In 1981, American feminist art magazine Heresies dedicated its 13th issue to exploring the relationships between feminism and ecology. Titled Earthkeeping / Earthshaking, this issue featured female authors of several nationalities—among them, art critic Lucy Lippard, artists Ana Mendieta, Faith Wilding, Bonnie Ora Sherk, Cecilia Vicuña, and writer Gioconda Belli.
Taking as starting point the question “What can women do about the disastrous direction the world is taking?” Heresies #13 intended to explore the relationships between feminisms and ecology from multiple perspectives, including the feminist theoretical imperative to "integrate social life, history, and natural environments," the resistance to capitalist exploitation of natural resources in the then so-called "Third World" countries, and the concern surrounding the increasing militarism of the North-American administration.
Taking Heresies #13 as a starting point and as a historical and political archive capable of stimulating a fertile reflection on the triangulation of art, ecology, and feminisms, the exhibition Earthkeeping / Earthshaking aims to affirm the pioneering role played by numerous artists in this specific context and, at the same time, to analyse the potential of their ideas today.
Curating in dialogue
Antonia Gaeta (AG): I'd like to start by mentioning the title, which is rather specific and has to do with an art magazine developed by a feminist artist collective. But I'd also like you to elaborate on where it comes from, why you decided to use it, and its significance in July 2020.
Giulia Lamoni (GL) e Vanessa Badagliacca (VB): Who goes first?
GL: The title comes from a rather well-known feminist magazine titled Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, which was first published in 1977 in the US, in New York. In a way, the exhibition was strongly inspired in said magazine, not only in regard to the 13th issue, which in 1981 explored the relationships between feminisms and ecology, but also from the methodological point of view, as we took an interest in the magazine as a format that allows for gathering multiple perspectives. It is exactly that line of connection between different voices and approaches, that heterogeneity, which we aimed to preserve in the exhibition. In fact, we like the title very much because there's a double sense to it… It means to preserve the earth, to care for it, but also to shake it. It has to do with the subject of conservation, but it also refers to the need to revolt and shake things up when they're not right. The revolt, in this case, is both feminist and ecologist.
VB: And the issue in question, Earthkeeping/Earthshaking, comprised different points of view: one pertaining to artistic practices, another of a more activist nature, another more related to social issues. We could say, then, this aspect of keeping is apparent in some participations that relate to participatory art, community practices; and, on the other hand, this aspect of shaking, in more denunciatory participations, which seek to draw attention to issues that demand change. On the one hand, we intended to maintain this plurality of perspectives; on the other, returning to your question, we think that in the 20th century this could still enable a co-presence of participations in the exhibition, and at the same time not only constitute a space for women—as is the case of the magazine—but also maintain feminism as a political position.
AG: Sorry, I must interrupt you to add something else to my initial question. The Heresies #13 cover is a very emblematic one, a volcano, so one promptly thinks of an eruption. But eruptions are rather fertile, too; there's a sense of tabula rasa to them, and they fertilise the land, which is followed by a new growth. Is this the line of thought you've taken into consideration?
GL e VB: Yes, absolutely. That transforming aspect.
GL: Destroying and creating, which in a way has to do with the cycle of life. This cover was selected when the editorial committee was preparing the magazine, a process that lasted about two and a half years. In the United States, Mount St. Helens erupted, and the group decided to show a picture of this eruption on the cover. On the other hand, we now decided to show a photo by Mónica de Miranda of a volcanic landscape on Fogo, in Cape Verde, titled Eruption and dated 2017, because we were very interested in anchoring this discourse in the present, in Portugal. And "Portugal" means the country's history, too, including its colonial history. That was very important to us.
VB: We still considered another possible title after we'd started working on it, though. We went around in circles for a while then, only to later return to the initial idea. We complemented it with the second part of the title, but we thought "Earthkeeping / Earthshaking" could still provide a general idea of what we wanted to convey.
GL: In order to use this title, we wrote to the Heresies #13 editorial committee members asking if they'd agree with us using it for the Lisbon exhibition. We weren't sure how they would receive it, but they were actually all very open and generous. In fact, the catalogue will include a set of interviews with a group of artists who took part in the magazine's editorial committee. Unfortunately, we couldn't get in touch with two artists of the committee. And some, like Ana Mendieta, have already passed away.
AG: Yes, because you talk art, feminisms (in the plural), and ecology. Art, one and whole, multiple feminisms, and ecology as a whole.
