A conversation around the exhibition “Rural Topographies”

Claire de Santa Coloma, Catarina Rosendo, Tobi Maier

topografias rurais galerias municipais

Galeria Quadrum, January 11, 2020

[Tobi Maier]
The exhibition “Rural Topographies” arose from a process that already had a bit of a history. Galeria Diferença, where the second part of this exhibition is taking place, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year and started decided to organize an exhibition that pays tribute to Alberto Carneiro. When I arrived at the Galerias Municipais, Irene Buarque of Galeria Diferença invited me to curate this exhibition, which was to take place at Galeria Quadrum as well as at Diferença. I had learned about Carneiro’s work during my research for an edition of the magazine OEI # 80–81 –– The Zero Alternative: Ernesto de Sousa and some other aesthetic operators in Portuguese art and poetry from the 1960s onwards, which launched in 2018.1 While working on this publication, and at Documenta 14 in Kassel 2017, I became acquainted with the on-going photographic series of haystacks (1989-) by Lala Meredith-Vula and then subsequently saw Ana Lupas Solemn Process (1964-2008) at Tate Modern. A little later, when I arrived at the Municipal Galleries, I got to know the work of Claire de Santa Coloma. I decided to include in the exhibition “Rural Topographies”.

I am delighted to welcome the artist Claire de Santa Coloma here today for a conversation about her work and this exhibition. Also with us is art historian Catarina Rosendo, who has known the work of Claire de Santa Coloma longer than me, having already published about it.

Claire, one of your first solo shows in 2011 was called Deprivation Will Save Us From Catastrophe. Last year you spent a lot of time in Australia, which is now on fire in some parts. In my text for this exhibition’s catalogue, I write about the Anthropocene and the fires that destroyed forests in the Amazon and in Portugal. Maybe you could give us a little bit of your context, your experience in Australia, how you see that country now suffering, where you spent much of last year.

[Claire de Santa Coloma]
Yes, I spent three months there and the fires had already started. I don’t know what I can say –– it was the end of the world kind of feeling. A reddish sky, not at all limpid; having to stay shut inside the house. We are always saying that we are destroying the world, that the world will end, and suddenly, you are faced with a reality representative of this.

[Tobi]
In my text I also recalled the work of Frans Krajcberg, a Brazilian artist who lived in the forest in the north of Brazil. To construct his work, he always looked for the trees that remained after the farmers’ fires. He was an artist who was included in the 32nd São Paulo Biennial (2016) and also in the 14th São Paulo Biennial in 1977, in which Alberto Carneiro represented Portugal, along with Clara Menéres. I remembered Krajcberg when we talked about your process of looking for materials for your sculptures. There is even a guide for such a search. Maybe you can tell us a little about how you source your raw materials, or even how you arrived in Lisbon, because this arrival in Lisbon also has something to do with Carneiro in some way.

[Claire]
I’m just going to go back to catastrophes for a moment, now that you’ve talked about this Brazilian artist. When I was a student in Paris, I did interventions in the forest and on trees that had fallen, because there was a terrible storm in 1999 that devastated large forests, namely in Versailles. When I was there, in 2004, most of the chicest forests had been cleared, while others remained as cemeteries of fallen trees. I worked a lot with these fallen trees. My relationship with wood comes from my European experience, not from my Argentine experience. Around Buenos Aires, where I grew up, there are no forests. There are no forests like the ones that exist here. It is a very European thing: planted forests, growing oak and these kinds of trees. There is a whole culture linked to wood that is not the same in Latin America, where there are more natural jungles. I always say that wood arrives at my studio in one way or another. I always end up working with the wood that is native to the place where I live. Wood has a relationship to the people I meet and to the country where I live. That’s how I started to work a lot with holm oak: I had decided to do a whole exhibition in wood, and as I was at a friend’s house in Alentejo, I went to get some wood for the fireplace and saw a small log. I took it to my studio to test if it was a wood I could work with and it was. So I discovered this incredible wood, holm oak, which my works, in this gallery, are made of. People generally do not recognize this wood because it is not an industrialized wood, it has no use in furniture, and it is even protected; only falling branches or dead trees are sold. It is indigenous also to the south of Spain and the south of France. I wrote the Practical Guide for Making a Basic Wood Sculpture2 to answer any technical questions, which people usually ask me in relation to my work.

[Tobi]
On a more visceral note, your work can also be considered comparable to body organs, as we know them from religious candles that are presented during pilgrimages to Fátima and in other shrines, organs that we care for or with which we establish a more tactile relationship. Your sculpting process has also been described as an act of resistance. Although located in the urban area, your daily work routines allude to the gaucho farmer and the artisan: the practice of chiselling, removing wood, removing volume from the block seems almost therapeutic, but it is certainly something spiritual.

