Anozero’21-22: Coimbra Biennial Meia-noite

Entitled Meia-noite, this edition of Anozero’21-22: Coimbra Biennial, for the first time with two curators, Elfi Turpin and Filipa Oliveira, chooses the night as a place of fluidity, poetry and resistance to normative thinking. The night, generator of knowledge, blurs the boundaries and allows other readings of the world. This is a space where norms are broken down, a place open to other visions and knowledge. We find them in this biennial of contemporary art in Coimbra, whose programme includes renowned venues in the city and whose epicentre is the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova.

In the summoning of the night – which conceals and reveals – darkness embraces us at the entrance floor, in the Monastery’s long corridor. Visitors enter into a performative, intimate and immersive experience with the work of Italian artist Elisabetta Benassi. Driven by the penumbra, the rhythm of lights and sounds, we see the fictional, Morse code dialogue between the poets Sandro Penna and Pier Paolo Pasolini through two lamps that communicate with each other. In a silent hymn to the body, to love and to difference, Gostaria de viver dormecido no interior do doce ruído da vida, 2022, is the metaphor of midnight as a space of dialogue and encounter between the worlds of the dead and the living. The almost spectral side of Aurélia de Sousa’s (1866-1922) image, self-portrayed as Saint Anthony, welcomes us as we enter the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Nova. The black and white photograph Estudo para Santo António (autorretrato), probably taken by the painter, recalls the sombre atmosphere of a monastic cell. There is a curious connection with the building hosting the biennale, the former Clarisse women’s monastery established in the sixteenth century. The image of the cross-dressed Aurélia de Souza immediately draws our attention due to the fragility of her body, slightly curved, dressed in the traditional Franciscan burel. It was captured in an almost dynamic moment, about to conclude a slight, unsteady step, suggested by her bare feet and the gesture of her restless, scenographic hands. The artist deliberately and frontally looks at the observer, breaking down the boundaries of gender as an elusive, ambiguous, androgynous presence. The image’s ambiguity and fluidity symbolically surpass the theme of the night, in a feminist perspective that emphasizes the participating voices, bringing in alternative angles, subjectivities and thoughts. The feminist view, the patriarchal criticism, the denunciation of sexism in the art world, performance and humour dominates the monastery’s former refectory. This is the installation Miles, 2021, by Julie Béna, with three films and metal sculptures that draw a spectral landscape. Further on we see Suspensão, 2022. It is Jarbas Lopes’ sculpture: an unlit bonfire, raised and supported by an enormous wire net. It reminds us of the past, the invention of fire and its domination by humans, while we reflect on the present moment of a suspended world.

The biennial’s curatorial programme wants to experiment, share and communicate creative, unexpected and boundary-pushing forms of knowledge production, with new voices that teach us to see in the dark. We single out the terracotta sculptures by Senegalese Seni Awa Camara. They are places through which voices that have been and continue to be silenced speak. They are archives of personal and cultural histories and myths. There is also the ancestral, anthropological and ritualistic side of the two sculptures by Gabriel Chaile. They are fantastic beings – between animal and human – who are in a transformative moment as they inhale a substance.

In the transformation, transmutation and metamorphosis of Coimbra’s Meia-noite, the night is offered to us as a fluid space-time. That night where we sing in whispers, shown through the installation by the Portuguese artist Maja Escher in collaboration with Artur Pispalhas and Norberto Lobo. The artist is guided by the voice and movements of the Mondego River. She collects stories, sounds, stones, mud and vegetation. This material is used in sculptures, delicate drawings and a musical score. And this suggests an environmental reconfiguration, a reflection on water from its absence, questioning its current voices and the pain coming from dams, wells and greenhouses. The water, where we are invited to dive into the installation Olho, Nariz, Boca, Ouvido, Testa, Queixo, Maçã do Rosto, Sobrancelha, 2022, by the South Korean artist Ru Kim, whose vibrant blue is attractive and mesmerizing. By addressing the use of water, an element that human beings consider passive, whose consumption bears no consequences, the intervention is divided into three chapters on the same site: one on a bridge in Seoul where many people commit suicide; another on the Mediterranean Sea transformed into a cemetery, in view of Europe’s migration policy; and a reference to lithium mines in Portugal and the possible contamination of the water.

