Thursday, 11 October 2012

João Onofre - Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art

28 September - 7 November 2012
Rua de Santo António à Estrela
Lisbon, Portugal 

Note: I've had the good fortune to be catching some sun in Portugal these last two weeks, and, although this is a 'London' blog, I really wanted to write about this show and my experience in the city.

In Portugal tonight they’re protesting. The students, in their  traditional black suits and coats have taken to the main square in Praço do Rossio  to make noise about the ‘crisis’ that has overtaken their country. In a fountain of spurting classical goddesses and jumping fish, one student has taken off his clothes and is swimming in the shallow pool. People exclaim excitedly as he poses and struts in his now wet and see-through underwear, and to the encouragement of his peers, he pulls them down to show his rosy bum cheeks. The chants of protesters fill the historic square, and young adolescent energy pulsates. Another group now joins from the north.

Praço do Rossio
In the fountain at Rossio

I continue on across Lisbon, under the bubble-gum pink skies of early evening, to Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art.  The route is full of hilly ups and downs, and roughly hewn bricks of white sandstone pave the way. As I arrive at the gallery the sun has set. I've already been seduced by the beauty and nostalgia of the city, and it’s a fitting moment to encounter João Onofre's work.

Lisbon as the sun sets

The large main gallery space has been painted entirely black and a projection fills one wall. The film, entitled GHOST (2009-2012), begins with a shot of the Tagus River, complete with blue water, clear blue sky and a horizontal greenish blue swath of trees, buildings and whatever else makes up the river bank. The spiky top of a lone palm enters the shot, and then we see it’s on a tiny sandy island. It seems to be both propelled forward and drawn down the river, pushing itself towards the open ocean like the great Portuguese ships that once embarked down this same grand corridor towards the great unknown.

There is only minimal sound on the video, ambient noise. Then, as the palm gets nearer to Ponte 25 Abril, you hear the hum of the traffic and the soft wailing of thousands of wheels against metal, rising up almost imperceptibly and then augmented by low harmonies.  There is a sense of opening sonic potential. However, as the palm passes the bridge, quiet quickly descends, and the heavy intonations grow suddenly distant.

The water shimmers like deep blue sequins, while gigantic ships watch placidly from the sunny banks. The land diminishes, the bridge is now farther away, this journey seems slow, but I sense that many parts are missing. There is one last shot of the shoreline, this time we see industrial silos and tanks, quiet and motionless, presumably unused or underused. Now the hum returns, slowly and imperceptibly building, like a choir of muted voices from a far-away monastery. The shoreline gets even more minimal, except for a few tassels of trees, and then, disappears into ocean. The projected sky grows, orangey and burnt, the water becomes more navy, and the palm is now a wisp, a smudge on the immensity of the horizon. Always with its hair back, always against the wind, and then, finally, darkness.

In the lower gallery, a conventional white cube, there hang three clusters of photographs of the same small, bizarrely out-of-place looking island. In the first grouping, the sky is such a deep fresh blue, we know that it is from earlier in the day, at the beginning of the palms ‘journey’.

Lower space 

There is a moment where I find myself thinking back to the video, comparing these ‘documentary’ images to my remembrance of the pseudo ‘event’. I discover new details in the background or foreground around the always-central palm: a old column from the bank of Praça do Comércio, a bit of a historic building, a different angle of the red bridge. The final group of images are mostly sky, beautiful end-of-day shots of blushing sunsets and lowering blue of the night sky.  The golden beige of the mini-island contrasts with the blue river, and the single palm stands elegantly upon its sandy pedestal with silhouetted sweeps of green it is a most benign disturbance to the seascape.

These are deeply sentimental pictures.  Postcards for paradise.  They bring to mind iconic images of palms, of Florida, of vacation brochures, of cheesy t-shirts and the shorthand that this tree has become for lonely desert islands and tropical leisure. It is hard not to get swept up in docilely selecting which one you would chose to remember your ‘vacation’ by.  I think that it is in this reaction, this act of remembering the original that never was (that is, never personally experienced), this process of recounting, comparing, revisiting, and activating uncertain memories, that the artist wants to engage us in. I am very drawn to the images and they comfort me in an intangibly familiar way. 

However, I think the potential of the work depends on the viewer having some discomfort with the beauty of the scene; otherwise it could be very easy to just relax and enjoy the ride, so what if the pictures are not quite the same?  The repetition of the motif of the tree and the focus on the singular object seem to negate the background landscapes, although they are always changing to glorious effect. It’s the idea of that lone romantic tree that stays with me, and beguiles. I am left considering less the meaning of this specific tree that once travelled the Tagus River, and more why it provokes in me such fantasies of romantic isolation, beautiful untouched nature and the exhilaration of the journey into the unknown. 

I suspect that the in its rare and delicate nature, this palm is as achingly unique and sensitive as our sense of selves. Through the ever-surveilling lens, we, along with the camera, trace the palm’s path and marvel at its exotic nature. We mirror our lonely hearts with its singular beauty; it becomes the object of our affection which we long for, and the focus of a sweet melancholy that nourishes our sad hearts. I can't help but think of Fado, and its expression of 'saudade'.  Indeed this slender arching tree with its exquisite windswept fronds is the sort of object you only yearn for from afar, an obsession at a distance that the lenses of cameras are so good at exposing.

So what does this work reveal? Of what does it speak? I see it as dramatizing the conditions of romance as tied to the observation of beauty that our culture so loves to reproduce in cinema, film and images. I see the tree as metaphorical of the ‘view of the other’, seen only through oneself and which is in fact a construction of oneself. This is familiar scenario where the artist is the master-creator, heroically procuring a thing (in this case a palm all the way from Madeira) that becomes symbolic of our desire for the other, and builds the conditions from which to view it from a safe and controlled distance. Does the artist intend for us to become aware of this charged position of looking?

I think there is the desire to create a seamless illusion of a reality that could have been, and to introduce this mnemonic precariousness into the mind of the viewer with the apparition of such an unusual in such an unusual place. And in the photographs in the lower gallery space, my imaginative longing is indeed so capably held by the impeccable illusion.  However, the view of this idyllic scene proves more difficult to control in the video, where the daydream is less seamless, and the shape of the island caught in the low shadow of afternoon sun hints at the boat that no doubt propels it.  This is either incidental or unimportant though, because it is the idea of the lone palm that we’re all looking at.

But beyond this, I see the real substance of the video as a dramatization of the fixated looking, the yearning, the ‘beautiful’ isolation, and the ‘loving’ surveillance that constitute the dominate visual narratives of ‘romance’ in society.

I took a lot of pleasure from the hauntingly minimal sounds of the video, and the crisp simplicity of the pictures, full of the stunning azures and roses that bless the Lisbon sky. The artist gives us so much to look at, and a fitting object on which to fix our emotions, but was it perhaps at the expense of confronting how romanticism and exoticness can be employed to sustain our own egotistic position as looker?

Issues to do with documentary versus fiction and sense of time and remembrance are interesting to consider, especially with the presentation of photos. However I think there is a temptation to focus on the physical characteristics of the work, from the type of palm to the background scenery, and gloss over the more fundamental conditions of viewing which the artist has so carefully created. This work brought up difficult questions for me about our expectations of beauty and the tricky moral and mental positions we occupy when viewing the world as both an expression of our inner selves, and existing only for our enjoyment (or sorrow, as the case may be).  

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