Between what we know and what we find: The game of matryoshkas by Julião Sarmento and Sandra Baía at the MUDAS – Madeira Modern Art Museum

Madeira, vast, steep, long landscapes and endless horizons, where the green exudes and dominates, except when we walk high up through the clouds. In this vast and rugged scenery, almost at the end of 2021, the joint exhibition of Julião Sarmento and Sandra Baía has inaugurated in MUDAS – Madeira Modern Art Museum. It was also the venue’s reopening, where the 30th-anniversary commemorations programme was celebrated in the best possible way – through art.

The project was born in 2019, after an invitation from the Madeira region to Julião Sarmento, who then extended it to Sandra Baía and both curators. In close collaboration, but without intending to be umbilically linked, both exhibitions – (Un)disclosed by Julião Sarmento curated by Benjamin Weil, and Formas Encontradas by Sandra Baía curated by David Barro – come together in the territory and the space architecture, but with distinct and personal histories and perspectives. But they are similar on the performative side, where they manoeuvre or elude factuality. In Julião this is a more visual aspect, in Sandra it is sculptural and pictorial. A game of matryoshkas, according to David Barro, where present structures are revealed and omitted, converted into new plastic and formal data.

Anyone who has visited the museum may have experienced the liberating and supreme sensation of being between the infinity of the sky and the sea. The open and peaceful architecture of the space leads us into a deep descent (entrance) towards the inside. It is almost a provocation, an undeniable physical constriction, but one that demands introspection for a more detailed reading of each exhibition. The features are decisive for visitors, and also for (Un)disclosed according to curator Benjamin Weil. Julião Sarmento’s know-how in architecture, which has always taken into account the exhibition site as a complement to his thinking, had an impact on this project. The setting is composed of a game of angles and perspectives of vision, in a labyrinthine environment between larger and smaller rooms, passages and hallways of compulsory access, as part of the narrative and experience. The curator emphasises the dialogue that takes place in and with the space: a place-specific narrative, with awareness of it and its location; where clues are given in the form of silhouettes and other referents that reveal themselves as we move through the premises. An individual space-time experience, where the artist shows us the vast universe between things, important manipulations to welcome and understand his work. Even if this welcoming may lead to inadequate interpretations or make it difficult to accept the work(s), due to its difficulty and total absorption. In the work undisclosed (which lends its title to the exhibition), the bodies that insinuate and dissimulate themselves, as well as a structure camouflaged in red velvet, make us wonder: do we see everything? And is what we see really what it seems? Etymologically, exhibition means to show, to offer – disclosing. Paradox. In the end, there is mystery and questioning, feeling that only part of the veil is lifted. An uninterrupted tension that reflects on the state of things; through signs or letters – so often present – exploring how perception and meaning are shaped by visual and aesthetic, literary or philosophical language. In the words of Benjamin Weil “a sensory journey through the artist’s visual world”, where times intersect: past works read in the present and juxtaposed with recent works; a study of various systems of representation, as, after all, formal experimentation is decisive in the artist’s visual inquiry. In the end, our ability to understand is tepid and demands a (belated) internal contemplation, perhaps with no turning back.

In his first posthumous exhibition, there is a persistent echo. For those who did not notice, there is even the artist’s voice at the end (or perhaps at the beginning) of the exhibition with the piece Tribu. For me, as Roland Barthes would say, this is the primordial point of (Un)disclosed – Julião Sarmento’s noema, the moment in which I let myself be invaded by the amazement of “this was”. It was and it came from its author. This is where the madness lies: in that instant, listening to Julião, I assume that this representation is a guarantee of the past. And, therefore, a hallucination: false perceptually, true temporally. But he is there, he existed. Faced with this life that seems eternal to me, a single question emerges: after all, how many lives are there? What does it mean to die?

Architecture is again decisive in Formas Encontradas by Sandra Baía, the essence of spaces and objects, that which they return to us in the persistence of their echo. By activating them through installations and sculptures, the artist asks the viewer to be aware of the spatial architecture and its singularities, in an inescapable and required interaction that promotes its understanding. The context is content for the creative process. However, Sandra Baía does not limit herself to the reproduction of the real, preferring to explore the setting, according to a game between the true and the illusory, where the effective structures get mixed up with works imagined in situ, a moment in which materials (and their history) and the artistic purposes, mental products, come together in the environment. Only in this way are we able to highlight details or infrastructures that otherwise would never be taken beyond their structural and compositional nature. Through this sharp plastic acumen, the work hovers between being and not being, between the present and the absent, fruit of a sober minimalism that takes shape as a being-(non)place that manifests the identity of its context. In these architectural performances that study and engulf the real, truths are broken – an invitation to avoid all formalities and the stiffness of the real. Forced relations of body-space physicality, which have long since surpassed the restriction of the frame and the apparatus of the pedestal. As David Barro put it, this results in “plastic enigmas” of deconstructions and revivals of materials. A performative demand underlying all her work and one that allows the artist to work in the intersections of several disciplines.

As we approach the museum, perfectly fitted into its surroundings, where the dark stone and the cracks in the cliffs are evident, we can spot a black sculptural volume emerging. Later on, we realise that it is an enormous web of fishing nets filling a structural void. It greets the sea that makes up the skyline and typifies the space, while emphasising the sustainable language of the discourse and Sandra Baía’s work, capable of reinventing meanings by reusing materials. This constant awareness of the surrounding landscape appears anew in the work composed by the iron structure of five chairs. This one asks us to look from the inside out, underlining the referents that go beyond its physicality. A rational minimalism with a sensorial limbo – we are simultaneously inside and outside the building and ask ourselves what this absence of humanity means.

The whole work is spatial. It feeds off the site to become habitable. This is achieved with tensions, often generated by challenges to stability or by visible asymmetries, but also with mirrored materials that give us back the image of ourselves, shapeless, in an immediate hybrid with the place and the material, as if we were one. We walk in an “other world”, where the two original columns blur through duplication. We are only a detail in an atmosphere of successive shattered, misleading contours, punctuated by gestures that make us feel and question truths, definitions, ideas and certainties. Sandra Baía shows us that forms are not necessarily invented but (if we consider what surrounds us) easily found. Never imposing itself, but adding or directing, to make us abstract from reality and create many other experiences, more plastic, comprehensive and involving.

Until August 31, 2022, the narrative timelessness and the elusive ability to mask the surroundings of (Un)disclosed and Formas Encontradas will continue to draw landscapes within landscapes and propose successive challenges to our understanding. According to Barthes: art has two paths, we are the ones who choose between them – either we submit its spectacle to the civilised code of perfect illusions or we face in it the awakening of the inaccessible reality.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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