This biennial edition also exhibits the colonial past and marks, the anti-patriarchal and anti-colonial vision with recourse to art as a manifesto and denunciation. We highlight the documentaries Como era gostoso o meu francês, 1971, by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, exploring the concept of anthropophagy by Oswaldo de Andrade; Monangambeee, 1969, the first short film by Sarah Maldoror, which adapts a short story by the Angolan writer Luandino Vieira about oppression and torture in Angolan colonial prisons; and the autobiographical and confessional side of the video Mother, 2002-2022, by Carlos Bunga, from an intimate conversation with his mother who fled Angola.

During our journey through Meia-noite we see other works that surprise and attract us. For instance, the suspended sculptures by Mané Pacheco in one of the monastery’s corridors. Criatura, 2022 is suspended at different heights, created with black natural rubber, ropes, aluminium tubes, metal fittings and faux fur. It reminds us of organic forms of animalistic inspiration, but also BDSM universe, with notions of power, domination and obedience. The desire for repressed sexuality is on the exhibition’s top floor. It is a work of great poetic beauty – Un chant d’amour, 2019-2022, by Laura Lamiel. Célula invites us to take an inner journey and experience the embedded, labyrinthine structures of the artist’s memory and thoughts about Jean Genet’s 1950 film Un Chant d’Amour. Lit from below, the cell’s steel structure, surrounded by mirrored walls, seems to house a ghostly presence. Closed in on itself, but haunted by the viewers’ gaze and reflection, it divides/duplicates the table that furnishes the cell on each side of the wall, recalling the monastic and prison worlds (this is a curious connection with the cells of the Santa Clara-a-Nova Monastery, later converted into a military barracks). The only communication between the two areas is made by the cigarette hole drilled in the mirror. It recalls Jean Genet’s film, through which flows the repressed communication between the two prisoners.

To conclude the exhibition at the monastery, A Dream Dreaming a Dream, 2000, by Daniel Steegmann Mangrané. This is an online animation video, in infinite self-generation. It shows a panther at night in a forest, in an eternal oneiric wandering. Inspired by the perceptions of indigenous people in the forest and the non-human entities that inhabit it, A Dream Dreaming a Dream shows us layers of different knowledge forms and reality planes. We end our journey through Meia-noite in the dark, fantasising with a panther’s dream that takes us into the Amazon jungle.

Drawing on the notion of night and the role of bats in preserving the collections of the Joanina Library, Elfi Turpin and Filipa Oliveira reflect on marginal and unexpected forms of knowledge production, something visible in the involvement of artists from various generations, disciplines and subjectivities. Presenting works and projects from the biennial’s specific context and the identity of the city, we see the strong presence of artists from the southern hemisphere. The curators wanted to include unconventional voices and ways of learning. According to Filipa Oliveira, the aim is to show not European, white, masculine knowledge, but other knowledges and practices.

With the Monastery of Santa Clara hosting most of the works, the biennial also presents an Exhibition Circuit in well-known places in the city. Among them, the two centres of the Coimbra Fine Arts Circle – Sede and Sereia -; Estufa Fria; Casa das Caldeiras; Teatro da Cerca de São Bernardo and Rua da Estrela. There are many new works by over 40 artists and collectives, which can be visited until June 26.

Mafalda Teixeira, Master’s Degree in History of Art, Heritage and Visual Culture from the Faculty of Letters of the University of Porto. She has an internship and worked in the Temporary Exhibitions department of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. During the master’s degree, she did a curricular internship in production at the Municipal Gallery of Oporto. Currently, she is devoted to research in the History of Modern and Contemporary Art, and publishes scientific articles.

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