At Fundação Carmona e Costa, Nuno Sousa Vieira delves into the relationships between the sky and the earth, sublimating some of the questions and tensions that have driven his work; conceiving of vision as a relationship between seeing and interpreting; and introducing the viewer as a gazing and self-gazing subject.
Between the non-visible and the visible.
One might say Nuno Sousa Vieira's Deep Line, curated by Sérgio Fazenda Rodrigues, is an exhibition that unprecedentedly expands the artist's conceptual and aesthetic topoi. In other words, it renders visible and thinkable the multitudinous subjects Nuno Sousa Vieira has reflected upon throughout his career. Namely, the significance of vision in the depiction of the world, the perception of the object of art, the senses triggered by intervention on objects and space, the dialectic between the mundane and the abstract. The tensions, correspondences, convergences, parallels, paradoxes raised are at the centre of the experience the visitor is offered at Fundação Carmona e Costa. An experience which requests, or requires, a knowledge of the protocols of art and an existing memory of the artistic universe in question. The exhibition starts with a change that is an instance of unveiling. The artist opened the foundation's archives, a delicate action in its precision. The archives have always been there, but now we can see what is inside: in this case, 14 graphite drawings on paper, the titles of which—Sol intenso [Bright sun], Dia estrelado [Starry day], and Estudo para um céu noturno [Study for a night sky]—refer to celestial, yet rather prosaic phenomena. Framed, the drawings can be observed in the archives Nuno Sousa Vieira has appropriated. But that is not the only action the visitor can perform.
"This set of images appears as though it were an atlas. They can be consulted, but they also trigger a set of non-hierarchical situations that allow for not only establishing relationships between the drawings but also intervening in the space. Increasing it, reducing it, closing it," Nuno Sousa Vieira states.
Such an opening and closing of the space containing the drawings is no mere prologue. It is a moment that emphasises right away a number of constituent elements of Nuno Sousa Vieira's making. A liking for transforming things, for rearranging them, for modifying their meaning via a precise change, practices he often develops in studio, as well as between studio and exhibition space. Knowing beforehand that many of his pieces conceal, insinuate, or show some sort of affinity with other productions, we realise each of the Sousa Vieira's works often talks about another.
Let us return to the 14 drawings. They are square, grid-shaped, black-and-white surfaces (orange is added to others, though). From a certain distance, they might look like reproductions of technical drawings, but a closer look makes a revelation. It is a handmade, delicate, expansive drawing of large, concentrated gestures. A drawing that seems to want to grasp what it depicts. But what does it actually depict? On the right side of the archives, behind a wall, an object appears in space. It is a wooden box with 80 magic lantern glass slides that document a compilation of the scientific project the Bona Observatory, in Germany, carried out from 1859 to 1903. The work is titled Atlas der Bonner Durchmusterung, and can be regarded as a star catalogue. Unlike the drawings from the archives, it cannot be opened or manipulated. It is a hermetic, almost sealed object; one which the visitor's perception can open, nonetheless. Nuno Sousa Vieira is an artist who places trust in the viewer's sensibility, in their ability to establish associations. He allows them, in fact, to access, to delve into his working process.
"There is a resonance, a parallel between the drawings in the archives and the slides in the box. In the latter, we find a celestial chart developed in the second half of the 19th century, a map of the Northern-Hemisphere stars non-visible to the naked eye. Here, we have got a non-visible thing that is rendered visible, just like the archives, which are usually not a visible place in the context of an exhibition."
Vision and the act of seeing are subjects the artist has been progressively exploring and examining; they are senses and concepts that have remained as leitmotifs within his enquiry. Let us recall, for example, the drawing series Baixa as pálpebras e vê [Lower your eyelids and see] or the photo series Ícones [Icons]. In this exhibition, the object of desire and of the act is the sometimes starry, sometimes sunlit, sometimes night sky, over the earth. The sky, a spectrum of refractions and reflections we can cross; one which, however, as it is not tangible, has an end, has a limit. It can be mapped out.
Nuno Sousa Vieira gazes upwards, to the celestial sphere, not in order to map it out—that is the job of the scientist, who wants to know, to correct the appearances of the world—but rather to makes us aware of our earthly place, of the way we perceive, conceive of, apprehend it; of the limits and possibility that compose such a relationship.
"There are several readings, several meanings to the idea of sky. Not seldom do we hope something positive will come from it. After all, our ancestors followed the starts, and we still look at the sky today as something that can guide us."
Opposite to the grid drawings and slides, some of which are broken, we find the most figurative drawing. On its surface, drawings of six men, one of which gazing into the sky, waiting for something or somebody. Size-wise, it is a wide drawing, installed separately as though it awaited us. And it is titled A falling man: "It is a counterpoint, an image that refers to the 19th-century compositional studies of painting that I took from an astronomy book [that will physically appear later in the exhibition]. There is an apparatus that enunciates something coming from the sky. They are in this place that is the earth, but they are anticipating an off-screen event."
