ART AS SOCIAL COMMITMENT
Carlos No is an unusual artist. Whether in the exhibitions Problemas de Aritmética (1998) and Classificados (2007), whether in the installation Desfiladeiro (2008), or in the current exhibition, Carlos No’s work does not confine itself to an experimentalist formalism dissociated from the fabric of the surrounding social reality. Carlos No idolises neither the aesthetic form in itself nor an abstractionism which is floating and free of any rules. Carlos No’s work is not based on free, imaginary forms as a source of matter. In this sense, by taking on a figurative realism in his pieces, by accepting the inclusion of the human figure in his installations as painted or miniaturised model figures, Carlos No is, on the one hand, swimming against the present aesthetic trend and, on the other, against the very tide that sets the trend. This trend is constituted by the cultural fads which have turned art into being a source and subject of the feeling and individual determination of the artist, according to which everything is art not because it might be conceptually interpreted as such but because it is declared as so by the artist. The tide that gives rise to this wave resides in the spirit of our time, which favours that which is new, exotic, unusual or imbued with aesthetical individualism rather than the inclusion within an aesthetic school or tradition, forcing art to become more and more detached from its former social function of aesthetic reflex of reality. Carlos No’s work manages, quite uniquely, the dual trait of being art of its own age (new, unusual, individualist), without relinquishing a deep social commitment.
In fact, the art of Carlos No is wedded to the social element, being its lucid and voluntary reflex to which, in return, it commits itself. In Problemas de Aritmética (Arithmetic Problems), Carlos No deconstructs the reigning social hypocrisy, the Machiavellian logic of power which is also, and above all, the logic of the spectacle, exploiting the miseries of the world. His painting enables one to contemplate – as an emotional shock – the void that lies between the social reality and the conventional discourse, quite often of a scientific nature, quite often of a political nature, established as neutral, but always politically engaged and partial. Visually based on the deconstruction of this supposedly neutral discourse, the art of Carlos No intends not to reinvent new narcissistic realities, exploring and testing them, but rather to render clear or evident, by way of simple images, what reality in fact is. Carlos No’s paintings and installations are profoundly cinematographic; they describe more than they narrate and they express or visually reveal more than they suggest. In fact, the semantic effect of the sequence of the arithmetic operations or of the misspelled words expresses the happening straight away, displaying it for the spectator to “see” right before him. This is the meaning behind the option for a very concrete lexicon of images, bound together in a dramatic composition, designed to “make see”.
In this way, each painting and installation reveals itself as an integral part of an aesthetic manifesto of denunciation. In Classificados (Classifieds), one realises that child labour, more than a political issue is indeed an issue of privilege of culture of ignorance. Firstly the evidence of a direct, immediate realism; secondly the shock of the ostentation of greed and ignorance present in the captions, as if social evil were born of the cross between these two psychosocial traits.
In this new exhibition the issue of immigration to Europe is dealt with ironically, by being denounced. Displaying the strong social commitment of Carlos No’s artwork, it could not have been more appropriate. In fact, on the 18th June 2008 the European Parliament approved, by a large majority, the “Return Directive”, concerning the deportation of illegal immigrants. This “Directive” offends the spirit of tolerance and contradicts the universality of the best Portuguese culture has to offer, as well as the very notion of “meeting of cultures” which the European Union rhetorically celebrates. It is precisely this reality that the art of Carlos No makes us see – the prevalence of interests over people, of the powerful over the weak, of hypocrisy over innocence, of the needs of the state over the needs of the people, of a cold and calculating rationalisation over the human feelings of giving, generosity and communal sharing. In the future, Fortress-Europe will become so much more fragile as it is fortified, displaying through its demography, the absence of natural resources, the drain of scientists and artists to other continents (especially America). In effect, this continent is nowadays as decadent as Portugal has been since the 17th century. Since the First Gulf War (1991) Europe has been “set aside from History”, limiting its international scope to supporting the American single world power, the real triumphant supporter of History. The demise of imperial Portugal coincides with the demise of Europe, as both head towards the “great sleep” of the nations which have been disdained by History, such as the Chinese and the Greeks, slumbering throughout two thousand years since achieving an unprecedented civilizational zenith.
Let us ponder this idea upon leaving Carlos No’s splendid exhibition.
