Moisès Villèlia

(Barcelona, 1928 - 1994)

The ribbon and the star


Moisès Villèlia’s fascination for the so-called natural cultures, expressed in a multitude of ways throughout his career, reached the point of motivating in him, albeit episodically, the ambitions of a scientist of pre-history, when he wrote a valuable short essay based on studies that he undertook of the extinct Quitu-Cara people during his stay in Ecuador. There is a significant document in this essay, published in 1972, because it goes into detail on the functional dimension of specific ceramic objects found by archaeologists. Moreover, it outlines his reading of their decorative ornaments which were used as an ideographic register previous to writing, and whose expressive intent is related to the concerns of its author’s artistic work. As well as discovering, for example, different mechanical and graphic characteristics relating to their use – based on the incised baked earth cylindrical seals, or piquenus, at the heart of this ancient culture – Villèlia exercised his formidable curiosity by understanding the connection between the distinctive ornamental language in these and other artifacts and an unequivocal meaning of belonging to the territory, the northern-eastern area of this Andean country, whose inhabitants understood to be the centre of the cosmos.

This is explained by their awareness of the equinoctial line, which crosses the territory of this indigenous culture. According to Villèlia, components of their cosmogony, their mythical references and the geographical characteristics of the jungle in north-western Ecuador, and their celestial horizon are incorporated into their instrumentation of the decorative language. This occurs in the mechanics of complementation between halves, expressed in the use of the cylindrical seals through counter-balanced prints of the same ornamental motif. They appear on the surface in a complete way, an important image (a dancer, mask, stylized god), corresponding to what in cosmogony is the centre, the union of the hemispheres, the balance between counter-balanced elements. He – the productive creator of “plastic acts”, as Alexandre Cirici Pellicer had described him the previous decade – showed that the seals were not merely for printing decorative friezes, but rather for creating a drawing with ideographic value, depending on the combination and coupling of the prints, which he explained in his essay. The cosmological duality between water and earth, known in tribal myths inherited from this pre-Hispanic culture, is also compensated, for example, with living similes of unity and fullness such as the rainbow, whose visual appearance they attribute to the consistency of a superior power that can express itself. Indeed, we know from the studies by Claude Lévi-Strauss of the meaning attributed to the rainbow in tribal cultures in equatorial and tropical America, whereby it is considered to be a bridge between counter-balanced elements such as earth and sky; it does not just have beneficial attributes, but is also considered to be a terrible spirit, purveyor of cataclysms, as occurs with the serpent and other motifs. In any case, those signs in which disjunction operates serve as a gloss for a human existence dependent on them for its understanding of the cosmos. According to Villèlia, the decisive factor is to understand the way the ornamental grammar communicates its sense of belonging to the environment and the horizon. The work of the artisan is defined as a cosmogonic stimulus, and its decorative impulse, he would say, works according to an “experiential matrix” of the world. In the relationships, that he feels live on in the Quitu-Cara culture, Villèlia sees much of what concerns him in his own artistic work. Juan Eduardo Cirlot had pointed this out ten years previously, in Cuadernos de Arquitectura in 1962, noting that “he loves bringing opposites together” as if joining two halves had become the rule in the formation of his artifacts. The celestial horizon presented itself to this artist, blessed with a passion, as an unescapable area to relate to: just as it had done for the inhabitants of the mythical world.

“Grab the thread and take it to the star”, says the first of the six verses which make up the poem Joan Brossa dedicated to Villèlia in 1960; and continues, “you put it inside the ribbon and the thread becomes free”. The thread traces an ascending-descending path that connects to the star, that keeps it in the constellation created by the thread, organized according to the art by whom weaves without a loom, such as spiders, and styles the thread to link terms, to link what without it was separated in the distance, thus suggesting an advanced form of writing for natural communication. The two verses which conclude another poem by Joan Brossa describe this non-mechanized weaving industry, the poem emerging from the hands: “And the poem is resting on the knot”. The sculptures, or rather, the drawings with a physical consistency in space, that Villèlia called spider webs, were prominent in his work, at least from 1959 onwards. Weaves of knots, links and relationships in the warp of a space waiting to bind us to its cosmogonic will spread out in those fabrics without a loom, made by hand, as they could have been made by mouth. Not in vain did that verse by Brossa use the word star as a limit that moved the hands of his artist friend.

