From the body of space to the space of the body a vertigo over infinity
by Sara Antónia Matos
What if the most radical modernist proposals for the museum were simultaneously projects for a new kind of house? (…) What if domesticity was the real source of modernity in museums?
The above queries lie at the start of Beatriz Colomina’s text on the notion of an Endless Museum(1), chiefly developed by architects Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. According to Colomina, this never‑ending museum would be permanently under construction and take into itself the whole world – by synchronically reproducing its dynamics.
This has to do with what we know about Carlos Nogueira’s œuvre, which has always been connected to architecture. Not specifically connected to museum architecture, nor particularly connected to domestic architecture, but to architecture in itself – to architecture as a project‑based discipline. A project of space, in the broadest sense of the term.
Let us elaborate a little on Colomina’s proposition, and ask: “a house of what”? When referring to the universe of the house, it is not hard to immediately connect it with both the discipline of architecture and the engineering techniques implied in the construction of a dwelling. While such references are not foreign to Carlos Nogueira’s work, the truth is that his field of visual approach and research deals not with building methods, but with the construction of the metaphysical dimension of existence.
The difficulty and the paradox facing the artist – both of them the consequent outcome of the previously described challenge – have to do with the impossibility of fixating and materialising the sensitive and “asensitive” dimensions of existence. Could house, or domus, mean a place for intimate, irregular experience?
Let us take the possible side of this interrogation, so as to recognise that the production of space has as much to do with the project as with the incident, as much to do with thought as with that which evades it.
This means that the project‑based discipline goes beyond the programmatic aspect which usually characterises it. Similarly, irrespective of how thoroughly the museological space fulfils its institutional aim, the pieces it contains, just like its walls and overall design, are places to be inhabited and explored. Just like domestic houses – that is to say, like spaces for living –, art’s institutional spaces are necessarily covered over and over again in discontinuous experiences, or, more precisely, continuously replenished with life.
We have long known that both our conception of space and our thinking on it stem from its very discontinuities. From the Cartesian view to epistemological philosophy, the flux of lived experience is, in one way or another, used to formulate it.
It is in this space of interruptions that Carlos Nogueira’s work can be found. His project of the accidental – we could call it that – combines that which seems irreconcilable to project‑based disciplines. In other words, his work combines that which can be conceived, thought and defined along with what evades all rules.
To work on this level implies mentioning something that stands between two objects, and leaves actual traces on experience, but not, however, any that are palpable, or even detectable. It is a dimension that evades both the immediate senses and empirical perception, being thus a necessarily fluctuating construction.
In this context, neither the work nor what it inspires are specifically confined to each tangible exhibited object, but rather to something that endures and exists amid the elements on display. Hence we understand that what this exhibition is communicating to us – or, more precisely, what is affecting us, leading us from element to element in search of precisely that which is not there – are figures of voluble essence.
What kind of image is this, which endures in the glass plates of Carlos Nogueira’s work and disappears before we get a chance to perceive it? What kind of figure is this, which demands to be seen even if its image does not yet exist? What kind of archetype is this, which becomes more and more present as the work becomes increasingly depurated?
What we look for in objects is precisely that which endures amid the void they leave behind. What we look for is that which persists on the laminar surface.
We could argue that there is a need to inscribe, engrave or leave mnemonic traces of whatever, from the start, comes across as precarious. Such a project would include attempts at a possible representation of that which hovers “between” or “before”. Between disciplines, before systems of representation, between images of thought, before the five senses, between fixed points or states, outside of eras, behind and beyond. After all, that is also the etymological sense of the “meta” in metaphysics. To name what is “before”(2).
Such is the primordial task of art, which seems, always paradoxically, focused on dealing with what evades it, recording, engraving, making endure that which cannot be crystallised.
After all, neither history nor art can free themselves from their own purpose. Art cannot help but leave a trace, since it consists precisely in incarnating that laminar essence, that field of signification where it acquires and generates meaning. This production of meaning is independent from its extending into other fields, independent from whatever lateral tensions it may attempt to use for legitimising itself and, above all, independent from the current cultural paradigm, be it based on belief (which appears to be enjoying a timid comeback) or on scientific, rational knowledge (also a belief, but based on a determinable model).
The artist incarnates this toposless space to struggle against a widespread de‑signification process, promoted by the contemporary world to satisfy economic and utilitarian goals, which deprives man of his vital beliefs and compulsions.
