COSMO/POLÍTICA #2. Between abstraction and realism, a hypothesis of encounter

When he lectured on the conference Conflito e Unidade na Arte, Mário Dionísio opened a caesura in the artistic expression of the 50s. If, until that point, it was believed that art, according to the communist and neorealist conception, would have to abstain from abstract and bourgeois arrangements, and that it had to subjugate itself to an ideological line that portrayed life as it is, proposing a new perspective that would combine abstract language with a political view of a society portrait was like a small revolution. Until that point in time, abstraction and realism were considered mutually exclusive elements. They nullified each other.

Negotiating a disagreement is a gruelling task. Building from different standpoints often appears something unfathomable. Transposing the partisan and apparatus intransigence, and the often-coupled cultural schisms, requires persistence and patience – time in a timeless time.

As proposed by Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, cosmopolitics is here understood as the dialectic necessary to open up differences and create modes of action capable of serving a plurality of opinions, sensitivities, people, nationalities, species. Cosmopolitics is precisely the ability to construct through dissent. Therefore, Mário Dionísio formulated a cosmopolitan understanding of art, properly portrayed in the work À mesa à luz do petróleo (1948). There is no antagonism: realism and abstractionism coexist amicably. The narrative, pedagogical, political utility of art is not jeopardized with the language and expression adopted. Tiny changes, tiny revolutions, tiny commitments.

Assembled at the Neo-Realism Museum, the exhibition COSMO/POLÍTICA #2: Conflito e Unidade addresses these issues which, for decades, have been a source of disquiet for artists, historians, curators and even directors of museum institutions. In this context, the curators Sandra Vieira Jürgens and Paula Loura Batista invited the artists João Ferro Martins, Mafalda Santos and Susana Gaudêncio “to follow up on this debate extended in time and to reflect and problematize the depiction modes of reality, the social function of art, today’s notion of ‘useful art’ and society’s response to art, or the permanent meeting points and disagreements between the audience and contemporary art”. And even though the exhibition is physically contained in a single room, the complexity and fertility of subjects and produced works appear to be timeless, taking control of thought beyond the end itself.

Susan Gaudêncio undermines the suprematist dogma and outlines a dialectic constellation of signs, like Malevich have arranged them. The geometries and abstractions of Russian suprematism give way to concrete images of minerals, figures and other recognizable elements. Yet, the celebrated black square is still there, in the corner.

In turn, Mafalda Santos conceives an installation that works as an exhibitive articulating element, signalling the anxiety and distress of the change to be, limited by walls and several obstacles. Sheets and reams of paper are stacked together, forming a wall. It is not known if they are publications, sheets, forms to fill out, procedures, or books and ideological manuals to follow. The desired revolutions – interrupted by a bureaucratic asphyxiation and a set of good practices.

João Ferreiro Martins is, however, the one who establishes the closest dialogue with this exhibition’s precursor, Mario Dionísio, when designing an installation-environment that is expressed at several levels and is exhibited in front of Dionísio. Part furniture, part sound composition and sculpture, Ferro Martins dilutes the boundaries between utility, or use, and the work of art. We remain in a doubtful position, trying to understand if the work constitutes furniture for cups, or if it is a sound – or sculpture – project full of aesthetic autonomy.

Having said that, it is not in vain that, at the inauguration of COSMO/POLÍTICA #2, the museum has given way to an improvised concert hall. Without any music sheet or previous rehearsal, improvised music happens subjectively, during the performance, in a synchrony and melody shared by several hands and ears that keep happening. Radically free, liberated from any ideological direction, the improvisation establishes its own rules in a continuous relationship between those who do it and those who look at it. The critical dimensions of this project are numerous and do not concern only art itself; the Neo-realism Museum, as an institutional and formal space, and barely neutral from a political and ideological standpoint, is bound to structurally and internally review itself to accommodate such informality and unpredictability that comes from an artistic/musical effort, which is not obedient to canons or ideologies. The museum’s legacy and heritage are exposed to this critical view of art and subject to an almost ontological and anthological review of its mission and history.


About the usefulness of art

It appears to be more or less consensual that art, as part of a political context, is tendentially left-wing, with revolutionary tones that try to fight the bourgeois lethargy of society and the capitalist and neoliberal structures. At the conference proposed by the parallel program of COSMO/POLÍTICA #2, lectured by Jesús Carrilo and entitled ¿de qué sirve todo esto?, the author confirms it more or less explicitly, more or less clearly.

Activist art and art with social and political backgrounds suggest a public engagement and serve as agitators, establishing at the same time a critical line regarding what they contest. Contrary to what is believed, these are not recent trends, and, as Carrillo exemplified, examples can been found since the 60s. What happens is that some museums started to propose a series of critical exhibitive practices that have ended up promoting and giving visibility to this new way of making art. One of the topics is the museums that make up the L’Internationale, a mostly European network in which the Van Abbemuseum, the Reina Sofía National Art Center Museum and the MACBA in Barcelona stand out.

In ¿de qué sirve todo esto? there are examples like Tania Bruguera, artistic practices associated with the Occupy movements, associations of residents that fight against the said gentrification of Madrid neighbourhoods, anti-racist movements, etc., in other words, the cases associated with a useful art are mentioned. This way of making art, geared towards the user and usership (quality of what is likely to be used), it is still revolutionary, even when it ceases to be news. The revolutionary verve associated with artistic projects with social and political foundations always maintains elements of protest, resistance, struggle, and requires the participation and engagement by groups and masses, artists and the public.

The detractors of this way of doing, of this know-how that often refuses the aesthetic commitment (bourgeois), and even authorship itself, reject this art at the service of ideologies and, therefore, a feeble autonomy – the ultimate aspiration of art. In her thesis Artificial Hells, Claire Bishop analyzes the contradictions of these practices and suggests an art that does not jeopardize the aesthetic feeling by focusing on the ethical feeling, while questioning the perils of participation.

In fact, it is possible that this commitment will always remain valid, but political art has never been about the outcome.

Everything that carries a revolutionary ideology does not have to address a final composition. The words of Ursula K. Le Guin sound laconic here, when saying that in the revolution what matters is not the end, but the means. In his words, “[the Revolution], if it is seen as having an end, will never truly begin”.

The process of building a project, a work, resulting from a common effort, is more important than the subsequent aesthetic expression. What matters is the commitment, the daily performance honesty, the exchanges and sharing, the sense of communion and community in a fragmented era. Redefining ties through a joint cause requires politics, yes, but it also requires art.

COSMO/POLÍTICA #2, until 11 November, at Neo-Realism Museum, Vila Franca de Xira.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

Signup for our newsletter!

I accept the Privacy Policy

Subscribe Umbigo

4 issues > €34

(free shipping to Portugal)