The ascending path, like those of plants reaching for the light, endows Villèlia’s artifacts with a unique urgency. Thus, the sculptures created using onion stem, cactus fibre, cabbage stalk, cork and others, made in the fifties, that, even if they were, were not created in anticipation of the povera aesthetic, but rather eminent objects climbing in the void attracted by life. In times of scarcity the humblest materials give life to the imagery, found objects can be plastically rehabilitated – in the same way as birds weave them together to make their nests – and become transformed in vision and in its habitat. A memorable photo, taken in 1958, shows Moisès Villèlia and his life partner, Magda Bolumar, standing in Carrer de Mataró next to the sculpture made from onion stems, standing upright like a flame by a peeling wall with a large poster on it, advertising a show: The Passion. Both of them care for the fruitful ascending onion trophy, directed towards the light of the poster. There is also a star here, unfolded in the form of an advertisement, towards which the fibre is led, tied at its base.

In contrast, the spider webs are devices in which the knot, this figure created by the thread drawn in space, multiplies in a game of relationships we would call anaphora in a poem, network in the architecture of insects, and grid in decorative language. “My passion is ichthyography”, he writes in 1973. These webs may be likened to the mechanism of drawing which would later be the subject of the aforementioned study by Villèlia in Ecuador: the network of prints made by the prehistoric cylindrical seals, the counter-balanced coupling of the same matrix that gives rise to the complete ideogram. They are something else, but also plot and trance, like the expansive imagery of the piquenus. The singularity, the specific singularity of a spider web in relation to any other web consists of the trace of the threads coinciding with the trace of the paths travelled, in other words, the drawing results entirely from the movements made in the space by its creator. The spider web paradigmatically illustrates that suggestive assertion that we find in the writing Evidentemente (Evidently) by Ángel González García: “weaving is like travelling”. And the journey towards the stars, as we have shown, is not excluded from the spider web that Moisès, creator of cosmogonically unwrapped diagrams, suspends in the air.

Spider webs often form part of the plastic order of mobiles, a radically light elocution of the sculpture that dominated Villèlia’s work since the end of the fifties, apt for the artifacts of a poet subjected to sensations of space in the distance. “All events are arranged and regenerated in the great bed of the firmament”, we read in Las cometas (Kites), a book of poems and drawings from his time in Cabrils, begun in 1960. By comparison with the master, Àngel Ferrant – whom Villèlia acknowledged was the greatest influence on his work, and who was neo pre-historic and the one who introduced mobiles and the changeable sculptures to us – the author of Las cometas held a lifelong affection for the sky as destination for plastic communication; something we do not see in Ferrant.

Trained as he was in the woodworking trade, a self-taught sculptor and absolutely free spirit, his hands were those of a maker’s talent, that assemble, cut, tie, weave and finally offer to nature a calligraphy sanctioned by a wild understanding. His artifacts are fixed on the firmament as the interlocutor of any plastic effort in the distance. He does not compete, nor impose, nor limit: nature is not represented in his artifacts, rather it is the object of question, and these other talismans that provide protection to the amazed knowledge of space. “Man makes sculpture before the universe”, declared Villèlia to Sebastià Gasch in an interview published in Destino in 1956. The trade of that tenacious creator of machines against human estrangement, compelled by the natural writing, skilled in the use of tools, was transcribed as sound material in the composition Peça per serra mecànica, that Josep Mestres Quadreny made in 1964 from direct sound recordings in the artist’s workshop in Cabrils. The dimension of pure listening, inherent in the sculptor’s work, was admirably inverted in the dimension of sound in this memorable piece of electronic music. The piece takes its pulse from the sound of the tools as partner in flight of the sculptures, made in fibre cement at the time, but equally prone to elevation and tribal imageries. In front of sculpture perpetuated as monument, with a plastic intent that is solemn, charged, engraved with representative intention, Villèlia arranges his materials, processes and forms for lightness and travel. We know from his time in Paris that he enjoyed going to the Polynesian art section in the anthropological museum, Musée de l’Homme, and how little the monumental statues attracted him in other museums. “I have to draw light / and / dialogue with the waters”, said the master in Las cañas (Reeds), a suite of drawings and poems published in Quito in 1971. The restorative totem, the physical currency that activates the instance of cosmological relation for the subject, frequently takes on the consistency of a suspended plastic device in his work. Mobiles, in effect, have a striking presence, dazzling in their insistence, exceptional among the creators of his time and caring for a sensitivity, so to speak, incidental, whose discipline hangs by a thread. The mobiles exhort, like the kites, to the exploration of distant realities; the thread hangs below the kites and above in the mobiles, but in one and the other the body in suspension makes perceptible hidden presences in the space of belonging on which they act. “Launch your kite at night (…) / You will be held on by a simple thread / insinuator of different places”, says Villèlia in Las cometas. The sign held by the mobile, “subject to a simple thread”, or the set of signs suspended like sensors in the void of the sculpture, as divinatory linguistic organs, seeking a symbolic agreement with nature.

