The places of an experience

Porto 2001’s artistic programme has, since the beginning of the year, offered us some pleasant surprises. As this is not the moment to write about the exhibitions at the Serralves Foundation (where, by the way, an admirable retrospective of Fernando Lanhas deserves all our attention, for its comprehensive and global reading of a singular body of work, worthy of international divulgation), or the careful selection of exhibits made by the best Porto galleries, we will mention here instead another one, because of its importance and timeliness, called A Experiência do Lugar [The Experience of Place].

Curated by Miguel V. H. Perez and Paulo Cunha e Silva, this exhibition aimed, wisely, I believe, at giving visibility to some of the city’s scientific installations, especially Faculties, through the intervention of ten judiciously and seasonably chosen contemporary artists. Thus, following a growing tendency of most current art, the artistic experience is dislocated from the conventional places of art, gaining a presence in specific sites. The results are not equally stimulating, even though the initiative as a whole reveals the intelligence of its project.

Out of the ten exhibits, the ones that stand out most conspicuously, in my opinion, do so precisely because they were able to integrate their relation with space and with the figures (or characters) belonging to those spaces for which they were conceived. The others, who went no further than being casual extensions of their author’s work, failed, jeopardizing the implicit intention of the exhibition itself.

In a brief, and necessarily simplistic, reading, I will now endeavour to describe, in quite short texts, these ten interventions that, as a whole, were one of the most stimulating exhibitions in Porto so far this year.I will also, since we are dealing with Faculties, "grade" them in a scale from zero to ten, giving thus some ironic distancing to this always ambiguous activity of judging the work of others.

1. Rui Chafes (8/10) This work is remarkable in several aspects. Made up of two pieces, one of them in the open air, Rui Chafes’ work restages some of his thematic and formal concerns without, nevertheless, neglecting its concrete insertion. Thus, the piece inside the hothouse of the Jardim Botânico [Botanical Garden] is a successful nod towards the Romantic (here, almost Pre-Raphaelite) universe the artist has extensively explored, making manifest the presence of his recurring motifs of sickness and death, while the outside piece, in its austere magnitude, invites a feeling of expectation. Once again, we find Chafes’ ability to bring back to contemporary sculpture a dramatic density that few other sculptors (and not only in Portugal) can achieve with such rigour, lightness and capacity to evade the obvious. I must here mention another work by Chafes, also currently in Porto (at the Teatro do Campo Alegre), whose unusual density and unique dramatic sense do nothing but confirm the leading position he has reached in contemporary European art. This last work, though placed within a different context, deserves full marks, with distinction and praise.

2. Gerardo Burmester (8/10) For a long time, Burmester’s work had been asking for a chance to leave the gallery (or the Museum) and inscribe itself in a space outside art. The artist has proved himself entirely up to the challenge, integrating into his complex thematic universe material elements from the Instituto de Biologia Molecular e Celular [Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology], creating a very powerful relation between his themes and materials and those that constitute the space in which he set up his work. An atmosphere of phobic, almost nightmarish, strangeness disengages itself from the projected work, which, once in a while, somewhat baroquely overdoes its way of harmonising with the spatial elements. Anyway, this a confirmation of the artist’s constant ability of going beyond the merely circumstantial limits of a common exhibition, taking in more complex and stimulating spatial relations. Once again, it is hard to understand his absence from several important collections of Portuguese contemporary art. Another one of his works, currently shown at the Teatro do Campo Alegre, deserves also a mention here.

3. Pedro Cabrita Reis (6/10) As Cabrita Reis is one of the most remarkable Portuguese contemporary artists, that is to say, one of those with greater responsibilities (we need only remember the recent and admirable Serralves exhibition of his luminous and thoroughly original work), I cannot say his intervention was one of the most successful. The little well he imagined (almost a trade-mark of his work) to relate with the Planetarium’s great sphere goes not further from this relation of scales, a metaphor of the Man-Universe relationship, in an obviously intelligent approach, but that nevertheless lacks the intensity to match its own poetical adventure.

4. Julião Sarmento (10/10) This is, I am glad to say, a polemical piece. Using the new digital interactive technologies, Julião Sarmento has produced a short video film in which a beautiful woman barefacedly approaches the spectators to entrance them with the reading of a somewhat obscene text by Clara Ferreira Alves. Set up in the Faculdade de Letras [Arts Faculty] Library, this piece has a perverse effectiveness, up to what we have come to expect from Sarmento, but once again surprising us by its innovative drive and change of media, ways for the artist to escape a tendency to be typecasted as a simple painter. Surprise, perverse impudence and a taste for scandal and eroticism are characteristic of this work, that, like others the artist currently develops side by side with his painting, confirms the totally unique position his oeuvre has conquered (quite tardily) within the narrow Portuguese artistic context, long after having gained recognition on a higher international plane.