GL: As regards feminisms (in the plural), we didn't want to bound that word. To begin with, this is not about "feminist art," but rather "art and feminisms and ecology," because we wanted to preserve the fluidity of the different relationships that each artist weaves using these terms, and that these terms weave with one another in the works presented. For example, Lourdes Castro is not an artist who's been explicitly engaged in feminist issues, whether we're talking about her discourse or her work. At the same time, we were very interested in taking into consideration that these feminisms had had an impact and held a very specific relationship to 1960s and 1970s artistic practices in Portugal—a very different one from other countries. We wanted to see, for example, how Lourdes Castro's work would be regarded in this perspective, in dialogue with works of artists like Faith Wilding or Cecilia Vicuña. That is, "feminisms" refers as well to our approach to preparing the exhibition, and to the theoretical grounds that inform our practice. Also, generally speaking, we wanted the relationships we experiment with in this project to be plural and not closed.
VB: Yes. At the same time—taking into consideration that this magazine issue, like others, focuses on the work of women artists, as I've mentioned earlier—we wanted this idea of feminism not just to equate feminist art with women artists, but rather that it'd be regarded as a stance, as something more comprehensive; not only how to be a woman, but to be a man in a duality.
GL: Exactly! A political stance, a stance anyone can decide to adopt. At the same time, we wanted to show that women artists have pioneered the reflection on the relationships between art and ecology. At the exhibition entrance, you'll find an article on sculptural environmental practices in which many of the artists mentioned are little known internationally—or not at all… Maren Hassinger, for example, is an artist with a fabulous, very interesting body of work. In the exhibition, we present documentation of a performance of hers.
VB: Meanwhile, the title of the magazine was a possibility of keeping a reference to the magazine itself, which is positioned within a time—1981—and a specific geographical context—a North-American magazine—which we wanted to bring into the local context, placing it into dialogue with artists who at the time were more or less explicitly examining environmental issues in Portugal. So, one might say, we wanted to highlight a historical cut in the exhibition and to anchor the latter in where we are, in our present, 2020, with active artists here, but also with artists from another generation, who may not come from here but nevertheless interact with our context; and then to weave these relationships along the exhibition.
GL: In a way, that Cecilia Vicuña picture, showing some intertwined red threads, might perhaps materialise what we intended to do with this exhibition, in the sense that there are invisible threads that leave the place and go elsewhere. These are, for example, the threads that connect us with the artists who were part of the editorial committee, whose artistic work is often absent from the exhibition, though their voices are comprised in the catalogue. In fact, this project seeks to be but a contribution to a broader debate that comprehends many more artists and many more curators and many more critical points of view. In this sense, the exhibition positions itself as a possible crossing of trajectories that might eventually make way for future collaborations, for future dialogues.
VB: It manifests an intention of being part of a constellation where we also want to take other exhibitions into consideration (in a recent past, in Portugal, we could mention Eco-Visionaries, MAAT, 2018; Plant revolution, CIAJG, 2019; Topografias rurais, Galeria Quadrum, 2019–2020) and keep them present without any attempt at superposition; and at the same to open them out onto other possible paths. It's one possible voice among many others.
AG: An exhibition is a complex process of adjustments and negotiations. A couple of days ago, while I was preparing our conversation, I watched an interview with George Steiner where he said the most complex critical act, like the most innocent pleasure read, belongs to the same debt of love in the sense that the great works, lato sensu, are capable of stirring us like tempestuous winds and of opening the doors of our perception, but also of calling into question the structure of our convictions. What are your thoughts on the exhibition and/or the process—which, as far as I know, was a long one—that brought you to its realisation?
VB: It was a long process, indeed, and it did confirm that it's not the result that matters, but rather the whole path—a path of relationships, of exchange of ideas, of great fondness that flowed from the beginning, when we contacted the editorial committee, which was very receptive to our intention of organising an exhibition using this magazine as starting point. It gave us a lot of positive energy and even more motivation, and made us believe much more in the project. People were very generous to us, which is not terribly common, and it really did make it possible to work while creating very strong affective bonds and exchanges. For example, we invited Gioconda Belli to participate (she'd participated in the magazine with a poem title La Madre), and received a prompt reply with this poetry: Consejos para la mujer fuerte. And sometimes it takes very little; it's in moments like these you really feel a very strong participation, a willingness to be and believe in the project, which helped us indeed, notwithstanding the difficulties we would come across later. Trying to fit different voices together into the same discourse, dealing with financial issues, for example, or coming to an absolute standstill, and the subsequent uncertainty the start of the pandemic has brought us. I think curatorship has that quality of love to overcome it all—or at least to try to do so—and to care for and make an exhibition possible. This was obviously a shared work, and that strengthened our relationship a lot.
