by Sandra Baía

The simple concept of a “Science of Beauty” should be fatally invalidated by the diversity of beauties produced or recognised in the world and in its duration.[1]

It could be said that, throughout the history of art, beauty has obeyed a standard, a classical ideal and, in a certain sense, a bucolic and poetic sense of life. In his “History of Beauty” (2002), Umberto Eco (1932-2016) travels through time and space, especially in the so-called West, historicising how artists and poets told us about what they considered beautiful and left us examples of this, presenting “a history of Beauty and not a history of Art (or Literature or Music); to quote later the ideas that have been expressed about Art, but only when they connect Art and Beauty”[2].

This is a history of beauty documented solely through artworks. However, the Italian author also points out that “as we get closer to modernity, we will also be able to have documents that are not for artistic purposes, for mere entertainment, commercial promotion or the satisfaction of erotic impulses, such as images that come to us from mass cinema, television and advertising”[3], considering that they help to understand and capture the ideal of Beauty at a given time.

Facebook was founded in 2004, evolving from a previous social network, called “Facemash”, created by Mark Zuckerberg, a computer science student at Harvard at the time. Almost 20 years later, Facebook has around 2 billion daily active users and is no longer the only tool of its kind, but one in a virtual universe that includes YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, X (formerly Twitter) or TikTok, some of which have a more exposed image than others, but all of which have in common the fact that they have transformed our lives, social dynamics and allow us to create an external image that corresponds not always to who and what we are, but to who and how we want to be. With social media, new professions and business models have been created, while the way of doing politics or being an activist has changed.

On the other hand, they also allow us to connect with a much larger number of people, in all four corners of the world, communicate more easily and make fame and fans almost immeasurable.

It will be difficult to weigh up the pros and cons, but there is no denying that there is an urgent need for regulation and, above all, a fight against hate speech, populism and disinformation, and the adoption of strategies to help us reduce the impact that the current lack of control has on children and young people, particularly regarding beauty and its standards, making us feel that we are always falling short of an ideal, a stereotype. Data from 2020 from the International Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) showed an increase of 141 per cent in the number of teenagers resorting to plastic surgery compared to 2019, with dissatisfaction with their image and lack of self-esteem being one of the main causes of anxiety and depression in this age group.

More than 20 years after its release, Umberto Eco’s “History of Beauty” would necessarily have to reflect on the effect of social networks on the standardisation of beauty, probably plunging us into an impossible-to-resolve controversy about how art can have a positive effect on combating the negative pressure created by the new media. In “The Empire of Fashion” (1987), even further away from the phenomenon, Gilles Lipovetsky (b.1944) wrote, in a kind of premonition of the present:

Even the craze for media recognition that henceforth drives artists, journalists, writers, bosses, and everyone else must not be understood as signalling the primacy of an obsession with others, but much more as auto-publicity, the narcissistic pleasure of appearing on the screen, of being seen by as many people as possible. Media exposure satisfies the desire to be loved and to please more than the desire to be respected and admired for one’s works: Narcissus is more eager to seduce than to be respected; he wants to be talked about, wants people to care about him, wants to be fussed over.”[4]

Or as the song said: “Narcissus finds ugliness in things that aren’t mirrored.”[5]

Scar.” is, I won’t say the first, but perhaps the most important and representative solo exhibition by Sandra Baía (b.1968) because it gives her recent artistic production a reading hypothesis that frames it, not in the great question of “What is Art?”, but rather in Eco’s question, “What is Beauty in the 21st century?”. The reflection is urgent and is not without its contradictions because, at the same time, never before have we lived in a time of such profound advocacy for rights, freedoms and guarantees, with individual choices and the construction of fairness as essential vectors.

We talk about the importance of clarifying and standardising concepts such as sexual orientation and gender identity, we are unabashed feminists, we fight against body shaming and sexual harassment, and we defend not judging by appearances, creeds and one’s origins, but afterwards, we become hostages to models and physical standards advocated by the Kardashian family (using the example cited by Sandra Baía in the interview transcribed in this catalogue) and we can’t deal with our dependence on an ideal of perfection that tells us there’s no room for the normal consequences of pregnancy, age or a scar that life has brought us. We want to have that influencer’s body and glamorous life and we can’t help but feel frustrated that reality and fiction are blending together in our eyes as we scroll guilt-free and clueless.

Sandra Baía’s life story adds to this narrative and intensifies the layers that she has consciously or unconsciously added to her artistic production over the last decade, despite the minimal appearance of the works she presents. Sandra Baía began her career in fashion as an international model, having lived and worked in Paris, London and New York.

Her generation is the generation of the stigma of thinness, of 86-60-86, and this pressure not only marked her but also dictated that she shortened the shelf life of her career with motherhood, around the age of 28. She discovered her artistic vocation in the memories her hands and mind kept of her childhood and adolescence and began to seek training in the field of visual arts. It was in painting that she first found herself and it was with painting that she wrote the first lines of her résumé as an artist. She abandoned painting after a large and successful exhibition in Los Angeles, USA, realising that she lacked the urgency and brutality of matter and the action of the body on what comes from industry, transforming the perfect, through catharsis, into deformation.

Perfection and beauty are highly subjective concepts, in a way that not even the multiple definitions of art can surpass. Nevertheless, and greatly influenced by the frequency of a workshop in Cascais, located in a factory environment, Sandra Baía starts a research process around industrial materials and technologies, looking for beautiful shapes.