It is an area of dizzying tension, for it consists precisely in the intensity of its experiencing and representation, in the belief in its incarnation. A productive and compulsive process, through which circulate the forces of history, the same ones that have crushed “naturalness”, erecting over its wreck a space of accumulation: accumulation of knowledge, technology, currency, works of art and symbols. Should the civilisational conflict that is part and parcel of human existence throughout its epochal contingencies refrain from producing the kind of “space” to which contradictions and conflicts are inherent, its potential will not be fulfilled and the system becomes hermetic and stagnated. But, while the project – being inherent to the field with which we identify the artist, and also to the field of life itself – can, up to a point, be deliberate, there is no doubt that, when put into effect, a fraction of it will evade control. It is in that paradoxical dimension that the project’s potentiality lies.
Domus – the construction of an inhabitable place – would then mean the construction of the place of the Self, a vertigoinducing projection on an astonishing void to bring meaning out of it.
This is a singular, occasionally interior event, that allows each person and each work to open, signify, and differentiate themselves, creating subjectification, something that exists precisely there, where the norm holds no sway.
Such an operation implies to put into question that which breaks away from the doxa (of the image, of thought, of representation, of references), and consequently to produce such forms of representation and affirmation as are appropriate to something that lies at the heart of that which is itself irrepresentable or unconceivable.
While not engaging the subject with the philosophical thoroughness and precision it demands, we may nonetheless suggest that the representation of that which is volatile implies a radical re‑evaluation of current paradigms. Such a challenge would demand an impossible task, which all artists, in a way, try to perform: to reformulate thought itself (the foundations and forms of making, along with all established consensus). Thus, by converting paradox into power, the artist would generate a field of signification, singularity and differentiation, which would in turn generate an internal coherence appropriate to the development of a singular language, that is to say, of the artist’s qualities and skills.
Thus the project’s dimension is potentiated through that which deviates from it, that which is foreign to it. Its concretisation possesses an unforeseen quality, that is to say, a something that is never defined or thoroughly stipulated. And everything that is outside the project as a discipline, that is to say, all that is undisciplined and undetermined, is contained in it as a possible future component. This is economically expressed in Mallarmé’s famous line: “a throw of the dice will never abolish chance”.
As José Gil(3), whose words we now will quote, says about the philosophical notion of chance, we may interpret this “throw of the dice” as “a divine game, hardly conceivable by humans”, since “all heaven is its open space, and the throw its only rule”. But, he proceeds, “ontology is a throw of the dice” that “is not in any way intent on abolishing chance (the open sky).”(4)
Thus, we may say that to work on the side of chance, accepting its poetics along with the violence it entails, demands the kind of commitment the creative act presupposes, for the creative act also consists of that same unlearning of the doxa and the common image of thought, in order to accept a new way of thinking that paradoxically does not do away with what is already known and the old ways of knowing. This impossibility may indicate that art – like the metaphysical dimension, and even the religious one – endures precisely through the paradox on which it is founded: to free itself from what it cannot free itself from. A belief that professes human incapacity in welding the finite with infinity and nonetheless operates on that dizzying point of inadequacy.
Thus, no matter how much of the genealogy of precision and conception we may find in Carlos Nogueira’s language, he connects himself to the accidental element in the projectbased discipline, which drawing promotes, as the primal form it is. Lines, wandering drawings and structural elements abandon their pre‑ordained function to define a different place here. It is the space of the accidental, of the unforeseen, that is to say, of art, which breaks through the determinable. His drawings and three‑dimensional lines – found iron rods, “shaped” by the world, or natural wicker, handled by the artist so as to form drawing lines – tell us of a space meant to be quickly apprehended. Art takes care of that. It can bring in that nonsense which other intellectual disciplines must eschew. It is on this incised space of freedom that time starts working, wreaking subterraneous damage and revealing a cleft(5) that runs through the whole individual. This bottomless cleft corresponds to thought’s forbidden image, that is to say, to the impossibility of representation. A void space – an object without contents – in which the “thoroughly new”(6) is kept safe. It is in that place that an inadequacy of the Self before the infinity on which it sees itself projected becomes manifest. Then, the individual and the work free themselves of all epochal or chronological contingences and begin playing in full time, leaping into that vertigo all thought on infinity generates.
This vertigo – promised by Carlos Nogueira’s work – consists in a leap into a bottomless void in which one is able to picture and understand reality and the real, knowing them as true without needing to know where the truth lies.
His œuvre is more than a formal language connected to architecture, as his sculptures show: it is also a fully versatile form of thought. It is the boldest attempt at conceiving that which, by its nature, cannot be represented. This projectbased discipline uses as tools the most doubtful and (un)reliable barometers: the flesh and the body.
