Studio Visit: Isaac Cordal

Studio Visit: Isaac Cordal

“When does the moment come when you say: maybe it’s time to buy a helicopter?” Isaac Cordal (born in 1974) says it with a likeable grin, but he knows how to connect the dots. Since 2006, moreover, the Galician street artist has made it his task to add (at times minuscule) touches to the streets of London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Milan, Berlin, and Brussels, among other cities – touches that evoke something much bigger. “Small interventions in the big city,” is what he calls his Cement Eclipses, little statuettes in cement that appear on the streets, solo or in groups, and achieve enormous expressive power through their austere, undefined look and their meticulous, meaningful positioning. “Our gaze is so strongly focused on beautiful, large things, whereas the city also contains zones that have the potential to be beautiful, or that were really beautiful in the past, which we overlook. I find it really interesting to go looking for those very places and via small-scale interventions to develop a different way of looking at our behaviour as a social mass.”

(© Isaac Cordal)

Cordal develops his reflection on humanity and its behaviour – and the consequences of that behaviour – against a background of rundown districts and grey urban monotony. In addition to submissiveness, individualism, and the inculcated fantasies of uniformity, he also focuses on the ecological effects of our actions. He is fascinated by the nooks and crannies in the city where nature tries to survive. Summer Sponsored by BP shows a swimmer whose underside is painted in sticky black. And at Beaufort04, the fourth edition of the Triennial of Contemporary Art by the Sea, Cordal is exhibiting Waiting for Climate Change, an installation that presents his little cement statues, in an almost apocalyptic way, on the beach at De Panne and in Villa Le Chalutier.

(© Isaac Cordal)

It was on that same coast, standing in the garden of a villa in Knokke, that, to his surprise, he saw that helicopter. “What is it that drives you to buy one of those? When do you make that decision? You’re sitting at the dinner table with your wife and kids, and suddenly your wife asks you: ‘What’s the matter, love? What are you thinking about?’ ‘Oh, nothing, I was just thinking about buying a helicopter.’ [laughs]” For Isaac Cordal it can serve as a symbol of inequality, of the power and oddness of the one per cent of the population, of the intertwining of politics and economics, and of the changed concept of individualism: “Before, as an individual you were much more part of a group. That is much less so now. At the same time there are also lots of people who work hard for a local community. Here in Etterbeek there are several little groups like that who organise things together. That makes life more pleasant for everyone.

(© Isaac Cordal)

Five years ago ‘global’ was the big word. Now you can see that local work coming more to the fore.”In that limited, local context, Cordal’s little Cement Eclipses, incorporated into the fabric of the city, generate sparks of astonishment. Another work, Cement Bleak, is equally fascinating: by bending sieves and making use of the existing street lighting, Cordal is able to conjure up magnificent, ghostly shadows of faces on the street – a splendid, temporary way of immersing the city in magic.

Cordal’s Cement Eclipses make visible what tends to disappear in the everyday urban maze and the anonymity of the crowd. “From when you’re in school you get the same values served up, the same upbringing. They teach us to see the same horizon, to have the same ideas... If they could do that, they would. But even though we resemble each other, we are still different people.” The cement figures arouse empathy as they confront us with changes in the city’s social cohesion. “Lots of people find them very sad and negative, but I think there is also a lot of humour to them.” But the laughter they evoke is no belly-laugh provoked by jokes; it is more of a slight smile at the acute, caustic absurdity and recognisability of the scenes Cordal puts together. “I’m not trying to tell jokes. I’m aiming for a more critical kind of art. For me, street art is a way of combat, a way of expressing my ideas. A sort of activism.”

The little statues with which Cordal roams the city take shape in his studio, which currently means one room in his flat in Etterbeek. “All that dust doesn’t go down very well,” he told us with a laugh. “I have looked for a studio near home, but that turned out to be difficult and expensive. It is cheaper than in London, alright, but in the guise of a studio you get offered a room with a table and it turns out you have to share it with twenty other people, moreover. [laughs]” On a shelf there are tubes of modelling clay for children and clementine boxes. On the floor of his studio lies a piece of linoleum on which he makes the moulds and casts his little cement figures. On the table and in cupboards there is a whole collection of unpainted little statuettes, waiting to be sent out on patrol. Riot police, businessmen, combative street rebels, and melancholy figures staring dully, who bring sorrow and the accompanying catharsis to the streets. “I make them here, but it is outdoors that the real work begins. The street is great: you can just use the space that is there. I find it more difficult to create the setting myself in a gallery. In the city everything is there at hand: puddles, holes in the roadway, etc. Sometimes I go looking for those places and come back to them later. At other times it is more spontaneous, spur of the moment. You get a lot of reactions, too while you're making something. People start asking whether you made that hole in the street yourself. [laughs] In Milan someone stood there for ten minutes thinking about what he saw.”

Another effect of the public nature of the work is less positive. “In London the statuettes disappear very rapidly. There are lots of people interested in street art.” Just in recent weeks, here in Brussels you could see Bonom in the Botanique and Invader in Alice Gallery. Street art has become established in the galleries and is spotted more often in the places where it first appears. “Yeah, street art is trendy. But that’s good, if you ask me. Street art has been there for a long time and is now getting a bit more attention. The internet is something that, I think, has turned out to be very good for street art, as artists can immediately broadcast their work. Previously, it was more ephemeral. It was only people who were on the spot at that moment that could see it. These days you can do something in the middle of nowhere and make it known worldwide just five minutes later. I don’t like all street art, but I do see it as something positive. I like the idea that you are giving something to the city for free. I can’t imagine a city without street art. That would be very boring.”

BOROUGH: Etterbeek
11/5 > 10/6, Centre for Fine Arts: Canvascollectie/Collection RTBF (several photos of Cement Eclipses),
31/3 > 30/9, De Panne beach & Villa Le Chalutier: Beaufort04 (Waiting for Climate Change),
10/2012, Harlan Levey Projects: solo exhibition,
BOOK: Cement Eclipses. Small Interventions in the Big City (published by Carpet Bombing Culture, 256 pages)

Photos © Heleen Rodiers

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