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Diana Policarpo: Solar Watch

Miguel Mesquita


Diana Policarpo belongs to a category of artists that, beyond a technical and conceptual enquiry into the means of artistic production and reproduction, brings into the creative space a critical, complex, interrelational thinking that takes the anthropocene condition into consideration—in Policarpo's case, by analysing the causes and consequences of anthropogenic transformations in concomitance with the inevitable repercussions of civilisational development. This approach entails a skilful, oft-difficult, very fragile management of both the enquiry and the communication processes of the formal results proceeding from this position. In this sense, although the works can exist autonomously within a system of values and interpretations of their own, the conception of the exhibition format and the models adopted to bring coherence to its narrative become essential factors for formalising and assimilating the web of relations between the various artistic enquiries manifested in her works.

Resulting from a reformulation of the exhibition Overlay, on view during this summer at Galeria Lehmann + Silva, the exhibition presented at the Visual Arts Centre (CAV), Coimbra, curated by Ana Anacleto, is paradigmatic of such an approach. In case of doubt, a quick research is useful for understanding the English word used as title, as well as to infer an allusion to the notion of layers and, by extension, to the action of layer-covering. It refers right away to a methodology of artistic production and enquiry that acknowledges the overlay of historical or evolutionary events throughout the ages, determining at the same time an exhibition logic. The objects on display accumulate successive layers of thought that, in turn, are influenced by an overlay of the aesthetic, formal, and also conceptual features of the other elements. This condition is grasped in two excerpts written by Ana Anacleto that, as they recur quasi ipsis verbis in the texts of both exhibitions, identify an action strategy:

"… we are invited to step inside a particular universe: a world where visual and sound material intersect, where a set of systems interconnect, and where, we might say, the perceptive conditions defined by the artist constrain but, at the same time, stimulate each and every process of meaning production."

"The various layers that cover the objects on display—based on a dialogic relationship between history, science, mythology, ecology, and contamination—result from an enquiry and a committed critical position that regards artistic work as an exploratory platform and deciding factor in the processes of knowledge production."

With Overlay as title, an overlay of readings, formats, and enquiries is literally taken on, consequently foreseeing a transformation of the perceptions but also of the formal constructions of the works on display.

Yet, the title of the CAV exhibition provides no sort of clarification on such a formulation. Without presenting a Portuguese translation nor any hint that might help decipher the expression, Solar Watch seems to be intentionally enigmatic. Composed of two widely identifiable words, their linking is not effective in enunciating a clear image of the exhibition's premiss. Thus, it is constituted almost as a complementary element that moves away from a reference to the methodology and organisation of the previous exhibition—a logic more related to the requirements of an exhibition present at a commercial gallery—and acknowledges the pertinence of an exhibition narrative as unifying process of the objects on display and of the themes inherent in the enquiry.

A "solar watch" is a solar-powered one; as such, it admits of presupposing a relationship between time and energy, or rather the collection of energy in keeping with a relationship between time and exposure. Such a deduction is substantiated by the title of the first work we come across, The Ultimate Capital Is the Sun. In the reformulation process, the transformation of this work clearly became an essential component to establish congruence throughout the exhibition. Being a sound composition produced from sonifications of solar matter collected by scientists and taken from NASA's online sound archives, the work is presented at CAV not as the sound installation that had been displayed in Overlay but rather on Bluetooth headphones, available right at the entrance of the exhibition. The device's portability enables the work to accompany the viewer along the exhibition, providing it with an atmospheric quality that contributes to constructing the visitor's experience.

Beyond the re-composition of the elements of the exhibition, another factor that takes on a particular significance for orienting an exhibition narrative is the autonomisation of The Living Currency, a sci-fi short story written by Diana Policarpo in collaboration with Lorena Muñoz-Alonso that is inspired in and draws on the title of Pierre Klossowski's essay La Monnaie Vivante (1970). Occupying almost the entirety of the wall of the exhibition's foyer, the short story transports us to a simultaneously dramatised and plausible dystopian scenario in a relatively near future in which the world population has drastically declined due to climate change and illnesses like environmental-induced cancer or SARS-CoV-2. In this scenario, almost all animal species have become extinct, and economic decay resulting from a scarceness of mineral raw materials has forced human civilisation to resume economic systems based on the exchange of goods, leading to the exploitation and trafficking of extant animal species, like pangolins or sea snails, due to their high value. Oona, the main character, has rescued some pangolins and created a shelter at her farm, in Arizona, where she tries to synthetically recreate the animal's scales to smuggle them into the market, thus reducing their value and potentially ending pangolin trafficking. In this age in which natural resources are scarce, Oona's farm is solar-powered, inciting her to obsessively observe atmospheric phenomena and develop projects for predicting the latter by detecting electromagnetic emissions, using her body to absorb them—"with the conviction of a sun-lover," to quote from the short story.

The latter, as such, establishes a narrative line that prompts an imaginary which guides the viewer. Coupling the reading with The Ultimate Capital Is the Sun, the sound emphasises a sci-fi sensibility, distancing itself from the terror underlying the plausibility of the scenario we are presented. This sensibility remains throughout the exhibition, even heightening as we enter the next room. Fluorescent yellow lights intensify the vibration of the yellow paint on the six-metre walls and on the barrel vault, and it becomes almost impossible to escape the evocation of Oona's sensation as her body absorbs solar radiation.

A set of iron sculptures apparently arranged at random occupy the walls of the room. In reading the exhibition text, we realise these are stylised forms of "artifacts used in potlatch ceremonies or as currency by indigenous communities from the North American territories." In this sense, the ambivalence of these works, halfway between sculpture and three-dimensional drawing, substantiates an urge to maintain the condition of exchange object while establishing a sort of alphabet that resembles the symbol, thus constituting a vocabulary of shapes that reflects the volatility of appreciation and depreciation systems as a result of goods distortion in the course of the historical processes of colonisation and decolonisation. Conserving the objectual nature of these representations, the short story is once more alluded to, focusing on the moment when Oona opens a drawer and, in addition to pangolin scales, comes across a set of exchange objects. This allusion becomes all the more clear with Shell Coin, a polyptych comprising 8 silkscreens that contain images of sea snail parts, granting the latter alien or anthropomorphic appearances—almost resembling x-rays—and exacerbating not only their exotic quality but also, as such, their value.

Gift XIII (Coin), a circular sculpture in lacquered iron comprised of two semicircles set slightly apart, occupies the centre of the room, once more presenting an allusion to the economic and goods appreciation systems. At the back of the room, aligned with the space between the semicircles, a wall sculpture suggests a rising sun. The overlapping of these two pieces creates an image that suggests the symbology of the ancient civilisations of South America, such as the Incas. Sun-worship rituals are thus evoked, and that same mysticism is transposed around the ritual of exchange. The cycle of the exhibition narrative is then completed, with Gift XII (Sun Watch) placing the energy frugality of a sun watch opposite the energy storage of a solar watch.


Diana Policarpo

CAV: Centro de Artes Visuais


Miguel Mesquita graduated and has a Master's in Architecture from the Architecture Department at FCT (University of Coimbra), as well as another Master's in Curatorial Studies from Colégio das Artes (University of Coimbra). In 2013, he was part of the Social Studies Centre as Young Researcher in interdisciplinary projects focused on architecture, sociology, and art. From 2014 to 2015, he did his internship at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art. He was artistic director of the BAGINSKI gallery from 2015 to 2018.


Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.



Diana Policarpo: Solar Watch. Exhibition views at CAV: Visual Arts Centre, Coimbra, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and CAV.

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