What we see, what looks at us. O Lugar do Espectador, at CAPC in Coimbra

 « Hubo años en que iba al cine casi todos los días y hasta dos veces al día (…) Años en que el cine era para mí el mundo (…) lo que veía en la pantalla poseía las propiedades de un mundo, la plenitud, la necesidad, la coherencia, mientras que fuera de la pantalla se amontonaban elementos heterogéneos que parecían reunidos por azar, los materiales de mi vida que consideraba desprovistos de toda forma.»[1]

Italo Calvino used to sneak out of his house to watch films in one of Sanremo’s cinemas where, sitting comfortably, virtually all alone, he was astonished to find himself entering another world. Reality faded with each glimpse into the endlessly unknown. In his work, the author draws on his cinematic imagination, which took him to all parts of the globe without constraints. Films that, consciously or not, were an escape from the grey society that surrounded him and, perhaps, his own anguish.

Several years later, Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra (CAPC) is hosting the exhibition O Lugar do Espectador, at the Sereia hub, an encounter between the journey of Ana Pérez-Quiroga and Helena Valsecchi and the venue itself. According to curator João Silvério, the motto comes from Italo Calvino’s A Spectator’s Autobiography, whose author’s memorial attachment to the cinematographic image is now reinvented by the curator, turning the place into an epigraph and component of the exhibition, in line with artistic ingenuity. Just as for Calvino the screen was a projection into other utopian and fantastic dimensions, Sereia is drawing and experience, holding infinite opportunities beyond the tactile and obvious. Anyone who has visited it knows: architecture brings the interior and exterior closer together. An organic and symbiotic relationship, stretching from the Garden to the white cube’s intimacy, an experience that goes beyond the pieces on display.

In Italo Calvino’s work, the chimerical edge of the cinema room is parallel to the surrounding daily life, while João Silvério draws on the intersection between art and life to meditate on our place as spectators. Are we not constant spectators of an uninterrupted and daily narrative? Can’t we analyse, enjoy and change our stance when faced with such interaction? By having freedom of action and thought, are we not infinitely capable of proposing new experiences within the real? Building on Rancière’s ideas, who has always considered the spectator as the owner of a political and theoretical standpoint, cinema is the realm of the spectator-amateur. He is the one who performs – even with no particular skill or knowledge – the reinvention and interpretation of any narrative, resulting from the concoction of his perceptions, beliefs and memories. An active interpreter, whose participatory role is crucial in art’s aesthetic regime, a living and non-established language devoted to emancipation: looking also means acting.

In O Lugar do Espectador, art and venue reconfiguration allows infinite readings and experiences for the spectator, creating new contacts, memories and commotions. Contrasting this is a subject who is both a spectator of the world and an author who expresses himself through the work: converging the private emotional and its material manifestation.

The first room features Ana Pérez-Quiroga’s installation As seduções do desejo, an allusion to nature and surrounding cultural conceptions. Five inhabited landscapes surround the room, with different traditions and cultural contexts. 5 Jardins Idílicos, large canvases in woollen cloth depicting 5 natural sites designed by human beings, whose contrasting nature is emphasised by the collage and superimposition of elements. From Claude Monet’s Jardin Giverny in France to Morocco’s Jardin Majorelle, these consecutive intensities and sensory stimuli unveil parallel worlds, between the known (real) physical and an infinite gamut of human affections, whose subjectivity dwells in the individual experience. To unravel each garden, there is a trail to find reason. The scene also includes a performative climax with the picnic held in the centre, where the spread-out tablecloth, the cushions, the basket and all the paraphernalia of the even-numbered meal bear witness to the sharing between two people. Within this naturally familiar environment, consisting of an accumulation of memories, references and affections, there is also the sound of moving water and birds, a simulacrum of a countryside setting that is both soothing and melancholic. Further on, 5 pedras, a natural approach whose disposition and the symbolism of the repeated number 5 may indicate a worship site. A painted cotton canvas on the suspended ceiling heralds a blue sky with all its elements. Mover para fora, it tells us. And that’s when we look out of the window and see the flashing neon No te Vayas against a background that, in mild contemplation, could also be painted (a similar experience occurs with the work Ka in the final room). The transmutation of the Garden’s role into an observable canvas provides a meaning beyond the works; the result of the inevitable reconfiguration of the space, the route and the interactions in an exhibition conceived according to this architectural dialectic.

In the second room, Helena Valsecchi’s O que nos olha dialogues with Ana Pérez-Quiroga’s Desenlace do acontecimento and the brief piece La Bissa. In the former, silence is mirrored by the hanging of an seemingly sensitive and bare object. This illusory fragility is a reference to the funerary urn that stands out from all others: it is visibly made of glass, revealing an empty core. We foresee a cult of the absent. But of what? Death, which an urn invariably reminds us of? Or to the lack of it, since its interior is hollow, spotless? The act of seeing is only manifested by opening itself in two, as Didi-Huberman said, the inspiration for this work’s title. What we see is only valid (alive) in our eyes through what looks at us; since the gaze has its own “wrappings”. Here I see an urn and an egg, respectively; in popular imagination, end and beginning. Death and birth are thus united – an end always coincides with a beginning. And. in this case, facing what we fear most carries a promise of freedom. From the glassy surface, we see La Bissa, whose snake-like shape is usually associated with rebirth, renewal and immortality. Deselenace do acontecimento reveals 14 intimate everyday objects, with a decorative role (traditionally more feminine) and an intellectual and idle edge (historically more masculine). Despite being on a bright red acrylic, the traditional colour of passion and desire, they convey some insecurity, as if it were a catastrophe and the inanimate objects had been taken from a submerged ship after the collapse. Again, an idea of memory emerges, reminiscent of Valsecchi’s work. We are rescued by the familiarity of the elements and their purposes, for we have only hints of a certain occurrence. We are mere observers of objects, anonymous figureheads of an absence, unrelentingly gendered. This makes the piece attractive but obscure. After all, red is also the colour of blood (and suffering). APQ TRUNKS & BAGS AFRICA AMERICA ASIA EUROPA OCEANIA #1 reinforces the enigma: the typical Chinese bag, with no original purpose, is a reflection of the capitalist consumer society, going also from a cheap and accessible object to a work of art, reasserting the importance that the artist has in common objects to create a rhetoric of self-representation and identity and, in this case, a possible questioning of the art market. Given the (re)visitation to the past and memories of material life, the viewer fills in the blanks and increases the meaning of the work – an active participant.

In the last room we find Natura #8, the audio initially heard echoes the sound coming from Valsecchi’s Ser Frágil, a video with similar landscape features. However, the balance of nature is interrupted here when the bare feet break successive pieces of glass during the trajectory. From a symbolic perspective, walking forward means change and understanding, so this amounts to a rite of passage. The fragmented glass – which stems from derelict frames – reflects and collects other lives. Between metamorphosis and rupture, the work emphasises that any transition, besides calling for vulnerability, gives rise to something entirely new. On the ground, Instantâneo is an encounter between the mineral and the human, materialised in more than twenty blown glass sculptures on objects found during the artist’s walks. After all, the earth is the product of mineral, animal and human bodies; which prospered one day and then vanished the next, only to return to the subsoil and fulfil a universal and ecological cycle. The life of bodies is volatile, translucent and transitory. As Blessure‘s watercolours made with menstrual blood remind us.

In the end, there is only one certainty: the spectator’s place is defined in the act of visiting.

The exhibition, which temporarily closed on July 29, will reopen to the public from September 5 to 23.


[1] Calvino, I. (1991). El camino de San Giovanni. Tusquets. Trad. Aurora Bernárdez

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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