[Catarina Rosendo]
I can contextualize a little bit how it was working with Claire during the preparation of the work Rain, presented at Appleton Gallery, and which is similar to the work that is presented here at Galeria Quadrum [Untitled, 2019]. Claire invited me to write the text for the brochure for that exhibition. And I had the opportunity to meet Claire at least twice at the site where she was making the sculpture –– the forest of the Botanical Garden of Coimbra –– in an artistic residence during which she worked with over one hundred elements of holm oak. It was very important for me to see, not exactly Claire at work, but her workplace, the tools, the table, the thousands of wood chips that made a carpet across the outdoor ground.

We talked a lot about what that piece meant in Claire’s work. I was curious about the Practical Guide for Making a Basic Wood Sculpture. It is an interesting text, because it allows us to access her working process, and to access what Claire’s ideas are when dealing with her chosen material, which has always been wood. In this text, Claire speaks of making sculpture as an “act of resistance.” I like that expression, because in addition to the tools and techniques inherent in sculpture, she highlights a temporal relationship between herself and sculpture in the moment of making the work, which is based on something that she also mentions in this text: the memory of the body, a kind of unconscious trust in the memory of the body to guide it in the gestures of cutting the wood. And this kind of awareness is something that is also obtained through time.

[Claire]
And from experience.

[Catarina]
In a way, it is as if Claire’s sculpture was not only her final result, but it also helps us to understand how her working process leads to these final forms.

[Claire]
Lately I’ve decided to assume that I’m more of an intuitive artist and I think this has to do with what you’re saying. In the Practical Guide for Making a Basic Wood Sculpture, I am talking about how to use the tools, and I say that there is no need to be afraid, that the hand will know why it drops the weight of the mallet on top of the gouge handle and not on the hand that is holding the gouge. The more violent this gesture is, the more you let the mallet fall and not hit, the more confidence there is in that gesture. I make a connection with taking the fork up to the mouth: we make that gesture in a very natural way and we know that it can also be a violent gesture. But we do it with confidence and our body basically trusts us. This act can only be achieved with experience. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that things have to be done. And the act of resistance I am talking about refers to the act of doing things, even if things take time, they involve physical effort, patience –– the whole process of making a sculpture. Going back to what you said – and that has to do with an economic concern – I always try to remove the smallest possible amount of wood, of material, and make savings there too, to carve the minimum and essential. The forms depend on the characteristics of the wood itself.

[Tobi]
In that sense, it is similar to Brancusi.

[Claire]
I don’t know if there’s a similarity in that sense. I’ve been studying and looking a lot at Brancusi’s work and I came to the conclusion that he did about twelve works in his life and then made variations of those same twelve forms (I’m saying twelve, but maybe it’s more like eight or fifteen). But these are variations of the same shape in different materials. This way of reaching something, of synthesizing a form –– I think was the greatest part of his practice. My forms are all a bit similar, but that stems from the fact that they all start from logs, which all have, more or less, the same original form.

[Tobi]
But when you talk about getting the least out of the sculptures, it makes me think of the exhibition A History of the Form that you did in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, where these leftovers were also shown, right?

[Claire]

Yes.

[Tobi]
In that sense, they can also become a work.

[Claire]
Yes.

[Tobi]
How is that decision made, how are these leftovers then presented?

[Claire]
A History of the Form consisted of a twenty-meter long shelf, which went around the gallery.

[Tobi]
On which you were presenting containers in this case…

[Claire]
I wanted to talk about form, how to shape something, how to get to that shape, including all the things that happen in the process of creating a form. So I also presented things that were part of my studio, like the wood chips that I was sorting (which I still do sometimes, by colours, by sizes), thinking that one day I would use them, the pencils or wedges that I used to keep the sculpture stable while working. At the same time, in that classification I included sculptures made by hand; some were produced directly with machines or remnants of things I re-used, there were balance exercises like, for example, a cube standing on its edge supported by a pencil.

[Tobi]
In this sense, they are also similar to the containers Ana Lupas used to create for her forms, in Solemn Process (1964–2008). Or take Alberto Carneiro’s work here behind us, for which he was creating cones in Aesthetic Operation in Vilar do Paraíso (1973).

[Claire]
I also think about this accumulation of images that he decided to keep: while we are doing a thing, an object or an action, we have this possibility of accumulating immense information and material. Whether it will be exhibited or not, we are always creating.

[Catarina]
What I am going to say references this photographic series behind us (Aesthetic Operation in Vilar do Paraíso, 1973): Alberto’s performance was made around a bundle of raffia found in the landscape in Vilar do Paraíso, which is close to Vila Nova de Gaia. This set of bundles was already there –– Alberto found them and made a performance in which he marked the various bundles with paper tape and sketched a series of pathways through them. In the process, he transformed that field into a work of art. This brings up the idea, which is very modernist and still very contemporary, of bringing artistic experience into everyday life. It corresponds to a long process in modern and contemporary art, namely detaching art from its more elitist codifications. This is linked to a radical criticism of the Fine Arts system, and to recovering an older idea of ​​art, even of more primitivist contours, in which the artistic object was in itself the residue or the remnants of a tangible experience of ordinary everyday life, often linked to ritualistic practices and healing processes.

