The Slow Art of Acupuncture

by Beatriz Colomina


On a very hot afternoon last summer I visited Tres Aguas in Toledo and saw the city in a way I have never seen it before. This was not the Toledo of the tourists that descend in droves from their buses and follow a guide holding a flag or an umbrella, moving fast from one monument to another as if in a kind of daze with the guide barking snippets of pre-digested information. The world of tourism is increasingly the world of the viewer of art, who according to recent museum research spends on average fifteen seconds in front of a painting. Cristina Iglesias slows us down, which is not an easy task in our Attention Deficit Disorder times.  Her ambition is to awaken our senses, to help us relearn to see with all of our body.

The first intervention is a water tower outside the city walls, a Mudéjar structure from the 19th century where you have to climb the three stories of the outside staircase Iglesias has restored,  immersed in ever-expanding views of the city, the fields, the River Tagus and the terrain  on the opposite bank, before slipping into the dark space of the tower with its vertiginous view of the pool at the bottom, which fills very slowly as you watch it, mesmerised while descending the inner staircase, a mirror of the one outside, getting closer and closer, slowly becoming aware of the little changes in the colour and shape of the intricate tangle of branches, leaves and mud in green and silvery steel, the evolving reflection of the interior of the tower in the water, the sound of the water gurgling, of the birds outside, of insects everywhere, things coming progressively into focus down to the little beetles crawling the rail that prevents the visitor from falling in the pool at ground level. 

When the pool is full, it is a perfect mirror of everything and everybody around it. The windows are now rectangles of light, floating deep under the water and you see yourself upside down inhabiting the space on the other side of the barely visible surface. But just as the water reaches its limit, it begins to drain, imperceptively at first, until there is practically no water left, just a few small pockets of water in the crenellations of the basin. How long has it been? The process of the water flowing in and emptying away takes seventeen minutes or so, but you have lost track of time by then and that is precisely the point. Perhaps you have watched the cycle many times without realising it.  The work produces a reflective experience in which the more you look the more you see - as if the artist was asking us to slow down, to look again, to take time, to take hold of time.

From the tower we walked upstream beside the river towards the city, occasionally big fish jumping in the water, herons resting on slippery rocks in the river as if taking a break from the intense heat, big butterflies crossing our way, floating so close to our eyes that every detail in the pattern of their wings becomes visible, the relentless sound of crickets in heat, mosquitoes biting our legs, as if to remind us that we are here, the smell of grass, of the River Tagus, the longest in Spain, making its way towards Portugal and out into the Atlantic.   Iglesias associates water with tolerance. Water is used ritualistically in all three cultures and religions in Toledo. Water is what they shared. We start climbing the narrow streets of a city once populated by Muslims, Jews and Christians, who lived in harmony for centuries, as Rosa Menocal so beautifully reminded us in The Ornament of the World, an important reference to Iglesias. [1] We are on our way to the other two meditative water installations, in the tiny cell of an abandoned nun’s convent and in the largest plaza, slow art that allows us to see the city as if for the first time, to see the city in seeing the water.

In each of the three interventions an almost imperceptible movement of water pulls us into an immersive trance. From the river we crossed the Arab wall of the city and the Juderia with its synagogue, Ibn Shushan, said to be the oldest still standing in Europe. It was built in 1180 during the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use and is considered a symbol of the civic cohabitation of the three cultures during the Middle Ages. In the 15th century it became Santa Maria La Blanca without significant changes to the architecture.   Making our way up through the network of small streets, we reached the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the biggest square in Toledo, a triangular space surrounded by the 13th century Gothic cathedral that was built on top of a former mosque, the Palacio Arzobispal (Archbishop’s Palace) of the 15th century and the Casa Consistorial (now the Town Hall), a building began in 1575 and in which Juan de Herrera, architect of the Escorial, worked on the façade. Within this extraordinary density of architectural culture Iglesias has cut into the ground of the square a kind of horizontal fountain, twenty three metres long and not quite rectangular.  The basin of patinated stainless steel cast consists of a thicket of tangled roots in a kind of riverbed.  Inside the basin, a deeper channel has been cut, sloping down in the direction of the river. It is as if the river itself surfaces in the middle of the plaza. The water runs down this channel for about ten minutes and then disappears.  The basin remains empty for several minutes, the riverbed glistening in the sun, until the water starts slowly to flow back up the channel, filling not just the channel but eventually the entire pool, as if in a kind of flood. When full to the same level of the plaza, the pool remains surprisingly still for five minutes, a perfect mirror of all the buildings and people around it, and then slowly drains and the cycle starts again. We see the city not in the monuments around us but in the ebb and flow of the water.

