The Throbbing of Time in Maria José Oliveira’s Labyrinth

A journey through the twisting paths of life, through unpredictable passages, unexpected encounters and delights that draw us to our inner selves. This seems to be Maria José Oliveira’s (Lisbon, 1943) proposal in Labirinto, an exhibition at Rua das Gaivotas 6 in Lisbon, curated by Tânia Geiroto Marcelino and Rita Anuar.

Since the late 1970s, Maria José Oliveira has developed a laborious and plural body of work, whose methodology has an almost archaeological side, searching for what preceded us, what mapped out our path. This is the initial thrust of her works, which tell us about ancient knowledge and lingering gestures. They are living organisms where there is transformation, nature’s rhythms, and the passage of time, in a creative and liberated act.

In Labirinto, she presents pieces constructed with several materials, loaded with energy, meanings, and symbolism. Like labyrinths, these works seduce, stimulate our imagination, making us go through times, memories, and intertwined stories.

We go through the labyrinth as if we were walking through the meandering corridors of memory. Walter Benjamin, wanting to graphically depict his life, said that this map was maze-like[1]. Each memory is an entry point to a space where times, places, people, and experiences mingle.

Such a map seems to be the one we find in Labirinto I (2019). We see a sequence of four apparently identical photographs, where a more prolonged and attentive look can distinguish subtle differences. There are in them rips, wrinkles, openings. The sedimentation of lived, suggested, and imagined gestures. A map that shows life unfolding. Each strike on the paper represents an encounter, presences and absences, unpredictable routes, and endless returns. A memory excavated and worked between times. The past, the affections, the loves, and regrets along the hand lines.

The collapse of time is inside Labirinto III (1990/2022). A work composed by collage of newspaper fragments on a structure covered with raw clay. A palimpsest where some sentences and names stand out, but whose original meaning of each fragment is decontextualised, hijacked and made inaccessible. Between memory and oblivion. The multiple times indicate the experience of a different temporality, non-evolutionary and non-sequential. Like memory, the labyrinth interrupts the linearity of time. A grid made of vine branches is built over the newspaper scraps. The geometry, the organisation, the reason. An empty frame opens space for the future, for new paths and matches. At the top is a small opening. We leave the labyrinth and carry with us the traces of the journey, the spectres, and ghosts of the transformation of the Self.

In Labirinto II (2019/2022) we find the sequence of photographs we had seen in Labirinto I. But here they are at a pre-erasure stage – the journey in the labyrinth has steps forward and backward. Between repetition and difference, we see in these images’ hands holding pairs of glasses without lenses on empty frames. The whole is a spider building its web – Aracne (1987) is also in the exhibition. According to Maria José Oliveira, with this work she sought to represent the paths imposed on us throughout life. Paths that disrupt continuity and force us to play roles in which we do not recognise ourselves, restricting our freedom. In this scenario, by the artist’s hand, a small knife appears and initiates the incision. These are the first gestures, the first steps towards the exit of the labyrinth. It is necessary «To see that the palace belongs to others / But the labyrinth is ours / That we feed the monster / With the blood of ourselves»[2]. Only in this way can we become emancipated travellers, who do not limit themselves to submission and coyness. There is no single direction. We must clear the way, build spaces and times to inhabit. To mark «the victory of the spiritual over the material, of the eternal over the perishable, of intelligence over instinct, of knowledge over blind sight»[3].

We reached Saída para um espaço que se pensa livre (2022). A mirror facing the spatial and temporal vastness. A mirror where we do not see our reflection, but where a pair of glasses of the artist’s mother is fitted. Could it be that the exit from the labyrinth, the encounter with the longed-for freedom, is at the origin? In a primordial time, in the mythical time of creation? We walk «through the circular ruins»[4] and find ourselves in the dream of another, in a successive cycle.

The cycles and circularity of life are also in Cadeira, escaravelho, planetas (2017). With excrement from other animals, some species of beetle form a ball that they carry and enlarge with seeds and plant remains. They bury this ball in a safe place, sometimes covering it with clay, and lay their eggs in it. The small larvae feed on this ball of organic matter. In the aforementioned work by Maria José Oliveira, on top of a chair and on a white porcelain plate we see a beetle pushing a tubular clay, symbolising precisely the beginning of that long course, where the transformation of matter takes place, where cycles repeat themselves and life renews itself. We hear the human heartbeat on a loop, the rhythm of a vital flow that crosses time – Empurrar o Mundo (2022). On the floor, seven black cotton wools «represent the totality of the Universe in motion, the whole dynamism and fullness of time[5]

The tension in Maria José Oliveira’s Labirinto springs up at that point. We are all connected to each other, in endless cycles and circles. We dream ourselves; we create ourselves. That pushes the world. However, we must travel our own journey. The long human road, with continuous crossroads, obstacles, encounters, and choices. In the search for meaning, the meaning that continually eludes us on this troubled path, the distance between shadow and clarity emerges, in oneness with a far-off time, to reach the interior of ourselves, to meet the truth, to meet freedom.

Labirinto, by Maria José Oliveira, curated by Tânia Geiroto Marcelino and Rita Anuar, is at Rua das Gaivotas 6 until December 15, 2022.




[1] Benjamin, Walter. (1982). Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. New York: Schocken Books. pp. 31-32.

[2] Mourão-Ferreira, David. (2019). “Romance de Cnossos” in Obra Poética [1948-1995]. Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim. p. 442.

[3] Oliveira, Maria José. (2022). Exhibition Text.

[4] Borges, Jorge Luis. (1998). “As Ruínas Circulares” in Ficções. Lisbon: Editorial Teorema, pp. 43-50.

[5] Oliveira, Maria José. (2022). Exhibiton Text.

Inês Grincho Rego (Lisbon, 1994) graduated in Multimedia Art - Audiovisuals from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Lisbon and holds a master’s degree in Contemporary Art History from the NOVA University of Lisbon – School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Besides developing her research in contemporary art history she has been working as a mediator and collection assistant in several museums in Lisbon (King D. Carlos Sea Museum, MAAT - Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, among others).

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