In the case of Claire, it seems to me that you try to make artistic objects so that the person gets close to the work and relates directly to it through taste, the sensations, etc., without this more theorizing component that complexifies artistic discourse, while at the same time subtracting it from everyday experience. Somehow, when you do a series of wood sculptures that resemble furniture (tables, chairs, etc.) you are bringing the most reified experience of art into everyday life.

[Claire]
Its economy –– the fact of using as little as possible –– and the meaning of the work are related to — I don’t know if I would say a nightmare, but to the threat — the fear of not knowing what to do before I start making an artwork. My choice to remove as little material as possible allows me not to have to think about what to do. The material itself triggers this decision. Perhaps the act of resistance is there, in the return to the aesthetic experience of the work of art: the work lives by itself without intellectualizing it. I am always appealing to the experience of the work and I think that the act of resistance passes through two channels: the fact of making the object by hand and the fact that you experience it without that information or code or symbolism next to it.

[Tobi]
The works often appear untitled. In that sense, I wonder if you also allow yourself to be led by the materiality of the wood towards the form that the work eventually takes.

[Claire]
Yes.

[Tobi]
The work we are presenting on the pedestal (Untitled, 2017) can relate to Trajecto dum corpo, Alberto Carneiro’s solo exhibition at Galeria Quadrum in 1977.

[Claire]
That work of mine explains itself very well: the trunk had a very large crack and what I did was to integrate the crack into the form; then there was a hole made by a worm and I integrated that hole. I remember a time when I was making it, feeling that fear of making a phallic sculpture. And at that moment I said: “I’m going there, it doesn’t matter, this piece is asking me, this crack, this hole, I’m going to make it and that’s it, it’s not my responsibility, I’m just following it.”

[Catarina]
Wood offers you a form.

[Claire]
But I always end up with an aspect of abstract sculpture, a synthetic form, let’s say. And generally, that is where my encounter with Brancusi is. This egg, shapes that are like that, so filled, are the ones I’m looking for. They are fuller because I carve off as little wood as possible, and then they end up being more ovoid shapes. That was the beginning of my path toward sensuality, let’s say.

[Catarina]
Sometimes in woodworking there is a sensuality implied by wood’s very qualities. It is an inert material, but simultaneously warm and tactile. Depending on the surfaces being worked, it can be attractive or not. In your recent work, you work the surfaces so that they are smooth and tactile, thus being able to better capture the light. I would like to understand your relationship with that erotic and sensual dimension that your sculpture sometimes has. There is a well-known text by Georges Bataille in which he says that eroticism is what connects us to what is outside of us. It is this drive that always exists and that is inherent in all humans. We want to overcome the insurmountable distance that exists between us and things and others. In the case of Alberto Carneiro, this very sensual connection to matter is very obvious, because there is a transit of energies there that he was very interested in; he liked, in a very imaginary and symbolic way, to merge with the material itself. What is your relationship with this most sensual and erotic dimension?

[Claire]
In my work, flirting with eroticism or sensuality started with that piece and the other that you’ll see later (it’s upstairs in my studio). It was a log and I removed the minimum and only the essential; it ended up being like a huge zucchini or whatever you want. Making art, making works, is a pulse of life –– and the pulse of life, at its heart, is also sex. They are primitive and complex things. I think it is inherent, that there is a desire linked to the work of art in the experience and I am always defending the idea of ​​pleasure in producing and experiencing the work.

[Catarina]
It is an act of resistance too.

[Claire]
I never know what the result will be, never. I keep doing it and it just happens, and then we see what we do with what I made.

[Tobi]
And can the viewer physically interact with the work?

[Claire]
Yes, of course. At the end, it is irrelevant whether the viewer touches it or not; what interests me is that the viewer feels, that what arises is almost the urge to touch. Then, it is up to the spectator to touch it or not, but I want to be able to arouse that desire. I am interested in linking the work to desire.

[Tobi]
I found it interesting, the analogy between your 2009 paper works and Alberto Carneiro’s pencil drawings created at the end of his career, around 2015. These trees, these labyrinths, are little known. Do you think of them as preparatory drawings or are they independent works? How do the works on paper and the sculptures connect?

[Claire]
The drawings were born out of a crisis. When I was in Madrid, for two years I went through a crisis concerning sculpture: the fact of making sculpture and bringing more objects into the world was meaningless. My drawings are a bit like my sculptures: they are abstract. What interested me was to make only one point or line that could already be a drawing. They were somewhat meditative drawings, abstractions of landscapes or trees. It’s already been a few years since I’ve made any drawings, but they weren’t preparatory drawings –– these are always drawings of my sculptures, they are more like figurative drawings.

