Stone and Sky: a new work by the great Víctor Erice

One of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, Víctor Erice is also, sadly, one of the least prolific. For various reasons, since first attracting attention in 1973 with The Spirit of the Beehive, he has made only two further features (1983’s The South – which he himself regards as incomplete – and 1992’s The Quince Tree Sun) and a number of short films, the longest and most substantial of which are La Morte Rouge (2006) and Broken Windows, part of the 2012 compilation film Centro histórico. Both these last titles are, in my opinion, major achievements notwithstanding their half-hour running times, so – like quite a few others – I’m always keen to see any new work produced by this famously perfectionist artist Unsurprising, then, that when I found myself in the Basque Country during the recent holidays, I headed for the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, where Erice’s latest creation is currently on view.

Stone and Sky – Harria eta zerua in Basque, Piedra y cielo in Spanish – is a two-screen video installation that lasts around 17 minutes, so I’m obviously not suggesting completists should jump on a plane to see it; that said, if you do find yourself in northern Spain or southwest France at any point during the next couple of months, you might consider making a detour to the city (where you could also visit the Guggenheim Museum and one of the many fine eateries). I sat through Stone and Sky twice as well as taking in one of the Museo’s other exhibitions, and I’m certainly glad I made the trip.

Stone and Sky is the ‘most Basque’ work yet by Erice, who was born and spent his first 17 years in Karrantza, about 50km west of Bilbao, before he moved as a student to Madrid, where he lives to this day. It was filmed on Mount Agiña in the province of Navarra; at the summit there is a memorial built in 1959 and dedicated to the Basque composer and musicologist Aita Donostia (real name José Gonzalo Zulaika, 1886-1956), which consists of a tiny chapel designed by the architect Luis Vallet de Montano and a funeral stele by the celebrated Basque sculptor (and occasional poet) Jorge Oteiza (1908-2003). Even if it were due only to the links with Oteiza and Aita Donostia – both figures of no little cultural significance for many Basques – the site would be important, but there is more to it than that. There is also a prehistoric stone circle there which, as Erice explains in a text written to accompany the installation, has iconic value not only as an ancestral space – the Basques, denied their own history and language for so many years under Franco, are particularly interested in and proud of their prehistoric traces – but quite possibly as a circle representing stars and constellations, and hence as a relic of a pre-Christian astral religion. To support such a reading of the site, Erice points out that we should ‘bear in mind that Urtzi, the Basque name for God – which seems to date from the 12th century – meant “firmament”.’

stone and sky
Night: the stele and the chapel

The installation comprises two short films screened sequentially on opposite walls in the room, the first representing day, the second night. Erice’s method is deceptively simple, and reminiscent of The Clamour of the World, the Silence of Painting, an installation he created in 2005 in which he animated or brought to life paintings by Antonio López (the artist featured in The Quince Tree Sun) by means of added sound design and changes in light. Here Erice does something similar – albeit considerably more ambitious and complex – for the stele, the chapel, the stone circle and the panorama from the peak of Mount Agiña. In the first film, the sun rises, birds begin singing, and – probably heard before it’s noticed in the top-left corner – a plane passes overhead, emblematic of how this seemingly ancient site exists in time, which includes modernity. (Indeed, in another example of the outside world’s influence on the sacred location, we can see the damage inflicted on Oteiza’s stele when it was vandalised by another sculptor in 1992.) Over the next ten minutes or so, the day passes, ending as darkness falls, at which point the second film begins and night takes over. As evoked by Erice’s camera, lighting and sound design, the moon (Ilargi in Basque, meaning the light of the dead) plays its own tricks with the monument and landscape, investing them with a strangely luminous, numinous life force seemingly connected to the movements of the celestial bodies above. A nightingale sings, dogs howl, an owl hoots, trees rustle in the wind, and the moon traverses the sky.

victor and stele
Erice in the shadow of Oteiza’s stele

Erice also includes extracts from two poems by Oteiza – not spoken but printed on the screen – and Andante dolorosa, a short piano piece by Aita Donostia; as ever, he is expert at discovering and exploring links between different aspects of experience. But what is most impressive about Stone and Sky is how Erice transforms the memorial site into a magical, mystical place where the combination of time’s passing and the influence of the vast cosmos exerts an almost supernatural power. In this respect, the installation takes its place alongside the extended opening shot of The South, the enigmatic nocturnal shenanigans in López’s studio towards the end of The Quince Tree Sun, and the nightmarish shadows at play in a child’s bedroom in La Morte Rouge as another of Erice’s lyrical and meticulously mounted meditations on the mysterious relationship between art – and more specifically film – on the one hand, and life or nature on the other. At the heart of that relationship is time itself, coupled with the changes in light and darkness which time almost inevitably produces. The installation may have been commissioned by the Bilbao museum, but it remains an Erice creation through and through. Just as we are repeatedly led in his films to the realisation that, beyond the intensely focused subjectivity of any individual, there is a far bigger, more complex, less easily comprehensible world of signs and wonders, so in this latest work we are made to see that stone, seemingly immobile, unchanging, lifeless, may look rather different when viewed from the perspective of an ancient and infinite universe.

Stone and Sky will continue to be exhibited in Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes until the end of March 2020. See https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/stone-and-sky-278 for further details. Photographs courtesy of the Museo de Bellas Artes and Nautilus Films.

victor and moon
Erice and ‘the light of the dead’

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