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Eduardo Chillida: Profound is the air – 100 years of emptiness

"Form springs spontaneously from the needs of the space that builds its dwelling like an animal

in its shell. Just like this animal, I am also an architect of the void".

Eduardo Chillida

2024 marks the centenary of the birth of Eduardo Chillida, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. His life was dedicated to capturing and embracing space – a recurring theme in his discourse on art and existence itself. His commitment lay in comprehending space, articulating its essence, praising emptiness and delving into what is known and unknown.

Rooted in the Basque Country, his hands embraced a range of artistic practices, spanning small-scale sculpture, plaster work, drawing, or engraving. His innovative use of stone, chamotte clay, and paper addressed earthly and metaphysical themes. 

The Chillidaleku, a farmhouse restored by the artist himself and featuring a sizable garden with an outdoor exhibition, stands as the largest showcase of his art. His legacy shines brightest through his monumental public sculptures of steel and iron: massive, imposing, gravity-defying monoliths of delicate beauty. His work has been showcased prominently in Spain, Germany, France, and the USA. They are often in tune with the ecosystem, like giant industrial machines.

His work served as a profound exploration of volume, depth, exteriority, interiority, gravity, and dimension. Drawing inspiration from the rain, wind, ocean waves, and light, the artist infused his pieces with the essence of the elemental forces.

“My work, the work are echoes that endure in time,

for the brotherly ear, the deaf voice of light.”

In Buscando la Luz II (Searching for Light II), three solid pieces rise proudly toward the sky. At the front, one discovers the opening, the space which, for Chillida, was meant to be accessible. Inside the sculpture, its forms, like waves, guide the gaze upwards in a quest for light which it longs to grasp both physically and poetically, in a spiritual sense.

Art and Space

Martin Heidegger's only collaboration with an artist during his career was just with the Basque sculptor. In his essay "Die Kunst und der Raum" (1969), accompanied by seven lithographs by Chillida, Heidegger explores the interplay between art and space. He holds that art possesses a unique ability to unveil the essence of space, surpassing other human endeavors. He maintains that the question of what space truly is remains inadequately posed, let alone answered. Heidegger inquires about the existence of space and questions whether it can even be attributed (to) a state of being.

Entering the emptiness

Viewers are encouraged to challenge the established, to reimagine their perspective by allowing their senses to recognize, perhaps for the first time, the void rather than the matter. The space surrounding the sculptures unveils what has been invisible to the mind. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.Heidegger asks, "What fate awaits the emptiness of space?" and contends that our typical perception of emptiness as mere absence, a void to be filled, is misguided. But what if emptiness is not a lack, but something in its own right? What if it is something we must strive to loop and value, rather than merely seek to occupy? 

Consejo al espacio IV, Advice to Space IV (Chillidaleku, Hernani, 1987). Influenced by the dialectic between matter & space.

"From space, together with its brother time, under persistent gravity, feeling matter as a slower form of space, I ask myself with amazement about what I don’t know. I work to know, and I value knowing more than knowledge. I believe that I should try to do what I don’t know how to do, try to see where I can’t see, to recognize what I don’t recognize, to identify in the unknown. In these processes,  which are similar to those in creative science, there are many difficulties".

Elogio al Horizonte, Eulogy to the Horizon (Gijón, 1989). The figure depicts arms embracing each other.

For Chillida, hollow materials conceal an inaccessible space, undermining the integrity of his artistic vision. His sculptures are crafted to invite both visual engagement and physical interaction, serving as evocative spaces for contemplation and self-reflection. In essence, Chillida's creations become sanctuaries where the spirit can commune with the artwork and one's inner self.

"In Basque, there is a beautiful word, a wild, penetrating, whistling word: it is a kind of a howl, a key that shepherds shout to each other from afar, over valleys and mountains, a word from those times populated by the rumors of animals still wild, by the voices of the wind among the rocks, by the waves crashing against the cliffs of the Cantabrian coast: Irrintzina, doesn't it sound like iron on the anvil? Rough and sharp as a thicket of hard seaweed that bends to resist the whips of the wind".

Gure Aitaren Etxea, Our father's home (Gernika, 1987). Represents the prow of an open boat. It features a window overlooking the Gernika tree, a symbol of the Basque Country.

Chillida's artistic process eschewed molds or cast metal; instead, he embraced the challenge of forging iron. Each piece was meticulously crafted, requiring the metal to be heated before manipulation. His monumental public works took shape in iron and steel foundries across the Basque Country.

He participated with Hierros de Temblor III (Tremor Irons III) in the 1958 Venice Biennale and received the International Sculpture Award. Many more prizes would follow, among others: the Graham Prize (1958), the Kandinsky Prize (1960), the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize (1966), the German Kaissering Award (1985), the Prince of Asturias Prize (1987), and the Imperial Prize of Japan (1991).

Lotura XXXII, Knot XXXII (Chillidaleku, Hernani 1998). Lotura, which is Basque for knot or union, is made of two pieces of solid steel. The upper piece exhibits four knotted arms emerging from one block.

For Chillida, landscapes and spaces were not merely settings but opportunities for profound interaction and unity with nature. Pieces like Haizearen Orrazia XV (The Comb of the Wind) or Elogio del Horizonte (Eulogy to the Horizon) exemplify a harmonious blend of sculptural craftsmanship and the surrounding environment.

Haizearen orrazia XV, The Comb of the Wind XV (San Sebastián 1976). A collection of three sculptures. One of his most important and well-known works of the series of 23 combs.

The Comb of the Wind XV essentially depicts the agonizing, striving to grapple with the ineffable.

In his essay "Art and Emptiness: Heidegger and Chillida on Space and Place," Miles Groth explores how Chillida's monumental sculptures evoke what Kant termed the sublime – a sensation accompanied by awe or melancholy. Groth notes that Chillida's works embody Kant's notion that the sublime must possess grandeur yet simplicity.

As Kant suggests (and as Chillida's sculptures embody in their physical presence), "the sublime must always be grandiose" while simultaneously "it must be simple".

Tindaya is the unfinished project of Eduardo Chillida. He would have fulfilled his dream if he had shaped nothingness and introduced space into matter, sculpting towards the interior of the Tindaya mountain (Fuerteventura, Canary Islands) would have fulfilled his dream.

The sculptor dreamed of creating a space inside a mountain: it would be called Mendi Huts, which means in Basque, Empty Mountain:

"Years ago I had an intuition, which I sincerely believed to be utopian. Inside a mountain, I wanted to create an interior space that could be offered to people of all races and colors, a great sculpture for tolerance. One day the possibility arose to realize the sculpture in Tindaya, Fuerteventura, the mountain where utopia could become reality. The sculpture helped to protect the sacred mountain. The great space created inside it would not be visible from the outside. Still, the men who penetrated its heart would see the light of the sun, of the moon, inside a mountain overturned to the sea, and to the horizon, unreachable, necessary, non-existent..."

While utopian visions may inspire, their full realization in the material realm remains, at least in this case, elusive, but unfulfilled dreams can endure as poignant echoes of possibility or become seeds of new aspirations. In this sense, Eduardo Chillida's last work would be defined by, albeit unintentionally, the absence of completion – the unfinished as emptiness and emptiness as an opportunity.

Text: Nerea Menor


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