Villèlia’s feat is that of a builder whose visual requirements tirelessly obey his hands, skilled in transforming materials, among them the hollow and knotty canes, or the reed, or the varieties of bamboo that he worked with, adjusted determinedly to the requirements of the ritual imagery. In the aforementioned book Las cañas, he says: “much loneliness has / what a reed has / and / does not know how to make a FLUTE”. The domain of the trade fulfils this purpose: to overcome isolation in the cosmos, integrate the surrounding world into the sense of belonging. Like the flute, the artifact of pieces that have been carved, assembled and driven to recreate a primal celebration for the world they adorn, is also an instrument against individualization. The manual worker transitively works creative time to adapt themself to their unfathomable future, as we can see in Villèlia. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who was one of the greatest singers of the praises of manual workers, repeatedly refers in his essays to a quality of poetry whose value gets to the point, when we look at the way the Catalan artist defends his trade: firmness when faced with subjugation. The experience of poetry, which unleashes euphoria and has a high capacity for redemption, drags, according to Heaney, among other things, a form of inner revolt in the face of something that miserably determines the life of individuals, and more so in their workplace: subjugation. In Villèlia’s prodigious production we find the work of someone whose serfdom is to none other than rebellion and a love for nature. An unquestionable aspiration for freedom forges his works and at the same time expresses to us a request for poetry against subjugation. The invitations to peace, to loyalty to animals, to the abolition of imposture and the rectification of history are contained in his writings and drawings, in the games he designed and the utopia that populates his artifacts. But above all, the freedom of his work is included, not as a gift, but as a corrective virtue.

When they returned from Ecuador in 1972, Villèlia and his family decided to settle in a village in the Pyrenees, Molló, in the Ripollès region. They spent more than twenty fruitful years, the final ones for this artist from Barcelona, in this chosen corner, in whose nature his imagination and his work of action at a distance felt comfortable. “I am from a country / where man / dreamt of the sea / and worked the land”, wrote Villèlia in Quito in 1970. Having returned to his country, in the Catalan Pyrenees he regained his energetic commitment to a sculptural world in suspension, advised by the mythical presentiment and willing to naturally combine manual work and remoteness. In the photographs taken by Antonio Orzáez between 1974 and 1987, we see an exceptional testimony to the way in which the conceives – typically Villèlia inserts – his work in the surroundings of his return to Catalonia. One of those from 1974, taken not in Molló but in Park Güell, specifically in one of the caves which Antoni Gaudí used to represent the primal natural model of architecture, portrays the six-metre mobile sculpture made from reed and lacquered wire that Villèlia had made a year previously. It hangs in the mouth of the cave as a colossal figuration of the healing spirit. The opus incertum of this architecture mounted in the Park Güell presents in its prehistoric frame to the air that rocks the sculpture arranged between the gaze and the horizon. His light writing of natural ideography intercedes, mediates, participates, suspended like fishing tackle seen from below, to lend its vigour to the gaze. The thorn of a being with an ability to take flight in the vertical line protects the sight of the horizon in the entrance to the cavern that welcomes us.


Javier Arnaldo