Interview with Marta Jecu, curator of the exhibition Stone Alive

Stone Alive, at Museu Geológico de Lisboa, is a curatorial project which intends to translate the dormant language of stones, their uses through time, their appropriation and how contemporary art interprets this idiom. It is a long project, an exhibition that takes time and effort, exploring every corner, showcase, skeleton and specimen of the museum.

Curator Marta Jecu spoke to us about the origin of Stone Alive, its itinerancy, issues and themes surrounding the project and the contribution of the artists Claire de Santa Coloma, Fernanda Fragateiro, Gabriel Leger, Gilles Zark, Luca Pozzi, Marta Alvim, Martinho Mendes, Pedro Sequeira, Raphael Denis, Rita Gaspar Vieira, Rosell Meseguer, Sérgio Carronha and Vincent Voillat for this cycle.

José Pardal Pina – Is “the cultural interpretation of the stone”, that you have been working on in this homonymous cycle, a way of reading the stones, of awakening a slumbering voice? What does the title mean and how has it been developed?

Marta JecuThe two exhibitions STONE ALIVE – one in the Geological Museum Lisbon (July 4 – August 4) and a second exhibition in the Mineralogy Museum in Paris (September 1 – November 10), both included in the official program of the France-Portugal Season 2022, have been preceded by two exhibitions: A CULTURAL INTERPRETATION OF STONE PART I (Galerie Cabinet d’Ulysse, Marseille, 2019) and A CULTURAL INTERPRETATION OF STONE PART II (Galeria da Livraria Sá da Costa, Lisbon, 2020). These four projects (and hopefully this series will continue in the following years) aim to map different possible approaches to the stone. The starting point of this project is that the stone is, from a physical point of view, the oldest and most persistent material in the history of humanity, as well as the paradigmatic matter of art. Despite its compact and impenetrable materiality (which justifies its endurance in time and space), the stone is being reinvented in contemporary art and is re-emerging in a dematerialised, virtualised and technologically enhanced way. The study of this new materiality – in fact, the new way this artistic matter is being rethought in contemporary art – has been the starting point of this project. Therefore, Stone Alive aims to show this new mutability, transmutability and versatility of this old matter. 

JPP – Stones ask to be touched and caressed. They are perceived by the hands, slowly, from different angles and approaches. How the exhibition mirrors the haptic side of stones?

MJ – In this exhibition the stone is not questioned as a material presence, but rather as a carrier of information – a capsule that transports a holistic consciousness and the multiplicity of interconnected forms of being in time and space: human, non-human, vegetal, mineral. The exhibition maps the thinking about stone and its relevance and potential in contemporary culture, rather than being a collection of ‘stones’. That is why stones do not practically appear in this exhibition, unless in a de-materialised, fusional form.

JPP – From a device perspective, Museu Geológico is a hefty building, with old and powerful display cases. This is a rare “museum of museums”. In other words, it shows old forms of exhibition. What was the greatest challenge within it, curatorially and design-wise?

MJ  For me, this exhibition is part of my research on how contemporary art can bring solutions to the complex legacy that museology, as a discipline, deals with. We all know that museology has been tightly connected to colonial exploration and exploitation and this legacy that is perpetuated by historic museums should be in fact reflected in a critical way. Museums, as organisms connected to power, have been always associated to political agendas and used as means to transmit, in an invisible way, how the present and the past should be read. Not only can contemporary art be a tool to make visible how visual discourse transports ideological content, but also to propose new ways in which heritage can be perceived. This exhibition is less about problematizing these particular collections themselves (that are based on extractions mostly from Lisbon and Portugal), and more about the mineral exploitation in other cultural areas and presenting cultural cases in which fusional ways between human and non-human (mineral, vegetal ways) of life emerge, that can repair and restore this difficult legacy, with which we continue to confront ourselves. The exhibition proposes non-human intelligence as a significant heritage and explores situations in which it could (or can) be applied to the present.

JPP – Stone Alive has a distinctly ecological edge, albeit this is not overtly pamphleteering or activist, unlike many exhibitions with this ‘ecological’ bent, which spark some misunderstandings and redundancy. Do you agree with Timothy Morton that all art is ecological?

