Neither shadow nor wind
by João Miguel Fernandes Jorge
This installation – such is the term that better suits the instaurational quality that has always marked Carlos Nogueira’s work (now displayed at the Sintra Museu de Arte Moderna / Berardo Collection, May-July 2002) – brings me to a previous stage in his oeuvre, represented in a noite e branco, an exhibition at the Museu da Cidade’s White Pavilion (Lisbon, 2000).
Then, my outlook was decisively influenced by an outside impression that overwhelmingly cut through the geometric coldness of the materials – glass, iron and hydraulic mosaic -, until it stopped, as in some kind of mournful sympathy, at the white drawings, made of iron, wood, paper, acrylic, graphite and enamel. The sculptures showed at the White Pavilion connected themselves, in turn, to construção com chão branco a partir de dentro, a vast piece he had installed, in 1998, in the entrance hall of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
All these pieces, in the combined evidence of their materials, emanate the words: nature is outside. However, nothing seemed more remote from living nature, from a vegetable and animal world, than these hydraulic mosaics or structures of glass and iron. Even the textures of white enamel paint on the drawings evoked, metaphorically, granted, that cognitive content: nature is outside.
The immediate surface of these words carried me to the ‘outside’, that is to say, to the Gulbenkian gardens, in 1998, and to the Museu da Cidade’s park, in 2000. The materials of the sculptures and drawings appeared as something distinct from the sculptures and drawings themselves. Those materials gave shape to the pieces, but were not their form or nature, and much less the vein through which their soul flowed. The materials – hydraulic mosaic, iron, enamel paint, glass – were nothing more than a desolate landscape, devoid of relief or vegetation.
As for the sculptures and drawings, they carried me to mounts and valleys, with their meadows and woods, rivers, forests. They asked me to listen to their primeval form, their soul’s resolve – which is a little more than temperament, ardour, character, enthusiasm, spirit or energy, more even than idea, model, life, fire or feeling – and then set off with the mindset of one who takes a walk. I understood they did not want me to be a simple walker. They wanted more, that is to say, they only wanted me to be one who walks around.
And I did so. In a mental way, the way that comprises a sculpture-shaped approach. I witnessed the progressive passage of night into day. (A passage that singularly lets itself be enunciated in the present sculpture, which lends its name to nem sombra nem vento; as if the hours of day and night declined themselves through the two glass panes that hold part of its form, reverberating into light gradations.) I found myself contemplating that rhythm of luminosity where it is truly perceivable: from a mountaintop, at the very moment the sun lights up the highest peaks, while obscurity reigns and darkness still holds sway over the valleys. However, we must not forget that the material behind the sculptures and drawings (which are the true source of that being carried to the nature that ‘is outside’) is in itself a naked and monotonous landscape, across which our gaze glides.
That gliding brings the passage, out of which emerges the interest of one who walks through nature. It is an interest of a conceptual order, as devoid of accidental complexities as the lines and volumes Carlos Nogueira’s most recent works explore. Such an interest is also the cause and determination of an activity that glides (and moves) across the territory of sympathy. That is, in itself, a (veritable) ‘walk’ through nature that goes quite beyond a simple impression of things; quite beyond the surface that concatenates seductions and turns the free play of imagination, a purely recreational activity, into a contract of exhaustive seriousness both for the mind who created the exhibited work and for its interpreter – naturally, the one who walks through nature.
Nature as lived and observed by that walker, which stood on the edge of construção com chão branco a partir de dentro and a noite e branco, stretches itself now, with nem sombra nem vento, into the paths of the Sintra Ridge park. Yet, nature does not fully and purely receive the one who walks (in it); and it is not through it that he is able to faithfully perceive the things he finds in it and to offer a precise translation of its phenomena.
This wide field of interpretative understanding resides in the interior arrangement the sculptural objects and drawings (a space in which the expanse of whiteness unfolds itself in the overlapping precision of a geometry or of a delineated, cutting sheet) offer.
