Que sais Je?
Group show curated by Ricardo Nicolau, at Vera Cortês Art Agency (Lisbon; PT)
w/ Ana Jotta, Braço de Ferro, Isabel Carvalho, Jonathas de Andrade, Marco Balesteros, Paloma Polo, Pierre Leguillon, Ricardo Valentim, Sofia Gonçalves, Von Calhau!.
Upon entering an exhibition, more often than not one starts with the question: “What do I know?” – or perhaps better, “So what do you have to tell me now?” In such cases, the premise immediately implies a transmission of knowledge, and as a spectator, one often assumes, or simulates a state of ignorance, only to thereafter enact the surprise that accompanies a would-be transformative viewing experience – all as if the act of viewing were encoded in a complex series of pantomimes. At Vera Cortês Art Agency, idiosyncratic Portuguese painter Ana Jotta did the honors by posing such the question (What do I know?) at the entrance (via a flag and two paintings set on the floor)1, while curator Ricardo Nicolau placed several copies of the question’s literary (and literal) embodiment, in the form of a selection of books from the collection of pocket encyclopedias known as Que Sais Je?, in the gallery’s main room.
Thus, such a curatorial umbrella of knowledge production and transmission creates certain expectations, which unfortunately are not necessarily met by the lightweight quality of the show and the objects on display. Such a gap was already implicitly signaled by the artists selected. For perhaps only (and perhaps only obliquely) Ricardo Valentim and Pierre Léguillon address the disparity between promised content and actual content that could form such an approach. From Valentim one could find a selection of posters and program schedules from his ongoing “Film Festival” (a traveling program of 16mm educational films, mostly commissioned by the United States Government during the Cold War); while Leguillon’s autobiographic poster “Slideshow, A Retrospective, 1993-2010” was reproduced throughout the gallery. In like manner, what one could call ‘secondary objects’ such as publications, posters, program schedules or publicity, occupied most of the space, testifying to a general sense of having arrived either before or after given events. As such, in contrast to the discrepancy that undermines the curatorial discourse which underpins the exhibition, I would add that something altogether more practical relating to these secondary objects is at stake, namely the conscious inclusion of these elements within the artists’ practices, not as intermediaries – between work and public – but as decisive for the comprehension (and framing) of the work itself.
If in Valentim’s case this also extends to press releases, in the case of Portuguese duo Von Calhau! the DIY posters for their concerts and film screenings should be seen not as (design) subsidiaries but rather as autonomous works in themselves. Similarly going against the common delegation of mediation to others, is the lack of distinction between the work of Portuguese artist Isabel Carvalho and her editorial/design project Braço de Ferro (along with designer Pedro Nora) – probably the most singular editorial enterprise of the last few years in Portugal, with publications ranging from considerations on design methodologies to artist books on Carvalho’s mundane musings on feminism and artistry,and a compilation of texts on artists’ rights entitled, The Economy of the Artist.
Returning to the question of knowledge and transmission, Nicolau’s project might seem awkward as such. Yet it managed to raise (perhaps inadvertently) the question of how to situate these objects once it becomes clear that they are not mere announcements or documents, vis-à-vis their primary artistic practices within today’s overabundance of discursive mediators. In practical terms though, this would mean a reconceptualization of such objects as autonomous producers of content and discursive zones of their own, beyond, but not annulling, their referents. To do so however, such approach would have, firstly, to work out its relationship to historical conceptual or documentary practices – e.g., Ian Wilson’s talks or even Hamish Fulton’s walks – and go beyond the artistically and market legitimized document, while at the same time relating it to the meaning and reason behind the wish to control the means of dissemination of one’s own work (today).
1. The artist had previously done a series of works with the same theme in mind. These took the shape of neckties – “the supreme symbol of authority” according to curator Ricardo Nicolau’s words – painted over with the sentence Que Sais Je?, disrupting the given authority, i.e. both of spectators’ and artists’.