For Appleton Square, in Lisbon, Bolota devised an intervention that, in its initial formulation, ended up not taking place. The gallery space was divided in two and, opposite the entrance, Bolota built a concrete wall that isolated the final third of the space and, as a result, the wall at the back of the gallery. The new wall, authentic (and this aspect is very important in the project) in terms of the massiveness of the concrete and perfect in the stucco finishing, had two grooves at either end, two long cuts, precise and narrow. These cuts would form – and here begins the deviation from the initial project – the base for the next operation: the wall was destined to fall backwards, helplessly and brutally, crashing against the wall of the building and staying that way, like a broken and unsteady gable. The name of the intervention, because of this implicit collapse, was Falésia (Cliff).The owners of the building, however, did not accept the project, fearing the effects of the violent impact on the building’s structure. And two days before the opening, António Bolota left Appleton Square for the night with no project and no exhibition. It wasn’t the first time that a project of his had been rejected because of engineering issues, where weights and masses, impacts and forces, which the artist frequently took to extremes, were the subject of controversy as to their feasibility, as had happened with the 2009 EDP Award, for which he had had to opt for a second solution.In this case, however, the wall (and therefore the project) was built, with just an opening through which to access the rear of the space through the concrete wall. The performance of its collapse, however, could not take place.The following day, Bolota reconfigured the project: the wall would not fall, but access to the space behind it would be closed off, as would the entrance to the exhibition room on the lower floor of the gallery. Two doors made of wood from formwork structures, crude and assertive, would prevent access.The cuts, originally intended to aid the effective collapse of the wall, were now gaps through which the space behind could be seen, or a sliver of that space, specially lit for that purpose. The impossibility of the piece became its subject. And the cliff? It remained, subtle, in the light wind our eyes could detect, a slight breeze channelled through the crack through which we tried to see what was not accessible to us. And perhaps that is where we could imagine a collapse.
Before our scheduled time
I went into Appleton Square by myself, took a few steps and was stopped by a white wall in front of me, in the middle of the white cube. I wanted to smile. Not that António Bolota’s work has anything hilarious. On the contrary. The urge to smile rose from a disconcerting experience; I felt as if I was caught or surpassed by the artist. To understand why I had this feeling maybe I should explain that there was a setback in the course of this project, during the construction of the work, which made the artist change the piece. Even though it was not an unknown setback to me, the fact is that the impact with that huge white wall, elevated and perfectly cut, made me dizzy. That is what generally happens near the edge of a precipice or a cliff, but here the confrontation of the individual with the height of the wall, was made from the bottom up, making us raise our heads, unlike on a precipice where we look down. The massive feeling offered by the construction and the fact we feel small before it was reinforced by an intriguing element (entrenched in the wall), that it was our size that served as a measurement guideline for the extension of the wall. These are wooden planks and beams that make the piece, and also tons of concrete and an iron grid. The element blocks the hole that allowed the entrance of the workers into the “insides” of the construction during its erection. The artist allows us to see these “insides” through two lateral openings, the width of a finger, each one in opposite extremes of the wall. Inside, darkness: the brutality of the construction, the crudity of the materials, the irregularity of the cement plaster and a steal sharp blade, that crosses the base of this box from side to side, ready to hurt whatever falls in it. But what?
In truth, with large dimensions, António Bolota’s piece always keeps this relationship with the body: with his body, the worker’s bodies and our own body as viewers. However, even though this connection to the body is always implicit in his constructions, in most works by António Bolota we are placed as if at a distance, not only because the pieces call us without letting us in (through the suggestion of doors, tears, holes, ramps), they incite us to observe the interior without giving us everything (through cracks, visual access points to the nucleus, or the exposed “flesh” of the constructions). But if these factors are important in experiencing António Bolota’s works, there is also another determining aspect that sets us straight, and makes us bow down: the dimension of the pieces, the quantity of mass involved in the construction, which most times exceeds what our arms could ever take. So, this artist’s work involves a kind of paradox that resides in making what seems impossible, making it part of its internal language. The disconcerting sensation derives, therefore, from all these aspects but, mainly because the piece I found is not the same as initially predicted and started by the artist at Appleton Square, but rather another, more subtle, powerful and intelligent than the first one, which involved knocking down the wall. Why is this one stronger than what was initially planned? Precisely, because it’s more subtle. Because it places the viewer in front of an unfinished experience, suspended. Because the piece, in its perfect design and visible guts, seems to pose a problem to the experience, pose a question. Because it leaves space to mentally rebuild the process with which the artist struggled, transferring to us through its plastered skin and rough interior, a group of extreme, beautiful, violent, sublime emotions. This way, we become part of the piece. Because it takes in every transformation that occurred, without discarding any. The piece startles us because its wall brings a strange feeling, unrevealed and not clear, something inherent to a work of art. Because it knows that the artistic process is made of negotiations, setbacks and progress, unrepeatable moments and intuitive decisions – which gives it an undeniably political character. Maybe this will answer the question that I raised at the end of the text “Um poema ao espaço branco” [A poem for the white space] written for the first version of the piece: “What does it mean to make sculpture, today?”. Maybe this piece by António Bolota – not the other one, but this one – entirely conceived, made and redesigned in this white cube, can give us a first answer: to make sculpture today means to affirm a position on the value and position of the body, about knowing how to make materially and conceptually, about the decisions within a work of art, which entails a constant re-elaboration of projects and processes of artistic production – which has happened here. As Richard Serra seems to tell us apropos of one of his sculptures removed from public space, the political character of sculpture, especially today, comes from a debate about density, weight and time demanded by the medium; it reflects the conflict with a numerical and computerized society, where knowing how to make it, materiality, and the body’s value, are elevated in opposition to a general fleeting nature.
I go down the stairs to the lower floor of Appleton Square and I feel surpassed once again. I am again barred, by a wooden/beam structure (with the same language and elements than upstairs) that prevent me from seeing the video that was destined for downstairs. The installation is now complete. If the video is running inside I don’t know. I know the piece, more than initially, and less explicitly, continues to be a poem for the white cube. As a matter of fact, the piece is not autonomous from the building, on the contrary, it exists as an extension of it, it is part of the architectural structure. And we humans are a living organism that is taking a walk inside that structure. While we are bared from passing through to other rooms, this construction has already trapped us in its mesh; the moment it places us on the other side, inside the installations, it has already expelled us from its guts. I leave Appleton Square – maybe I should say I am leaving the artwork itself – and I go back in with the artist at the scheduled time. About the vertigo and the impact the wall created in me, I told him nothing about it.
A special thank you to Vera Appleton, to whom we owe in part the making of this project, for her persistence and enthusiasm.
April 13th 2016