Why are we so transfixed by these pools? What psychic nerve has been touched here that we find ourselves absorbed in their contemplation? We associate our ‘self’ with motion, as the neuroscientist Sebastian Seung reminds us: “Psyche comes from the Greek ‘to blow’.” Seung is studying the ‘connectome’, the dense place of connections in our brain where memories are recorded. Trying to map it is a very arduous process. “Imagine a river,” he says, “the roiling waters of the Colorado. That is our experience from moment to moment. Over time, the water leaves its mark on the riverbed, widening bends, tracing patterns in the rock and soil. In a sense, the Grand Canyon is a memory of where the Colorado has been…There are two selves then, river and riverbed. The river is all tumult and drama. The river demands attention.” [2]  Yet it’s apparently the riverbed that Seung wants to know, the lingering set of connections that has been built. The eroded marked surface is not simply a record or an image of what has occurred. It is the very basis of thought. 

The Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the most public space of the three interventions. It will be the one seen by more people, even if many may not realise what they are looking at, stumbling out of the cathedral into the blinding sunlight in the square and finding themselves staring into a strange pool, which depending on the moment, might be empty, the tangle of green steel leaves and roots a kind of drained lake, or completely full, a horizontal mirror of everything around it, including themselves. But most likely it will be somewhere in-between, water running through the channel in the middle, or water gurgling down and slowly revealing the underworld of the pool.  Seeing here is a social act, shared not only with those around the basin, the tourists and the locals who constantly cross the square on their way to other parts of the city, but with many around the world as viewers upload their images on social media. 

In contrast, the third place of Tres Aguas is the most private. No part of the Convent of Santa Clara is normally accessible to the public. Located in one of the highest points of the city, an imposing wooden door marks the space beyond as private. Ascending a set of stone steps we arrive in what used to be a nun’s cell.   A bench against the wall offers an invitation to sit down and look into another pool cut into the floor. The mood is very different here. We are already in a space of meditation, of seclusion. There are no sounds of the street here, only the gentle gurgling of the water. The place is dark, with just a little natural light coming from two small high windows. This time we are not moving. This is something closer to sensory deprivation environments where one stimulation becomes an extreme experience. As with a monastic order, we have been asked to remove ourselves from the city and transcend the space we are in through some kind of meditation. The movement of the water slowly in and out of the pool, as if breathing, becomes the focus point of attention, of literal absorption. Absorption too was what monastic orders such as the Clarissas aspired to, abstraction from the world, which included meditation in a cell but also reflective walks in the closed garden. Disconnection from most things is used to hyper-connect to one thing and through that to the universe itself.

Cristina Iglesias’s insertions into the existing fabric of the city are also uncoverings, a kind of archeological work - the uncanny eruption of something strangely familiar. Outside the walls of the historic city, an abandoned water tower that we may have never noticed is first restored and then turned into the site of the first intervention. In a sense, the water is more permanent than the building. A tower can fade and return. Culture can flow in and out of buildings over the centuries, and buildings themselves can flow.  These three moments of entrancement act like acupuncture points, unlocking the wider flows of the city.

What is the artwork here? Is it the trio of interventions in the city or is it the entire processional space created by visiting them? What are the limits of this experience? Is this sculpture in an expanded field?[3] Or the expanded field as sculpture? There is no work without the viewer. It is the visitor that works, in this case by moving.  It is a work of movement then. Iglesias lures the viewer into the position of the wanderer. There is an echo of the Situationists’ dérive here, pulled through the city by the unconscious. But also an echo of their nemesis, the tradition of processions, which exist in practically every form of religion, with their sets of symbolic waypoints building up an official narrative. In both forms of experience, the viewer completes the work by moving. In fact, the viewer is not a viewer but a performer, furtive in the case of the Situationists drifting through the subliminal spaces of the city, flamboyant in the case of religious processions moving through the main streets. The Situationist actor moves unconsciously through the city and tries to reconstruct the experience later by drawing a new kind of urban map. In the procession, the itinerary is fixed, the map precedes the enactment, and deviation is not allowed. One dissolves the official map and the other reinforces it by retracing it.