We do not see the Icarus those men are waiting for. Will it ever appear in Deep Line? An answer might come further ahead. Configuring a long hall, a drawing series cuts across the other half of the exhibition. White, black, and orange come after one another in astronomical drawings of stars and skies. They have a rhythm and a temperature, but one cannot see them as a whole. Once again, the question of seeing, of the possibility and impossibility of it, is raised in the space and within the drawings. They were executed with wide movements, but they hint at other gestures—precise, restrained, delicate ones. In order to notice the lines and the strength of the drawing on the precisely demarcated paper, we must do more than look: we must see. And that is when we leave the depiction of the sky and the stars into the depiction of the drawing as a visible thing. But let us return to the falling man, the off-screen one. For a moment, Sousa Vieira makes him appear in his stellar drawings.
"As we walk across the rooms, we find two darks mirrors at the end of two corridors. They are dark drawings [Noite Profunda #4 and Noite Profunda #3 [Deep Night #4 and #3] that hold little information but allow the viewer to discover their reflection. The reflection is an integral part of this process. The fact that it is framed with glass makes the viewer leave or enter the plane of the image. Here, the dark drawing is a deeper place that reflects our image and mirrors the speculative path of our body in relation to the drawings."
Stars are dots of light—so they appear to us in the night sky—but in most of Nuno Sousa Vieira's drawings they appear to us as black dots. The artist alludes to the abstract process of depiction in drawing. "It is more effective, more practical. It is drawing itself as structure of thought and a simple explanation of something. All these drawings move in a dialectic between what they are and what they depict."
The presence of the colour orange instigates an interpellation to the senses and, yet again, to the viewer's ability of association. It suggests the presence of a light and a temperature, a climatic, atmospheric resonance. A tension or relationship reappears among the depiction of the stars, the geometrisation of the chart, and the pure presence of the stars as pictured by Nuno Sousa Vieira, in colour and temperature, but above all in drawing.
"I like the idea of there being an underlying organisation of things, whether it be determined by reality or by the making itself. But there is no grid in the sky. It is a set of lines we place between ourselves and the sky so that we are able to organise it. The idea of seeing spans the entirety of my creative process. Even my sculptural process, too. I am very interested in what we see and in how we see it. Vision is an entirely hierarchised act. We elect things to see. And well, this grid forces us to see in a certain way."
Despite this desire for organisation, for order almost, Sousa Vieira's work allows itself a number of flights, as the sculptures and objects on display denote. "My objects are rarely orthogonal in relation to the space. Sometimes, they are in a relationship of discomfort with the space; they do not belong to it. The exhibition space is not a comfortable place: it is a place of confrontation, it is a social place, and the idea of personification is very interesting to me. I like to explore different modes of tension, sensations of comfort and discomfort."
On the floor, a sculptural wooden support sustains and presents a series of objects and replicas of objects that come from Sousa Vieira's working process, studio, and life: a pantograph—a device used to transfer and resize figures—two glass slides, a ruler, an artist-intervened overall—a rubber sole, the astronomy book. "Sometimes, I feel the need to use some objects that are part of my everyday life. Speaking of it, I find it curious that some of my sculptures are exactly my height. That has a lot to do with the idea of vision. We see at our height, so what we see is always different. Contemporary art, in that sense, has been really important. It is no longer about a broad, human vision, in the sense of what is usual. It bears that which is peculiar to each subject, including the eye problems one might have. Vision is a relationship between seeing and interpreting."
The presence of a surveyor's chain, used to measure land, and of a work titled Pintura de assento [Seat painting] (produced from the upholstery of an artificial leather chair from the artist's studio) underlines the importance of the idea of vision as a means for the artist to contemplate and organise the world—subject to distortion, blearing, perspective. In the last room, this issue intensifies with Visão Canhestra [Clumsy Vision], a replica of the Sousa Vieira's father's glasses, with the replica of a blind, a catapult built by the artist in his childhood, and sublimates with Spectrum, a chandelier from his studio that projects a simulacrum of an experience on the wall.
"It allows you to see your body on the largest possible scale. Should you go to the top of a mountain as the sun is setting, you will see your shadow projected on a gigantic scale on a cloud. What you see is always filtered by the place where you are, a place which is physical, anthropological, peculiar to the subject. That image appears only when you arrive at that place. I like that dialectic between places."
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).
Translation PT-EN: Diogo Montenegro.
Nuno Sousa Vieira: Linha Funda. Views of some works at the exhibition. Courtesy of the artist and Fundação Carmona e Costa.