Disclosing the Idea of Death

In May 2021, in one of many defining moments of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Swedish composer Mårten Jansson recorded, with the vocal ensembles VOCES8 and Apollo5, the Philharmonia symphony orchestra and the British soprano Anna Dennis, based on the verses of Charles Anthony Silvestri, the beautiful piece Requiem Novum. He gave a contemporary shape to one of the oldest Catholic Masses for the soul of the dead. It may have been a way for him to relate artistically to what was plaguing the world, to the feeling of seeing lives, knowledge, the human being blackened. Among the different moments of the prayer for the dead asking God to grant them rest – the requiem, traditionally composed of five parts – Silvestri’s words were included. To the poem that bridges the gap between the “Sanctus” (the glorification of the Lord) and the “Pie Jesu” (the appeal to Jesus), the author has given the name of “I Stand Upon a Landscape of Infinity”. This marks the moment when, in contemplating death, realising the absence of horizon, the Being recognises and glorifies the Infinite in God – and the stanzas in which the idea of light and illumination (divine, of souls?) is most palpable.

The exhibition of several graphic works by Bertílio Martins and Vasco Célio at Convento do Espírito Santo in Loulé was entitled Permaneço numa paisagem do infinito. The direct reference to Jansson and Silvestri’s composition shows a reflection on the idea of Death. A subject that, as the publicity materials for this event indicate, structures the whole show. Curators Miguel Cheta and Mirian Tavares (who signs the exhibition’s text) asked the artists to create pieces around this idea: and, therefore, it is fitting that this Silvestri’s verse should be the show’s motto.

In four rooms of the municipal gallery, there are four photographic groups by Vasco Célio, whose professional and artistic curriculum is already quite consistent (recently, he was the Portuguese representative in the Europe at Home project). There are also three drawings, engravings and monotypes by Bertílio Martins. Besides the pieces, in a relatively traditional support, and fixed on the walls, there are three installations. Given their unconventional side, they escape from the usual approaches of exhibiting images in art galleries. The first one is in the darkest room, the second that the visitor finds when entering the gallery through the main door. On the left side, a long display case shows a sequence of eight varied slide viewers. With this, we understand the reason for dimming the place, as this allows us to see more clearly the images included in each device: photographs of the sun, by Vasco Célio. The other two installations by Bertílio Martins are on the lower floor of the last room – on the wall, two rows of prints (five plus two), at the height of a wooden ladder leaning against the wall; on the floor, on a raised plane, a series of monotypes, each one covered by a removable sheet of tracing paper. In all three installations, the visitors are asked to do more than just observe: they must bend over, lean their eyes against the slide-viewing devices and partake of the image of the one we cannot look at head-on, as if they were in a darkroom; they must climb the ladder to see the hanging images, for, on the floor, their small size, in the centre of the disproportionate frame, makes it difficult to perceive them; they must tentatively grasp one of the ends of each transparency and observe the drawing underneath it, showing the shapes of bones, excerpts from a skeleton that binds Being to sensitive existence. These are moments of active revelation of the observing subject: of himself as an observer; of what is visible in these particular pieces, in relation to which an action is required; but also everything we can see and revisit in the other elements of the exhibition. The notion of revelation is decisive in this show, and it is also so in the understanding about death: the end reveals the Being, whether in the physical vanishing, or in the questioning of the reality that lingers. To die is also to be captured into a permanent state, to abandon the realm of inconstancy and mutability.

Two of the images that most impressed me – beyond the almost playful side with which the artists prompt the visitors to act, lessening the less inviting and even unpleasant nature of this topic – are two self-portraits by Vasco Célio. Like the installations, they defile the visitors’ sight, making them see all the works. In both, the plane is tightly framed over the subject’s face. One of the photographs, overexposed to the light, shows him with his eyes closed; the other is like the negative of the first one (or the positive and the other the opposite). In it, the face is shown with open eyes. The idea is to see death as the shattering of horizons, an abrogation of the most familiar expectations. What is usually associated with closing one’s eyes, with the poetic dark night, is the image of open eyes. On the other hand, light, in its seductive excess – as Silvestri’s verses put it – allows us to see “the Presence, / glowing with impossible light”, the Presence of the Being within what is beyond human limitation, earthly and alive. In both images, the viewers’ eyes need to adjust their focus, but they face the extremes of shadow and light, the points where life and death touch and transform into each other. The poetic voice in Jansson’s Requiem says: “Drawn into the Light, / I fade, I lose myself” – this forfeiture is a form of liberation, pushing the boundaries of the individual.

This mixture of opposites, underpinned by the accomplice dialogue between the propensity for illumination and the movement towards the absence of light, between light and dark that rules the exhibition’s works, is what leads the aesthetic urge in the monotypes, in Bertílio Martins’ engravings and drawings: white spots on a black background or dark clouds on white backgrounds, the toil of form and content in permanent transmutation, where neither is fixed or predominant. The line is a blur, the blur is the line. The line of life, the chaos of death, the chaos of life aligning death.

An “infinite landscape” also points to the idea of landscape: some photographs in the early rooms bear images whose colour profile negates the cohesion of white and dark. However, in its set of dense vegetation, it reveals a Paradise of shadows and luminescent gaps.

Depicting death is not necessarily an anguished interrogation. This seems to have been one of the pillars of the challenge that Miguel Cheta and Mirian Tavares presented to Bertílio Martins and Vasco Célio. The answer is vivid, without being evasive. Frontal, but at the same time inviting the visitor to develop a labyrinth of subtleties. One of the difficulties of group creation – in this case, of a duo exhibition – is harmonisation. In a two-person exhibition, we can expect an articulation through joint work, the sharing of supports or formats. Well, despite the creative autonomy of both artists, and given the strength of the reflective collaboration with the curators, Permaneço numa paisagem do Infinito emerges as a collaborative work. In it emerges the Idea that overlives, long after the forms, faded into memory, have died.

Permaneço numa paisagem do infinito, an exhibition by Bertílio Martins and Vasco Célio, curated by Miguel Cheta and Mirian Tavares, is on show until September 10, at Galeria de Arte do Convento do Espírito Santo, Loulé.

Ana Isabel Soares (b. 1970) has a PhD in Literary Theory (Lisbon, 2003), and has been teaching in the Algarve University (Faro, Portugal) since 1996. She was one of the founders of AIM – Portuguese Association of Moving Image Researchers. Her interests are in literature, visual arts, and cinema. She writes, translates, and publishes in Portuguese and international publications. She is a full member of CIAC – Research Centre for Arts and Communication.

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