Like a birth, I take a breath upon entering the exhibition. I look around and it feels new and fresh although all of the sculptures were made before 1939. The Valencia Institute of Modern Art, commonly known as IVAM, is a collection of galleries nestled on 3 floors and each gallery promises to be as otherworldly as the one before it. The configuration mimics a beehive with its tightly organized spiral structure. This month there were several shows including a fascinating American Photography exhibit but my favorite is the Julio Gonzales Collection.
IVAM houses the largest number of Julio Gonzales works in the world: 120 sculpture, 20 paintings, and 70 drawings. Julio Gonzales, born in Barcelona, has given Spain a modern artist who played with light and the mind. He messes with our understanding of form. He brings me, the viewer, into a fresh experience of being in my body.
For me, the Astavakra Gita, like Gonzales sculpture, is also a teaching about being in a body. The book is a beloved poem in the yoga tradition that reminds us, through a plethora of metaphors, about the ever-changing nature of the figure. As most yoga texts do, the Gita tells of the permanent spirit that dwells within our impermanent body. Astavakra, the main character, has an unusually shaped form. This circumstance offers him an opportunity to overcome ridicule and rise into the realm of wisdom.
Verse 1.2 Astavakra Gita
To be free,
shun the experiences of the senses
Turn your attention to
forgiveness, sincerity, kindness, simplicity, truth.
Julio Gonzales was raised under the tutelage of his father, Concordio, who was one of Spain’s premiere goldsmiths. This inheritance infuses Julio’s understanding of objects, their shape and structure. The sculptures are formal, balanced, and refined in their craft. His work, like Eusebio Sempere’s art in the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art, is presented in a darkened room. But unlike Eusebio's work, Gonzales sculptures are lit with precisely aimed bright illumination. This light adds a 4th dimension to the form: shadow. Shadow cast on the pedestal, shadow cast on the wall, my own shadow in relation to the piece.
Astavakra’s life begins with a curse. His father cast misfortune on his son even before the boy was born. The story goes like this: Astavakra loved the words of God but was disturbed by his father mispronunciations of the sacred prayers. The careless chanting made him twist and squirm inside his mother until he could no longer stand it. Finally he chastised his father…. from inside the womb. Astavakra’s father was outraged at his child’s insolence and cursed him with severe deformity. The boy came into the world crooked in eight places.
Astavakra’s early awareness of his father’s mispronounced prayers gives us a hint about the sage’s life’s work. It suggests that his calling will have something to do with hearing the truth and responding honestly, no matter what the cost.
When I first saw Gonzales work I was struck by the strength of the forms. Mostly metal, the pieces are stacked tall like towers but imply body parts or everyday objects: arm, head, cactus, leg, or hairbrush. Like an Indonesian puppet show the play of light and shadow on the shape invites me, the viewer, to tumble into the realm of the imagination.
Astavakra’s deformities did not deter him in life. He was very devout and learned the scriptures well. One day he decided to make a long journey and listen to the royal teachings. The king, Janaka and his group of scholars gathered each week to discuss philosophical riddles. Astavakra was excited to go because the talks were renown but he was also worried because the long journey would be difficult for his troubled body.
The walls of the exhibition are painted dark olive green. They are highlighted by a bright patch of white directly behind the sculpture, creating a screen for the play of light. The sculpture’s shapes are abbreviated. The illustration reduced to essentialities. They are not complete images of the artists understanding but act as indicators. The artist indicates what he wants me to see. The rest I fill in with my mind.
Verse 2.25 Astavakra Gita
And how wonderful it is!
In the limitless ocean of Myself,
waves of beings
arise, collide, and play for a time,
then disappear—as is their nature.
Astavakra needed the aid of a walking stick but prevails in making the arduous journey to the king’s palace. He is simply exhausted when he arrives. His clothes are dirty and he feels very tired and thirsty. Despite his discomfort, Astavakra settles in and listens to the debates. Then he hears laughter.
Gonzales abstraction is unique. Much of abstraction, as a genre, reduces form to the point of mystery but this artist leaves enough of a figure for us to see his process. Gonzales approach gives us a beginning from which to look. He also uses negative space and light to invite us to walk around the sculpture. This walk is like a movie, transforming the story at every angle.
Verse 4.1 Astavakra Gita
Truly the yogi feels no elation
though he abides in the exalted state
yearned for by Indra and all
the discontented gods
The laughter Astavakra hears is coming from the debaters and to his surprise he notices the whole court is looking in his direction. They were all laughing at him. “What is someone like you doing in our court, listening to our teachings? Crooked, dirty, walking with a stick, what could you possibly understand about our deep philosophical inquiries?”
Astavakra, exhausted from his efforts started to cry.
So looking at Gonzales work takes time, breath and stillness. One must allow the spaces to be filled and the darkness of the material to be illuminated. The eye needs time to take in all there is to see. The surface, welds, transitions, the shadow on the wall and the blinding white that creates reflections, illusions and illumination.
Verse 5.3 Astavakra Gita
Like an imagined snake in a rope
The universe appears to exist
in the immaculate self
but does not…
Some of the sculptures are studies. Images Gonzales made without the formal use of abstraction. There are hands, masks, and portraits. These pieces give us a clue into the artist’s visual language. We see from his rendered hand how to look at his abstracted one. And once we can see the hand within the abstraction we can infer feeling, emotion and the intent of the artist. The understanding of Gonzales visual language is like knowing a code, it conveys me into the invisible, or as we say in yoga, the subtle realm.
But the crying was not crying at all…Astavakra was laughing hysterically, so loudly that the king took notice and walked up to the haggard looking man.
Verse 7.5 Astavakra Gita
I am Awareness alone.
The world is passing show.
How can thoughts arise
Of acceptance or rejection?
With abstraction a single figure can imply place, as in cactus man, or age as in mask of an adolescent. A barrel and triangle can point to lovers, geometrically connected in iron, making them somehow more permanent, maybe even eternal?
How dare you laugh at our industry, who are you to come here and insult us. Astavakra took a deep breath and in a strong and booming voice replied to the king, “you all are nothing but jokes. I traveled a longtime because I heard there were wise men participating in thoughtful debates but now I see there is nothing here but clowns.”
He continued, “You and your teachers obviously know nothing about the Truth. You have illustrated this by judging my clothes and my body as indicators of who I am. You know nothing of permanence and reality.”
Verse 9.4 Astavakra Gita
Was there an age or time
men existed without opposites?
Leave the opposites behind.
Be content with what comes.
The subject matter of a woman and a mirror is very classical in nature but Gonzales abstraction makes it modern. His reduction of detail allows me to fill in the details of the form, offered in angles, shadows, surfaces, profiles and hollows. I love this quality in Gonzales sculpture and specifically the show at IVAM; I am free to see and to feel. I can ponder the time the artist was working and the circumstance of the world he lived in. I can relate these ponderings to my own situation drawing conclusions about the universality of the human experience but more importantly leaving me with questions, questions, and more questions.
The king heard the truth in Astavakra’s words. Immediately he dismissed his court, sending them all to the monastery for contemplation and reform. The king, Janaka, became Astavakra's private pupil for the rest of his life. The Astavakra Gita is the teaching exchanges between the two.
Verse 10.3 Astavakra Gita
Where there is desire, there is the world.
Be firm in non-attachment
Be free of Desire
You can download a free PDF version of Astavakra Gita translated by Bart Marshall here. I love Alana Kaivala's interpretations of the hindu myths. I also love how she connects those myths to the yoga poses and their meaning.