How can we talk about death if we haven’t died yet: A Vida Imóvel at Quinta da Ribafria in Sintra
As the second instalment of the ambitious O Museu Fora de Si project, entitled A Vida Imóvel, the audience is challenged to examine the interaction between works from the Sintra Municipal Art Collection, pieces from other municipal collections, and works by Fábio Colaço and Pedro Cabrita Reis in the exhibition open until January 14, 2024 at Quinta da Ribafria. It features several works and objects representing and acting as everyday elements, obtained in cultural interaction contexts, associated with the concept of still life.
Still life, primarily found in painting, blossomed in the Netherlands when the sixteenth century dawned, with German and French painters contributing, whilst also reverberating to a lesser extent in Spain and Italy. Still life motifs were prevalent in manuscripts and paintings from the 1400s and 1500s, often symbolising religious attributes. Into the seventeenth century, paintings commissioned on the brink of Christianity continued to carry moralistic social meanings, as in Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628). The term designating the genre comes in two variations, namely natura-morta in the Latin languages and still life in the Anglo-Saxon languages. In both cases, the terminology behind the genre describes the representation of what is motionless and therefore dead.
Victor dos Reis, the curator, further emphasises the period in which still lifes thrived, as cabinets of curiosities sprang up in European aristocratic families. The curator claims that “by blending botany, zoology and mineralogy, just to name three areas of natural history, with a keen eye for the everyday material culture, previously regarded as lacking intrinsic aesthetic value, still life developed into an intricate aesthetic and artistic endeavour to explore the vital extent of the world around us, whether still, suspended or simply expectant“.
As visitors, this exercise around the vital extent of the world around us leads us to raise the question of what Heidegger called a “imminent threat”. Yes, it is death itself.
But how can we discuss death if we have yet to die? Setting aside the pretentiousness behind the essay’s subject, we are indeed beings hurled towards death, where the thrust of life is unavoidable as we have death as our horizon.
We humans are project beings, for we have death as a pebble in our shoes. One that we feel constantly, but cannot ever get rid of. What is then the real consequence of this terrible circumstance? We create duality: life and death, where we bury people next to pottery bowls, we build mastabas and later pyramids, we embalm lifeless bodies, we think about paradise, we elaborate hell, we loot cities, we build cities and we keep objects.
Keeping objects and gathering them in life is an act of death. A truly human act, which is now the subject of a fascinating exhibition at Quinta da Ribafria in Sintra. With fossils, ceramics, lost letters to the future, reefs and a gold Xanax, along with various other objects, we are invited to ponder still life, whilst experiencing the glimpses of our human nature.