-Do you know it? Where is it? What is its name?
-It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I described it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an internal rule, a perspective, a discourse. They are cities resembling dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a riddle that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a terror. Cities are like dreams, made of desires and fears, even though the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.¹
About 100 km south of Baghdad (Iraq) we can find the current city of Al-Hillah where the ruins of Babylon, once known as the main stage of the Babylonian civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, still lie. Babel (in Hebrew) or Bavel (Arabic) came to be, for the first time in the XVIII century BC and once again in the VI century BC, the biggest city in the world, where in an area of about 10km2, stood some of the most emblematic monuments from Ancient times, defended by imposing walls. Between the VII and VI centuries BC, according to the Old Testament, groups of Jews were exiled from the Ancient Kingdom of Judah to Babylon, a place that recalled images similar to those surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, sites that were once proclaimed as being part of the description of paradise. Located in a fertile region, on a crossroad of important commercial routes, the cities of Babylon were commercially and culturally developed, having promoted a complex, cosmopolitan, polyglot, monumental civilization with its focus on education, science and art. The abovementioned exile on part of the Jewish elite opened new horizons to Jews, both in terms of political organization and a thorough knowledge regarding the proper functioning of the State. It was still in Babylon that the systematization of the Hebrew Bible began, thus reinforcing the importance of the written records left by such exiles.
In the (re)discovery of the Levante, once considered a cradle, in migrations from the coast to the interior, from large urban centers to medium-sized cities, in preferences of gardens over lifts and spaces over locations, a new generation arises. This group instigated by the consequences of gentrification, touristification and real estate speculation identifies itself with the peripheries and suburbs. Even at a time of the so called “internet of things”, this generation does not feel the necessity of proximity to urban chaos as it has been replaced by philosophies of a life closer to nature and to the presence of sharing within a community that the solitude imposed by an urban lifestyle does not allow. This will be the first unifying requirement for the group of artists who lead the exhibition NEW BABYLONS: inquisitive travelers, beings of the world and its routes, heirs from and influenced by urban chaos, constantly creating in the absolute vertigo of quietude, searching for accuracy, the detail and the (de)construction of thought in plastic segments and dense visuals.
Acting as a tangent of the avant-garde, starting not with simple neoconceptual affirmations but with complex processes of production, which resort to a cluster of means and techniques that merge, both in a perceptible and imperceptible way, video, photography, performance, music, ready-made (as a process and not as a finished product), collage and aggregation, moving towards contexts of behavioral, labor and scenographic observation, alternating between planimetric or objectual, opened and closed urban fields. All of them collect and take hold of iconographies or physical elements of configuration and urban/industrial memory, visually and plastically combined in different forms, electing painting as the primordial practice and drawing as the indispensable foundation. Anthropologically, they establish themselves in the city, in its images and semantics, to later diverge into methodological, plastic and conceptual choices that are here presented as a scrip to a reflection that is turned into a project of curatorship.
Occasionally, It is true that many cultures seem to recognize similar symbolic equations, but when this is the case, the reason seems to be in the sharing of experiences which suggest parallels between different phenomena. This common experience in no way denies the essential role of culture in codifying parallels.
There are a few simple groups of traits, one of which is color and another, body parts, which all cultures recognize. Therefore, bodily functions are common to mankind, and colors can quickly be associated with well-known natural phenomena such as night and day; when utilizing these traits metaphorically, different cultures often produce similar analogies.²
The selection of these six artists from different generations with different backgrounds, was made in an effort to answer the question: which Babylons are we now, after all, building?
We are confronted every day with the volatility in which we lose the right to territories that were once ours and in which we exist. The city’s time and space transform at the speed of light having in us the impact of a mist falling into the nostalgia in which our vision is immersed. We dream and long for that lost paradise, cosmopolitan and parochial, replete but with the silence we so urgently desire. We ultimately yearn for the burning multicultural environment of Babylon 4 millennia ago, on the banks of the Euphrates River with the suspended gardens of our imagination and that sentiment of the glimmer of Paradise, described by Pliny the Elder (23-79). Today we have lost the Levantine gaze which seems distant from the west we intend to affirm.
NEW BABYLONS, thus, emerges as an expographic proposal that brings together the imaginary, surreal and futuristic scenographies produced by Acácio de Carvalho (born in 1952); the deconstructed environments of Gil Maia (born in 1974); the details, composed of industrial waste, of colorless object paintings, by Mafalda Santos (born in 1980); the ceramic tile references close to pop and data by Manuela Pimentel (born in 1979); the slogans and fragmented city which shape the violent plasticity created by Paulo Moreira (born in 1968); and the woman made to be a body, a home, made to be everything and nothing which Sónia Carvalho (born in 1978) represents in her drawings.
The collection and aggregation within the support of industrial and urban brands is one of the common denominators amongst this group of creators, all enthusiasts of the unconventional craze and human options, constantly thinking about their time and place of performance, as artists, in a wider scope of active citizenship as well as in the construction of alternatives to the dominant chaos.
