Facing the salt that in the eyes glints
by José Augusto Mourão
Perfectio omnium eorum quae sunt in ordine universo, est lux.
The Sun pounds on our eyes just as we pound on a door that won’t open.
Teixeira de Pascoaes
I could not have seen properly the light that shines on the wall without looking towards whence it flows. And even then, if I manage to grasp it where it flows, I need to free myself from that flow; I must grasp it just as it glides within itself. And even so, I will say it should not be so. I cannot grasp it at the moment it makes contact, nor as it flows, nor even when it glides within itself, because all these are still modes. One needs to grasp God as a mode without a mode, as a being without being, because there is no mode.
Before the appearance of mirrors, people did not know their own face, unless it was reflected on the waters of a lake. After a certain time, each one of us is responsible for the face they have. I will now look at mine. It is a naked face. And when I think there is no face just like mine in the world, I feel so scared I’m happy. And there never shall be. Never means impossible. I like never. I also like always. What is there between never and always, that connects them so indirectly and intimately? At the heart of everything there is the hallelujah(1).
Carlos Nogueira’s work adequately matches Merleau-Ponty’s description of style in art as ‘the emblem of a mode of inhabiting a world’ (Signes 67). This is not an aesthetics that operates on a nihilistic environment, and neither does it produce formal games and worlds of ‘pure fiction’ due to some aversion to the urge that leads to the creation of worlds, to constructing itself on that which moves the world. Here, we find ourselves confronted with what makes the work a unique individuality. A unique approach to objects, forms, space, luminosity, fulgour and sound, which moves among systems of diversely organised spaces and opposes perceptive impoverishment by re-semanticising the ‘world’ and ushering in the factitivity of the object.
It is true that, in order to emerge, beauty requires a (real or imaginary) borderline separating the work of art from the outside world, just as the notion of the sacred needs a spatial separation from the profane world. However, what lies at the source of the feeling of beauty is, Thom tells us, the unutterable, ineffable quality of this dynamic mental structure. Throughout the Middle Ages, the beautiful was defined as a consonance of parts and luminosity. Every attempt at defining the beautiful associates this notion with the ones of light and fulgour. And that, indeed, is indeed the result Carlos Nogueira achieves in his installation longe e brilha, which establishes a dialogue between the Cultural Centre’s premises and the Sines Misericórdia chapel, a formerly sacred space that is now undergoing a passage from the sacred to the profane.
Man’s dwelling-place is, in his eyes, the domain that is open to the presence of God (of the unusual). Man, to the extent that he is a man, lives close to God, said Heraclitus. To the Greeks, the temple is proof of the essential closeness between gods and men. The temple shelters the gods – but the gods were already there. The church obeys a different logic – the logic of the non-place. We do not live in the churches. It is during the liturgical act, that is to say, during the living circuit of giving, praying, receiving and thinking that what we are in them gains form. The church does not offer itself as the instituted space of a definitive existence; its portico does not separate the miseries of history from the joys of eschaton. What it offers is something else: the place of a fragile anticipation. While we inhabit it, during a service or a time of silent contemplation, worldly laws hold no sway upon us. That does not separate us from history, the world or the earth. Temporality, corporeality and the path towards death are mentioned in this space, and remembering them constitutes the basic structure of our presence in the world or on earth. We connect topology with liturgy because it is impossible to think the place as something separate from the body. The liturgical ‘dance’ before God denounces, feet firmly on the ground, any interpretation of corporeality that reduces it to the limits of inherence. Responding to Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Rosenzweig states that the Revelation’s purpose is to bring the world back to its non-religious reality (2).
A style brings to us, in vivo, a way of inhabiting a world. That, too, is Carlos Nogueira’s creative gesture. That is his gift; he employs basic materials used in the construction of churches, such as stone, metal and glass, in linear perfection that generates a dialogue between rooms: one dealing with darkness, the other with daylight. With these materials, Carlos Nogueira reconfigures space, making visitors inhabit it in a wholly new way. Therein lies all the difference: it is not a matter of ‘going to the church’ to witness some ritual, but of exercising a space that is no longer ‘sacred’ and, through this artistic work, making it recover its potential of de-territorialisation. Society’s laicisation has changed the sociolectal status of the ability that allowed us to decipher the iconography conveyed by religious objects. Nowadays, only art historians or religious people are able to enter this world and understand it. This exhibition does not reintroduce us to the lost space; it simply defines, from one room to another, on the other side of the street, a figurative itinerary that cannot be read separately. The thick walls of the room beside the chapel, with half-open portals on which six white drawings are displayed, and six more from which the distant sea and the ruins of factories can be seen, respond to the totally dark room. Mirrors, frosted glass, the light that heightens the floor’s gloss, the wooden surface mounted in a steel box with sharp edges, shiny white and dull white prolong the dialogue between the two rooms.