5. Pedro Tudela (9/10) Tudela’s work, having gained notoriety over the last years by the way it integrates difficult themes like sickness and death or, in more general terms, its almost obsessive references to the hospital universe, gains, in this discreet apparition at the Faculdade de Farmácia [Pharmacy Faculty], a surprising brilliance. It surprises not so much by its somewhat spectacular approach (as is the case of his piece at Teatro do Campo Alegre) as, more precisely, by its capacity of remaining at a level of complex, almost immaterial, subtlety. This piece, pregnant with consequence, intelligently bridges the gap between the mechanisms of artistic creation and the violent universe of the bodily machinery’s workings. An inspiring work, on many levels.

6. Augusto Alves da Silva (5/10) In spite of being one of the most able artists, in the 1990s generation, to incisively define an intervention characterised by rigour, Alves da Silva was unable to, in his intervention at the Instituto de Medicina Legal [Forensic Medicine Institute], go beyond a measure of decorativeness. The photographs he placed there, though logically connected to his project, are unable to dominate the place where they are inscribed. On the contrary: being images of an almost touching lightness (in contrast to the Institute’s symbolical violence), they are quickly devoured by that violence, leading to a loss of efficacy in their dialogue with so morbid a space. On the other hand, I must recognise that to find an artist, within the Portuguese context, able to challenge a place with such memories and such an image within the urban space, is probably a daunting task. I am thinking, for instance, about Robert Gober, whose coldly meditative pieces on death would find there a propitious terrain.

7. Helena Almeida (9/10) Without betraying his work’s premises, Helena Almeida relates it to the space of the Faculdade de Ciências [Sciences Faculty], using the subtle strength that runs through it. In the ancient, memory-filled building, the artist intersects with her exhibition room images of herself taken in that very same room, almost as in a performance. Images as disturbing as anything else in a vast, uncompromising body of work, whose impeccable setting-up generates a kind of disquieting relation with space, forcing it to become a communicating space, where the memories of science and the questioning of the body she chose as her personal theme nearly three decades ago mutually articulate themselves.

8. Cristina Mateus (10/10) This young artist, whose work has grown in intensity over the last years, has presented what I believe is one of the most accomplished interventions here. In an almost hidden space of the Faculdade de Medicina [Medicine Faculty] Museum, Cristina Martins created an intervention using a series of elements taken from the site, rearranging them and converting into video some film material.This discreet and efficient intervention took into consideration the site’s vicissitudes, creating an inner experience that turned a Museum of Medical History into a laboratory of interrogations, one of the strongest features of contemporary art.

9. Miguel Palma (10/10) I find this the most touching piece. In an immense space, destined to become a laboratory of scientific experiments, the artist has placed an enormous racetrack upon which a little car absurdly runs. The image has a surprising efficacy, largely addressing the situation of modern man, in the middle of a dehumanised technological universe, where he finds himself as much isolated as integrated, acting as if remote-controlled by forces that mostly ignore him. The efficacy of the piece also depends upon its relation with the new building for the Engineering Faculty, an architectonic colossus of unusual, almost Pharaonic, proportions. A successful piece by an artist that has discreetly, but clearly, left his mark upon Portuguese art of the last decade, renewing its language and putting it into contact with international contexts.

10. Joana Vasconcelos (4/10) Perhaps the least successful intervention here. This is so much the more surprising, since the artist has already an established name in the constellation of recent Portuguese art. Joana Vasconcelos kept herself within the limits of the obvious, connecting Porto’s Faculdade de Ciência do Desporto [Sports Science Faculty] to a kind of kitsch monument to Futebol Clube do Porto, that is to say, to the football association that vies for the support of every self-respecting working-class inhabitant of Porto. However, that connection is fragile, because neither the Faculty belongs to the association nor does the bridge make any sense in itself. It is a piece that seems to evade the need of conceptual work that such a commission would need in order to legitimise itself in a vaguely autistic contentment. As it is, this work by Joana Vasconcelos (a usually intelligent and disconcerting artist in its interventions), in its exaltation of synthetic velvets, noisy chants and plastic trophies evoking the association’s sportive triumphs, presents nothing but an ambiguous complicity with the tastes of a suburban, football-alienated small bourgeoisie, ever unable to question the deeper reasons for that domination, apparently accepted as something to be laughed at. The truth is, it is simply laughing at itself.