In different ways, Paulo Moreira and Manuela Pimentel are undoubtedly indicators of this tendency. Regarding Paulo Moreira, the allusion to the street and the city is evident in his compositions and his selection of elements. Nevertheless, the collection of works that joins NEW BABYLONS is now purified, with a larger presence of whites and simple drawing cutouts, maintaining slogans and collage as a method. We could evoke that the purification is a form of yearning for tranquility or even an appeal to the occupation of the margins and peripheries, spreading to new centers and new paradises. What is essential in Paulo Moreira’s art is the redefinition of (urban) space, of the support, and the contrast between a certain geometry and the abundance of concepts. Not unusually, the artist takes chances in creative processes that explore video, photography and performance which serve as a foundation to the understanding and investigation of his own reflections and plastic explosions. In NEW BABYLONS he presents us with a video exercise starting with the sound of a washing machine and then goes on to question us about the possibilities and impossibilities of our body and our literal human condition, having as main character a beetle in a struggle with the law of gravity. On the other hand, Manuela Pimentel, has the traditional Portuguese tile as a reference, which she recreates over stands in works of accumulation of paper and matter. The collection comes from the territory and contexts, it contraposes a guerrilla war method with an apologia of a comeback to look at the roots and iconographies, recovering identities and classical significance. Manuela Pimentel (re)links stories and signals, combines crossroads and breaks down preconceptions. The works of art that integrate NEW BABYLONS are not averse to the ready made, consequence of the accumulation of what it finds and is of interest, plastically or symbolically. Manuela Pimentel reinvents our relationship with the tile as a mark of historical moments that cross the imagery of our cities, giving it back to us while simultaneously taking it away as we are challenged to contemplate it.
As in Manuela Pimentel’s work, Mafalda Santos focuses on detail and minuteness. Notwithstanding, Mafalda Santos firmly provides supports which are marked by a game of tension and forces between vertical and horizontal lines and by color gradations that create perspective effects. Not seldom, the work has a narrative and situational dimension and at times, especially when drawing is urgent, the work is marked by a statement of freedom. The art of drawing is, in fact, crucial in Mafalda Santos‘ complete artistic production. The series of pieces presented in New Babylons stem from a collection of industrial waste, particularly scraps of printed paper from graphic companies, resulting from the cutouts and normal adjusting processes that publications undergo after being printed. Each batch of this waste contains a drawing, a pattern, a form that Mafalda Santos meticulously combines in dynamic supports, that expand her from the narrower field of painting or drawing. The process takes place in the imperturbable privacy of the studio, faithfully characterizing the artist`s journey, a constant retreat from the chaos of big cities leading her to the Alentejo and more recently the Alto Minho region. Mafalda Santos‘ work carries an originality that combines the demands of the trace with color semiotics which prevail in the series that constitute Cadernos and Vitórias symptomatic of the variations within her language and the evolution of her “almost” calligraphy.
Oils on linen canvas, imagined and executed in the most classic of environments and itineraries of what needs to be done, Gil Maia‘s works of art could be, in this context, open plans of a vision of the city, with its geometric and organic variants that would make it idyllic. Gil Maia is meticulous and attentive. As a matter of fact, a certain predisposition to detail and to the resource based in the know-how of the field of plastic and visual arts is common among these six artists. Through the use of strong blues, sometimes hot colors, Gil Maia knows how to use the palette to create transfers, illusory games and contradictions. In NEW BABYLONS, just as it happens with Paulo Moreira, the selection is more purified, less tense and always balanced with a glimmer of gestural freedom that opens his paintings to a new possible path. Readymade Choises is a proposal by Sónia Carvalho who, for the first time, exhibits watercolor on paper. Sónia Carvalho‘s work always stems from the performance, the look through the photograph, at times the video which then consubstantiates in the exploration of a RGB palette in an allusion to the white-light resulting from the fusion. There is a spiritual dimension which is inseparable from her work through which choices are sought to be made. The cube, feminine symbol holding a plural concentricity, appears here as a paradigm of female choices, once that table can be seen as a businesswoman’s desk or the central stage of a kitchen. Through the evolution of color, the character appears to levitate and to depart from the most exact absolute. Of pure and clean designs, the work of Sónia Carvalho detaches us from Gil Maia’s visual subjectivity and takes us back to the everyday lifestyle and to a daily intersubjective reality. It prepares us, to an extent, for Acácio de Carvalho’s scenographies, an artist who has surpassed his generation, with an above average capacity to reinvent himself, who provides us with an evolutionary selection of pieces that bring us, on an enlarged scale, from figuration and from small built spaces to the Absides of his most recent production. Generous formats that magnify our horizon of remembrance and future and restore in us the hope of finding (within ourselves) such paradise, an open future, with possible infinities.
We can comprehend that the social being is what it was; but also that what it once was remained forever inscribed not only in history, which is obvious, but also in the social being itself, in things and in bodies. The image of an open future, with possible infinities, concealed that each one of the new options (even when it comes to options that people do not make and do not interfere in) contributed to restrict the universe of the possible alternatives or, more precisely, to increase the weight of necessity found in things and bodies, which should count on a policy oriented towards other possibilities, in particular, for all those who were, at any moment, estranged.³
New Babylons rise from dust/ Everything is old and new moving back and forth in a foam of clouds/ Everything emerges in the brilliance of the mist as proclaimed by Clã in 1996, in their first album LusoQUALQUERcoisa. Having recovered the melody and the presupposition that we return to the quest and that we now question the cities we have, the ones we want and those we may choose to live in, this exhibition poses the question: What type of places do we want to live and not merely exist in?
Helena Mendes Pereira
zet gallery’s chief curator
¹CALVINO, Italo – As Cidades Invisíveis. Lisboa: Editorial Teorema, 1996 ( 2nd Edition). Pages 45 and 46.
²LAYTON, Robert – A Antropologia da Arte. Lisboa: Edições 70, 2001. Page 154.
³BOURDIEU, Pierre – O Poder Simbólico. Lisboa: Edições 70, 2014. Page 99.