YES, THEY WERE STARS
They were, in a Manoel de Oliveira film from the 1980s, they were stars that danced in an ingenuously blue sky, yes, at the top of some steps in the Mouraria, above beggars, yes, the beggars that we were, they were 12 and they were sung as destiny, currency, Charpentier, it was night and they shone brightly.
I now find them here, yellow stars on a ground that once was sky, Europe, territory, land, a mere feasibility, ground we walk on, defended ground.
They were a dream, a wish, work, they were termed Union, they are a blue ground just like it is said the planet looks when seen from afar, blue like the distance.
And there is a goal, railing, barbed wire, fence, there is a screen, police, sports equipment, there is an obstacle, let us call it distance again, we can call it a challenge, trampoline, wall bars, as always in sport, overtaking.
What are these stars like for those who die in the south, in Africa, how do they shine?
We think, of course, of that Mediterranean, a sea which those who sang it said it was once a place of encounters, exchange, discoveries, trade and is now a bloody wound ploughed by clandestine boats, the wretched who die gazing at the stars on the sands of Spain, Italy, Lampedusa, protected territories, we think of the Mediterranean.
And I think of the sword with which Dido, of Carthage, North Africa, killed herself, after seeing her beloved Aeneas depart for the other side of the sea to fulfil his destiny, to found Rome, city of the Law, the first star. That wound has always remained, cemented by Schengen, the Mediterranean is now an open crater, a festering wound.
And yet, by accentuating through the title the folding screen which the piece surprisingly also is, Carlos No evinces a moment (merely sung?) when arts and cultures, peoples and distances, languages even, and so diverse, were dreamed, came together from coast to coast, across the seas, Namban, another paradise for people who remember, we don't really know if it was like this, we say.
We dream of dreams, federations, unions, desires, treaties, embraces, and there are stars across the skies.
But the defence of those dreams, the safeguard, Schengen, protection – strikes how many with certain death?
In the silence which the dimensions of the piece render majestic, let us pause a minute: there is death on this ground, let us bow down.
Jorge Silva Melo
Lisbon, May 2013
When we think of the meaning of the concept of frontier we are immediately drawn to the photographic image of a physical border, a cartographic delimitation which circumscribes a country, a district, a city, and which has a corresponding contour on a map. However, a frontier is much more than a geographic preposition. Ultimately, it is part of a construction of identity and culture on which a people, a city or a community base their self-awareness. Perhaps this is why the concept is so culturally universal. No empire – from the Romans to the Third Reich –, or country – from the most extensive to the smallest –, has relinquished this delimitation.
To separate that which is inside from that which is outside, us from them, is a culturally constitutive process which is based on the identification of numerous alterities. In truth, we believe we know who we are because we are not the others, and the construction of national mythologies which provide meaning to the existence of peoples has always turned this relationship into an opposition. It is not by chance that frontiers and their defence have so often been used as a motive (or pretext) for armed conflicts. They not only circumscribe the horizon of a material possession (such as land), but also ensure the integrity, the cultural and ethnic purity, in essence the “ideal” (and therefore mythical) state of a community. If we create ourselves in opposition to others, then the others' “invasion” of our personal space is a type of intolerable corruption of what we are. For this very reason, immigration does not only represent the economic threat (the wealth divided by a greater number) which is yet to be proven; it constitutes a threat to the integrity of each country's national mythology.
An artist such as Carlos No – who comes from the country with the oldest and stablest borders in Europe and, simultaneously, one of the most peripheral and backward within that same region – knows what the political and cultural image which we have just sketched means: a space which defines itself by its contours and not by its potential transversalities has a tendency to become a static, enclosed space. At the same time, a European artist born in 1967 is well aware of what the gradual construction of an economic and political space which has enabled the circulation of people and goods and the emergence of a European citizenship still means today as a promise, not only for Europe but for all peoples who look up to it.
It is true that, from a thematic point of view, Carlos No's work often takes the European space as a recurrent theme, although, ultimately, his true subject matter is exclusion itself: the mechanism of exclusion, the rhetoric of exclusion; and, in the end, the absurdity of exclusion.
His strategy often takes the form of employing the absurd and irony. Which is to say, by de-realising real situations the artist operates a process of de-naturalisation of that which is not acceptable but which by seeping into reality has become, at least, banal. This process is sometimes achieved through the “artificialisation” and de-hierarchisation of the dimensions, the scale of each scene or object, or the interaction of cultural elements or artefacts which seem to proceed from very distinct contexts. In truth, this is a strategy of disfigurement which aims at retrieving that which has become invisible (often through excessive visibility) and thus proceed to probe the moral hierarchy which sustains our collective concerns as a community.
“Fronteira Namban” (Nanban Frontier), the sculpture/installation which is being exhibited at the Paiol do Exército space in the city of Elvas, makes full use of these resources while also triggering, due to its geographical location, an important set of historical resonances. Regarding this particularity, it should be noted that for centuries Elvas was one of the most important frontier points in Portugal, and that the architectural conglomerate of military fortifications that once defended the city's border status was one of the reasons for it being recently classed as a World Heritage site.
But if it is history that is decidedly convoked and confronted in this piece, it is also the present inasmuch as this and other works by Carlos No always function as potential indices of the state of the European project or as mirror of its fundamental contradictions.
Placed in a central position within the circular building of the Paiol (gunpowder magazine), No's sculpture absorbs several conditions – such as the dimensions, the centrality, the self-referentiality – which position it for the precise condition of a potential monument. We will see how these conditions are, after all, deformed by its very content in order to create what we could precisely term an anti-monument, which is to say, a sculptural device which bears in itself the negation of the celebratory function of traditional sculpture.
Upon entering the room, the viewer will see a full-scale metal structure for pole vaulting with the typical landing mat upon which the athlete falls after clearing the bar. The viewer will then see the twelve stars that compose the European Union symbol on the blue landing mat. The visitor will have to take a closer look to discover the barbed wire which here impedes the jump and transforms that recreational impulse into a dangerous game.
The title of the piece offers yet another reading of the object. Nanban is a corruption of nanban-jin, the designation used by the Japanese in the 16th century for Europeans in general and the Portuguese, and which means “southern barbarians”. Nanban Art flourished between the 16th and 17th centuries, its imagery reflecting how the Japanese viewed the West.
There are no orientalising elements in Carlos No's sculpture, but the reference to nanban signals the effect of a reversal. His piece is not an image of Europe as seen by Europeans but an attempt to find the gaze of those who aspire to it and yet see themselves excluded from it. That is why “Fronteira Namban” contains both signs of aspiration and death, of utopia and violence.
Using the image of an Olympic sport – legacy of the ancient Greeks –, No delves deep into the issue of European identity while also confronting that legacy associated with citizenship, democracy and the rule of law with the negation of its universality which the closure of Europe's borders assumes and engenders.
The artist makes it thus quite clear that a frontier always imprisons the two sides it separates, confined as they are to their self-absorption and self-confirmation. Contemporary Europe, whose historical might arose from the ability to connect the whole world through the communicating vessels of trade and cultural exchange (an enterprise in which the Portuguese played a key role), needs to rediscover that that which does not circulate crystallises, mummifies and, in the long run, dies. The work of artists like Carlos No retains for itself the place of that reversal of the gaze, the vocation of replacing the fear which it encompasses with a more universal, and therefore also European, understanding of the human condition.
Barcarena, December 2013
Photos: Jorge Catarino © (Baginski Gallery, Lisbon)
Alberto Mayer © (MACE - Museum Contemporary Art Elvas, Elvas)