BY George Stolz in Features | 15 AUG 17
Featured in
Issue 189

Make It New

Artist and writer David Bestué employs materials as diverse as dust, saliva and fragments of a monastery to explore the meanings contained in the world around him

BY George Stolz in Features | 15 AUG 17

David Bestué’s wall sculpture A and B (Fragment from where Someone Was Born and Fragment from where that same Person Died) (2016) is slight and yet, in its own way, as large as life. The work is a thin, curving, semi-translucent cylinder draped over a metal rod nailed to the wall. Its prime material is resin mixed with dust gathered from two very specific places: the room where someone (intentionally unnamed) was born and the room where that same person died. A and B is, thus, a token of a life in its entirety: one that hangs between sustenance and gravity as precariously and yet as gracefully as existence itself. It is structured, in metonymic fashion, on the real architectural spaces that witnessed the essential arrival and departure, the beginning and end, the alpha and omega. And that – in more than one sense – is all.

A simple and poignant memorial sculpture, A and B also encapsulates a number of the concerns that traverse Bestué’s work. It is, on one level, a characteristic study of the interplay of weight, gravity and balance that is embedded in all structures, even the most simple. On another level, it displays the Spanish artist and writer’s penchant for compressing and conflating time – historic or lived, vernacular or monumental, and not excluding the metaphorical – within static objects. It also offers an example of Bestué’s distinctive handling of material in the broadest sense of the word, one that emphasizes not so much its potential for formal articulation as its capacity to convey the ‘meaning’ we attribute to it, a capacity that extends beyond – or rather through – form and structure.

David Bestué, Pillar Composed with Materials Ordered by their Weight, 2012, mixed media, 130 × 10 × 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist and García Galería, Madrid

There is a questioning of the enduring nature of ‘stuff’ in Bestué’s work that might be considered part of a longer-reaching philosophical inquiry, which stretches from the ancients to our own time – for instance, in the new materialism of contemporary theory, which posits a speculative re-evaluation of matter. But, more than theory, Bestué’s own inquiry might be said to find greater affinities in poetry, ranging from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ (8CE) to work by 20th-century modernists, such as William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, both of whom Bestué cites as having special resonance for his own approach. Indeed, Williams’s ‘no ideas but in things’ and Pound’s ‘make it new’ provide an apt frame- work for considering Bestué’s particular brand of materialism.

The Barcelona-based Bestué – whose solo exhibition ‘ROSI AMOR’ opens at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid this month – embarked on the current phase of his career in 2012, after having previously been half of the artist duo Bestué-Vives (with Marc Vives). The pair of Catalán artists achieved a notable degree of early recognition – their oddball blend of performance, video installation and photography was selected by Daniel Birnbaum to be included in ‘Making Worlds’, the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 – before splitting up after a ten-year collaboration. Once on his own, Bestué focused on sculpture, while continuing to work in other media, such as photography and text. Even those initial solo objects and projects revealed his insistent concern with material and its signifying capacities – something which has continued to mark his practice ever since.

For instance, for his 2012 work Kiss, Bestué collected saliva from two people involved in a romantic relationship and then encased it in two hollow steel elements, forming an interlocking sculpture that secured, as if under lock and key, the fleetingness of passion. For Golden Ball Hidden under a Layer of Silver, Copper, Iron, Glass, Plastic, Marble, Brick, Wood and Concrete, Abandoned in an Unspecified Location in Spain (2012), Bestué enveloped a gold ball in successive layers of materials, arranged in inverse order to their ostensible worth, so that what appeared to be a large, concrete block contained, in fact, a more varied (and more valuable) essence. And Pillar Composed with Materials Ordered by their Weight (2012), as its name suggests, presents a vertical structure of cubes of uniform size but varying in weight, colour and surface texture, like a periodic table turned totem-pole.

David Bestué, A and B (Fragment from where Someone Was Born and Fragment from where that same Person Died), 2016, mixed media, 25 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist and García Galería, Madrid

By 2015, Bestué had achieved something of a breakthrough with his exhibition ‘Realismo’ (Realism) at La Capella. The show explored the subject of civil engineering and its evolution in modern Spain. It occupied two rooms: one included a series of 29 explanatory posters and photos, summarizing in text and image the results of Bestué’s field research among major engineering projects across the length and breadth of Spain, like a sort of oblique guidebook. The other, larger, room presented a concatenation of photos, sculptures, industrial objects, texts, recordings and performance documentation. These assembled pieces surveyed, in varying degrees of directness and abstraction, the role of materials, weight, balance and gravity within structures – including that of the human body: the show’s opening featured a live bodybuilder displaying his own muscle-bound ‘structure’. Bestué’s research also characteristically extended into less corporeal modes and media, specifically poetry and literature, in search of the cultural constructs that might also be said to undergird a society: for instance, he juxtaposed pieces written by engineers with texts by novelists and poets about various Castilian sites. As a result, the exhibition’s ostensible and rather technical subject matter was leavened by the delicacy of the internal connections established via the artist’s heuristic method which was part anthropological, part archaeological and part cartographic.

