Letter to a friend
Silence and things
It has been several months since I last wrote to you, dear friend. A stay in Paris delayed our usual correspondence. I am just a stone's throw away from 35 Boulevard des Capucines. I have noticed that the building where Nadar once opened his studio's doors to over a hundred independent artists is now under the management of a business group which claims to operate in a context that promotes an inclusive, fluid, simple, larger urban area. The 1863 Salon comes to mind as I note that all around me, in the field of art, the refusés increasingly aspire to the art of the goût officiel, despite the French people's fierce resistance to pension reforms. The protesters—including the young—are not swayed by the government's arguments. The avant-garde, rendered démodé, takes on the form of civic opposition. The present day shows us that, despite 1884 and the famous motto "without jury or rewards," artists and the realm of art have seldom managed to survive the suffocating power of their clientele. As Lucretius would say, such is the nature of things.
Dear friend, it has been quite some time since I last visited the Louvre. "Neither appearance nor illusion," a Nietzsche quote, serves as the title of an old (2009) installation by Kosuth, displayed along the walls of the medieval Louvre. Through fifteen spatially distributed neon phrases intersecting history, art, archaeology, and the viewer's experience, the artist sheds light on the relationship between words and things. One of the statements reads "stones and words gather to produce a wall and a text." Philosophy and art have always been on the verge of coming to an end; yet, the latter remains elusive, invariably lying elsewhere, like a passage about to arise amidst that which we have yet to unravel.
Life everywhere—LES CHOSES. Une histoire de la nature morte. The thought of finitude. Like Michel Foucault, I would say that is the space where we think. Dear friend, this exhibition, likewise at the Louvre, amidst lemons, asparaguses, turnips, flowers, coins, fruits, animals, marine creatures, and numerous everyday objects that shape our symbolic space, evokes a certain sense of enchantment and beckons us towards a poetic diffusion of the anti-monument. The object—that which affects us, which unsettles us. I read in the exhibition catalogue that Anne Vallayer-Coster's oil painting was publicly displayed at the Louvre for the 1771 Salon. At the time, she was still a young artist who had just been welcomed into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, thus joining the select group of women admitted by the prestigious institution. I could highlight the innovative nature of this and other artworks presented here, such as those by Clara Peeters or Louise Moillon; however, what truly stands out in this exhibition is its predictability in providing confirmation that a departure from the representation of noble or traditionally male-exclusive subjects or even an absence of belonging to privileged classes did not historically constitute factors of exclusion for women in the realm of art. Perhaps it is the importance of the "right to speak"—which Marguerite Duras assertively wrote was "completely ignored by women"—that we continue to demand centuries later. It is the woman that the genre of still life paradigmatically reveals to us as a remnant. An hors-champ of the image. Between two paintings, a fragment of a text by Saint Teresa of Avila: "Take courage, my daughters, do not despair …. Even in the kitchen, the Lord moves amidst the pots and pans." From the representations of the world to the things that populate them, a complex web of circumstances unfolds into laws and taxonomies of intimacy and order. Houses and women—our history is made therein. We never left that place. We might find beauty in that primordial space where we begin experiencing love and violence, time and fear, day and night, laughter and unpredictableness, freedom and exchange. It was Duras who once said: "Men are occupied with work, a profession, a responsibility that they never abandon, which makes them ignorant of women, ignorant of women's freedom. Early in history, men ceased to have freedom." In France, a feminist strike is slated for 8 March against the proposed lifting of the retirement age. I read on the posters that it is not just about women but about all lives. That is feminism. Dear friend, I still believe that life can be a work of art.
Back in Portugal. I have not yet told you about my recent visit to the Custóias prison and the countless climbing plants that an artist painted along a garden wall. Like in Werner Herzog's film Heart of Glass, those prisoners seemed mesmerised. For a moment there I pictured them taking the place of the plants and climbing over the walls. Reterritorialising the geological footprint and climate change. Who knows where the marks come from. No artistic practice evoking the Anthropocene and Capitalocene can truly encompass this melancholy, the violence of the image that reaches us, captured within those walls. High-flying aspirations for daring escapes, even when "the heart is slow to believe," as Bobin asserts. The voices of silence are always likely to be found in some other imaginary museum.
At the end of the day, in this country that is not your own, I am told that a woman became pregnant through post-mortem insemination. Cryopreserved semen from her deceased husband. Too much waiting time. "What do we love in those we love?" Christian Bobin asks. Israel was quicker to attack targets in Syria after the country was hit by an earthquake. The dead were counted. The precision of accounting. Houses and people. Things. A petrified morality ensures the tremor. Art withdraws knowing that life does not last longer than the time of abandonment. It will keep waiting, unaware of what might save us.
As I am crossing the street, news reaches me that a woman accidentally broke a Jeff Koons sculpture valued at $42,000. A blue Balloon Dog. The art fair was left in shock, but reassurances were quickly given that the artwork was insured and that the dog had certainly not died of natural causes. In the early hours of 26 February, another shipwreck off the Italian coast. Like an empiricist repeating the experiment, the Mediterranean has become a mortal venture. Continuity ensures reality. Artists might prefer to hide from history. Powerlessness is slow sorrow dispersing as time passes.
ARCO Madrid has begun. Talks, meetings, Zooms, invitations, speakers. Various names for the business. The art system is painted in colours—green energy and blue economy. The fair. It is always the same, a handful of appearances surrounding us. Ever more festive, ever more unfaithful. The promise of many unmade works. A passionless folie sinks down, as is the fate of all ill art.
I wander through the cemetery. The path is long. It is not unusual for me to glean another lesson on silence during my chats with my father around here. I observe a woman placing two tulips on her husband's tomb. I ask her age. 83 years old. Today is Valentine's Day, she adds. Always the words and the things, as in the philosopher's book. Les choses. Still life. Stillness and tranquil life. Silence.
Dear friend, by the time you receive this letter, I will be in Barcelona. In the company of a collective of artists, certainly. I call them "minor" artists, in the grandest Deleuzian sense. I will be filled with joy.
Impression, soleil levant.
Eduarda Neves. Professor, essayist and independent curator. Her research and curatorial activity articulates the domains of art, philosophy and politics.
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
 Anne Vallayer-Coster (Paris, 1744 — Paris, 1818), Panaches de mer, lithopytes et coquilles, oil on canvas, 130 × 97 cm, 1769.
Image: Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818), Still Life with Mackerel, 1787. Kimbell Art Museum.