One of the faculties and capacities poetry and philosophy shared in Ancient times was the recognition of what appeared, of what existed. Not only humans, but also organic and inorganic things, the natural world, celestial bodies, the cosmos. A strictly utilitarian view of other sentient beings, elements, and natural phenomena was yet to dominate the world. Things did not exist in keeping with the happiness of Man, and humans did not exist as the ultimate, absolute end of all things. The world had not yet been de-divinised. Exactly for that reason, poets knew how to sing of it, expressing gratitude for their existence. As the modern age unfolded, and with the alienation it brought, the experience of such faculty was effaced. Even those who dedicated themselves to poiesis—artists—moved away from it. Let us recall, for example, the proclamations of revolt that encouraged certain modernist avantgardes, extolling the violence of fabrication, or the drift of some artists who were enraptured with the promises of technology in the 1960s and 70s.
Of an as yet indefinable nature, something from that old sensibility seems to have returned or be returning. An attention to the rumbling of natural elements, to the time of things, to their permanence. To what is not human, what is before or beyond the human.
It is not about a restoration or a lyrical gesture, but rather the enquiring of alterity in its most primordial, physical, extra-human sense. Not in order to know how it functions, but rather to contemplate it in its apparitions, its strengths, its states. Close to the delicate Goethean empiria, it is such sensibility that one finds in Joana Escoval's stunning exhibition Mutações. The Last Poet, curated by Pedro Lapa and presented at Museu Coleção Berardo.
There are no directions or orders in this exhibition. Rather, one strolls through it without knowing when or where it will end. This path is in itself a work, architecture-wise; titled Spirit Trail, it sublimates Escoval's convivial experience with the Navajos in New Mexico, USA. One shall not think of it as archaeology or appropriation. The appropriate word might be "resonance." Something stemming from the tapestry weaving of women belonging to that native people has resonated in the artist. It was not a matter of ritual fetishisation, but rather the meaning of that making, its energy, its cadence (which persists via intergenerational transmission) that Joana Escoval received and transmitted via this path of hers.
A trail along which we keep finding things. For example, the resistant but thin tin sculptures titled The snakes talking without words. They emerge from the floor, issue from the ceiling, go into and come out the walls. They seem to spring from the architecture itself, arching and folding and describing paths within a larger path. Sometimes, one finds meandering, brief, static choreographies. They are presences we can touch; perennial vibrations that transport tangible things from what is intangible.
As one moves forward, a rumble is heard that becomes louder and more intense. It comprises sounds recorded by the artist and Nuno da Luz on different occasions: the wind playing a guitar, a geyser, seismic waves, cymbals, birds. These are sounds heard and summoned by the human that join the inconspicuous, non-grand sunset image projected on the wall. They join but are not entirely faithful to it: they freely spread throughout the space. Living Metals—such is the title of this work, coupling sounds with image—subsists without the viewer, who may or may not watch the eternal sunset.
In this exhibition, the visitor is abandoned to the contingency's generosity, with no precepts or guidance, but also experiences a silent vertigo in view of what escapes them—like the invisible flow of energy and force connecting different materials in Living Metals III and Living Metals IV. These works are comprised of a volcanic rock on top of which one finds a tin ring with rotative extensions. Should one indeed rotate it rapidly, the resulting movement makes the ring disappear, its movement becoming invisible as it manifests its energy. Upon placing it again on the rock, a visual, formal, and physical tension is suggested: between the mineral, reified by lava, and the product of the artist's making. As though something subterranean flowed between those rocks, which are products of superhuman forces, and the sculptures, which are human objects.
Joana Escoval invokes the world's powerful, superhuman forces—no frightfulness in it, no wish to frighten us, however. She seeks to transmit theses forces' silent, sonorous, visual, invisible vibrations. It would not be true, thus, to say she shows a fascination by the incommensurable sublime of nature.
The visible connections between things, the flows that entwine phenomena, beings, and elements are what she observes and respects. Summing up, it is life as dynamics, an end in itself, that Escoval preserves in the sculptures I would rather be a tree and I would rather be a storm, which hang from the wall. In an alloy made from scratch, they fall by gravity and humbly surrender to the effect of time. Unlike the gold welds joining them, they oxidise. The former, more wear-resistant, will survive as bright connections of such energy, like metaphors for the permanence of connections, of veins, of interdependences.
Joana Escoval gathers, links, adds, and subtracts. In My breath aligned with the breath of the animal and our breath aligned with the wind, a work of a perplexing, unsettling beauty is found. From a hole on the wall, like a cave, we see a 3D animation. Three things move in the back. Hair, a mane, underwater creatures, angels? There are no bodies, only movement: a graceful dance under the continuous sound of a conch being played using circular breathing. This still-human respiration runs through the creature's body before joining the sound of the wind. Together, they seem to animate those apparitions, make them move, give them life.
For a moment, one is not exactly sure where that apparition is. Is it within arm's reach, can we go into it? Or has it itself come into or invaded the path, like a shortcut or detour? Can we see ourselves in those bodiless bodies? Or, on the contrary, is there something in them that repels us?
Joana Escoval pores over the relationships between the animal and the human, the human and the non-human, the human and the natural in order to dissolve distinctions and distances. Is there urgency in it? Yes, but this urgency is tempered by the subtlety that paradoxes and aporias raise. Joana Escoval does not affirm; rather, she intimates poetically, using words too. Let us take a look at Fiducia incorreggibile, which conveys an ash eruption from the Stromboli volcano: a fascination with images (small-scale ones, in a fluid, liquid shape reminiscent of other works) that are almost appeased—humanised, one could even say—by the title, which celebrates both the attitude of locals and the relationship the artist established with them for three years. That is, Joana Escoval does not remove the human from its path. It does manifest, either with threatening animality, in All the food they shared with each other came from the forest, and the nearby rivers and streams; or by building a refuge within the artwork for the things the latter itself creates and destroys, in In dream, I often see them destroying the entire forest as they search for it—a sculpture where craftsmanship (the artist's fabrication) and the natural world (a vine enclasping a parakeet's feather) become entangled, equal parts violence and frailty. A delicate, permanently animated tension circulating unendingly. Like the whole exhibition.
José Marmeleira. Master in Comunicação, Cultura e Tecnologias da Informação (ISCTE), he is a grant holder from Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT) and a PhD candidate in Filosofia da Ciência, Tecnologia, Arte e Sociedade at Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa, in the context of which he is currently writing a dissertation on Hannah Arendt's thinking on art and culture. He is also an independent journalist and cultural critic for several publications (Público supplement Ípsilon, Contemporânea, and Ler).
EN translation: Diogo Montenegro.
Joana Escoval: Mutações. The Last Poet. Exhibition views at Museu Coleção Berardo. Photos: Bruno Lopes. Courtesy the artist and Museu Coleção Berardo.