The mirror of the world
The singular event, here, is the transparent mirror, particular and remarkable at once, evocative of its etymological source(mirror (3)). The (omni)presence of the mirror, or of glass, in Carlos Nogueira’s body of work, invites comparisons with, for instance, what H. Duméry states at the beginning of his book Philosophie de la religion: ‘religion is a perfect anthropological mirror’ (PR I, 1). Do all the projective abilities of the human mind lie there, or does this mean that the mirror simply gives back to Man an inverted image of himself?
I have mentioned the object’s factitivity. I could even speak of a ‘sub-object’, as Zilberberg(4) does. The ‘sub-object’ is able to modalize the subject by surprising him and making him break away from his perceptive habits. It is known that ‘the sign can be used to lie because I can produce the sign even though the object does not exist (I can name chimeras and depict unicorns), while the mirror image only produces the object in front of it’, writes Umberto Eco(5). The mirror being a prosthesis, it enables us to see a spot on our nose as if it was on our hand. The mirror image never lies. Ultimately, only time can depict a face, being its only designer.
There is nothing speculative about this installation. The word ‘speculative’ can take on two different meanings, according to the etymology we choose. An echo of that distinction can be found in Thomas de Aquinas’ statement: ‘speculatio dicitur a speculo, non a specula’ (IIa, IIae 180, 3). Specula is the promontory from which one contemplates, in a sub specie aeternitatis position, a certain landscape. Anglo-Saxon philosophers view speculative reasoning as a powerful cause for mistrust, since it implies, for them, illusory evasion. In Whiteread’s eyes, the attempt to create a coherent and logically necessary diagram of a system of general ideas that can account for all aspects of our experience is still a fundamental task of reason as such. Speculum is the mirror, of perfect purity if possible, on which everything that exists is reflected. Here, we find a combination of two traditions. The mirror metaphor, which plays an important role in Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy, received added meaning from Christianity. Basing himself on certain verses from the Pauline epistles (2 Co 3, 18; 1 Co 13,12), Richard de Saint-Victor created a theory of degrees of contemplation, in which ‘speculation’ designates a stage that is inferior to proper beatific vision. At the confluence of the Neo-Platonic and Christian traditions, Nicholas of Cusa’s treaty Directio speculantis seu de non-Aliud clearly illustrates the aspirations of a speculative reason concerned with contemplating everything in the light of the Absolute, which transcends all opposition. The second line of thought is connected to the Aristotelian distinction between theoretical (speculative, according to Boethius) and practical science. Quite crucial in terms of the philosophy of religion is the Kantian distinction between ‘understanding’ and ‘speculative reason’. The former is the power of judging, while reason is the ability to produce transcendental notions: the World, the Soul, God.
The mirror is a constant metaphor in Carlos Nogueira’s work, along with many other glossy, reflective, inquisitive, rough and ethereal surfaces. The mirror brings into play the issue of the subject: if I had not been there, no encounter would have taken place. Also brought into play is the issue of the ‘proper distance’ between me, the other and the world. The world that is recreated here emerges as we advance into the space, there the salt, there the mirror, there my passing face, there the chapel’s white walls. I know there is no aesthetics of the encounter here. No fusion can take place here, for the lack of shelter is frightening. Here, the mirror is unpolished, and so is the steel. There is a clear alignment between the tomb and the mirror (a reflecting sheet of glass), which aggregates the image of what is seen and the image of salt. Also noteworthy is the modulation at work on nº 9. The dualism promised by the mirror is broken right at the room’s entrance. The homogenous or ‘practical’ space in which objects circulate between a here and a somewhere becomes a ‘semantic’ space, a space to read, in which the void shows itself in the light of the unpolished mirror. The space of reading emerges in that point where signs and lines are articulated: the tomb.
Displayed above the ground on a mirror and a sheet of unpolished glass is a sculpture/installation made of stainless steel, also unpolished. Presented as if levitating, it hovers. It seems to hover.
And it raises a question: what is an object? Hanging from the ceiling in two imperceptible wires, a rectangular transparent mirror interposes and reflects the fusion of the static, irradiating sculpture with the image of each one of the visitors moving around.