Bestué’s positioning, however, was not quite as innocent or uncritical as such a free-associative approach might imply: in the specific context of Spain, the subject of civil engineering bears within it connotations of a very different sort. The country is still in the throes of an economic collapse that was triggered in large measure by a corruption-ridden construction boom that, when it failed, left in its wake a devastated nation, a changed society (especially among the younger generation) and countless unfinished or abandoned engineering and architectural projects, including airports, housing developments and roadworks. The exhibition’s examination of structures in Spain, even when filtered through the lens of Bestué’s eclectic interests, was also an implicit critique of an era and its follies – or, as the artist drily observed in an interview in the exhibition’s catalogue, of ‘a certain kind of progress that proved to be mistaken’.

According to the artist, his interest in engineering developed from his earlier fascination with architecture, one that has manifested itself in articles – he writes regularly for the Spanish arts and culture journal El Estado Mental (Mental State) – and in substantial publications that are an integral part of his practice. Bestué’s first published book on architecture was a monograph on the work of the late Catalan architect Enric Miralles. Published in 2010 and titled Enric Miralles from Left to Right (and without Glasses), the book explores Miralles’s major buildings in brief, first-person commentaries and photographs, yielding a kind of diaristic travelogue that charts an artist coming to terms with an architect’s work. Bestué’s next book was Formalismo Puro. Un repaso a la arquitectura moderna y contemporánea de España (Pure Formalism: A Survey of Modern and Contemporary Architecture in Spain, 2014), a compendium of brief (often no more than a single page) commentaries on Spain’s leading architects throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. It is an irreverent and peculiarly penetrating analysis of Spanish architecture and of the societal conditions that produced it (and vice versa). Taken together, the shared concerns and similar methods of Bestué’s publications and artistic practice become clear: in fact, he has said that the two books and the exhibition ‘Realismo’ comprise a unified trilogy, albeit in different formats.

Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of the Reina Sofía Museum, told me recently that ‘Bestué uses sculpture almost as if it were poetry […] He moves easily among different activities – he might make an object just as easily as he might write an essay.’ Borja-Villel’s words are echoed by Amelie Aranguren, a Spanish curator who has worked with the artist. Writing to me in an email, she observed: ‘Bestué makes his way through time with such a sense of ease. He might travel back to the turn of the 20th century and come back with an old industrial bolt that was used in some major engineering project in his pocket, or he might have a conversation with Federico García Lorca, or he might run his fingers along Miralles’s buildings. His work references history, cultural history and Spain’s anxious need for modernity, but he literally ingests that history, and then, through the difficult and courageous process of digestion, his own work is born.’

David Bestué, Apple of 9/11 Ashes on a Stool with Particles of the Berlin Wall, 2017, from the series ‘ROSI AMOR’, resin, ash, dust and concrete, 50 × 38 × 34 cm. Both images this page courtesy: the artist and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; photographs: Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores

In Bestué’s recent work, his twofold interest in Spanish cultural artefacts and his inquiry into the mutability of materials, has become increasingly salient. For instance, in Building (Ground, Pillar and Roof) (2015), the artist gathered three samples from a building – from its ground floor, from a pillar that sustained its structure and from its roof – and then used the pulverized materials to fashion a wall sculpture of three small interlocking hooks, neatly transmuting the building’s essential structure into sculpture. In Foreshortened Fragments of El Escorial (2015), Bestué scraped bits of granite from El Escorial – the rather grim 16th-century monastery near Madrid – then cast them into an upwardly curling tube, brightly illuminated by an internal LED light. In Bar Furniture and Ring Vase (2015), he crushed into powder two utterly mundane objects – a restaurant-supply table and vase – and then modelled them into a simple floor sculpture of a curved rod gracefully traversing a ring.

These concerns have also given shape to Bestué’s show at the Reina Sofía Museum. The main part of it consists of a series of figurative, cast-resin sculptures of nondescript objects – a chair, a table, a plastic bucket – reconstituted from other materials. These include a sculpture of a low bookshelf made out of salt, Atocha Marmalade on a Cerro Testigo Plate with a Salt Shelf (2017), and a sculpture of an ashtray and a cigarette made out of, respectively, onions and bay leaves, Bay Leaf Cigarette on an Onion Ashtray and Plaster Bread on a Flour Table (2017), as well as a sculpture of a car motor made out of cow’s blood. Some of the sources of the infused materials are generic and yet resonant, such as ‘a mountain’ or ‘an old elm tree’, while others are from specific, culturally resonant sites and monuments. The assembled figures form a kind of bodegón: that particularly Spanish version of analytic still-life painting that has been practised with such mastery by artists from Juan Sánchez Cotán in the early 17th century to Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. At the same time, when taken together, their minutiae coalesce, like powder in resin, into a kind of dispassionate but affectionate portrait in objects and materials of a specific time and place – as indeed might be said of much of Bestué’s work.

David Bestué lives in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain. His exhibition ‘ROSI AMOR’ is on view at the Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid, from 13 September to 26 February 2018.

Main image: David Bestué, Blood Motor on Sand Bench and Bone and Barble Cups, 2017, from the series ‘ROSI AMOR’, resin, sand, blood flour and marble and bone dust, dimensions variable

George Stolz is a critic and curator based in New York, USA, and Madrid, Spain. He is currently working on the Juan Muñoz catalogue raisonné.