A stripping-down of the sculptural materials gives place to a smoothness of the gaze. Through it, we will descend to a kind of vitality, to a kind of breath, to a refraction of light. This is exemplarily achieved, in the sculpture ‘nem sombra nem vento’, via the breaking and splitting of the luminosity that floods down the skylight of the room on the Museu de Sintra’s top floor and then reverberates out of the oblique conjugation of the two glass panes that intensify its form.
By means of that light, capable of doubling in the glass the mirroring of a figure – the figure of one who walks through nature – we will witness something more than the search for a definition for the sculptural work; we will witness the possibility of ‘installing’ the testimony of a calling. As if, upon the figure that sees itself, surprised, on one of the glass faces, had descended the measure of a representation that is, at once, a circumstance of virtue, courage and absent-mindedness that will generate, in that naive and also passive soul, the taste and knowledge of a naturalist.
The one who walks through nature is now used to dissecting the things of that same nature; he classifies them into categories and is about to show to the one who in himself was once a naïve observer, what it means to abandon oneself to the construction of an art. Through the intensity of the light received through the two glass panes of “nem sombra nem vento”, which now dissolves itself in the imagined coldness of the Constructivist white of the wall sculptures (that, indeed, is what the six drawings are), now completes itself in the sensoriality of that ‘system’ of white plangency.
The one who gave himself up to the spectacle of nature loses himself now in the mirrored surface of two glass panes and in the degree of opening between them. He follows the tracings of the light with the same enthusiasm he once accorded to an insect’s carapace, to the beauty of its form. He who lost himself in impressions from an outside nature, has led the development of his simple, cold curiosity into the utmost depths of the image these two panes yield. Capable, as he once was, of such great interest in the natural plane of things, in the running of river waters and of clouds, he, the one who walks through nature, unfolds himself now in his image.
Intact, he retains his own figure, outside and inside the glass. He finds in the sculpture and in the plasticity of the drawings, which together give form to nem sombra nem vento, the acknowledgement of the known, the combined action of all their forces on the pulsation of his walker’s heart.
Nem sombra nem vento. 1. Sculpture (iron and glass, 450x150x150cm, 2001).
There is a certain variability to its height, in spite of the above defined 150 cm. Let us say that light itself heightens or reduces, in a play of scales and visuality, the piece’s exact size, alongside any demands of the space on which the sculpture is being installed. Its brightness softens or fires up, not only according to the quantity of light the Sintra room’s skylight concedes it, but also to the figures that project themselves and clash with each other on the panes’ mirrored surfaces.
On a floor of pressed wood and concrete, which displays a grey tone and allows for a slightly undulating area around the sculpture, two iron bars stand. They face each other in their quadrangular structure, from which the top spans are missing. On their top ends lean two large glass plates. Inclined and contiguous, they rest.
Their obliquity turns the angle they form into an unmistakable part of the sculpture. They belong to each other. In order to better understand this, all it would take was to make them turn upon the union vertex and bring them together, so that they adhered to each other. By closing them upon the sameness they contain and keep between themselves, we would see the triangle they create in the sculpture fall apart or retire into a more intimate place. This is an equal-sided triangle, but the side inscribed on what would be its top face exists only in space. It exists and does not exist.
It carries in itself a form of existing that is wholly similar to ‘the one who walks through nature’. A kind of transcendence of life – both life as a triangle and life as a walker – that sustains its vitality and, more than that, makes continuous the instinctive preservation of that vitality, because that triangle that is going to close in upon itself, by doing so preserves in its intimacy not only all the images that glided across the glass panes’ reflecting surface, but the very figures that came close to them. And all the light sources and sensorial intensities the glass panes have withstood will remain there, too.
A constant overabundance of images is what can be found here. One that is, in every point, similar to the exuberant web of landscape contours he who walks through nature carries with himself.
Onto the glass is projected the iron structure that holds it on both sides. Luminous stripes and light granules hit the sculpture and scatter across the floor (in the case of the sculpture’s installation in the room of temporary exhibitions of the Sintra Museu de Arte Moderna / Berardo Collection). Coming down from the skylight, these stripes and granules reverberate around, alternating harshness with softness. At every moment, they resemble last words and, I know not why, some inflicted hurt.