The power of the mirror comes from its suspension over the void, which prevents it from assisting the representation of anything. The suspension of the mirror lends it an oscillating facet. The mirror does not ‘entomb’ the eye that looks at it; instead, it troubles it, opening it to the doors of perception.
To enter the room is to see oneself in the mirror, as well as the levitating tomb. On the floor, coarse white salt. On the other side of the street, a glow. And light. Six drawings plus six drawings that mirror each other. Sharp edges.
Revealing, clarifying, cleaning up: such has been the task of modernity. Let hybridity not threaten the clear evidence of the essences. Michel Serres’ Romeand Statues praise the Latin or Egyptian gesture of burying, concealing, hiding or placing something in the shadows for safekeeping, opposing it to the Greek action of bringing it to the light. Serres’ vow is fulfilled by art’s invention of a theory of knowledge that is obscure, confused, dark, non-evident: a theory of adelic knowledge(6).
Christian aesthetics have inherited a system with Pythagorean and musical roots: the law of numbers and proportions rules the universe of sounds and stones. Symmetry and eurhythmy are the touchstones of that aesthetics, to which another element is added: light. According to Plotinus’ Essay on the Beautiful (Ennéades, I, 6, 1), symmetry is simply the effect of a composed beauty, a sign that evokes the eminent simplicity of an intelligible light that shines above the world as the transcendent One. The light that comes from above generates an optic space that is distinct from the one in the perspective that was already present in the Greco-Roman space. While remaining itself, the light mingles with the body: ‘the light must be seen as a thoroughly incorporeal being, even though it is the action of a body’, just as the soul gives life to the body.
The medieval universe manifests itself as a transfigured world in which God is light; it is the realm of the symbol in its fullest sense. Within the scope of a theology of uncreated, creating Light, the supra-sensible Beautiful appears as a resplendent irradiation shining over all beings. Claritas is the term John Scotus Eurigena (9th century) used to translate the Greek words used by the Pseudo-Areopagite to name the splendour that flows from the ‘father of lights’. Clarere, clarus, clarificare are all terms employed to designate this new meaning by Abbot Suger, the founder of the new Saint-Denis abbey and of Gothic art. The innovative religious iconography had the following task: ‘the work of art would continue where education had stopped. Through images, it fed imagination’(7).
The architectural space implies a lighting system. It is important to know that the Cistercian St Bernard was against all kinds of artificiality that could adulterate the strictly religious functions of the church. He reacted strongly against the symbolism of Romanesque sculpture and the lighting systems adopted by churches in that style, which are antithetical to the Gothic lighting system, based on the symbolism of light. The lighting in Cistercian churches is a direct response against the new lighting system that was coming into use then. To reach God, one does not need a system, only meditatio. White and with various degrees of intensity, the light in Cistercian buildings has no colour, since their windows are made of colourless glass. The lighting does impose itself on visitors. St. Bernard’s light is not ‘spectacular’. The cathedrals of Reims, Amiens and Leon, along with the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, are clear illustrations of that constructive fiction that turns Gothic interiors into figured space(8).
A true icon is free from any associative connection or psychological resonance. Is that not what Malevich does in his Black Square? ‘If the sun is the condition for the unveiling of the world of representation, the quintessence of the principle that en-chants us in it, then its radical obscuring will be the condition for the imaginatio of that other world, of which our diurnal being-there is only a mere reflection or projection’(9).
Carlos Nogueira begins by covering up the light (the Sun), for the light it creates is only a fiction, leading to the theatre of the body. To annul the light that makes the gilded carvings shine. This installation does away with natural lighting: the church is left completely obscured; every outside light source has been closed; a single, intense light focus shines vertically, from the ceiling of the chapel, into a sculpture/installation. Reflections from it shine upon the altar, creating a golden penumbra, while others hit the salt expanse. The floor beneath the sculpture is a mirror, radiating with light. This is a work of transduction. Over this tomb, this place that no longer troubles you, I will create a new place to trouble and surprise you. The excessive light with which you enter this place and look at the gilded carvings, at the altar, at the doors, already prevents you from meditating on what connects you to the living world and goes beyond mere routine. A work on surfaces. ‘The surface deconstructs any alleged naturalness of space, thoroughly releasing it from the threat of perspectivist fictions’ (Cacciari, p. 226).
