The plaster earth/installation
by Maria Filomena Molder
All works of art are invested with a magic power which makes them part – whether explicitly or implicitly – of a secret ceremony. In our culture, this power is often engendered by a quest lacking instinct, lacking a true recognition of constellations and signposts in their original position. For the magic of art to work its effect, of course, these signposts cannot be completely comprehended. And for them to achieve meaning, they must be shared by a community, be part of our education. What we are left with might be called a decadence in art's magic investiture, one which develops out of the goal of arriving at a pure object of art. What is placed within the framework of this goal is cut off from pathos, from emotion, refuses to be questioned with regard to a secret which, though clearly manifest, remains nevertheless indecipherable.
Said in another way, our culture has tended to rob from the art object its inherent impurity, making it a simple focus for contemplation and conjecture, one whose elements are brought together only for reasons which are private, individual and narcissistic – above all, if these works are woven together by a kind of mystification (communicational in nature).
In the final analysis, it is impossible to succeed with such a minimization. And modernism, by originating new forms of impurity (some of which have been truly revolting) through this process of minimization has become nothing but the history of a failure.
Installation reconsiders in a radical way the very impurity of art, its power to enchant, hypnotize, its figurative force – the magic of art. It involves a ceremony, a celebration in which we come together with metaphor, enter into it and become part of it in such a way that the metaphor itself disappears, no longer something to be interpreted.
Reproducing the power of sky and earth, installation creates a ritual gesture, one which carries us beyond specific, particular structures. It conjures up in a fictitious way (because art isn't life) sacred and profane rituals in which the reasoning behind the rules governing such rituals is only partially clarified. Put another way, we can say that the rules are – from the very beginning – partially unknown; partially determined by the community at large; partially forgotten; and already mixed with alien desires, with poorly produced figures, randomly chosen and introduced in different periods. And everything is all so soldered together that it's no longer possible to make a clear story out of it all. That which participates in a ritual is «forced», in the sense of the dancer from the VI Ennead of Plotinus whose movements conform to each figure because his will is completely fixed upon the goal, pervaded by that which goes beyond his will.
In our lives, ritual reduces the efforts of the protagonist to a blind groping which is completely controlled by rules as iron-clad as they are arbitrary and temporary – rules which are uniformly communicated and forgotten. The relevant models are the contest and the interview, rituals which keep their participants in indigent isolation. These participants are covetous and self-denegrating, and everything is returned to them without their knowing anything of either light or the darkness of death.
Destroying the most dangerous and perverse ritual games (those in the domain of the media and which produce boring, overpopulated wastelands), the installation belongs to an artistic genre which is, in truth, an attempt to salvage the loss (or the waning) of ritual.
Art always has to do with matter, with the inability of matter to speak for itself; and it always has to do with things that can't be said. Art enables one to hear sounds and see forms and shapes – things which can never be words, which resist being named. It is an untranslatable refuge, a withdrawal which goes beyond specific designation. That is the difference between art and poetry, and even with overlappings and exchanges between the two, this difference cannot be annulled, suppressed or overcome. From this unbreachable refuge, from this position of withdrawal, is born the lacerating tension between words and things which poets know so well.
Along with other materials, lime (for plaster) brings up fond memories and visions of childhood – visions of those forbidden paradises with which the imagination likes to feed itself. We remember that lime is born in an oven; that it can catch on fire, and yet can protect us from heat. We remember that is born in an oven and is white; that mixed with water it forms whitewash for painting. We remember it turning luminous and seeming malleable, ready to be shaped by the hands – how it seemed dangerously ready for touching, drinking, licking. And we recall, too, that it is also thrown on cadavers. This, however, isn't known to children. This belongs to the domain of the dead.
The Plaster Earth is the title of the installation by Carlos Nogueira which was exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History from January 13 to 29, 1994. From the first moments in which we walk down the hallway leading to the exhibition rooms, through a door which never closes, we see a great light. We enter. The room is almost completely filled with a pool of fuzzy white light, moist, malleable, fluctuating in vague immobile waverings which have come to a halt. Similar to our own inner void, neither large nor small, we can walk around the pool after a time of observation, moving in slow steps over a path of red and black wooden slats, markings of a fire threatening to consume them.
As a liquid, the lime plaster was brought in cans, smoothed by the artist's hands, sometimes with the help of a shovel. During the time of the installation, the lime had time to thicken, dry, harden and crack, capturing some of the roughness of those imperfect and unfinished walls of cement which surrounded it. As it hardened, the light drew in upon itself and the pool ended up with an appearance of aridity, of thirst, of a slow loss of vision.
The effect involves us receiving light and walking in the dark, in shadow. It involves us walking with hope, with expectation - but in expectation of what exactly? Perhaps for the light to go out completely, knowing that light always comes to an end, that the extinguishing of light is the most natural thing in the world.
At first we think: there's nothing truly opaque. But later, we discover that the light, as well as that which it illuminates, are both fragile and subject to transubstantiation; the extinguishing of light is the most natural thing in the world and darkness is always peeking around the corner. Shadows fall and fall...
At first we think: the world is bathed by a certain light, and where does this light come from? Except that we become immediately alarmed at the possibility of not having any light at all in the world. In truth, what makes the world obscure is its own totality – its shadow, the night, that alien aspect, that alien aspect which never releases its hold on man. At night, what helps us is to be able to cross it with someone, to walk in friendship with someone until morning. Here, night doesn't pass. Here, night doesn't pass and doesn't return. Here, we're in our own night. Here, we see that day isn't for us; for us, it is always now, it is always an illuminated night.
The use of the word installation as a form of art evidences the importation of a word into the Portuguese language. In Portuguese, it has acquired negative resonances, although its most noble meaning - the action of placing objects together in one place for a particular purpose - couldn't be more fitting for the kind of art in question. It is this meaning that has predominated since the 1960s.
Among the ancient Greeks, the ephemeral was what distinguished man from god, and it was from the voices of gods that the difference was established. When they referred to men, the gods called them oi ephemeroi, the ephemeral ones. And this was what was said by the gods, in what was written by poets as they built the ephemeral with matter, with their verses – a prerogative unconsidered by the gods.
It wouldn't be going too far to state that, in our culture, this is how the ephemeral was maintained among artists and poets until the development of arts – including installation – whose context includes the act of living and the body.
In placing disparate objects together for a particular purpose, installation transforms the ephemeral into a critical element, transmuting the ephemeral from an art material into evidence of the presence of art. The place for this work is wherever the artist finds it, and he or she gives the work its spark of creation at the moment when the objects brought together find their place. It is a process which both fragments and redeems the value of the use of objects. Not all installations are able to adhere to it. The Plaster Earth succeeds, however, and it both enlarges and sets alight the particular physical characteristics of the room used in the Museum of Natural History – a site full of shadows, a kind of ruin left by an old imaginary fire.
As infertile earth, neither tree nor house will grow from The Plaster Earth; it is a landscape, not yet glimpsed, of what awaits us.
The contours of the pool are imprints left behind by that line which cannot be erased but which is always about to break apart; that line which exists between what is denied expression and that which seeks expression. From inside that whiteness so close to us, there appears in the distance a faraway place waiting to be crossed. We see someone trying to traverse it. Searching for the vestiges of the first dwellings, for the very enigma of existence.
Translation by Richard Zimler
In Carlos Nogueira, permanência da água, Lisboa 1994, p. 51-55.