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Asier Mendizabal

One of the most paradigmatic pieces of Oteiza’s experimental work in the Bienal de São Paulo in 1957 was Par espacial ingrávido, also entitled Par móvil [Mobile Pair]. The small sculpture, in its various versions, addressed a formal problem: the need of at least three points to support any given solid. Formed by two semicircles made of steel sheets and joined perpendicularly by an eccentric point in their straight sides, it was always supported by two points on its circular edges. Since the welding joint was displaced from the centre (in the point that results from applying the golden ratio), the weight of the piece was never stabilised in the centre, and thus the whole structure remained unstable, rotating on one edge and then transferring its weight to the other edge, on which it rotated again, advancing in a potentially infinite oscillation. This perpetual motion referred to by the title Mobile Pair was a finding that complemented, in its relation to time and space, the series of disoccupation of the sphere, which was also exhibited in the Bienal. Mobile Pair would be resignified many years later, in the context of the Basque Country, to make a new funerary stela. A new monument. Oteiza, unofficially and on his own initiative, installed a scaled-up replica of this Mobile Pair to identify the place where ETA member Txabi Etxebarrieta was shot dead by the Spanish Civil Guard in 1968. He was the first member of the organisation to be killed in an armed action, and also the first to kill a civil guard, José Pardines Arcay, the day before, not far from that junction. For this occasion, Oteiza renamed the piece as Walking Cross Stela, Homage to Txabi Etxebarrieta. With this allusion to the walking cross, the piece’s unstable character, its rhythmical movement oscillating between the two opposed edges, takes on a metaphorical function that did not correspond to the abstract formal investigation from which the sculpture derived. It took the form of a funerary stela. Becoming the symbolic mark of the first two of a long list of deaths, this perpetual motion of counterbalances converted the abstract structure into a metaphor for the vicious swirl of events that was put in motion there.

When explaining another stela, this time in honour of Peruvian poet César Vallejo, taking Vallejos’s poetry as a prescient example of the ‘poetic prolongation’ of a finished art, Oteiza suggests a similar exercise. Based on some verses of the poem from which Oteiza took the title to his sculpture, Spain, Take This Chalice Away from Me, written by Vallejo during the last months of his life in allusion to the Spanish Civil War, the sculptor proposes a metaphorical, almost figurative interpretation of the stela. The original sculpture, now of unknown whereabouts, was formed by two steel sheets, from which two circles had been cut out. The perforated sheets had been curved in order to create an inner space of roughly cylindrical form. In this arrangement, they kind of ‘embraced’ the disoccupied inner space, thus creating the void Oteiza constantly refers to in his final pieces. This small, missing stela was, according to Oteiza, his last sculpture.

Oteiza inscribed, in these two steel sheets perforated by two pairs of discs that opened up in one of their sides, images from Vallejo’s poetry. Verses such as ‘two earthly sheets’ or ‘if the sky fits in two earthly limbos’ were used to evoke a series of allusions forced upon these two metal sheets that make the stela. Two earthly sheets and two limbos. The limbo, besides being ‘the place where the righteous people wait’, as Oteiza writes with pencil in one of his manuscripts, is ‘the apparent outline of the celestial bodies’ in astronomy, drawn on the shape of metal sheet that forms the circular hollows in the stela. Thus, through Vallejo’s verses, the empty discs, cut out from these two metal sheets, are signs that are more figurative than the abstract experimental process concluded by them had originally proposed.

It is a simple exercise to imagine both rectangular sheets, with their two circular holes, as the two flat steel sheets they were before being curved to shape the funerary stela to César Vallejo. If we did this we would see that the metal sheets, with both discs drawn in negative, are what remains after cutting out two circular pieces; that the outline created this way is no more than the remaining material of this cut, possibly discarded in the atelier as scrap. If we imagine the discs that were cut out from this sheet, it will not be hard to see that they are the same discs Oteiza used to make the Mobile Pair two years before.

Asier Mendizabal

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