The use of the body in Esther Ferrer’s practice
Unveiling the intentions and interpretations of the artist’s body of work.
BY SOFIA PALACIOS
Contemporary Spanish artist Esther Ferrer became the first woman to do performance art in Spain starting in the late 60s as a member of the experimental group Zaj. As a group they found themselves strongly related to the international experimental avant-garde movements of the 60s such as Fluxus. Ferrer’s creative practice has been also strongly influenced by Duchamp and John Cage. In her performances, the body became the pivotal element of the action suggesting certain parallelisms to artists such as Marina Abravomic or Klaus Rinke and Monika Baumgardt.
She was born in 1937, hence she was raised during the postwar period, under Franco’s dictatorship. Esther Ferrer’s work origins and evolves in the dychotomy where certain art practices protected by the state coexisted with those that occurred in semiclandestine spaces. Ferrer, as well as many other artists, assumed this status of clandestinity when trying to access and incorporate ideas from international artistic avant-garde trends. Hence, this need of clandestinity burdened her duchampian and cagenian gestures with the connotation of being antifranquismo actions. This meaning that the mere fact of keeping those creative processes a secret encouraged the audience - even though they weren't familiarized with the cultural trends of that current period - to feel empathy and likeness towards the actions performed by the artist. However, despite this political interpretations of her work, simplicity and personal indifference are crucial elements of her creative practice. In addition, the second wave of feminism that flourished during the sixties became one of the most influential struggles of the Western social sphere. Nonetheless, Ferrer emphasized that despite being a feminist her allusion and use of the female body shouldn’t be necessarily linked to feminist art.
One example of Ferrer’s performances enables us to explore this tension between the sociopolitical interpretations of her work and the actual intentions of her practice. Intimate and Personal was an action that took place multiple times between 1971 and 1992 in several locations such as in the Atelier Lerin in Paris in 1977. The performance consisted on measuring parts of one’s own body or of others. After writing down the results, Ferrer gave the participants a series of instructions: they could sum up the results without the fear of being mistaken; repeating the numbers out loud setting a rhythm; leave quietly the venue or even burn the paper where they had previously written down the numbers.
When exploring in more depth this performance we can discover that what really challenges the principles of the patriarchal system is the action of measuring itself. During the 1920s, the Dadaists used to measure the stage and later on, during the 70s, conceptual artists became really interested on measuring spaces. Ferrer presented her critique to the male dominated system through the modification of this action done by Dada and conceptual artists. Instead of measuring spaces, she chose the body as the object of examination. All the focus of the action was put on measuring random parts of the body, rather than on the nudity of it. The freedom given to the participants to decide what to do with those measurments ironically criticized the ‘phallocentric need for checking and measuring.’ Considering the body to define an individual’s worth has been a common, historical practice that has legitimated patriarchal models. In response to this perception, many feminists theorists during the 70s presented a feminist view of the naturallistic body that enhaced the virtues given by nature to women. Esther Ferrer rejects this way of confronting this matter by using her body and the measurments to point out the absurd, unuseful nature of measuring and understanding the body through such formalistic and biological lens.