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Joana Fervença: yes, unless

Filipa Correia de Sousa


I pored over all the secrets in the universe

And returned to my solitude, envying the blind I would find.

Omar Khayyam[1]



"Atlas of the Impossible": thus a dazzled Foucault called Jorge Luis Borges' description, in one of his many essays, of a Chinese encyclopaedia titled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which determines that animal classes are divided in a way that, to the French philosopher, genuinely and joyfully shakes the traditional categories designed by modern thought. This apocryphal document divided animal classes into several groups, including "those belonging to the Emperor," those that are "mermaids," the "fabled ones," "those that tremble as if they were mad," "those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush," "those that have just broken the vase," and even "those that from afar look like flies." But what drew Foucault's attention in Borges' text (and which, according to the philosopher, would later originate and preface one of his most famous works)[1] is the idea that such a pervasive fascination with this arbitrariness, or incoherence, ultimately, in the classification of beings proceeds from the apparent limitation and impossibility of thus approaching the very ground of affinities among things in the universe—not only due to the bizarre possibility of one being able to classify on the same level both real and imagined beings, but also owing to the close proximity of these and those "that tremble," that break vases, those so far off that they "look like flies," and those that are drawn with a very fine brush. So, in subtracting the ground on which those beings coexist, the space that opens out, in its indeterminateness and unpredictability, is subsequently free of prescribed norms and rules. As Foucault observed, it is precisely in that domain that, "since the beginning of time, language has intersected space." A translucent, primitive, original surface relieved of a modern crystallisation of the categories and classifications, of the similarities and differences organised by thought. In Borges' words, that strange apocryphal encyclopaedia, therefore, makes it very clear that "there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural," even though we rigorously and insistently try to, for the very simple reason that "we do not know what the universe is."[2]

However, as Borges correctly noted, the fact that we recognise we do not possess the key for all the secrets in the universe, or even the fact we wonder whether the universe is indeed realised as the domain of unity and mobility the very word evokes, has never, since the beginning of time, prevented Man from imagining, dreaming, desiring, and attempting to represent the connections between himself and that strange realm that houses him. So much so that, because of it, one still glimpses animal-like figures in the stars, distant worlds in the clouds, hidden monsters on mountaintops, omens in the slow flight of birds, messages in the dim glow of fireflies, fantastical beings and terrible beings raging across the seas and blowing stormy winds, shadows and spectres evoked by shamanic dances and spells, nightfalls that bring along unknown fates, gods and infinite mazes awaiting the arrival of Man, in moments of blindness. It is a curious thing that the mist of his gradual blindness, "that slow nightfall," was what signalled the moment when Borges, in his words, "began to see."[3] The arrival of that laggard, growing, clairvoyant nightfall, shared by the author with figures such as Homer, Milton, or Joyce. A night that brings along the mastery of memory, creator of new worlds and new landscapes. A clear, precise, detailed memory that carries onto paper the will, the delusions, the fears, and the dreams that move Man, delimiting that original, translucent space that opens out the horizon of the impossible.


And it is from this proposition of ours, that of reflecting upon that exceptionally rigorous memory, by means of a blindness which is analogous with vigil, with insomnia, with a tacit desire for clarity, with an attentive scrutiny of the details of an unknown universe, a mystery rendered tangible, in the becoming of a night being gradually created, for it is shaped in drawing, that we arrive at Joana Fervença's work.


Joana Fervença's exhibition yes, unless—the second exhibition of Ana Cristina Cachola's curatorial project quéréla[4]—is fulfilled in two different moments that contaminate one another. The room is dark, punctuated by two spotlights and pulsating echoes that resounds near the place occupied by the viewer in the foyer. Projected on a suspended, large, white screen, the image of a drawing; and, because Joana Fervença's works, considering their meticulous quality, invite the viewer to come closer, we realise that the image of the drawing is an animated one, and that certain drawn shapes undulate, vibrate, move about to the cadence of Holly Herndon's music—an image that summons up the peculiar mechanics of breathing, as stated by the curator in the text that introduces the exhibition.

Further ahead, we come upon a faintly illuminated drawing on the wall. We must come closer in order to examine the several worlds manifested in it. And just like the aforementioned, this drawing also comprises black line on pristine white, working from light into darkness, from the paleness of blank paper into a dense, intricate murkiness where metamorphosed shapes are unveiled by undulating strings of light. Fulgent, there they coinhabit, in the density of darkness: sinuous, detailed shapes and figures recognisable by their brightness in the various extensions, horizons, and depths summoned from one's gaze. Such is the case of nightfall, a moment of foretold blindness when one at last recognises the space the distant stars occupy in the celestial sphere. A nightfall that carries in itself the entirety of eternity, an immense, mysterious darkness that Man has been constructing and admiring since the dawn of time, as Borges tells us in a poem.[5]

The night: a place of secrets, of remembrance, realm of echoes and incommensurable silences, of stories told, of confidences and things left untold, of certainties and uncertainties, of monsters and old spectres, of formless reflections on water mirrors under the moonlight, of faces illuminated with the magic of a burning flame, of repressed gestures, of guilty gestures, and of numb bodies, of prophecies, of oracles, and of vigils. Joana Fervença's work opens that plausible emporium of the impossible, of the unexpected, which is fulfilled in the tangibility of paper, driving us through bewildering, kaleidoscopic, maze-like landscapes, through reflections of the unknown, the strange, and the imagined glimpsed upon the arrival of a nightfall that is gradually, rigorously, slowly constructed. Drawing, which creates worlds out of dust, carries along that first memory of the night's becoming. A mystical, ancient ceremony in which light is asked for and finally found, upon the arrival of sunset.



Joana Fervença

O Armário


Filipa Correia de Sousa (Lisboa, 1992) is an independent curator, essayist and co-director of the UPPERCUT, space, in Lisbon. Master in Philosophy - Aesthetics by FCSH - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, postgraduate in General Philosophy by FCSH - Universidade Nova de Lisboa and graduated in Painting by the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon.


Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.


Desenho 2 300dpi
Desenho 1 300dpi

Joana Fervença, yes, unless. Exhibition views at O Armário. Courtesy of the artist and O Armário.



[1] Michel Foucault, Les Mots et Les Choses (1966), English translation: The Order of Things. An archaeology of the human sciences, London and New York: Routledge, 1970.

[2] Jorges Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 104.

[3] See the lucid essay "Blindness," in which Borges makes reference to his personal blindness. This essay proceeded from a talk delivered by the author at the Buenos Aires Coliseo in 1977, in Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights, trans. Eliot Weinberger, New York: New Directions Books, 1984, 85–96.

[4] Curated by Ana Cristina Cachola, quéréla takes place in a room contiguous to the project O Armário, in Lisbon. The latter is directed and organised by Benedita Pestana.

[5] Jorge Luis Borges, Historia de la Noche, in Obras Completas 1975-1985, Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1989, 165.


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