By giving flesh and body to a dimension that lacks them, the artist can give to man proof of its factuality, and the shown works seem indeed desirous to carnivorously employ all means to give him such proof. Carlos Nogueira can be included in this lineage of carnivorous artists(7). By this, we mean that the whole work on space and on materials, on all that their sensitive elements but also on all that circulates among them, is a work of the flesh to give body to that which is “before”. And in this kind of work, to master one’s tools (be they extremely sophisticated or handmade) is the feasible way to penetrate a material that, being spatial by nature, can only be devoured. Space is matter, and penetrating it implies a body. In this sense, space cannot be just a passive receiver of all incursions; it is also a material and a medium that must be handled with knowledge and skill.
This also indicates that the work is the sporadic incarnation of an extratemporal something that suffuses all beings. To “give body” means, then, to attain the possibility of knowing: to manage to briefly touch that which is “before”, to sporadically coincide with that which is univocal. At that moment, it is possible to reveal both what is most effective and what is most subtle. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the most important elements in Carlos Nogueira’s œuvre is precisely light, in all its fugacity. In several sculptures, Carlos Nogueira uses light as his main sculptural material: stone, wood, mirror and glass plates exist to serve it. It is through the fissures on these elements that it spreads across space and traverses the whole of time. That is the case of his installation at the Sines chapel, a set of volumes over which light pours, evaporating the physical weight of iron [longe e brilha or nem sombra nem vento], but also of the works in segmented wood made transparent by light [casa com esquina. a céu aberto or construção para lugar nenhum], or of pieces made up of reflecting surfaces that draw into themselves their fluctuating, everchanging surroundings [a parar a luz or desenhos de construção com casa. e céu or beyond the very edge of the earth].
Houses, nests, buildings, shelters… architecture has been, since immemorial time, one of the human activities that most deliberately have tried to express the presence of the sacred in the world of men. When we mention the sacred, we mean that which in man transcends him or which moves in the ascendant or immanent sense. However, the sensitivity concerning the sacred does not need allegories or personifications. That consciousness is neither above nor below, and it cannot be reduced to something objective. Today, in art, as in architecture, it takes the form of an “absent presence” – a kind of mark left in empty space. To depurate, to deprive of, to reach the most elementary level, or that which is “before”, is the way to reach the ontological foundation. This value is also shared by an ancestral order, connected to time and space – the same that is inscribed all over nature.
The body is, then, a means, an element through which the transition from the space‑of‑thebody to the bodyof‑space can be effected. This operation includes the perception and conceptualisation of space, that is to say, its representation.
But space is more than just the outcome of a practice that consists in the application of concepts, names and images. It comes from an approach that involves blindness, deviations, accidents, misapprehensions and the whole trial of lived experience. The introduction of lived experience consists, in one of the artist’s first projects (or in his mail actions), of a simple bouquet of flowers left by the artist in several locations across the city, hoping for it to be eventually picked up and elicit a response, which might never happen, from anyone who picked it. The project [gosto muito de ti] only came to a conclusion when an anonymous person, having picked the bouquet up, acknowledged that it had been left there precisely for that purpose.
To restore the common element inscribed in this place calls for the naming of a forgotten memory that is nothing more than that inscription – or perhaps incision – which the skin closes over, the mind refuses to record, the eye does not see, but which the flesh recognises as the deepest of writings. No loss, then; just a continuous reworking.
This is the reason why his œuvre is a study on the construction of an inhabitable place, perhaps drawn from time or in which time exists in full. Not just any, common or permanent place, but a place that can be told apart from others and, hence, is a place of the Self.
Lisbon, November 2008
1 “The endless museum would be endlessly under construction.” Beatriz Colomina, “The Endless Museum: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe”, When Things Cast no Shadow – 5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, jrp/ringier, 2008, p. 182.
2 Not necessarily what is “beyond”.
3 Referring to Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, in José Gil, O Imperceptível Devir da Imanência – Sobre a Filosofia de Deleuze, Lisbon, Relógio D’Água, 2008, p. 53.
4 José Gil, op. cit., pp. 53 ‑ 55.
5 “From beginning to end, a cleft seemingly runs through the Self: the pure, empty form of time cleaves it”. Deleuze quoted by José Gil. Op. cit., p.72.
6 According to José Gil, this is the space in which creation is possible. Op. cit., p. 91.
7 Sara Antónia Matos, “Carnívoros – O Skill”, L+arte, n.º 50, Tema section, July 2008.
Translated by José Gabriel Flores