January 2008

Emboding Vertigo: Phenomenology of the improbable

Late one spring afternoon, in 2007, I was travelling with a group of people in a car towards Lumiar, in Lisbon. The plan was to catch the last moments of the opening of an exhibition which featured the works of António Bolota, Vasco Costa, João Ferro Martins, Fernando Mesquita, Rodrigo Peixoto, Sara Santos and Soraya Vasconcelos. Our destination was the ISEC – the Higher Institute of Education and Sciences, a gigantic complex on the left-hand side of the Alameda das Linhas de Torres, a place which neither I nor any of the other passengers had visited before. As we approached the entrance to the ISEC, an argument broke out between us about whether or not we were allowed to cross the avenue at that point. The cause of the dispute was ambiguous road markings: we could all see, overlapping, a broken line and another continuous one, thinner than the first, with it being impossible to discern which came before the other. To add extra pressure, a highway patrol vehicle pulled up behind our car, whose occupants – I could see in the rear-view mirror – were showing signs of wanting to know the reason for our hesitation: their heads turning, swiftly and synchronously, to the left, their eyes half-closed in the shade of the afternoon. We concluded that, such being the case, we would go straight ahead, none of us willing to assume the risk of crossing that poorly marked boundary and ending up in a discussion of semiotics with the authorities – something which, as we know, never ends well.Naturally, as soon as we drove on, the highway patrol car turned left, crossing the avenue and going through the same gate which, several minutes later, would also welcome us into the ISEC. The exhibition occupied two of a row of eight enormous pavilions next to a car park where the authorities’ vehicle was still stationed. I’ve spent all these years convinced that the title of that group show, Out to Punch, was taken from a song by the Beastie Boys. Not so, according to Google, which is why the soundtrack for this text became “Sure Shot”, the third single from Ill Communication, the New York band’s fourth LP. In any case, given the monumental scenery of the pavilions and the forcefulness suggested by the title, I prepared myself for a barrage of impactful works. And this was exactly what I got, though none of them had the scale or violence which the title foretold. None except, of course, that of António Bolota. The work was, in light of his two previous projects, a disconcerting proposal. I had already guessed this when I ran into the artist, still outside – his gaze elusive, his hands behind his back, with the expression of somebody who knows a secret that you are about to discover. In the middle of the empty space of the vast warehouse, occupying its entire width (easily over ten metres), was a concrete beam about one metre tall and fifty centimetres thick, held up in the centre by a single iron girder which raised it about forty centimetres off the floor. Only supported in the middle, the mass of concrete had such a large space underneath it that if we touched it (and we could) it tipped slowly, like a seesaw that could seat two titanic twins, one on each end.The first vertigo came, therefore, when I realised the monstrosity that Bolota was proposing to us there. An absurd mass of weight and lethal promise levitated in front of us. And it levitated in conditions far more suspect than those which are presented to us in magic shows. Of course, the magician’s assistant in this act was us, and the magician hadn’t even bothered to show up. He had left the levitation machine switched on and hoped that we would be so kind as to play our part: pass underneath the beam to get to the other side of the space. An inverted levitation, therefore, with the catch that, if something went wrong, it wasn’t the humiliation of falling rigid on the floor in front of an unknown public which was at stake – it was being crushed to death, in a pavilion of the ISEC in Lumiar – the only time that an exhibition would have the honour of opening the evening news.All of António Bolota’s work is a matter of life and death. As Delfim Sardo has already observed in this catalogue, sculpture has, since prehistory, always been connected to the question of death and its liturgies. This artist’s practice recurrently pays homage to this tradition of sculpture as the most powerful of all memento mori. But the opposite is also true: his work is often oriented towards the construction of moments which confront us with the limits of our sensitivity and with the relative (actually extremely relative) dimensions of our body in the world. More than shape, concept or process, the objectives of his work involve the controlled introduction of experiences of danger, astonishment and disbelief; by forcing the states of alert which are triggered by these experiences and which reveal to us, with more force and conviction, the fragility of the mass of flesh, blood, lymph and bone of which we are made.I think this is why so many of his works use a monumental scale and a kind of illusionist impulse. The challenge to our credulity, especially through the repeated subversion of the rules and functioning of the laws of physics, is the strategy which allows him to open a crack in the continuum of experience, to interrupt it with a question of phenomenology – which is to say the things that are essential, most direct, and supposedly most certain. Faced with the improbability of an enormous concrete beam occupying almost the whole width of a pre-existing building (how did it get in there?), of it being held, in its entirety, centimetres from the floor (how had it not broken?), supported only by a thin metal strip (how had it not collapsed?), we cannot but mistrust what we see. And mistrusting what one sees is a kind of defibrillation of the perceptive system: a shock which intends to rescue it from the torpor of the everyday and return it, once more, to full life.Thus, it exacerbates perception through an augmented reality. António Bolota’s works are analogical devices of augmented reality. Their function is to create the conditions for the apparently banal to confront us with the impossible and get us to deal with the stridency that occurs whenever our eyes see something that our body cannot believe. And this is the second vertigo that this work – like so many others created by him – produces. The third, and last, takes place when we accept the challenge it presents us, in the moment we decide to drag our body underneath that subtly tilting concrete beam, subjecting it to a set of paradoxical instincts. On the one hand danger and the fear it provokes, on the other adrenaline and the freedom it represents, both disputing the porous territory of reason and drive which is our body. In the precise moment in which we find ourselves under the immense beam, in which our insignificance is handed to us on a platter, it is impossible not to feel a kind of derealisation, momentarily stepping outside ourselves to observe how we deal with the confluence of a force which tells us to escape and simultaneously insists that we remain in that absurdly intolerable situation. This is also why António Bolota’s works are made to be experienced more than once. Looking at them is decisive, but it means little. One has to endure them, go through them, inhabit them. Essentially, one needs to submit to them repeatedly. Not necessarily because of what this repetition can reveal to us about them and about the artist’s universe, but because of what they can tell us about ourselves: about our body and its measurements, about how we confront challenges and what we make of them, about our capacity to welcome the poetics of our shared finitude, about the wonder of the beauty hidden in so much of what is already visible in our ordinary, everyday life, and about our capacity to allow ourselves be transformed by an artistic experience. At the end of the day, this is what is genuinely interesting in many of António Bolota’s works: the possibility of incorporating vertigo, of registering on the continuous and cumulative thread of experience the victory over discomfort implied by crossing over to the other side, of assuming the cost of this challenge and reaping the fruits of having chosen to live more.

The highway patrol agents entered the pavilion with somebody from the ISEC. They went up to the piece and exchanged impressions among themselves. They did not crawl under to the other side. On their way out, with ruthless irony, they explained: ‘We didn’t want to dirty our uniform.’