Iglesias neither dissolves nor retraces.  In all her work, she avoids any simple division between unconscious and conscious, private and public, inside and outside. There is no singular itinerary between these discrete interventions, not even a starting point. And yet it is unambiguously architectural, even a work of modern architecture. It is not by chance that so many contemporary architects are drawn to her work, seeking her collaboration. Think of her huge bronze doors in Rafael Moneo’s extension of the Prado Museum, with their deeply gothic confusion of structure and plants; or the cast of eucalyptus leaves forming the surface of her Deep Fountain in a square in Antwerp renovated by Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem, with the water seemingly disappearing in and out of a crack over a deliciously slow sixty four minutes at the neuralgic centre of the city; or the more recent, ongoing projects with Norman Foster and Renzo Piano. What is so remarkable about these interventions is that they do not appear to be interventions, as if the ultra-technological and geometrically abstract modernity of the buildings contains within it a deeper, damp, organic layer that Iglesias uncovers and reveals. If new buildings offer her a chance to reveal old secrets, the old city of Toledo with its mélange of Gothic, Arab and Christian, offers the irresistible chance to do the reverse, a place to paradoxically give rebirth to the modern by piercing the surface of the old city at three key acupuncture points, or aquapuncture points, and encouraging engaged movement between them.  The modern is again technological and geometric, the metal stairs winding systematically up, around and inside the ancient tower, the abstract geometric horizontal figure in the plaza, the gridded frames of the new jealousies leading to the nun’s cell. 

Each piercing of the city spawns something modern, light frames for fostering movement.   After all, the point of view of modern architecture is never fixed, but always in motion, as in film or in the city. Modern eyes move. Vision in Le Corbusier's architecture is always tied to movement: you follow an itinerary, "a promenade architecturale.” About this Le Corbusier was explicit in his Villa Savoye at Poissy (1929-31):

Arab architecture give us a precious lesson. It is appreciated by walking, on foot; it is by walking, by moving, that one sees the order of architecture developing. It is a principle contrary to that of baroque architecture, which is conceived on paper, around a fixed theoretical point. I prefer the lesson of Arab architecture. In this house it's a question of a real architectural promenade, offering constantly changing views, unexpected, sometimes astonishing.[4]

Tres Aguas is likewise not a space you walk through but a space produced by walking. But the movement is also within the interventions themselves, the water running in out of the pools. It is movement seen in movement. A kind of doubling. The visitor runs in and out and the water acts as a visitor. It enters and leaves. It is a performance all the more striking because the river is always there. Iglesias shows us that the most permanent looking architecture has attached itself to the river. Pattern depends on flow. The most stable things are produced through constant movement and never fully stand still. The river visibly flows but the city itself is also moving in less perceptible flows of growth and decay. In Tres Aguas we are lured into living ruins, as if to make us aware of the coming and going of architecture itself. Visitors, water and buildings are in flux. To experience this work is to experience these three different times overlap.    

There is a precise blurring of limits in this work. Space and time are loosened to create a new form of perception. In a time of continuous bombardment of information, Iglesias makes us take a walk. Walking and thinking are inseparable. Motion becomes intellection. The water recedes and we are absorbed by the wrinkled wet surfaces, again and again. Slow art.  


1. Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2002 
2. Gareth Cook, “Mind Games,” The New York Times Magazine, January 11, 2015, p. 29
3. Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8, 1979, pp. 30-44. See also, Retracing the Expanded Field: Encounters between Art and Architecture, ed. by Spyros Papapetros and Julian Rose, 2014. 
4. "L'architecture arabe nous donne un enseignement précieux. Elle s'apprécie à la marche, avec le pied; c'est en marchant, en se déplaçant que l'ont voit se développer les ordonnances de l'architecture. C'est un principe contraire a l'architecture baroque qui est conçue sur le papier, autour d'un point fixe théorique. Je préfère l'enseignement de l'architecture arabe. Dans cette  maison-ci, il s'agit d'une veritable promenade architecturale, offrant des aspects constamment variés, inattendus, parfois étonnants." Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète, vol.2, p. 24