GL: I don't think this project would've become what it is if it'd been only mine or Vanessa's. We were lucky, because we have a great affinity. Vanessa is one of the few people I know who, when dealing with others—I'm getting emotional, now!—has a sensibility, a generosity very similar to that which I aim at and would love to have. And that, to me, was fundamental to our collaboration. Obviously, and here's the other side of the coin, it wasn't always easy because, though in general it came off rather well, there were times when there was some struggling and negotiating. I think what really helped was that there was—I try to be this way, but I know Vanessa is, indeed—a certain humility.
VB: We tried to find some sort of balance, and that's really important.
GL: And what helped a lot was the excitement in how the artists joined the project. That's what made it possible for us to overcome whatever difficulties we faced. Another important factor is that we found at Galerias Municipais an interlocutor like André Maranha, who, as architect, helped us in the exhibition project and followed the preparation process like a sort of privileged interlocutor…
VB: A privilege for us.
GL. Yes, a privilege for us. He helped us realise the project towards the end of it—the working-in-venue stage, which is always a bit different from what you'd expected. We mostly work in academia, in the field of Art History; moving into the venue this time was wonderful, and André was of great help.
AG: He helped you "visualise" how the space would react to the works.
GL: It was a work in dialogue as well.
AG: What's the discursive background you consider to be indispensable for following the exhibition, and obviously your work: maybe extensive descriptions? A complementarity between the experience and the description of the works?
GL: I actually think the best supporting material is to read the magazine. You can find it online, and it is a fantastic basis to follow the exhibition. Down the line, the catalogue will be important.
VB: We are working for the catalogue to come out in September. It comprises a number of participations: a text by Lucy Lippard, who was part of the editorial committee, a Colombian curator, an Italian philosopher, a text written by us, and interviews with artists who took part in that magazine issue that were conducted during lockdown.
AG: Do you think it's necessary to provide the visitor with some information in the exhibition?
GL: We thought a lot about this. There's a short text in the exhibition brochure, but we first and foremost wanted to facilitate a very direct engagement with the works, a physical and emotional experience of the space. Especially because there are written and spoken words…
VB: A slow engagement, too.
GL: There's going to be a more extensive online brochure—it hasn't been published yet because some texts are still being translated. We asked the artists if they'd like their work to be complemented with a text in the brochure. So, some artists have sent us texts which will be available in the brochure.
VB: Others considered their work speaks for itself.
GL: Obviously, there are works which are rather clear, while others require a wider discursive background.
AG: What can women do about the disastrous path the world is taking?
Gl: I find it very important that feminisms radically embrace the struggle for the environment and that such an intersection be a strong one, that it be an intersection considered to be necessary and that it incorporate a critique of capitalism and neoliberalism. It is very important, I believe, to consider feminisms within these intersections, which also comprise racial, class, gender issues…
VB: I think—not sure if this is just about women—it's important and urgent to create relationships based on how we are able to help one another out. How we are able to create bonds of support and solidarity, also via an ecology of the word, of the relationships of plurality and co-occurrence of points of view, with all the difficulties it entails. And this might also be a possible way to overcome centralised systems, both from the economic and the political point of view, in order to enable instances of coexistence. Co-being and co-existing.
GL: The political and economic system is increasingly pushing us into a logic of competition, both in academia and in the art world. We tried to organise this exhibition from different presuppositions. How can we oppose this seeming need to compete by weaving bonds that include others? The precarious system many of us work in leads us to believe we must tread a rather individualistic path in order not to collapse, when opposing this individualism by working together is in fact a political act.
Antonia Gaeta (Italy, 1978) has a degree in Conservation of Cultural Heritage from the University of Bologna, a Master's in Curatorial Studies from FBAUL, University of Lisbon, and a PhD in Contemporary Art from Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. She has developed research and exhibition projects with various art institutions in Portugal and abroad, and has published texts in art catalogues, magazines, and exhibition programmes. She coordinated the Portuguese representation at the Venice (2009 and 2011) and São Paulo (2008 and 2010) Biennales for the Directorate-General for the Arts, Portuguese Ministry of Culture. In 2015, she worked as deputy curator at the Angola Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. In the same year, she started developing curatorial projects for the Treger Saint Silvestre Art Brut collection. In 2019, she founded the project/venue VERÃO, in Lisbon.
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Excerpt from the curatorial text of the exhibition.
Invitation addressed to artists to participate in the magazine Heresies #13.