The essential word cannot be put into words. The mystic wears himself out to utter this impossibility. To utter, according to Lévinas, the Saying that goes beyond all saying (Agamben, 1991). All he can do is write or speak. From the incommensurability of the creature, and of God, emerges the need for language. The darkest night is needed for the emergence of this language. Mysticism as the elocution of the impossibility of saying; as the original realm of language. All conventional signs must be stripped away, so that in this void of meaning and science may become the place in which the creature and his god can resonate in response to each other – a vast ‘mirror of simple souls’, which reflects the naked simplicity of God and of whoever enters his gaze. This is also a two-way mirror: as an element that mediates between God and creature, it is a receptacle of God, who must not be looked upon: ‘a place of splendour unbearable to our eye’ (Minazzoli), deserted of images and words. However, there a second side to the mirror, made of wandering and multiplicity: a plural scene of language, God’s elocution: ‘Do you want to learn grammar? Learn how to decline God in the plural’ (Pedro Damião).
The chapel that hosts this installation contains a tomb. Above it, the most visible changes take place: levitating pieces in which the light forces us to put into question the notions of here and there. The tomb is a space that articulates itself between outside and inside. In the Gospel According to John, Mary does not enter the sepulchre; instead, she stands ‘without’ (John 20: 11). It is at that limit that ‘here’ and ‘somewhere’ connect, as the meeting-points of two rationalities. Mary sees two angels in the sepulchre: they are the visible objects that stand on each side of a space that is directly associated to the ‘body of Jesus’. They indicate the absent body that is the reason for visiting the tomb. The angels speak, to question Mary about what she wants and the visible signs of her search: ‘why weepest thou?’ The visitor of longe e brilha moves between a ‘here’ and a ‘there’ that do not coincide with the spaces of the chapel and the Centre; instead, they de-form the visible, reorganising it. Carlos Nogueira’s work confronts the issues of the place itself, putting viewers in connection with the earth, the sky or themselves. Raised from the ground; the salt platform; the sound of the sea, in real time.
The Open is the dwelling in which the poet lives. O Aberto é a morada em que vive o poeta. According to E. Bloch, philosophers should invent a ‘metaphysics of presentiment and utopia’(10) which does not exist yet. The sole remedy for nihilism lies in learning how to, once again, dream with open eyes. In Renaissance architecture and painting, light is an instrument for the commensuration and arrangement of reality, a means that allows the creation of a plastic space that can, ideally, surpass reality(11).
There is nothing amniotic or regressive in Carlos Nogueira’s aesthetics, which focuses on restlessness, on light, on banality. What is the essential gesture in the present installation? To dislocate the place, to give a figure to figured space, is to fulgourise. To rarefy the quantity of what is visible, in order to present the fulgourised objects’ singularity: here, there are no eye-comforting art objects, like the ones in museums. Here, the mirror confronts us with the discomfort of the images and the splendour of the false. The visible always takes place as the unexpected.
What language sustains this body of work? A totalising language would be of no use here. The aesthetics of fragments is autotelic, but not totalising. Perhaps it is more fitting to speak of an associative, self-ironic language. Carlos Nogueira’s stance is the opposite of what once was named the culture of spontaneity (Daniel Belgrad: ‘spontaneity is akin to dialogues and democratic interactions’), when no pattern is previously given, and beyond the conventional, without abandoning the materiality of ‘reality’. Spontaneity cannot be defined simply as a form of resistance to social control within the context of capitalistic culture.
We may imagine a sacrality devoid of sanctity, as Heidegger did, the tremendum fascinosum that lies at the root any religious experience. We may imagine a ‘sacrality without belief’(12). Dasein pressuposes an existential atheism. However, when the ‘world’ is replaced with the ‘earth’, Dasein becomes again somewhat familiar with the sacred.
Carlos Nogueira’s gesture ushers in both rupture and continuity. The drive behind this gesture allows us to transcend cut-price images, or, as Thom would say, ‘low-level attractors’. To take the beaten path implies favouring the facility of gravitation over aspiration, air, verticality. Creation is a struggle against those low-level attractors. However, during that same action of rupture Carlos Nogueira also opens passages between naturally separate worlds: a Cultural Centre and a chapel. The opposition between the two universes of the ‘modern’ Centre and the ‘ancient’ chapel will engage the subject’s attention in different ways. The chapel appears to the visitor’s eye as an ‘extraordinary’, exciting space. The object’s ‘charm’ will influence the subject’s actions and moods, who thus becomes more intent on the object and more prepared for the pathemic change that emerges from that increased awareness of the object. Having easily recognised the surrounding space, the visitor is now literally ‘drawn in’ by the singularity of the pieces that now ‘inhabit’ that space. The singularity of Carlos Nogueira’s gesture consists in concentrating into a (local) point a number of global features. Indeed, subjectivity and sensations act locally. Between iconic signs, such as the mirror, the salt, the tomb, the altar and the glass, come awareness-inspiring elements: the light, the shadow, the steps, the cracks. It falls to ruptures operated on a global level (at the chapel and the Centre) to bring about the emergence of singularities, catastrophic places and sensitive points. The awareness-inspiring elements are essential to understanding the metaphoric dimension of aesthetics: heteroclite materials are turned into ‘living signs’, allowing us to understand the ‘passivation’ of the subject and the ‘activation’ of the object.
