps a little invisible.

Alud. (Avalanche).Thread on velvet, 130 x 90 cm, 2021. Photo: Celia Zehtgruber.
Pitusa. Thread on velvet, 130 x 90 cm, 2021. Photo: Leni O.

During the first lockdown for the pandemic, the galaxies of thread took on a whole new dimension: the restrictions in place forced us to stay locked up at home. In Zürich, in Switzerland, where I live and where the restrictions were not so draconian, I received images of my family back on the island, of whole cities in lockdown, of thousands of people confined in their homes, in buildings, under an empty sky without the slipstreams of airplanes, a clean sky that day after day seemed to expand in a different way and weave the arrival of night and, later, darkness.

The story goes that when the writer Julio Cortázar died in Paris in 1984, walls around the city were scribbled with graffiti saying: “Julio, come back! What’s it to you?” There is a passage in José Saramago’s The Cave that does not deal with death directly, but the way in which people try to push the subject far away: “Let’s hope I die before that happens (…), if only I was lucky enough to do the same. Don’t talk about dying, Pa. The only time we can talk about death is while we’re alive, not afterwards”2Jose Saramago, La Caverna, Alfaguara, Madrid, 2000.. A lot has been written about death, about the most definitive of all escapes, or perhaps it would be better to say of all arrivals, if we were to look at it the other way round. And, strangely, negotiating exactly how absolute death is or is not is a relatively frequent subject in literature. Javier Marías wrote that death only really belongs to those who have never been born: “Only the one who has never been born belongs to it wholly, or rather the one who has never been engendered or conceived, and therefore has never entered into time or passed through it for a single second and will never have to disrupt it by leaving it. The one who is not conceived is the one who dies most”.3Javier Marias, Negra espalda del tiempo, 1988 dt. als Schwarzer Rucken der Zeit. Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2000

Nana. Secuencias del video. Foto: Stefan Riebel
Nana. Scenes from video. Photo: Stefan Riebel.

The idea for the video Nana came to me from a passing comment by a member of the family just after my grandmother died. We were in the corridor of the hospital, just outside her room, and suddenly her fourth son, Peyo, said: “Maybe Nana went that way… or maybe not…” Within the context of art, I follow and pursue a conceptual focus: the idea is born and then takes root with reading, research and many twists and turns, racking the mind. It is the idea that decides what material it requires, what form it is going to take. Only the idea and what it “calls for” decides whether the work is an object, an installation, a video, or so on. The words my uncle muttered to himself, wondering about where my grandmother had gone after dying and, above all, in what direction, stayed with me for a long time and eventually led to the idea of the video which shows through a reverse google earth tracking the possible ascension of her soul from the roof of the Perpetuo Socorro hospital, above the room in which she died. Once again, and like in the case of the galaxies, an escape or a vertical arrival, the invisible, the play of proximity and faraway, as well as the luxury and danger of trying to work from and with silence.

Nana. Video. Proyección en el suelo de la Galería Tapetenwerk, Leipzig. Foto: Stefan Riebel
Nana. Video. Projection on floor of the Tapetenwerk gallery, Leipzig. Photo: Stefan Riebel.

Whoever has family in rural areas of the islands will probably know the blessing given when leaving home. In my family the blessing is spoken: whoever stays says “I bless you”, and the person leaving takes the blessing, conferring them with protection and good luck. When I was studying Fine Arts in Germany, the feeling of homesickness made me miss the ritual of the blessing and pushed me to build bendicionales or blessing machines. As Cortázar said: “But invisible things need to materialize themselves, ideas fall to earth like dead pigeons”.4Julio Cortazar, libro Historias de cronopios y de famas. Editorial Minotauro. Buenos Aires. 1962.

Suitable for any home, they can be placed on the wall, preferably near the door. When you push a button a mechanism is turned on that draws a cross with white light, first from bottom to top and them from left to right, giving you a blessing.

Hinderk M. Emrich, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Hannover was convinced that we keep looking for the past because it is incomplete. Perhaps the blessing machines are also an attempt to search in the past and to patch over a gaping hole with an art object.

When they delivered the bell I had commissioned to be cast expressly for this work, the clapper inside that would make it ring was missing. With just a few days to go before exhibiting it at the Baumwollspinnerei in Leipzig, I was panic-stricken and rang the head of the foundry and he answered with implacable sincerity that he had read my project carefully, and that it was going to be exhibited submerged in a tank of water and that “if it was going to be silent because of the water, what was the point of the clapper”.5Conversacion telefonica con el Sr. Letsch, encargado de la fundicion.“Only those who were born on a Sunday hear the bells pealing, even when they are submerged under water”6Handworterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, de Greuyter, Berlin, 1987.

The bell silenced underwater, ironically by the medium that would most enhance its sound, rings in the mind of the spectator. It is as closed in by vertical water as the islands, and the chemical reaction with the metal means that it is increasingly more covered by bubbles, tiny parasites of air, that lay it under siege and transform it. And hidden inside the bell a bubble of air breathes, like a concealed and secret sigh.

And perhaps, just like in art, life is like that: the most important thing is always what you can’t see.

Sonntagskinder. Objeto. Bronce, plexiglas, agua. 200 x 65 cm. 2009. Foto: Stefan Riebel
Sonntagskinder (Sunday Children). Object. Bronze, plexiglas, water. 200 x 65 cm. 2009. Photo: Stefan Riebel.

Helen Acosta – Biography

Originally from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, she studied Translation and Interpreting on the island and Fine Arts in Germany, where she completed the Meisterschülerin with Verena Vernunft. Her artistic work, which pursues a conceptual and consequently multidisciplinary approach, has been awarded several times, for example by the Juta-Cunny-Franz Foundation of the Kunst Palast Museum in Düsseldorf or by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology. She has also been nominated for numerous German art prizes such as the Agustinum Museum’s in Freiburg, the Lucas Cranach Prize, the Young Academy’s in Berlin and the International Prize for Art and Design in Halle. She has exhibited mainly in Germany: at the prestigious Baumwolle Spinnerei in Leipzig, at the Kestnergesellschaft Hannover and at numerous galleries in Berlin such as the Grimm Museum, the Kunstverein Neukölln, Haus am Kleistpark or at the Rudolf-Scharpf Gallery of the Wilhelm-Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen; but also in Switzerland, at the Kaskadenkondensator in Basel and the Joseph Gnädinger Foundation in Schaffhausen, as well as in Cuba, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Hungary. She is currently living and working in Zurich, Switzerland.

  • 1
    Anaxagoras (499 – 427 v. Chr.), griechischer Philosoph aus Klazomenai, Freund des Perikles. Zugeschrieben
  • 2
    Jose Saramago, La Caverna, Alfaguara, Madrid, 2000.
  • 3
    Javier Marias, Negra espalda del tiempo, 1988 dt. als Schwarzer Rucken der Zeit. Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2000
  • 4
    Julio Cortazar, libro Historias de cronopios y de famas. Editorial Minotauro. Buenos Aires. 1962
  • 5
    Conversacion telefonica con el Sr. Letsch, encargado de la fundicion
  • 6
    Handworterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens, de Greuyter, Berlin, 1987
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