Azenhas do Mar, December 2009
«EUROPE» ACCORDING TO CARLOS NO
Playing with scale, manipulation, alteration. Carlos No’s critical realism comes to form through the austerity of the graphic languages of industrial design and urban signage systems, taking over its equipments and its logical and cold syntax, in order to narrate the opposite sense of the human and social dramas which are relived and recreated there by the artist: transgression, illegality, exploitation.
Transgression and infraction are not, as it is wise to remember, absolute and objective values, depending rather on the definition that each historical and cultural context gives them. And yet, in Carlos No’s visual narratives both are inscribed in the signs which are specifically designed for their rational prevention, in the systems of control, regulation and normalisation of human circulation in the great urban centres of our time: fire alarm manual call points, motion detectors, control gadgets which have been industrially produced in the name of maximum efficiency, of maximum security for the world we live in, chiefly reflecting – against the sufficiency of our beliefs in a hypothetical well-being – the fear that resides deep within each one of us.
We thus enter a world which has been contrasted, redesigned to diverse scales, familiar for the configuration of the materials and signs and simultaneously surprising for the deviant, ironical and authorial recreation of the objective and austere syntax of urban signage systems.
From this situation, Carlos No draws the strength of his visual proposition. Intentionally shifting the rational devices of information and regulation of social space and movement of people and vehicles, maintaining nevertheless the elocutionary strength of the forms displayed, for instance in the material and visual conforming of the traffic signs, with their metallic equipments and their repertoire of basic colours regulated in the Highway Code: red (attention, warning, prohibition), blue (obligation, command), white (neutrality), black (contrast), green (free circulation). That semblance of familiarity is well patent in the works that compose the 2008 series «Sentido Obrigatório» (One Way Only), in which the mandatory signs (blue and white) are displayed as pieces of a rather different reality, that of restriction of human freedom of movement, imposed by policies, protocols and measures which, in their complacent democratic nature, more than organising and welcoming, end up separating and excluding.
In this series as in another set of works, we are projected into the miniature universe of sweet and colourful varnish of the stories and toys of our childhood, as in «Brundibár» (2010), «A Praga» or «Imigrantes» (2009). In these two series in particular, we again come across the strategy of appropriation and alteration of materials and devices conceived by industrial design to promote safety in buildings, adapted here to a different type of narrative with the same effect of gulliverising the way we see things: the reduction of the size of the objects and their transfiguration, by means of that reduction, to scale models which carry us off, by way of their charming smallness, to a world of apparent idyll and conciliation. That effect is ever so rare as nowadays images tend to circulate in the urban space in oversized scale imposed by the functionality and condition of human perception of forms and information in physical space.
Thus, in the minute setting of Carlos No’s «Europe» the situation of our body and gaze is inverted. Contrary to the image of a great screen which reduces us, we now see ourselves as haughty and aloof, certain of our convictions, contemplating the game of expectations of every human being: the dream of a better life, bearing the imminent risk of detection by remote control and deportation.
In «Champigny» (2010), we return to the “natural” scale: a wall-piece that comprises improvised and precarious wooden boxes, letterboxes whose names identify people and diverse cultural origins which the slum has brought together and condensed. Nowadays they come from Northern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, whereas forty years ago they would have been Portuguese (but also Spaniards, Algerians, Greeks, Italians…) in search of an El Dorado crudely found in the waste materials, in the scraps with which thousands of men and women improvised their homes, left to fend for themselves as easy prey in the scheme of subcontracts, precarious work and miserable wages.
Champigny-sur-Marne, that immense wasteland in the outskirts of Paris, no longer exists. But there are others like it that lie close by as well as far, recalling the precariousness and human misery disgorged by a Europe incessantly promoted as a society of abundance. That awareness of contrasts constitutes Carlos No’s creative intelligence in a message of intense irony, the counter-current of the present age traversed by the myths of pluralism and social integration in which the human dramas sweetened and coloured enough are displayed on the liquid crystal screens as fairytales, certain that we’ll become, just like children, more self-immune or indifferent to them.
Between the small and sweet play-world and the repressed narrative that turns sour against the gaiety and attractiveness of its miniatures, Carlos No presents us with the turbulent and inexhaustible line of human exploitation, of the labour camps, impervious paths of indignity and death.
Ana Filipa Candeias
Parede, April 2010
Photos: Josef Kaempf ©