An interview with Kevin Bellò
Exploring stories of salt through a perspective of care and slowness, A Salt Anthology was the winning project of the Jovens Curadorxs Open Call organised by Rua das Gaivotas 6 and Associação Quinta das Relvas. Curated by Kevin Bellò and featuring artists Inês Coelho da Silva and Joana Viveiros, the project was based on a residency at Associação Quinta das Relvas, during which the trio explored salt production at the Salinas de Aveiro and do Samouco.
In an attempt to circumvent some of the established praxes of art creation, the show incorporated a poetic as well as a descriptive curatorial text, featuring diverse sculptural objects in glass and ceramic, spoonfuls of food placed on tiles made out of mud, napkins stitched out by hand, a small-scale installation, photographs, and a table covered with a tablecloth—the largest piece in the room representing the salinas when viewed from above. Instead of individualised titles, the pieces were numbered: A Salt Story 1 until 16. In this way, Bellò, da Silva, and Viveiros investigated what happens when a multiplicity of objects, unexplained and connected only by topic, co-exist in an exhibition space. Can we draw our attention to the relationship between objects instead of the objects themselves? One of the ways to draw the viewers’ attention to this unspoken relationship was the positioning of the works far below eye level, requiring us to bend down to see them properly.
During the brief residency period, which featured three major fieldwork visits to the salinas, A Salt Anthology developed as a conceptual project that explores how we can see salt as a protagonist of its own story rather than a commodity. The resulting exhibition considers the multiplicities of salt through an array of art objects, each of them telling a story we as an audience need to create ourselves.
In conversation with Bellò, I realise that A Salt Anthology is best seen as a development of their collaborative practice, with the three young creators finding ways to work in tandem with each other, with the locality in Aveiro, and with the more-than-human entity of salt. Although they have known each other for several years, share a common interest in the politics of food, sustainability and materiality, and have for several years been an influence on one another’s practices, this is the first time any of them worked together on an artistic project—on a topic that they have a very particular relationship with.
Maria Kruglyak (MK): I wanted to start with the title of the exhibition, "A Salt Anthology" as I think it is quite thought-provoking and ties into your understanding of multiplicity and collaboration as a key part of your practice. An anthology is, by definition, a compilation of stories that together give an overview with a sense of completeness and simultaneously a sense that it can be built on further. Why did you choose this title and how do you understand the concept of anthologising?
Kevin Bellò (KB): That’s a full-on complicated question that I’m super happy to go into. Let's start by saying that the three of us—Inês, Joana and I—all own a copy of the same book (which I very much recommend), called Salt: A World History [Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (Random House, 2002)]. It was an interesting topic for us all, even though we looked at it from different perspectives. When we were finalising the title, we very much wanted to preserve the meaning of our perspective while allowing it to change with what we had discovered during our residency. So you have several stories, but it's more than that—they are together, and it is their relationship with each other that is important. The stories, numbered 1 to 16, are not representing “history” but rather constitute a bunch of flowers put together. They're just like several flowers in a bouquet, oftentimes very different. They use similar principles and a similar vocabulary but in different ways—with different grammar and different understandings. Just like in an anthology, some pieces are longer, some shorter.
Another important aspect of an anthology is that it consists of works by different authors. And so what if these things that are speaking are not just us the three of us as authors, but also the materials, the plants, the algae, the lichens, the demands, the sea creatures and the bodies of water together with so many fascinating elements for us. What if they contribute to telling these stories, and how do we play with that?
MK: Let us delve a little bit into this idea of not giving the pieces individual titles but numbering them A Salt Story 1 to 16. Where did that idea come from?
KB: It was actually something that came from Inês and Joana. Not giving the pieces individual titles liberated them in their work and allowed us to keep things very open. It also helped us to frame them as an anthology: anthologies sometimes display pieces chronologically, sometimes they don't, but they are not hierarchical in nature and they all have equal relevance.
Each piece knows in itself that the garden of the many flowers you can pick is immense, possibly unlimited. But then the one that you pick is the one that resonates with you in some way, and all of them are, generally speaking, saying something. It doesn't have to be something very precise, but it is an image of some form. By not having a revealing title, you may also take the artwork in differently as a viewer. The artworks themselves are allowed to have this importance—they are allowed to talk.
MK: Considering these various stories of salt, how did you consider the materiality of salt itself? I understand that it functions in different ways in the different pieces.
KB: Yes, absolutely. In my practice, there are many things that touch on salt and materiality on a lateral level, although I have never worked with salt before directly. However, I work a lot with food and sustainability, often with yeasts, fermentation and so on. On top of that there is an interest in details and other practices that are slower, encouraging an approach that takes more time and thinking.
My way of working with artists is rarely goal-oriented, and this also ties into what I would like to encourage more generally. Salt in that way comes in very poetically because salt does not really have a flavour by itself—it’s a flavour enhancer. So it is fun to me thinking about a grain of something that's so powerful and works so well on the side of something else.
There are about ten materials or so used in the exhibition, all ethically acquired and most of them from the salinas themselves. For example, we worked with seaweed that we collected in one of the glass pieces and whici we also made some paper out of. Instead of writing the materials underneath each artwork in the leaflet, we chose to place them all in a list at the end of the text, allowing them to become a kind of reduced alphabet.
MK: Could you walk me through this materiality and way of thinking by looking at one of the pieces? Or do they only work in their multiplicity?
KB: It is the multiplicity of the objects that is at the core of the exhibition. Although they have strength by themselves, and I am very fond of them, they are important in their togetherness. One of the fun things we did was to place a dozen objects on the two small shelved windowsills in the room, six and six. Instead of defining them as A Salt Story 13 top right, for example, we denoted them as A Salt Story 1 to 6, etc. By not giving an association to each individual object, it is their relationship that becomes crucial. It is the relationship between the objects that matters.
MK: Finally, is there something you wish your audience would see or feel when they engage with A Salt Anthology? Is there something you hope that the exhibition achieves even, say, in philosophical terms?
KB: I would say my aim is for people to embrace slowness. To give things more time. The type of methodology that you use is so important when you work with slow practices—it’s the amount of time that we spent with the material that I would like to get across.
All these objects can be different depending on whether people choose to take their time to observe them, to find connections. The three of us always try very hard to not make something grand or spectacular, and for this exhibition, we were particularly focused on that. For example, the biggest piece is a tablecloth—which is also the single object on a table that you tend to forget about when you're eating. That’s also the case for salt in general: when it's present in food, you don't really think about it, you think about the other ingredients—but when it's lacking, you do as without it all the other ingredients are dead.
I hope that the project can suggest this idea of giving more time to things can be suggested by the project by inviting you to pay attention to these materials, every single one of them, and allowing them to be given such relevance. Slower, more thought-through, simple elements have their own aesthetic. They can bring pleasure. They can bring excitement—not everything has to be massive.
Maria Kruglyak is a researcher, critic and writer specializing in contemporary art and culture. She is editor-in-chief and founder of Culturala, a networked art and cultural theory magazine that experiments with a direct and accessible language for contemporary art. She holds an MA in Art History from SOAS, University of London, where she focused on contemporary art from East and South East Asia. She completed a curatorial and editorial internship at MAAT in 2022 and currently works as a freelance art writer.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro
A Salt Anthology. Exhibition views at Rua das Gaivotas 6, Lisbon, 2023. Photos: Samuel Duarte. Courtesy the artists and Rua das Gaivotas 6.