MJ – Many thanks for this reference! Yes, ecological themes in Art end up being mere rhetorical solutions for self-legitimation. In that sense, I think research-based works can be useful approaches, like the work of Martinho Mendes in Stone Alive, who has studied in local archives and in the territory ecological vernacular practices in Madeira. The same goes for the Herbarium of Rosell Meseguer, which is based on rigorous and genuine research on plants that help regenerate earths that have suffered excessive exploitation. Similarly, as Timothy Morton, in this exhibition Art is understood as being capable of showing new ways to think, and in that sense it is regenerative, ecological. Many of the works in this exhibition emerge from an effort of the artists to affiliate to this expanded consciousness that stone carries (with its cosmic heritage and as connecting the micro and the macro-universe) – for example, Sergio Carronha or Marta Alvim. In this way, these works manifest methods of attaining a holistic ecological consciousness.

JPP – According to the exhibition text, this project will head to Paris’ Musée de Minéralogy. Will it have a similar layout and the same artists?

MJ – As the project carries the official seal of the French-Portugal Season 2022 (Temporada França-Portugal 2022) it aims to reflect on two of the oldest museums in these two capitals: Lisbon and Paris, that both maintain their historic display and are both connected to the research. At the origin of the Geological Museum of Lisbon are the specimens collected by the Geological Commissions in Portugal starting with 1859. The Musée de Minéralogie MINES Paris was founded in 1783 and is still associated with the University, close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. In general terms, we can speak about a travelling exhibition with a unitary concept and message, but as these two exhibitions are site-specific, some of the works were changed to adapt to the space of each museum.

JPP – Is this need to return to stones, minerals, primitive and natural pigments a common feature in all artists or does it reveal an engagement and a deeper need to return to the matrix plasticity that nature has given us?

MJ – I think that what we experience is, in fact, a need for a more intense transfer of information between us and other forms of intelligence and being. While working with the artists, I felt the urge to explore the interconnection of multiple ways of being in time and space and the possibilities to access this heritage of non-human knowledge and intelligence. For instance, Vincent Voillat, Gilles Zark or Luca Pozzi’s works can be seen as efforts to visualize, analyze, and assume it. They are essays on how we can apply to our immediate present this expanded scale that stone carries and the information it transports. In some of the works, this is understood as a possible contribution to promote moral and ecological justice (Rosell Meseguer), in others for inner and personal transformation (Marta Alvim), and in others (Rita Gaspar Vieira, Pedro Sequeira) of thinking about what matter and materiality are in their essence and their importance for our spiritual development.

JPP – The conference Deep Life. Reimagining our Fossil Modernity is also part of this curatorial project. Can you tell us what was said by Giovanbattista Tusa at this conference?

MJ – The associated program of the exhibition was included as well as a guided visit of the exhibition with an audio description for the blind and visually impaired (by Eliana Franco and Roberta Gonçalves). It was part of a course of audio description led by Eliane Franco, which I think is a significant contribution in the field, as contemporary art is so little made available for people with visual deficiency. In the framework of this exhibition, it has made a significant statement about transgressing materiality with other forms of knowledge.

The lecture of Giovanbattista Tusa has been, on the other hand, essential for the situation theoretically in the content that this exhibition forwarded. Here follows a resume of his talk:

In recent years we have witnessed an expansion of the concept of life, which has begun to include forms of existence not immediately referable to the organisms studied within the field of biological sciences. This involves immersion in other temporalities which are not only those of human society and its immediate implications. Giovanbattista Tusa will present the deep implications of the inhuman dimensions that populate our life and the possibilities embedded in this change of perspective, which moves beyond the fossil imaginary that has characterized Western modernity in recent centuries. There are several important aspects to this shift involving a renewal of ecological relations. The first is the recognition that human responsibility for human prosperity cannot be separated from broader ecological processes, in particular, from ecological multiplicity. The other is certainly the fact that we are starting to leave behind the thinking subject of law and that we are witnessing the emergence of a sentient subject which calls for a radical extension of (in-)human rights to nonhumans entities that share a material capacity for affection and agency in this space of coexistence that we call the “world”. (Giovanbattista Tusa).

These two exhibitions have been received with a lot of support by the two museum directions in Lisbon and Paris, by the museum team in Lisbon and by the research laboratory LNEG, which I would like to profoundly thank. Many thanks to all the artists for generously sharing their work and the French-Portugal season for their support and also to Umbigo for this interview and interest.

Until August 4 at Museu Geológico de Lisboa and from September 1 to November 10 at Paris Musée de Minéralogie.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine.

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