(Still) Modern Discomfort, by Miguel Palma
When we descend to the floor -1 of Museu Coleção Berardo, we immediately hear the machinal noises of (Still) Modern Discomfort, an exhibition curated by Miguel von Hafe Pérez. Before that, we see Accident Motion Pictures (2003), an ambulance, and Think Anti-Tank (2014), a military tank used in the Iraq war, and also a video. When we enter the exhibition area itself, the discomfort is absolute. The noise is combined with the immense scale of most of the pieces, which transform the space into a kind of shipyard, with planes, metal mountains, giant tires, napalm bombs or simply small mockups, videos with pets or technical drawings of the time when they were made with ruler, square and compass, with gauged subtitles.
This is Miguel Palma’s body of work: noisy, rough, enormous, but also with an inescapable sensitivity and unique attention to detail. From the transforming power of the machine, Miguel Palma operates based on models of modernity: the car, the plane, the train, even the cinematographic film, presenting us with a kind of modern industrial revolution, where the object loses its useful function, conquering sensorial and intellectual properties.
The way Palma manoeuvres his sculptures, how he exposes and thinks them, has an almost childish side. There is something that reminds us of those children who, one day, are expected to be engineers. This side is visible in works like Ludo – Cube and Ludo – Dominó (1989), two sets of reinforced concrete on an unmanageable scale. But Palma opts to transform everyday objects into art. He does not limit himself to removing their main function, repositioning them in the artistic context and in the context of a specific work, or even in the exhibitive or performative context.
The act of building, of handling (any) tools is a visceral act. It is the first thing that babies do when they begin to master manual movement: pile things, build, destroy, build again. In this century, we have progressively lost this ability (not yet physically), because there are computerized, robotized aids that simplify manual tasks, including writing. But, for Palma, the constructive act is in the machine itself. Miguel Palma does not use machines to help him produce his sculptures. The artist produces machines that are sculptures and installations, which are part of performances, like the video record Suspenso (2013), where the artist is pulled and suspended by cables. Or Engenho (1993), an aerodynamic sculpture vehicle, accompanied by a video showing the car in circulation, driven by the artist on the Lisbon – Porto route, on the A1. This work is the result of a complex team effort. He told us about another exhibition that the sculpture is a team work. It allows contamination to happen, unlike drawing (which Palma also produces regularly, as a support for the sculptures or as a graphic exercise).
Some environmental concerns are visible in this anthology, in works such as Projecto Sementeira (2006) or Carbono 14 (1998). But nature, in Miguel Palma, is tamed by man, through the power of the machine.
The conceptual and physical production process of the works is essential to him. It is part of the exhibition of the various works. Whether there is a film, a technical drawing or sketches, the process is as important as the final work. It often gives us clues about the artist’s intentions and that is also the process that originates the work. It also happens by accident, as in Lisboa-Roterdão (2001). A model of a coastal village and its inhabitants inside an acrylic box, with a water zone, was towed between Lisbon and Rotterdam, with the water invading the small village, showing the difficulties of those who live near the sea.
Also on travel, the film Travelling With Pets (2003) shows a dog travelling on the roof of a car, inside an adapted carrier. Anyone with pets probably knows that traveling with these friends is not always easy, and the laughter is spontaneous. The Super 8 film takes us to the home movies, popularized in the 70s, with the vulgarization of the manoeuvrable cameras accessible to the general public.
But not all pieces have this almost humorous lightness. Works like Little Boy (2007), Upa! União dos Povos de Angola (2006), an original model of a napalm bomb, or the already mentioned Think Anti-Tank, remind us of the human capacity for destruction and war.
Miguel Palma is one of the most significant artists in contemporary art. With a remarkable work that brings together sculpture, drawing, installation and even performance, his sculptural work is easily recognizable, but the whole set is extremely coherent in its social, political and ecological concerns, in its sense of humour and in its references. Miguel von Hafe Pérez, in the exhibition catalogue, states that “As in the Tao, Palma promises with his art an opportunity for balance and learning”. We can add: as in the Tao, for Miguel Palma the journey of a thousand miles also begins with a single step.
(Still) Modern Discomfort is on view at Museu Coleção Berardo until January 19.