Esther Ferrer / Gabriela Moragas – àngels barcelona

Here at Site-Specific Conversation, we have initiated a collaboration with Barcelona Gallery Weekend 2022, offering a series of conversations that will be published weekly over the summer.

The proposal takes Lucy Lippard’s novel, I See/You Mean, as a reference and uses its title to talk about affinities in the choices made by artists and gallery directors and about practices, projects and work dynamics. During the writing process, Lucy realised she was ashamed of being a woman. This same feeling has been experienced by many over the years, and still is to this day. For this reason, we have selected eight galleries exhibiting works by women at this edition of BGW. Throughout this series, we will be conversing with artists and gallery directors, focusing on the relationships generated in a field like this, where the creative is often mixed with the affective.

For this seventh conversation, we talk to renowned artist Esther Ferrer and Gabriela Moragas, the director of àngels barcelona, who have been working together since the project began over ten years ago. This exchange with one of the pioneers of performance art in Spain sheds light on her way of interacting with institutions and audiences and helps us to understand her artistic practice as a learning process. It also reveals her interest in prime numbers, a long-standing passion that has become all the more relevant in the current circumstances


Tell us about the moment you decided to work together.

Gabriela / The first exhibition we did with Esther was in 2008. The one we open in September will be her fourth with us. The project (àngels barcelona) was born with artists we deemed exemplary. We sought some advice from Pep Agut, and he suggested working with Esther. She is a renowned artist for many generations, and she hadn’t exhibited her work in Spain for ten years. She has been with us for practically the whole history of the gallery.

Esther / The person who contacted me from the gallery was Pep Agut. He suggested I work with them, and I said yes, and we have been working together ever since.

Did you already know Pep Agut?

Esther / When he called me, I knew who he was, but we weren’t close. I suppose he contacted me because he was interested in my work. Over time, we have worked together more.

Gabriela / It was Pep who suggested calling her. Both of them had worked with Trayecto Galeria. Through the relationship between galleries and between artists, a kind of harmony was generated, which led to these next steps.

A lot of projects emerge from synergies. Relationships that appear between galleries, in the form of collaborations or even just sharing resources. Could you tell us more, Gabriela, about the collaboration with Trayecto?

Gabriela / In this case, rather than a collaboration, it was more of a sort of harmony. Pep worked with Trayecto and started to collaborate with us. Esther worked with them too. It was more a case of finding the common element between Pep and Esther.

From what you’ve told us, Gabriela, we think it’s worth highlighting that Esther hadn’t exhibited her work in Spain for ten years.

Esther / I don’t do many exhibitions. I do more now, perhaps. I don’t like doing them. I do them because I have no choice, because that’s how I make a living, exhibiting my work. And, naturally, in an exhibition there’s a way of looking at the pieces that is different to how you see them in the atelier. In this sense, exhibitions are important. I haven’t done many exhibitions because I only do them when I get contacted to do one. In fact, I’ve never contacted a gallery, a critic, a museum… That’s how I solved the problem, making a living without depending on institutions, grants, or anything like that. I do my work for myself, because it interests me, because I want to do it, because it’s my life. The truth is that it can be precarious, but it also gives you freedom: you don’t have to be chasing anyone up so that you can pay the rent and eat every day.

Gabriela / The gallery wanted to end this situation, of Esther not having put on an exhibition in Spain for ten years. Just after the exhibition, as the spotlight was on her, she was awarded the National Award for Plastic Arts. From then on, her work started to generate more interest. As Esther says, the only thing she’s interested in is working, and the rest doesn’t matter to her. The rest of us are here to try to make sure people see her work.

Esther / I’m glad that galleries, museums, and critics exist. I’m always surprised how they find things in my work that I hadn’t thought of. Initially it makes me laugh: I think, Why are they saying this? What an idea! But then, thinking about it, I realise, They’re right, why wouldn’t they see it that way? I respect other people’s work, but I live independently. I do my work for me. If it’s useful to someone else, if it helps whomever else in some way, then great. My ego acquires huge proportions.

What was it like working in a context dominated by men in your era, in the group Zaj for example?

Esther / When I joined Zaj, it was practically just the three of us who were working (Juan Hidalgo and Walter Marchetti), but the group was actually much bigger. There were some women who worked in it occasionally. Being a performer at the time meant accepting that people would laugh at you, that they would see you as an unserious artist. You had to come to terms with Francoism, too, and everything it entailed. From an artistic point of view, people looked down on you. They thought, These people are crazy!

In this case, it was perhaps more conditioned by the artistic discipline than by the fact that you’re a woman.

