From the outskirts one can see the city – Catarina Botelho at the Pavilhão Branco
The timelessness of art is related to the ability of some works to remain current – “contemporary” – as they distance themselves from the moment of creation. Some works only respond, or have that ambition, to an immediate need of their time. Others, remaining the same, reaffirm their relevance in different contexts. By context I mean the framework defined by volatile circumstances, such as curatorship, space, or, more broadly, the specific events of an era.
Something in between, by Catarina Botelho, opened in January 2020. Then it closed, like so many others, during the quarantine, and reopened in May, in a different world. The art – or my perspective -, is then tainted by the context: the same works, in the same place, but a different exhibition. In a few months, the photographs gathered at the Municipal Galleries – Pavilhão Branco tell another story. The strange thing is to think that, at the beginning of the year they were able to anticipate the fate of the cities.
(And isn’t the timelessness of art synonymous with distance, only possible from the periphery, far from the center?)
The exhibition, curated by Sandra Vieira Jürgens, rehearses a walk through the outskirts, through the uncertain territories that establish the urban limits. The no-man’s-land, where the neutrality of the landscape and the absence of organization give way to the spontaneity of nature. C. Botelho’s photographs are hung or suspended, with different heights and sizes, simulating the camera’s own points of view, the scale of the objects represented, and underlining the choreographic aspect, which suggests certain body positions. We squat, we approach them, we are taken by an uncertain trail, where we go after the human presence, through the spoils that are found along the walk.
On the gallery’s ground floor, the glasses painted white, as in shops under construction, are a reference to the unfinished state of a provisional architecture. On the other hand, they enclose the public in a photographic journey through an inhospitable landscape, with vibrant colours, where all the manufactured elements contrast with the shining shades of vegetation. In the background, we travel through a place with no specific location, possibly existing anywhere in the world, as we move away from the large population clusters towards the shores.
As I said before, returning to this exhibition after quarantine created inevitable reinterpretations. In part because the images were now familiar. Within days, cities removed their solid facades and revealed the fragility of the systems that feed and generate them. The impossibility of continuing their daily lives, and the obligatory social distance, led us to look for peripheral places, where we hope the other passers-by will never arrive. We need a few kilometres to discover similar terrain at the edge of the housing areas.
The precariousness of these temporary occupations is an echo of the difficulty of survival in large urban centres. For economic or adaptation reasons, these areas bear witness to escapes, the choice of marginality and the refusal of a system that works at a speed that is often, and for many, cruel. The increasingly large cities live in a permanent state of construction, the consequence of a paradoxically destructive vertigo, as they continue to swallow up the landscape that still exists in the surrounding areas.
In the centre of the staircase that connects the two floors, the large-format photograph of a tree, which appears/stays between two parts of a wall, announces an impossibility: the equal coexistence of human construction and nature; and a warning: human construction – like the species itself – is ephemeral, but nature always finds a way to develop itself.
If, on the ground floor, we move away from the city, on the upper we get closer again. The order and the joining of objects suggest ways of passing time, the main reason for the creative impulse; or perhaps they are just debris that overflowed from the cities, unable to absorb the excess waste produced. Either way, they are evidence of an uncontrolled and invasive species.
In the illusory impenetrability of concrete and stone, we see the failure of structures, which are also provisional and doomed to ruin. The indescribable relationship between cities and the destruction of nature and the inflammable element of the fragile social pacts that make them viable makes us believe that the last image of anything in between is an omen of their fate: the cyclical return of the flames.
At a time when we are returning to the streets, after the period of obligatory confinement, the works of Catarina Botelho question the systems of social organization, the invisibility of the margins, and the unstoppable expansion of urban fabrics, a consequence of the current economic (and value) system. The set of photographs underlines the artist’s appetite for places and forms that allow her to fiction contranarratives, that dream of alternative existential modes.
To see until 05.07.2020 at the Municipal Galleries – Pavilhão Branco, Lisbon.