Apparently, everything ‘runs’ under a meaning that has instituted a measure of edification which unfolds on a minimal plane. But only apparently, for this sculpture in nem sombra nem vento has kept for us a complexity of knowing and not knowing. All it takes is to find the countless vanishing points and figures of seclusion that have cast the brevity of their life formulas into the space ‘between panes’.
(These glass panes can only be seen as a part of something poor and simple if one bypasses their illusive and enigmatic power. They contain a heightened degree of optical concept and exercise, besides that mastery of balancing physical forces which is common in contemporary sculpture. It will be enough to mention, as an instance of a use of technology, the treatment that led to the accentuated mirroring of the glass panes, without exactly turning them into mirrors. And this ‘quality’, the source of much exuberant achievement – and I hope Carlos Nogueira will excuse me for what there may be of uncouth and superfluous in this feeling of exuberance, so connected to a certain kind of superabundance and intensity – comes by means of an enamelled finish that uses the opaqueness of a metallised film to enable the affluence of images and the high fluidity of light and time in these same images.)
Exuberance, here, is a singularity created by the maintenance of a liquid expression, found in the (major, and even symbolic) figure of water. Its function, at the limit, is the instinctive keeping of each and every image projected onto the panes or onto the void (and sculptural) space that occurs between the panes.
The water and the mirror are like a world of the life that moves, legitimately, across the whole installation space. In it, I include the very walls of the room, and attribute decisive importance to the light the skylight on the ceiling lets in throughout the day. For it is through that light that the invisible becomes visible transparency, while, between the panes, the spatial triangle hosts the experimentation of a measure and a pure perception.
Nem sombra nem vento. 2. Six drawings and sharp edges (iron, wood, graphite and enamel paint, 1988- 2000).
I must be precise in describing these six pieces, which should be seen as a single form of identity. Their title displays an interactive meaning: ‘six drawings and sharp edges for neither shadow nor wind’, which glides now towards the sculpture, now towards the title of the whole exhibition. This, it seems, is the moment in which I must evoke the presence of a piece from the Berardo Collection: Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Due Ragazzi alla Fonte (1962-75). This serigraph on stainless steel also reflects everything. The world of life passes over the picture of the boys, who remain indifferent, their attention on the thread of water that trickles from the fountain’s tap into the plastic pan.
A thread, not of water but of time, has fastened them to the image of themselves and reduced them to a dominion pair: like in Carlos Nogueira’s sculpture, over them passes the praise of the gaze of many light sources; and, like the glass panes of ‘nem sombra nem vento’, they both contain and do not contain the shapes that leap into them. Then, these two boys by Pistoletto are a pair, like the six drawings, which are also organised in twos, managing between themselves the white enamel that totally covers the geometric reliefs. Iron defines the cutting line, that kind of validity time brings.
Let us look again at the panes of the sculpture and at the steel sheet that holds the depiction of the two boys. There, validity means a fluctuating temporality. To be exact, the projected objects, nearly always bodies, other than all the signs of light, are never found there, are never there, were never there, never existed on these mirrored surfaces. They were just a passage, a being like me or you, ‘things’ that get lost within and outside the limits of a simple perceptive object. All evidence of that world of life is nothing more than an intention in the seductive path of art; yet, however, all details have been thought out, reduced to the simplicity of their visual efficiency. Quite clearly, what has survived is nothing but a small end of the world.
As a whole, the glass panes of the sculpture contain a field of research. They receive a double aspect: the duration of the world and the duration of life; and the latter is incomparably faster than the former. Present here are concepts that were once dear to the Suprematists, when they took up again the Platonic criticism of art-illusion, of art as simulacrum and art-repetition.
As a whole, the body of the six white drawings intensifies the mystical sense of the ‘bottomless’, since they are, in their white, shining mass cut by insinuating geometries, a revelation of the abyss. The assemblage (iron, wood, graphite and enamel paint) that gives existence to the drawings (and wall sculptures) is close to the Malevichian concept of ‘excitement’. The drawings’ amalgamated white mass tells us of a repetition of the senses acting upon the wooden board and takes that repetition to a distant point, as remote as the attempt at limiting the unlimited can be. Over the expanse of the great white ‘steppe’ of these drawings, ‘excitement’ glides like a ruling thought, that tries, like Malevich, to stop the non-figurative from becoming lost. Maybe that is why the human figure glides (the verb ‘to glide’ makes increasing sense in connection with these pieces), alongside entwining forms of desire (the luminous sequences), over an excitement without cause, “without number, without precision, without time, without space, without an absolute or relative state” (Malevich, Dieu n' est pas détrôné).
