The body is its own wound

Two poles sustaining the discourse, two exhibition venues and a man connecting them. CAPC Sereia and CAPC Sede combine Gustavo Sumpta’s intimate and intention, a journey hallmarked by notions of tension, fragility, and memory, but whose analysis is a mechanism forever inept at linking the Man and his work. An incautious reading when made directly, one difficult to label. We would always be incapable of doing so. An eternal praxis, ineligible to be limited to normativity, to discipline, to the medium used or to any pre-setting.

At Sereia, where most of the works are, there is a war on the rhetoric that covers its method, hierarchy, and rigidity, as opposed to the vulnerability of the body and its wound. At Sede, a singular work mirrors memory, but also its extinction. In the first case, we have a sense of impermanence, of the past reaching into the present. In the second, we feel continuity. In both moments, we summon death, whether by warlike physicality; whether by the sense of loss, a kind of mental suppression of the other and of ourselves. The work is sculptural, though we can see the artist’s performativity. Constantly in search of meaning, or through questioning, Gustavo Sumpta’s work points to a study in perpetual motion, tailored to its build-up. And an actor’s veneer inevitably looms up.

At Sereia, we enter the first room, where we find Sete Magníficos, bronze sculptures mounted on the wall. They are seven bayonets, weapons traditionally recognised in history for the bloodiest motives, used mainly until the First World War. Although we can draw many references from here, for example the name, it is impossible not to remember the 60s homonymous western by John Sturges (and perhaps its inspiration, the epic “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa). We never remain indifferent to the immediate warlike allusion, with references marked by the instincts of bravery and obstinacy, echoes of the manly virility of their masters, traits hypertrophied by war, when we hold power over others through the gun and its fire. The traditional steel blades are here represented in bronze. After all, this is the role of sculpture and art, within an inescapable process that lies at the root of the latter’s definition – transforming the real into potency, figuring it out by conjoining its meaning and intent. The gifts of the western hero are found in the sculpture: pragmatism, stoicism and even the acceptance of death.

As we end up realising later, this room dovetails with the last, where there is a new iron bayonet, based on a British model used by Wellington’s army, the name behind Napoleon’s downfall. Or, as the name suggests, “Copy of the Original”. In this room, side by side, the bayonet seems to lean towards another element, a 19th century autopsy table in the centre of the room, under a dim light. The atmosphere is silent and the metaphor is literal to remind us and make us pay tribute to all those who were gutted in the war by the spear, and all those, who without having gone there, ended up gutted in the name of science and new enquiries. We love them all equally, but without stamping a memory or identity on them. The Greek etymology of the word autopsy reinforces the act: autós, “oneself” and ópsis, “vision”; we are urged to see for ourselves. We walk to the table and the resonances intone Rembrandt’s TheAnatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, one of the author’s most famous and revolutionary works. The contrast between life and death in the painting, revealed between the table where we imagine the deceased body or bodies, where we assume the role of the lively, moving actor with whom the piece interacts.

Between the rooms there is a hiatus where two sculptures stand in dialogue with this issue. The first is En Passant-Capture na Passagem, a bronze structure, also military (let us pay attention to the special capturing movement of this chess jargon term), and which remains standing, exalting authority and observation. From its simple position, it looks like the flag raised at the territorial boundaries, the last spear – of checkmate or mercy – that descends vertically to pierce the enemy body. But also the watchman who conquers and dominates. The second piece, Zugzwang – Movimento Obrigatório, also using as its title a chess move, reflects the meaning of the German term and what those who understand this exercise already understand: no move will help those who are forced to play. All possible actions can only make the situation worse. The brutal concretisation of the gallows, through a kind of crown of thorns that hangs from the ceiling and seems intertwined with the height of a hypothetical human martyr, is the only memory we shall never forget: that of death. That which haunts our perilous existence. No one can avoid this verdict. And, even if it is useless to demand reality from sculpture, we limit ourselves to its power of representation and to the spirits that this arouses. This is how the pieces are arranged at the venue, quoting CAPC “exhumed bodies, in an attempt to save themselves from oblivion, (…) celebrating the qualities of someone who inhabited a body.” Someone of whom remains the memory imagined and underlined by history; both the one who died and the one who killed in a scenario of wars and conquests, in the terrestrial or investigative field.

At Sede, the zenith is found in one work alone, but with several reflections of a performance of yesteryear, where metres of VHS tape, with other times, faces and places, were lost forever. They are visibly protracted metres, albeit undecipherable. The sculpture reinforces this moment: a useful life transformed into the opposite and the bitterness of an unattainable experience or rescue. Behold the confrontation with memory’s fragility. That which walks hand in hand with oblivion. Isn’t living in memory simply the desire for an eternal meeting? A fortuitous attempt to preserve in the mind and senses to recover later. Waiting assures nothing. Vim para enterrar César, presents sculptures whose ambition is to reveal who inhabited their bodies; but we soon realize that we can never exhume them. What remains is the volatile memory of what they represent. Within the dialectics between memory and amnesia, the minutia of art, even more so in sculpture, lies in the metaphor. This is stated by Delfim Sardo in the exhibition leaflet, which merely renders us death or, at best, the persistence of what we think we know, suspended and inconclusive. Hopefully, it may transform us.

We always try to suppress war, the collective wound and the trauma it causes. We desperately run away from the idea of death. We hope that the past will hide it and leave it motionless in books; and that there will be someone alive who will deal with it in a quick, enduring, pragmatic way. Even though the attempt to flee from pain is what creates and strengthens it. Nothing in the exhibition has a definite name. Each piece is the carcass of an absent body, as Delfim Sardo states. The confrontation with these pieces reminds us of our dormant fear. Indeed, humans have an eternal desire for permanence. However, in this state of absolute tension between objects, in a mental exploration at different times, in a psychological, deep, personal and instinctive analysis of space, which, because of its historical symbolism, turns us into its designees. We are the allegory of the victim. Uniting two dangling threads – that of storytelling and that of message preservation -, prolonging the tension between ephemerality and permanence. And by redefining the narrative, without identity or singular memory, we allow the artefact to echo in the collective memory or flesh of us. Everyone who lived through these stories. Without missing any.

We must bury Caesar and we shall pay this eulogy here; the only one we are allowed to.

Vim para enterrar César by Gustavo Sumpta at CAPC – Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra until 22nd April.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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