There is a force in things. Each thing, in its own nature, must be able to preserve its particular being, or else it will find itself deprived of it. Some things, according to Aristotle, refuse all commerce, all equivalence: ‘knowledge and money have no common measure’(13). A singularity cannot be propagated in terms of communication or of all-subjugating commerce. It touches us, as a passion, a stained-glass window or a piece of music (Messiaen, for instance), touch us. Here, there is no complacency towards the public, an entity whose reality has even been put in cause by Harold Rosenberg(14). Fort this author, that which is called public is never a ‘single entity of high or low intelligence, but a sum of shifting groups, each with its own mental focus’ (Rosenberg 1959, p.60). A shapeless entity, devoid of an intellectual life of its own, can never be the source of a culturally relevant product. Painters do not paint for the public. ‘The painter makes himself as he acts; the painting itself is the exclusive transformation; it is “a Sign”’ (Rosenberg, 1959, p.32).
The wisdom of the hands meets the resistance of the objects, or these transmute themselves into figures to dialogue with the enunciative instance that opened the space of their emergence to them. What must be enhanced in art is the point in which the form emerges, not the value of things. What matters is the dance of objects in their way of creating a community, in their transductive, anagogic power, in their unique fulgour. To me, the magic touch of this exhibition lies in how Carlos Nogueira ‘inhabits’ this chapel, selecting a par excellence empty place like the tomb and waking us to the light he draws down for us, as if it were irrigation water, so as to not put out that which shines far away. ‘Man – to the measure that he is a man – lives close to the god’ (Heraclitus). In the mirror? Facing the salt that in the eyes glints, but also burns?
(1) Água Viva, Rio de Janeiro, Nova Fronteira, 6th printing, 1983, p. 36.
(2) See Stéphane Mosès, «Le dernier Journal de Rosenzweig», O. Mongin, J. Rolland and A. Derczanski (eds.), Franz Rosenzweig, Lagrasse, Verdier, 1982, pp. 207-222. See also Marie Renoue, Sémiotique et Perception esthétique, Pulim, 2002.
(3) Ernout-Meillet, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue Latine, p. 406.
(4) Claude Zilberberg, «Présence de Wölfflin», Nouveaux Actes Sémiotiques, pp. 23-24, 1992.
(5) Umberto Eco, Kant e o Ornitorrinco, Lisbon, Difel, 1999, p. 358.
(6) Michel Serres, Diálogo sobre a Ciência, a Cultura e o Tempo, Lisbon, Instituto Piaget, 1996, p. 199.
(7) G. Duby, L’Art cistercien, Paris, Flammarion, 1976, p. 24.
(8) Victor Nieto Alcaide, La Luz, Simbolo y Sistema Visual, Madrid, Catedra, 6th printing, 1997, p. 34.
(9) Massimo Cacciari, Icones de la loi, Paris, Christian Bourgois, 1990, p. 223.
(10) L’Esprit de l’utopie, Paris, Gallimard, 1977, p. 189.
(11) Victor Nieto Alcaide, op. cit., p. 87.
(12) Jean Greish, Philosophie & Théologie. Le Buisson Ardent et les Lumières, t. I, Paris, Cerf, 2002, p. 24.
(13) Aristote, Éthique à Eudème, VII, 10, 1243 (transl. Décarie).
(14) Harold Rosenberg, Tradition of the New, Freeport NY, Books for Libraries Press, 1959; Art and Other Serious Matters, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1985. Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston, Beacon Press, 1986; Homemade Aesthetics: Observations on Art and Taste, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. Eduardo Neiva, Comunicação na Era Pós-Moderna, Petrópolis, Vozes, 1996; Mythologies of Vision: Image, Culture, and Visuality, Bern, Peter Lang, 1999. Raymond Court, «Style esthétique et lieu théologique», Recherches de Science Religieuse, 84/5, 1997, p. 537-556.