LISBON IN THE SUMMER – Contemporary Art Collections

If you happen to be visiting Lisbon right now and you enjoy contemporary art, you definitely should not miss the Berardo collection at Centro Cultural de Belém, the Ellipse Foundation in Cascais and the Museu do Chiado downtown. Museu do Chiado is currently presenting a specific overview of Portuguese art and its tradition, as the current exhibition unfolds works produced during the sixties both of the XIX as of the XX century. But as the curators underline, such choice does not intend to stress influences between the two periods since there are hardly any. Surely this choice is merely the result of exiguous available exhibition space and the long and still on-going dispute as to either Museu do Chiado should display XIX c. Portuguese masterpieces or contemporary art works. The current director and main curator tries to achieve a compromise here, offering both parties something to make them happy. Nikias Skapinakis´ “Uma Mulher Fugiu a Cavalo” (1969) and Simoes de Almeida´s marble sculpture “D. Sebastiao” (1877) are specially worth taking a look, if you are keen in Portuguese art and its history.

The Berardo collection and the Ellipse Foundation are born out of private investment and mirror exactly how contemporary art is being collected and made available to the public in Portugal. On the first case, so the collection remains in Portugal, the Government has settled for a ten year agreement, according to which a space for the contemporary art collection was found, rights of circulation and promotion for that period were acquired, furthermore the Government contributes with an amount of 5 million Euros per year for acquisition purposes (with no interference on what is bought) with the chance of eventually buying the pieces (at market price though).

On its hand, the Ellipse Foundation remains purely private investment. Initially, the Ellipse Foundation was though of as an investment scheme gathering investors from Portugal, Brazil and Spain that would bring together and invest a total of $25 million in contemporary art and after a four-year period would share in resale profits. But, it later took on a different direction evolving as a permanent collection, housed in an art center which is a renovated warehouse by the architect Pedro Gadanho, with educational department, a study-center and an artist-in-residence program and no immediate plans to sell the pieces. Except for a few pieces that still belong to anonymous collectors the majority of it is owned by Dr. Joao-Oliveira Rendeiro, President of Banco Privado Português. The curatorship is the responsibility of three curators namely, Manuel Gonzalez (former director of the J. P. Morgan Chase Collection), Pedro Lapa (director of Museu do Chiado), Alexandre Melo (Prime-Minister Cultural Adviser, art critic and curator at the Banco Privado collection). Since both Portuguese curators detain high positions within the Portuguese cultural scene, many objections have been raised in the media regarding their ethical role as evaluators and producers of value having a role within various institutions simultaneously.

Back to the works, Bob Wilson´s mixed media installation “Alice” and Douglas Gordon´s video installation “Film Noir” (1995) are absolutely remarkable. The first one created for the occasion of the premiere of the Opera with the same name, invites us to take our shoes off and drift in an white/ yellowish environment filled with cotton and surrounding music, the atmosphere assuming a plastic and poetic dimension. Douglas Gordon´s brilliant installation on its turn, perspires with references to Hitchcock, Michael Snow´s work and Kafka.

The Berardo and Ellipse Foundation collections have the merit of bringing and showing heterogeneous international contemporary art pieces in Portugal, making them available for the public. Furthermore, they also encourage and allow direct confrontation between contemporary Portuguese art and international art, thus opening dialog and favoring fresh readings. Basically, the Berardo collection has had an educational value over the last years, as it assembles and exhibits at least one work for every major name obligatory at any Contemporary Art History Manual. It is a sort of a live Art History seminar. The way the collection is now presented at CCB tries to overturn that. By taking the Tate Modern case into account, the works are exhibited through thematic subjects and not chronologically (thank god!). This has the merit of making the collection stronger from a theoretical point of view.

If I had to pick two highlights I would choose without hesitation Cristina Mateus´ video “Conta-me Coisas” (2007) and Vladimir Nikolic´s symbolic video “Death Aniversary” (2004) showing Duchamp´s family grave.

Conta-me Coisas” (Tell me Things) is a short and incisive poem that is also a road movie. It is not about the passing of time but about duration itself. It unfolds a personal and emotional story meanwhile moving from A to B just like a traveling on cinema. “She told me she had riped her own eyes out”, we read. The same way we cannot really see, reality is veiled to us as everything is blurred. This experience is as if we are before an interior landscape, an emotional landscape. Such movement and its precision together with the blurred images against a minimal electronic soundtrack, makes us aware that we are traveling inside meaning and memories themselves. We are moving through passion, desire and intimacy made environment. And it is melancholic, painful and full of uncertainty. We experiment sadness, a sense of drifting and ultimate beauty along the way.

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