No other cultural form is as international as art; literature suffers from the impediment of translation; music is dominated by the English language in the pop market and the European tradition in the classical market; and film largely relies on audiences hooked on American brashness. There is no reason why it has to be like this, but the fact that it is – with foreign students zipping around the world bringing their heritage – is heartening. Like many international artists, Javier Perez – a Spanish Basque living in Germany, born in 1967 – came to international attention via the Venice biennale (he represented Spain in 2001). Unlike other artists, Perez doesn’t deal in the ephemera of globalisation. On a day when separatists and armed policed squared up to each other on the streets, we took sanctity in aesthetic pleasure.
The Artium in Vitoria is not a flashy vacuity, like the Bilbao Guggenheim, but streamlined and absolutely made for this exhibition. As you walk in through the main doors you a greeted by a thousand light bulb-sized glass baubles, tied to an enormous bowl which sways as the wind drifts in from the courtyard, tinkling pleasantly. It is impressive in its grandiosity: grandiose in vision as well as size, affecting the light and ambience of the room with its overwhelming beauty and impenetrable mystery.
We are introduced to Perez’s art by increments, with each stage enrapturing us further. First encountered are his drawings, which are all based around the dedication of repeated pencilled lines. Cumulos 1 is a circle made up of a thousand repetitions, resembling a cloud that pulsates like a brain. We find drawings of hair, long seamless strands of hair, on the walls around a mask whose face is covered in hair.
From drawings to video (as an artist Perez is interested in every media except painting), but it isn’t so much a divergence as part of a wider spiral. The artist walks through Prague wearing a mask, a mirrored mask that reflects the streets around him. It is a classic representation of human distortion: whether the audience distorting the work with our interpretations or the artist distorting the world. The clocks turn Dali-esque in the mirrored mask, but this is not surrealism, rather, he is taking us on an existential journey. For instance, the second video is simply a man balancing on a ball. A one-joke piece, but told effectively with the ball lit against a dominant darkness.
Inside the main room is revealed a menagerie or different forms and textures. An enormous perspectival sculpture of a ladder that evaporates to next to nothing. A mobile of shoes spins around – two dancers. A wedding dress spins in red sand. Large glass globes bear the impression of feet. Strange forms whose beauty is matched by their significance.
His is an art that shows (rather than tells) tragic, complex stories without ever compromising the aesthetic beauty of the piece. A savage dance with the artist wearing the mask of hair seen earlier in one video. In another, an endless succession of steps, giant steps, faces the artist who runs, naked, and jumps up onto the next level. There is a model of the wheel of life next to the piece showing that we are in the position of Gods. These are existential traumas from which you can never escape.
It is easy for one’s opinion of contemporary art to be tarnished by callow exhibitions, poorly curated, showing mediocre works without any concern for the overall impact. Coherent and focused presentations are such a rarity that of the Artium’s Javier Perez retrospective left me stunned. Javier Perez is a truly international artist with uncanny access to universal forms; his work is always deadly serious and always very funny. He is an absurdist who takes pleasure in the world and its ways. Profound but never overbearing.