Sergio Prego. Thirteen to Centaurus - Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

2022-05-06 • 2024-11-30

Sergio Prego. Thirteen to Centaurus


Old Building


The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is activating the proposal BBKateak with the presentation of the installation Thirteen to Centaurus by the artist Sergio Prego (San Sebastián, 1969) specifically designed for the museum and, in particular, to exist alongside the implementation of its extension project.

Following the completion of the renovation of the 1945 building, over the coming weeks the museum will begin to move its collection to the 22 rooms that will remain open during the execution of the extension works. With the slogan A(r)teak zabalduz, the museum will reopen its doors on 20 June, on the façade of the old building and will exhibit, on a rotating basis, the work of one hundred artists in their own right from its collection, forming successive series (Kateak) of small exhibitions in a joint programme developed with BBK, the honorary patron of the museum.

In turn, the Thirteen to Centaurus intervention now occupies the recently renovated rooms of the old building that will be more implicated by the work of the extension project being carried out on its exterior vertical front. At a time when the architecture of the museum is taking on a special importance and taking advantage of the exceptional nature of the emptying out of these rooms, Prego proposes the experience of the sculptural in a unique interaction with the interior architecture of the museum. Formed by a chain of pneumatic modules that fills, on a massive scale, the space that houses it, it will function like a diaphragm that opens or closes according to the needs resulting from the transformation process of the museum.

With the dual reference of the experimentalism of the radical architecture of the sixties and seventies of the 20th centuries and its use of pneumatic structures—almost always ephemeral—to enable other forms of living, Prego here relativizes material mass as a constituent element of spatial experience while inserting his work into the genealogy of sculpture. 

In the science fiction story Thirteen to Centaurus, the author J.G. Ballard, weaves together utopian and dystopian images of the future to question the concept of progress that has characterised modernity and that has often come into conflict with ethical positions deriving from human experience. Inspired by this story, the intervention by Prego in the museum contrasts the spatial intrusion of geometric structures with the corporeality of the pneumatic membranes that form them.

Thirteen to Centaurus is the second specific intervention by Sergio Prego at the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao. In 2001, as part of the exhibition Gaur, Hemen, Orain, which served as the unveiling event of the last renovation of the museum, the artist produced one of his first sound installations House, Where is House? with which he also used the new architecture as a space for the reverberation of his work.

Thirteen to Centaurus

Envisioned by the artist Sergio Prego (San Sebastián, 1969) for the museum’s galleries during its enlargement, and taking advantage of the opportunity to remove the artworks from the collection from this work zone, Thirteen to Centaurus takes advantage of an extraordinary situation to propose a sculpture experience in interaction with the museum’s interior architecture.

A sequence of large pneumatic modules transforms the perception of ten adjacent galleries which comprise the architectural body of the museum’s old section. The installation is primarily made up of a series of fourteen modules located in space, sized to fit the galleries in which they are placed. These elements are articulated in relation to the symmetry lines of the different galleries, creating a pattern in which concatenated elements alternate either in physical continuity with one another or separated by the walls dividing the rooms or by empty spaces between geometrically similar edges which are parallel in space.

The membrane of the modules is based on the tetrahedron as an abstract model for their structure. It is the simplest regular solid with the greatest structural consistency: four equal triangular sides. Tetrahedrons are unique in that their edges do not match the axial edges of the orthonormal coordinate system, and they do not fit a cubic capacity system. That is, when these forms occupy a space they cannot completely fill it but instead leave interstitial spaces between them. As a result, their geometry is somewhat unsuited to the museum’s galleries as their container, whose structure becomes distorted and whose perception is hindered by the presence of the tetrahedrons. When the membrane is blown up, each of them transforms into a curved organic shape similar to a topology in which no other geometric elements can be identified except the two edges connecting the modules comprising the chain of tetrahedrons. The pneumatic structures can be described as organic shapes, such as organs or organisms, which consist in a membrane enclosed upon itself with orifices that regulate the relationship between inside and outside. The characteristics of these organic forms are determined by the plasticity of the surface tension of the membranes.

Five of the galleries which are aligned and comprise one wing of the architectural body containing this installation are occupied by modules with translucent membranes that barge into the space like alien bodies. The masses occupy exactly one-half of the width of those five galleries on the side where the doorways connecting them are, such that they interfere with a linear route and force sinuous circulation. In their path, the spectators are sometimes very close or in physical contact with them while in other stretches they are under the membranes that filter the light from the skylights. The non-orthonormal structure transforms the perception of and passage through the gallery space.

On the opposite wing comprised of the other five galleries, the modules are made of an opaque black membrane. They are placed in the lengthwise half opposite to the straight line of circulation created by the doorways connecting the galleries. The chain of sculptures is hung on the wall, fitting just over the border caused by the space between the skirting board and the moulding, which bounds it from above. In this wing, the massive black bodies are situated on the opposite side of the circulation route like entities at a contemplative distance.

In parallel, a number of figurative drawings on paper are hung along the entire exhibition opposite to the walls occupied by the modules. The drawings are present as the most familiar way of representing life and humanity, in dialogue and dissonance with the violence generated by the abstract and yet organic presence of the modular pneumatic elements.

The project also incorporates an installation with images of two or three works from the collection in the same place where they used to be in its most recent arrangement. In this way, the project is inscribed within the context of the museum that is empty both spatially in its architectural form and temporally in relation to its preservation function. One or two framed pneumatic membranes on the borders of the room contain photographs of the works chosen on a true-to-life scale, such that viewing them is mediated by the translucent plastic membrane interposed between the spectator and the photograph, which fulfils a protective function like a frame, distancing us from the image and leading our perception of it to vanish in a haze.

In the science-fiction story, Thirteen to Centaurus, J. G. Ballard describes the experiment in which some subjects’ lives unfold in utter isolation in a dome, simulating the conditions of intergenerational interstellar travel, without either contact with or knowledge of the outside world. The purpose is to consider the factors of human behaviour that have led past attempts at space colonisation to fail. Doctor Roger Francis is in charge of psychologically tracking the subjects of the study and secretly leaves on a regular basis to coordinate the progress of the project and the support and maintenance tasks with the outside team maintaining the facilities. After 50 years, the decline in public and political support endangers the project, and he desperately asks that the research be continued so it can be concluded in the very distant future:

‘… If the project ends it will be we who have failed, not them. We can’t rationalize by saying it’s cruel or unpleasant. We owe it to the fourteen people in the dome to keep it going.’

Chalmers watched him shrewdly. ‘Fourteen? You mean thirteen, don’t you, Doctor? Or are you inside the dome too?’

The obscure story interlinks utopian and dystopian images of the future associated with questioning the forms of progress that have characterised modernity, whose development has often collided with ethical and moral positions resulting from human experience. This association resonates in the attempts to use the pneumatic structures commonly found in the radical architecture experiments of the 1960s and 1970s by José Miguel de Prada Poole, Event Structure Research Group, Ant Farm and Hans Walter Muller, among others, who have been and continue to be touchstones for the artist. When working on them, pneumatic architecture has questioned the massive use of material resources to create other forms of inhabiting. With this experimental quest inserted within the genealogy of sculpture, the use of pneumatic membranes is connected to questioning material mass as an element constitutive of spatial experience.

Sergio Prego