[Tobi]
Whereas preparatory drawings are not considered work.

[Claire]
No, not yet.

[Tobi]
Catarina, you were with Alberto at the time when he was producing a vast amount of drawings. Do you remember how those moments were when Alberto stopped sculpting, stopped working with wood?

[Catarina]
In a very pragmatic way, in the last years of his life and because of the illness that affected him, Alberto had to stop sculpting. Some of these recent drawings are on display at Galeria Diferença. Alberto has always drawn and his first solo exhibition in Porto (1967) already included drawings. Most of his solo exhibitions in fact included drawings. Here at Galeria Quadrum, where Alberto exhibited several times in the 1970s, he presented one of his most interesting drawing series. So, he produced a lot of drawings, always autonomous from sculpture. There are some drawings that are projects for installations, others that are detailed instructions for some of his sculptures, but the rest of them were independent of the sculpture. I jokingly told him that his drawings were Surrealist, which at first sounds a little surprising, but the truth is that his working process in drawing was all from the bowels. He lectured drawing at the current Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto and the great idea underlying the way he taught drawing to future architects was precisely this: drawing as something that reflects lived experience, that reflects the way we are in the world and how we relate to things, to spaces. Alberto’s drawings start from the most fleeting sensations, from the most disparate feelings, from flavours, colours, whatever it is, and are transformed into form. It is the same with these more recent ones: they are drawings that mix various planes and we do not know if we are looking at figurative things, if we are looking at trees, clouds, rocks, horizontal reliefs, land, grass, fruits. It is all these at the same time.

[Tobi]
And the performative? Did he also consider himself a performer? I was thinking more about it in relation to Aesthetic Operation in Vilar do Paraíso (1973). This moment of action is also very present when I visit Claire. In this sense, this part of the exhibition at Galeria Quadrum is more about these performing, moving, relational acts. Also in Ana Lupas, who worked with communities, something that is not very explicit when talking about the works themselves of these artists.

[Catarina]
Both in the case of Claire and in the case of Alberto, the idea of ​​a performative body that gives rise to the works is very noticeable. I think that the viewer perceives this, or if he does not understand, or if he cannot conceptualize this idea, I think he feels it.

[Claire]
Because there is the trace of the tool.

[Catarina]
I saw Claire’s tools in Coimbra, two years ago, and I see the tools that still exist today in Alberto’s studio. There is also this very interesting side of seeing the tools with which artists work, and as much as we are all contemporary and post-medium, there remains an association between sculpture and the creation of forms. We can think of chisels and gouges, yes, but we must also add electric saws, angle grinders, electric sandpaper . . . Hard work, in fact. Therefore, there exists a bodily performativity, of course. I think that this is suggested in Alberto’s sculpture The Metaphors of Water or the Ships to be Found in Seas Never Before Sailed (1993–1994), and it had a very important moment in works such as the Aesthetic Operation in Vilar do Paraíso because the presence of a body that creates the work is manifested in it. I never heard Alberto say that he was a performer, nor do I think he ever understood himself as such. Instead he dealt with a very physical relationship between himself and the material. This is especially evident in other photographic series of the 1970s in which Alberto appears naked embracing trees or submerged in a stream, surrounded by water and rocks.

[Claire]
And the choice to show his body in the work.

[Catarina]
Yes, the body is part of the work.

[Claire]
His action. He is always trying to show that there is an action on his part there.

[Catarina]
In the case of Trajecto dum corpo, for example, the rock depicted in the photograph features a hole that has been drilled by Alberto himself. It is a large pebble found on the beach where Alberto used to go since childhood. He did a performative action with that stone, traversing several landscapes with it that were dear to him and to which he was connected by several memories. Then, he exhibited the stone resting on the floor. When the exhibition ended, Alberto visited a few more landscapes with the same stone, until he left it in Serra de Fafe, stuck in between some of the big rocks, and it stayed there until it disappeared. The work that exists today, and which belongs to the Serralves Foundation, consists of several photographs that document what I just described. The work is not the stone, but the photographic record and the montage of images that Alberto made in his studio. It is worth mentioning one thing: despite this performative component of Alberto’s works, I would not say that they result from performances, because the classic meaning of the term implies a public, an audience, a “live-ness,” a body-to-body, an “I’m here with an audience” that reacts to what one is doing. This never existed; what there is, are these kinds of rituals of a body within the landscape and in close contact with natural materials.

Related Exhibition

Date
Title
Artists
Curatorship
Gallery
08.12.2019
– 23.02.2020
Rural Topographies
Alberto Carneiro, Ana Lupas, Lala Meredith-Vula, Claire de Santa Coloma
Tobi Maier
Quadrum Gallery