She favours metal and its chromatisation through an electrostatic powder coating process (which we know from its use in the automotive industry), giving the raw material an effect, sometimes velvety, sometimes mirror-like, which creates contrast and adds complexity to the message. The work is always experimental and, without being able to explain when or where, one day the sledgehammer unleashes its force on the perfection of the form and begins to deform both it and our reflection in it. We are challenged to see ourselves in a kind of mirror that would frighten Narcissus, not as we are, but as far as we can bear to see ourselves.

Works such as “Map I (Black, Green)”, “Map II (Orange, Green)”, “Almofada (I)”, “Almofada (II)”, “Mutual excitement”, “II Bolas”, “Gooseberry | Dark Orange | Blue”, “Yellow” or “Dark Orange”, most of which have never been seen before, are examples of these variations in process, of the search for a fit and/or disconnection, of the escape from the literal, of the encounter with the shapeless and the reflection, of the image interplay.

In “Saving Beauty” (2015), the Korean Byung-Chul Han (b.1959) writes to us, quoting Theodor Adorno’s (1903-1969) “Aesthetic Theory”[6] :

The negativity of being refracted is constitutive of beauty. Thus, Adorno speaks of artifacts’ “coherence, however self-antagonistic and refracted.” Without the negativity of being refracted, beauty atrophies into the smooth. Adorno describes the aesthetic form in paradoxical formulas. Its coherence, he says, consists in the fact “that it does not cohere.” It is not free of “divergences and contradictions.” Its unity is broken. Its unity is broken. It is interrupted “through its other.”  The heart of beauty, it is a broken heart.[7]

The same author pursues speculative reflection, this time resorting to Hegel (1770-1831).

Beauty promises freedom and reconciliation. In the face of beauty, desire and compulsion disappear. Thus, it makes possible a free relationship with the world and with oneself. Hegel’s aesthetics of beauty are diametrically opposed to today’s kalocracy. The neoliberal rule of beauty produces compulsions. Botox, bulimia and cosmetic surgery reflect its terror. Beauty, first of all, has to produce stimuli and generate attention. Even art, for Hegel inalienable, is today entirely subjected to the logic of capital. The freedom of art submits itself to the freedom of capital.[8]

“Scar.” by Sandra Baía is a eulogy to the imperfect, our body being a mark of what has been lived, of what has been overcome, of what has been used. “Scar.” by Sandra Baía is, as hypothesised, a critique of the self-image prison in which social networks place us and above all, it’s the absolute beauty that only art can achieve.

Although on the run, there may be a spiritual subconscious in Sandra Baía’s process that led her, perhaps, to choose 13 works for this exhibition. Luck, misfortune, courage or new beginnings are symbolic of the number. There is also a preference for concentric shapes and the exploration of metal typologies through the exercise of circularity, as we see in “Map I (Black, Green)“, “Map II (Orange, Green)“, “II Bolas“, “Around we go”, “Taking Care of The Empty” or even “Vanity Splendor“, although the latter introduces us more to the narrative in question, in other words, to the context of the digitalisation of our social life and reminds us of the importance that words, titles, are gaining in the growing conceptualisation that the artist gives to her work.

The widespread use of video calls/ videoconferencing during the pandemic also brought us the novelty of seeing ourselves while talking to others, which expanded a market of products and applications aimed at improving our image, our self-image. Remote working has popularized the use of Ring Lights, the ring-shaped LED bulbs that enhance our (self-)appearance in the light of any computer camera. The work “Vanity Splendor“, produced within the framework of the conversations we had while thinking this exhibition up, uses 24 of these bulbs in an aluminium structure that alludes to Hollywood star dressing room mirrors in a contemporary way. The rebelliousness of the object, with its exposed wiring, contrasts with the splendour of the vanity that praises and/or criticises.

Curiosity and an interest in exploring new possibilities in contemporary times characterise Sandra Baía. In this sense, the work “Wandering amidst the hush” is the result of a partnership with Artificial Intelligence, namely in the definition of the phrase that gives the work its title and is the basis of the work. The artist promoted a dialogue with the machine, and an exchange of questions and answers about the artist’s thoughts resulted in this statement, a synthesis of complex thoughts and feelings, not of the machine, but of the artist. This work, another of the unseen pieces in “Scar.”, opens the debate on Artificial Intelligence, in its many variations, as a tool, and it is important to reflect on the challenges and new hypotheses it poses for artistic production, never replacing what is unique to the Human Being, but opening up possibilities.

In “Scar.” it is essential to add the full stop (.) after the word because in a time of celebration of the absolute diversity of Human Beings, of struggles for the Freedom of each person to be exactly what they want, beauty is multiple and after a scar, a mark that life has left us, we start again (in the symbolism of 13) and assume that we have this scar and that it is part of the unique being that we are. Not as a flaw or a deformity, but as part of it, as an identity. Full stop.

Helena Mendes Pereira


[1] VALÉRY, Paul. La invención estética y otros escritos sobre arte. Casimiro libros, 2018. Page 46.

[2] ECO, Umberto (2002).  History of Beauty. Círculo de Leitores, 2005. Page 10.

[3] ECO, Umberto (2002).  History of Beauty.  Círculo de Leitores, 2005. Page 12.

[4] LIPOVETSKY, Gilles (1987). The Empire of Fashion. Don Quixote Publications, 2010 (2nd edition.)  Page 339.

[5] Verse from the song “Sampa” (1978) by Caetano Veloso (b.1942).

[6] ADORNO, Theodor W. (1970). Aesthetic Theory. Edições 70, 2013 (2nd edition).

[7] HAN, Byung-Chul. (2015). Saving Beauty. Relógio D’Água, 2016. Page 57.

[8] HAN, Byung-Chul. (2015). Saving Beauty. Relógio D’Água, 2016. Pages 70 and 71.