Nobody really knows what the Neolithic Majorero people were up to when they scratched their enigmatic signs into the sacred mountain, but the impulse stirring at the back of their minds may well have to do with what we now understand as art. A few thousand years go by and the scene is still Fuerteventura, the largest, unlovliest and least known of the volcanic landmasses thrusting up from the seabed to form Spain’s Canary Island archipelago. Art is back on the agenda, but this time the act of creation is to be carried out by bulldozers, blasting powder and chattering backhoes. All of which portend big changes for Mt. Tindaya, the peak that stands out dramatically against a backdrop of seamless sky and churning Atlantic breakers.
Some have unfurled the art for art’s sake banner, or spoken out for giving an underprivileged island a chance to better its lot in life with a bit of cosmetic surgery. Others are dead set against the idea of messing around with mountains like a child playing idly with a mound of mashed potatoes on its plate. They see it as something that can neither be justified in the name of art, nor that of so widely respected an artist as Eduardo Chillida, the late Spanish Basque sculptor.
But for many, art is something that acquires absolute moral authority from its purpose. It is harder to challenge what is done in its name than dismembering nature for mere practicality, like quarrying stone or felling timber for the shelter that makes human existence possible. But should ‘is it art?’ be the question that chokes off all debate? Chillida obviously felt so, and out of that grew an obsession to cap his 50-year career by morphing this particular mountain into something nature never intended it to be.
That determination dates back decades before the artist’s death in August 2002 from fast-forward Alzheimer’s. “Years ago,” he would tell interviewers, “I had a flash of inspiration to hollow out a mountain, and offer it up to men of all races and colors, a gigantic sculpture to tolerance”. The concept, he added, came to him in a dream, long before he gave thought to making it come true. But how he bristled whenever anyone took issue with his right to do that, perhaps revealing more than was intended by his petulance and reducing the issue to ‘you’re-either-with-me-or-a-philistine’.
Like many of the best works of his maturity, Tindaya was all about ‘negative volume’. It may have to do with the fact that in his younger days Chillida was scouted by two pro soccer teams as a goalkeeper, the player who determines the outcome by controlling the ’empty’ space inside the net. Material pierced, penetrated or otherwise replaced with volumes of light and air is central to his art and reaches a height of virtuosity in the smaller works in granite and alabaster from the early 90s. “Emptiness is the great source from which all is created,” he insisted to the end, and critics agree that his lasting achievement was in creating a dialogue between the empty and the full – massive volume or weight, often enough suspended or poised to defy gravity.
Just below Tindaya’s 1,200-foot summit, Chillida wanted to hollow a cubical void measuring 135 feet per side (originally he wanted 160), equivalent in height to an 11-story building. Two vertical shafts would allow beams of sun – and moon -light to penetrate into that chamber and project shifting trapezoids of light on its inner surfaces. A narrow grotto would provide ventilation, access and a view of the horizon to “make us feel smaller, and far more alike one another than we think we are”.
Strange that he should have justified his vision by lathering it with New Age banalities rather than in terms of his art, though you occasionally do get a glimpse of the underlying play of concepts feeding the creative process. “My work is a direct allusion to the ideas that have driven humanity forward, of man’s wanting to find out and learn more about what’s out there. The search for the sun and the moon and the horizon, which are the three human referents of the first order.”
But his core argument startles with its brutal reasoning: why the fuss over one mountain more or less when mankind will be gifted with a state-of-the-art spiritual wellness center, a kind of tanning chamber for the soul where even the most benighted bigots would literally “see the light”?
Chillida said he was invited by authorities in Sicily and Finland to help himself to a mountain of his choosing, but none seemed quite right. “Until one day somebody told me there was this fabulous peak on Fuerteventura with abandoned quarries. So I sat back and thought to myself, ‘if these people are removing stone, they don’t realize they are introducing space into the mountain. Let them go ahead. I’ll take that space and make it an offering to mankind. That’s all I want, and there’s not a red cent in it for me.”
Compare that high purpose with the doggedness that led Gutzon Borglum to chip away at Mt. Rushmore until it yielded up the presidential features he saw as embodying America’s appetite for greatness, glory and territory. That comparison raises the question of to what extent the creator’s original intentions remain relevant after public art goes public. Borglum, a card-carrying Klansman, was not so big on brotherhood, but surely his presidential all-star lineup conveys nothing more strident than a benign patriotic buzz to families who flock to the Black Hills in their camper vans.
In his brilliant book on Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama takes an ideological inventory of the personal and public agendas behind the mountain monuments of the early 20th century, including those unfinished and unstarted. All were representational and commemorative, but so was most everything else that either was or passed for sculpture at the time, and the difference doesn’t really have much bearing on the point of Schama’s take on them, which is “the colonization of nature by culture”.