FÜNF: Playfulness and Poetry with Ethel Shipton

“I love the fact that the piece becomes precious because of this installation, but the materials aren’t necessarily precious. So that combination of, if you needed to define it, high-low. It allows the viewer to feel connected to it, without being intimidated by it. So, there is playfulness, there’s poetry…”

Playfulness and poetry are indeed what we experienced while sitting with artist Ethel Shipton, in the middle of her installation, at Blue Star Contemporary (BSC). Every year BSC selects four Bexar County artists for a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Germany. Residents are given a studio and living space for three months and are in residence with other artists from around the world. Not to mention, they get to experience life in Berlin for a while. After the residency, they are given a space at Blue Star Contemporary to create a show based on their experience while in Berlin. 

Ethel Shipton and Deliasofia Zacarias discussing her installation in FÜNF.

While investigating her studio at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Shipton came across a box of materials; remnants the artists before her left behind. While rummaging through this box of abandoned items, Shipton came across a lot of tape. Yes, everyday masking tape. So, she thought about her Moments Series — a series of work that captures moment’s in Shipton’s everyday life through simple words or images — and decided to use the tape to create a landscape on this “beautiful blank wall” in her studio. 

Upon entering the gallery where Shipton’s installation is, you’re instantly greeted by the image of a dwelling — a casita, if you will. The door is almost directly in the center of the entrance to the gallery, and has a doormat that reads “hola” in chunky black masking tape. You see peeks of the environment — lines of varying lengths of brightly colored masking tape and vinyl cutouts of plants. As you walk closer to the gallery and eventually enter it, you enter into an environment full of playful exuberance, bounding movement, thriving vines, and flying birds. There are tall sky-scrapers surrounded by squat buildings and other towering spaces. Each building has a unique set of windows and colors. In a corner, a collection of ladders are falling over each other, impossibly entwined. 

View of Ethel Shipton’s Installation. Photo by Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray. Courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary.

I was lucky enough to be able to help Ethel in her studio in preparation for this exhibition and during the installation. During the hours we spent together, what stuck out to me most was the idea that there are, in the artist’s words, “no mistakes.” I asked her about this mantra during our time in the gallery, to which she responded,

“Particularly, when you do installations, I love … other work is very tight and specific work. It has to be perfect. That work can happen in the studio by yourself…This is a moment where you can just build anything you want. It’s made of tape and sticky vinyl so If I didn’t like something, I would just take it off and start again. But because there was such a rhythm of movement, literally with the piece, but then with everyone that was helping me, that allows for openness, experience, and creativity. Where everybody can have a hand in it, for that moment, while we’re in here.”

During the first day of installation, everyone there to help with the install was hesitant at first. We kept asking for clarification on if this or that was okay. She would provide guidance and tell us what her vision was, but in a nutshell pretty much just told us to go for it. We grew more comfortable with the idea of helping her create her vision and things quickly fell into place. 

The left and center walls form the cityscape. A space that, Shipton shared, is not meant to be San Antonio. There are elements of the installation that remind her of San Antonio — unique occurrences that she encounters in her day to day. One such instance is the image of the Chihuahua chasing a chicken. However, it’s really meant to be just a combination cityscape with moments that might relate to anyone, from anywhere. 

As you turn to the right of the gallery, you encounter a pedestal with a ball of rolled up masking tape encased in a clear, plastic case. The ball of tape is what Shipton calls Mural Resting, and is quite literally the mural that she created on the walls of her studio in Berlin. The ball of tape is a relic of her time and experience in Berlin and reminds her of all of the things that we discard in life, as well as those we carry with us. 

“This ball of tape just sat on my desk for a long time. And so it became a relic…I think those relics are interesting because we all have stuff we discard, or residue, or lives that have come and gone. And they’re still relevant. That’s a bit of the metaphor for that. I would say that in some ways, the thing that gives it preciousness…is just what was. It’s interesting in the sense of what you carry with you in your own life and your own experiences. Those things are precious but it’s what was.”

Ethel Shipton, Mural Resting. Photo by Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray. Courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary.

Mural Resting sits right before the entrance to the video in the next room, Beauty in Time. The room is dark, with the animation of Shipton’s installation of the mural in Berlin playing in the center of the far wall. There are benches for visitors to sit down and observe the video, which features a beautiful and melodic instrumental piece. The video room is quiet and still, while simultaneously full of movement and sound. When you turn to exit the video gallery, you’re greeted with white vines falling along the wall, mimicking the colorful vines that make their way through the cityscape beyond. Again, you are greeted with the remnants of the mural you just watched come to life. 

Photo by Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray. Courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary.

We asked Ethel about the ephemeral quality of the installation. She linked the ephemeral aspect of the mural with moments in life, “I think [memories are] fleeting. I think you have to catch them when you can. I think memories morph and change. Those change forms, just like your physical environment changes form. There’s always a flux.”

As you turn to leave Shipton’s installation, you’re again greeted with something above the door. A poetic farewell that reads, “There is beauty in time. You just have to hear it.” Yes, we had actual chills during this conversation. What initially feels like a playful and joyous space (don’t get us wrong, it is definitely that), becomes an experience that is almost, dare I say, meditative?  If you haven’t seen this installation, take the opportunity to experience it while you can. And if you went to the opening on First Friday, let me tell you, going back without all the bustle of First Friday is a wholly different encounter. Like her Berlin installation, this mural is fleeting, and it’s a moment you definitely have to encounter while you can. 

Photo by Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray. Courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary.

FÜNF is on view until September 8, 2019 at Blue Star Contemporary. The exhibition also features Amada Miller, Andrei Renteria, and Jared Theis. Unfiltered will be interviewing each artist in the exhibition and sharing their experiences during the their time in Germany and the resulting work, in upcoming features. 

Blue Star Contemporary 

116 Blue Star

San Antonio TX, 78204

p: 210.227.6960

e: bsc@bluestarcontemporary.org


Author: Casie Lomeli

Casie Lomeli is one of the Unfiltered San Antonio co-founders. With a background in art history and business, Lomeli is currently focused on design, curation, and hopping from art event to art event.

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