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1983 by João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira + Bassness by Emily Wardill at Rialto6

In the distance, as I draw closer to Rua do Conde de Redondo, where Rialto6 is located, I look at the building and I don’t see anything special, it’s one like any other. If we carefully walk up the street on the left side, we notice (I didn’t) cobblestones written with names, without understanding what they have to do with 1983, the most recent exhibition of João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Santos, even less with the anonymous building. Now I know, and so I include an incomprehensible clue: “Leila placed the money under the cobblestones, as this is a place where normally nobody ever leaves money. She has already left money there and the next day she went to pick it up, and it was in the same spot!”.

A window of the building has “Pastelaria” written in neon green, a sign of a recent past still visible in some Lisbon streets, a plastic artificiality, seductively influenced by the 80s. The pastry shop does not have an entrance. In fact, when we come close to the tarts, displayed in metal compartments, we have a disturbing sight: they are covered in mould. We can’t touch them or eat them, but we don’t feel like it either. Next to them, the shuttered, corporate weight of two grey doors.

As we enter the gallery, the world changes: it is a wide corridor, lit by blue-violet neon; in the background, there are people clustered together and to the right we enter a dark space, where we hear a voice. To identify it, we have to go down the stairs. Beforehand, we find texts describing what we are about to see, with a poem by Mário Cesariny entitled Pastelaria. According to the information we are given, fungi have been placed on the cakes arranged outside, which will develop throughout the exhibition’s duration. Fungi are moulds, eukaryotic organisms fed by the absorption of dead matter.

As we descend the stairs to meet the voice, darkness blocks our view: now that we have entered a place so removed from everyday life, where are we going? Cesariny motivates us: “What matters is not to be afraid”. In a metallic structure, similar to a bus stop (detailed, specific, with posters of popular festivals and mural drawings written on it) sits a man. He has a quiet but burdened posture, reads a book and smokes a cigarette. Despite the transience of the place, he appears not to want to go anywhere. Dripping water trickles from the ceiling and sometimes light jets of water – the aim is to build a context, an atmosphere, a bus stop lost in time, where we listen to stories under the relentless rain. Later, I find out that this man is Nuno Alexandre Ferreira (the performance has different interlocutors, depending on the day of the exhibition). He reads us stories that were and are realities. Accounts of marginalised, assumedly queer lives, stories of prostitution told in the underground of a street, where superficially this reality is still a habit. The context is 1983, the year of the first news about AIDS in Portugal: a year after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the country, a year before António Variações’ death. We hear hard things, marked by the frontier between “self-esteem and self-stigma”, as the text puts it. The narrating voice, staged or not, has the weight of someone who no longer has anything to lose, coldly reading the account of what he seems to have witnessed and lived, a situation to which he has become accustomed. This renunciation of emotion makes the words heavy and tangible: who are these people and what role do we play in this story? This time, we are the ones who have to go around the raindrops to always end up drenched.

The opportunity to be there, in that atmosphere so meticulously constructed, evocative, urgent, sets up one of the great shows of the year. Just like in a cinema, the dark, isolating, immersive sea allows us a reunion or a revelation. An act always empathetic before the awareness that that is not just another story, but a mirroring of so many others.

Bassness, Emily Wardill’s exhibition, is on the first floor. We go up the stairs and, as we enter, we see a suspended metal triangle, a musical instrument with a giant dimension, known for its high-pitched sounds. It has an open angle, allowing new resonances. It is suspended from the ceiling and behind it we see a chaotic background with colours clumped together: red, yellow, blue, black, in aggressive, linear tears painted on the wall. From this point we notice a march from shadow to light, illustrated by the paint on the walls: on the right side there is clarity. Like the triangle’s anxious open-angle, the pieces we see seem to be at the edges of tension, near distances of forbidden contact. They are bound by their attempt to communicate and the consequences of that deafness. In one compartment on the right, we see Sick Serena and Dregs and Wreck and Wreck from 2007. Bottom left, Night for Day from 2020. They are two video projections, where sounds interconnect and confuse in battle. Both seek to develop unexpected relationships: the first uses cumulative compositions of medieval stained glass to speak humorously about linguistic problems; the aesthetic treatment reminds us of the absurd refinement of Peter Greenaway’s films. The second wants to explore a fiction composed of digital images, home recordings where English and Portuguese are spoken, semantic distortions with different coloured subtitles. The aim is to construct “a false mother-child relationship to imagine what would happen if a utopian communist gave birth to a techno-utopian fan”. These are the only two cases that clearly fit into museum venues, black, loaded, like subwoofers.

We highlight the work The Pips, positioned in the venue’s mezzanine. It is a video where a dancer, while juggling, drops limbs from her body. This is the representation of the film turned into magic. We also see Misremembered Bones from 2022, a composition of bones scattered on the floor belonging to an imagined human being. Although made in a different context, it establishes an inevitable relationship with The Pips here. Across the six works, the exhibition is full of meaning and relational opportunities. But it is too hermetic, self-enclosed. Not a sigh strikes us given the surrounding chaos. The room isn’t the most unbiased either. It has an assumed elegance that overshadows the works that don’t deal with videographic projections. Because they don’t have that immersive side, they almost become mere adornments. “It needs more bass”.

As we go out into the street, we see what we hadn’t noticed at first. We return to 1983 of João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira. Now aware, we notice Os Nomes Estão Todos Lá Dentro, the aforementioned cobblestones, with names, reminders of real lives “that were part of the construction of the area as a place of liberation, struggle and activism”. We’re back on the surface. Rua do Conde Redondo is at night a site of prostitution, especially transsexuals and transvestites. When reading about it we can find graphic and alarming news. We must listen, tell, unashamedly. 1983 shows us speech as a weapon, communication as resistance. Communication is the core of the two exhibitions I saw. Voices cannot be hidden. Leila doesn’t have to hide her money under the cobblestones.

The exhibitions are at the Rialto6 until 29 April 2022.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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