Nem sombra nem vento [Neither shadow nor wind]. This is a title evocative of a final time. Of a progressive de-realisation of reality. For that reason, Carlos Nogueira has been making his more recent work out of materials that are quite common in contemporary ‘reality’, materials which are used to give the prevailing superficiality and indifference a built shape: hydraulic mosaic, pressed wood agglutinated with concrete, iron, enamel paint. He uses these with the intention of cutting through remoteness and disinterest. Such is the motive, such is the justification for the presence of the term ‘sharp edges’ in the titles of his drawings.
A narrow strip of iron, usually tracing a right angle on the white enamel surface, is there in that precise sense, with that precise inclination of intensity: to wound, to cut through, like the ice knife mentioned by Kafka, all the way to the torpor-frozen heart.
Every title carries in itself an action of receiving. They are a form endowed with meaning. Knowing them implies wanting to understand, a desire to situate the named object, while enveloping it in informative intelligibility. Nem sombra nem vento tells us of a provisioned void. This title ‘works’ with its own time and wants to find in it, not the absolute desistence of the void, but an interrupted dialogue. (Let us look, once again, at the bodies that confuse the brevity of their duration with the metaphysical time of the glass panes, letting themselves appear charged with a power – which does not belong to them, being entirely due to art’s artifice, to its manufacture – over which the nudity and innocence of filtered sunlight is laid. Let us consider that cutting thread that emerges out of the so warm desperation of white.)
Beyond the very edge of the earth (600x300x132cm, iron, hydraulic mosaic and glass, 1997-98): urban sculpture, once installed in an institutional complex, in London. It appears to us as a huge house in the shape of an L, like a fortress, like a canal that bends upon itself. It exists with the aim of leading us ‘beyond the very edge of the earth’. It is a huge space, open either to sunlight or to solar storm (similar to the one we just found in the sculpture ‘nem sombra nem vento’ and which I like to compare to Per Kirkerby’s vast brick sculptures), ready to bring into virtuality the subterranean structural and evolutionary affinities in Carlos Nogueira’s oeuvre.
The London sculpture – as I usually call it – seems to me a potential link between all his works since the mid-1990s. It casts an intact passion over all of them. It has set aside a hermeneutical circle for them; a process of configuration based on the constant appropriation of materials that, originating from the demands of an industrial agenda (and thus burdened with all its brutal indifference), will become lost (and found) in a search for origins. It is a kind of ecological refuge, where the search for origins is not exactly a quest for any beginning, rather an approach that reveals the multiplicity and variety of existence. An approach that defines a presence other than shadows and fearsome winds.
I find in a poet, already of this century, words that could take refuge in Carlos Nogueira’s remarkably achieved art. Here are some verses (and is not poetry the humblest of humble arts?) by José Miguel Silva (Ulisses já não mora aqui, 2002): ‘There were times when, from church towers / the limits of the city (or of the truth?) / could be seen. But they shrunk over time, as you know. / Little by little, we came to see / irremovable stains on our favourite cloths, / the ribbon of affections frayed by the wind. / The paths are faded, coats are widened / and as for the shade of the cork oaks, how low it has sunk.’
The accomplishment of a piece consists not only in its predication, which implies the understanding its author has of it, but also in the understanding contained in the appeal it makes to each one of its viewers – to each one of those who see their image take shape between the panes of ‘nem sombra nem vento’. That person will say: I understood. And even if that understanding is something quite different, no harm done. He has understood: and that is part of the process of understanding among men; and always represents an inner event of someone, anyone, with oneself.
Translation by José Gabriel Flores
In João Miguel Fernandes Jorge, Processo em Arte, Lisbon, Relógio d' Água Editores,
February 2008, p. 107-113.