Esther / Partly, yes. When we did the performance in Bilbao in ’68, in the Periódico de San Sebastián newspaper, which was reactionary, they described me as the girl from a good family who was doing ‘these things’. I didn’t really mind. Once, my mother read a critique that didn’t paint us in a good light, and she said, ‘They say my daughter is a comedian’. At that time, being a theatre artist was well thought of, but the same couldn’t be said for being a comedian.

Perhaps there weren’t so many big names in performance art…

Esther / People had been doing performance before, in Barcelona for example. But, of course, nobody knew anything about it.

Did you feel freer in France?

Esther / When I finished a US tour organised by Cage – I think it was in ’73 – I couldn’t see myself going back to Spain under Franco. So, I moved to Paris for political reasons. Because I was sick of the dictatorship, and even of the artistic environment.

What are you going to present in the gallery for BGW?

Gabriela / We will present a set of recent pieces on the Poema de los números primos [The Prime Numbers Poem] series. We thought showing pieces on this theme was relevant in the current circumstances, where mathematics is all around and dominates us. Esther is conducting an exercise that takes on a lot of meaning with the debates going on around algorithms. Perhaps she has got there in a different way, but from a curator’s point of view, I think it is important to approach it in this way because of what this work means as seen today.

Esther / It’s a piece of work that makes me think. I started to work with prime numbers in the late ’70s, after I had a dream in which I was swimming in a sea of numbers. When I woke up, I thought they were odd numbers, but when I wrote down all the numbers I remembered dreaming, I realised they were all prime numbers. That was when I started to work with them. I’m totally convinced they have something to do with the order of the universe. I’m really interested in everything I can understand and read about astronomy. For me, art is a route to knowledge, and working with prime numbers has led me to learn and understand other things. For example, with prime numbers, I have seen that, in the beginning, when you’re looking for a system, you might think it doesn’t work. But if you carry on and make it bigger, a structure with a rhythm always emerges. It surprises me every time. The higher you go, the more likely it is that the number has a factor, so there are fewer prime numbers. In 1984, I did a series of 6 sketches, where I started at 1–1,000, then 1,000–2,000, and then I moved onto millions. Keeping the same structure, you see how there is much more space between a prime number and another: like the expanding universe. There’s a very specific moment when a prime number appears in an enormous void, like some kind of asteroid or foreign body That interests me more than the purely artistic aspect. When I work on art, I learn a lot, because I know almost nothing. I have learnt through art, and that helps me to live.

Gabriela / When she dives into this subject, it’s like an obsession, because her work is demanding. When she does a performance, it’s a much more liberating task, because it’s with the body, but when she delves into prime numbers, it’s much more mental.

Esther / For some years now, I’ve been working with Sophie Germain prime numbers. She was a self-taught mathematician around the time of the French Revolution and has practically been forgotten. I’ve done a lot of projects relating to her numbers. Primarily because they interest me, because they are special prime numbers that make up a different combination, but also because they allow me to escape the ‘official’ series of prime numbers and, above all, to highlight a woman who was important in the world of mathematics. Today, a lot of people are working with prime numbers. They even contact me to tell me. All work, all disciplines, and all careers can incorporate feminist ideas.

Before finishing up, we would like to go back to what you said about not needing exhibitions in your artistic practice. But do you feel enriched by meeting with your audience?

Esther / I think that when you do an exhibition – artists in general, I mean, but especially me – the best thing you can do is disappear. The interpretation of the art is the art, and the audience is who’s looking at it. If I start to give explanations, I’m automatically conditioning them, because, in theory, I’m the authority. I prefer not to explain anything. Exactly the same applies to performance. The audience is there because they want to be. I’m there because I like performing, because it has been proposed to me and I have accepted. We are together for a moment without any obligations. My only role is to do things the best I can and respond to the idea I have in my head. We share a fleeting moment together that if it stays in their memory over time, it will be transformed in something different. I don’t need contact with the audience. If they are there, we can talk, but the real communication isn’t what I say as I talk to them. Everything I want to say is in the art. They probably receive it in one way or another, or perhaps they receive something else that is much better and more interesting. They can even improve my work, adding interpretations I never would have made, interpretations that can be useful to others. When I see the sign next to a piece of art telling people what they should understand from it I think that is conditioning the opinion of the viewer, because Museum is playing its role as the authority. It’s better for everyone to interpret things however they want. Giving geographical and physical information – where they were born, where they died – can help you to put the artist into context. But saying that the artist meant this… Unless the artist wants to be explained; in that case, fair enough.

Barcelona Gallery Weekend seeks to reinforce and make visible the rich and varied artistic scene of Barcelona, promote art collecting and highlight the work of the galleries, as culture generating spaces open to citizens, and the artists they represent. From 15th to 18th September 2022, we celebrate our 8th edition in 32 galleries, presenting the work of more than 60 artists.