Hello! Are you There? Luisa Cunha at maat

Filling the first floor of the old thermoelectric power plant building, and also reaching the outer section, Hello! Are you there? is the largest retrospective of Luisa Cunha (1949, Lisbon), taking place after the EDP Art Grand Prize 2021 was awarded to her. Curated by Isabel Carlos, there are 54 works created between 1994 and 2023, in multiple media, including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, installation and video, all of them with sound, voice and, among them, the word.

Luisa Cunha’s works acquire here another life, nourished by the relationships they establish among themselves and with the venue’s architecture. Altogether, through sculpted and modelled sounds, with rhythms, colours and body, through loops that establish rhythm and anticipatory interludes, they reveal the subtle and sharp way in which the artist, so close to the everyday experience, faces reality and the political, social and communicational circumstances that condition the way we relate to each other.

Through the maat gardens, arriving at the coal square, we hear a strange cry that penetrates the skin. A disembodied, spectral voice, increasingly disturbing and distressing, in the uninterrupted repetition and visceral appeal. From the strainer, where once the coal needed to produce energy was crushed, we hear something like freedom, Frydm! (2011). The artist conceptualised this work as a reaction to reading an online report on political prisoners who, in Libya during the Arab Spring, were incarcerated in moats dug in the ground, covered by a slab that had only one gap, through which they could breathe. When they felt the presence of the international press, they began to shout, in barely pronounced English, the word Freedom. The horrors of war are at several points in the exhibition, and perhaps this is where the artist’s subtle reflection on social and political reality becomes most apparent. Uns debaixo dos outros (2017), an installation composed of a cluster of burnt bricks taken from a charcoal pit by the artist, is precisely a mention of the idea of war and destruction, even if we can also see them as the overthrow and tearing down of borders.

At the doorway to the first room, a huge pink wall, with small photographs, notes and gaps, clippings from letters and observed realities. Spots(2009), small pieces of life. A map with traces of stories that, fruit of the imagination, take us to other times and places. On a small piece of paper, we read “Wish you were here”, “Ojala estuvieras aqui”, “Ich wünschte du wärst hier”. Further on “see you soon, a friendly embrace”. This seems to be some of the essence of several works in the exhibition, which constantly allude to absence, the desire for (re)encounter and the inherent search. Friendship, love, the vulnerability intrinsic to the relationships we establish with others and with the world that surrounds us and impacts so deeply. This vulnerability is most striking when we notice, among the thousands of fragments, and contrasting with leisure and gestures of affection, cannons and fighter planes that, once again, recall the context of war, underlined by the shots that can be heard sequentially: Sweet bloody life (2009).

In the exhibition we find works that stress the relationship with architecture, the appropriation of the world by its measuring, calculation and gauging, in Obra com nível (2011) or Até aqui (2018), works that comment on the museum space itself and modes of operation, in BC (1998), pieces with an autobiographical side, where the present is embraced past by individual and family memory; in Mulher de 58 anos aos 2 anos(2008) or R/C (2016), works that underline the observer’s condition, who can also be observed or guided in the observation, in Ali vai o João(1996) or Inner View (2010) and works that tell us about Luisa Cunha’s creative process, her way of relating to what surrounds her, in zoom in/out, in Gone with the sea (2019) or Objecto #2 (2005). Most of them stress the notion of meeting, missing each other and searching. In N ou M? (2015), in a sequence of 10 photographs, a man, first seated by the sea, stands up to meet another man approaching from afar. Between the two, the vital energy of desire, of the longed-for encounter. But a space remains between them. Experiencing this work is influenced by the voice coming from four sound points scattered around the mezzanine, telling us, on a loop, “You are so beautiful”. Turn around (2010). We turn around and read It’s all in your head (2007), a series in which the artist photographically recorded her grandfather’s hat, working it with multiple chromatic approaches. The ambiguity of words. Perhaps the relationship that we have just established between the two men is all in our head. Perhaps the idea we have of the other, the way we see, hear and think about him is all in our heads, hence the space between us.

The search continues in the boiler room, where, among the old machinery, we hear on a loop a voice calling for Luisa, A artista à procura de si própria (2015). In this sound text, as in Hello! or Drop the Bomb (1994), The Hat, Field of view (2010) or Words for gardens (2004), in Luisa Cunha’s different voices, we focus on the voice as matter, with its own substance, colours and dynamics, through which the physical, rhythmic, and individual character of spoken communication is perceptible. This leads us to the works in which the artist chooses not to use her own voice, replacing it by the mechanized voice – could we call it that? – of a computer. Metallic sentences, in a grave and masculine tone, ordering us around in Do what you have to do (1994), or which, in a feminine and voyeuristic key, describe the multidirectional action of a body through space, from the observer’s position, in Dirty Mind (1995). A body – perhaps ours – seen through the slight opening of closed red shutters. A body that enters, descends, disappears, approaches, leaves, returns and does it again. A shutter that urges us to peek through the faint opening, but quickly frustrates our intentions: only a white wall lies beyond.

Whether spoken by herself or by computer voices, Luisa Cunha’s sound texts reveal how the most personal and individual side in each one’s voice can hardly be entirely separated from sharing. From the moment a sound is recognised as a voice, it appeals and makes a receiver arise, someone who listens and tries to understand. This is the way we respond to these works, which question and summon us, always fostering an interaction, a reply focused on the encounter, creating the possibility of sharing and of a collective dimension.

In Hello! Are you there? we find extremely simple, direct and exact works. What needs to be said is said. What needs to be shown is shown. But, strictly speaking, there are meaning disruptions that make us reflect on the significance of dislocation for changing the way we face and conceive reality. To acknowledge the ambiguity of sound, image, language and communication, not to succumb to relativism, but because it allows us to defy its instrumentalisation by absolutist and totalising discourses. This experience of the voice, the word, and the images, on the threshold of meaning, by creating the unexpected, opens cracks to possibility, allowing us to understand these works as places of imagination and resistance, of deconstruction of linear and rigid narratives, of instituted communicational, social and political systems, of normalized conceptions of the real and of individual and collective identity.

Perhaps it is owing to disruption and ambiguity that Luisa Cunha’s work, with defiant humour and exquisite intelligence, always seems to have something that eludes us, that throws us off balance and plays with us, something fleeting and impossible to grasp. These works surface in this tension between meeting and missing each other, between communication and incommunicability, always fighting for the pursuit.

Hello! Are you there?, an exhibition by Luisa Cunha curated by Isabel Carlos, is on view at maat until August 28th.

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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