Postcard: Lisbon

Allan Desouza

It doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as smoothly, but Tony Bennett would probably have left his stomach in Lisbon, another city by the bay and replete with hills, trams and suspension bridge. It’s a spectacularly attractive city, steeped in history. But eating takes precedence over all other activity, with the norm being three-hour meals washed down by multiple bottles of wine. It became a running joke during my stay that I would leave the hotel breakfast room only to go out to lunch. With a walk afterwards —“for digestion”— often ending at a café for a coffee and perhaps a pastry, it would be time for dinner. Three hours later, another walk, another coffee and, to top it all off, a nightcap or two. In Lisbon, at least, there is no such thing as a starving artist.

I’m here for the traveling group exhibition, Looking Both Ways. I’ve exhibited before with some of the artists, like Yinke Shonibare, in the old days back when we were Black British. Now we’re diasporic Africans. The road, then, has been well traveled and— despite evidence sometimes to the contrary— I like to think that we have indeed moved forward. These shared histories mean that when we sit down together over meals our food is liberally spiced with reminiscence and debate, and washed down with generous quantities of art-world gossip. There’s nothing frivolous about any of this; it feels like a necessary extension and expansion of my studio practice into a larger, international arena.

I do occasionally manage to pull myself away from these art exchanges to encounter art objects. At the Belem Cultural Centre was the BES Photo Award exhibition, ostensibly to promote excellence in Portuguese photography. A nice touch upon entering the gallery was a poster with a speech bubble saying, in Portuguese and English, Ask Me. And below, it said, “Gallery assistant will answer your questions. Don’t hesitate. Ask me.” At the desk was said gallery assistant wearing a t-shirt with similar instructions. Perhaps it was the opportunity to practice her English, but once started, she was unstoppable—but also extremely helpful with details about the artists. When I asked if I could take photos of the poster, I was told I would have to get permission, but the person I would need to speak to was out at lunch. Could I come back in an hour and a half? Those inescapable meals again.

Two of the four artists in the BES Photo exhibition, João Tabarra and Nuno Cera, showed slide projections. Tabarra’s series, One Of Us, consisted of enlarged snapshots of the artist’s friends and colleagues, and emphasized the red-eye caused by the flash. The conceit—the alien-ness of the eyes being our own—was simply insufficient to sustain interest in the one hundred and sixtytwo slides—at least for this visitor who didn’t recognize any of the presumably locally-known faces. Tabarra also showed an amusing print series of a figure (the artist)— animal-like on hands and knees, and again with flash-lit eyes—on a dark, deserted country road, caught (and revealed as “one of us”) by a car’s headlights. Cera’s slides were casual documents of the artist’s home-life. The slide format, like the grid display of Vitor Pomar’s prints—which had similar subject matter—lent equivalence to each image. While that might have been intentional, it felt more like a scrapbook of anything and everything. As a viewer, I resent having to perform the editorial work that I would normally expect the artist to do. So let me put it down in print: All images do not carry equal weight; there is no such thing as a democracy of images. (And this applies equally to painters, collagists, filmmakers, etc.)

The winner of the award, Helena Almeida, made large, grainy, black-and-white prints and a twelve-minute video, both entitled (or at least translated as) The Experience of the Place. The photographs were taken in an exam room at the Science University in Porto, while the video was shot in the artist’s own studio. They both literalize the title, evoking each place through gesture and physical contact with the artist’s body, as though the history of the site could be read, Braille-like, through its surfaces. Though delicate and brooding, the photographs felt too slight, with the artist’s gestures being only that— gestures—and history remaining closed, or at least uncommunicated to the viewer. The video was stronger but still didn’t exceed expectations of its very Catholic genre of the penitent—whether a nun, an inmate or a prisoner—within claustrophobic confines. The artist scrapes across the floor on her knees, lays her head on the floor in supplication and exhaustion, or kisses the floor in gratitude, then crawls off to face the wall as though punished, dragging furniture behind her. Like the photographs, the effect was of aesthetic, but dispassionate, viewing.

In contrast, a live performance at the Gulbenkian Foundation by Germany-based artist Ingrid Mwangi uncomfortably closed some of that distance. Entitled Song of the Devastation, the piece began with the audience sitting in circles around a space into which the artist slowly entered, dressed simply in top and slacks and giving no indication of what was to follow. When she reached the center, the artist lay on the floor. Her gentle breathing became gradually more labored, guttural and more unnervingly visceral, as though the flesh itself and its hidden organs were spasming into language, or as though Francis Bacon’s figures at the base of a crucifixion, all raw flesh and gaping mouths, had become horribly animated. Yet Mwangi never stepped into the Grand Guignol; the body’s interior was evoked mostly by sound, with bestial growls and yowls that one would never imagine coming from a human mouth. With Mwangi, the utterance was never completed—if anything it emerged stillborn. She suggested the subaltern, the one who is forcibly muted, struggling against the gag. Sitting within touching distance of this quietly screaming body, one felt one’s own helplessness and one’s own comfortably satiated belly in the way that one might while watching a famine on TV. But one also felt one’s complicity. It wasn’t pleasant.

The next day, after an uncharacteristically quick breakfast, I emerged from the subway at Oriente station, expecting some overtones of the colonial. But sometimes East just means east. However, I was pitched into a different kind of past amongst the remnants of the ‘98 Lisbon Expo. The idea of world expositions seems particularly late nineteenth/early twentieth century in its trade-show utopianism. (One wonders how long its art world equivalent, the nationalpavilion Biennale, will hold on.) Expos seem dated not only in concept, but also in appearance—with a Tomorrowland nostalgia for a past vision of a better future.

The site of the ‘98 Lisbon Expo is no exception. Cable cars straddle the length of the vast complex that dwarfs human visitors. Dotted around are steel corporate-lobby sculptures, although here they tend more towards the whimsical. A tower of headless bodies looks like a troupe of gymnastic passengers jettisoned from a Nancy Rubins’ airplane-parts sculpture. Another sculpture, a spiky, claw-handed behemoth caught mid-stride, looks like an expressionist monster from a Manga comic, a kind of Bernard Buffet-designed Godzilla. Another sculpture, Rui Chafes’ Hours of Lead, could have found a happy home in any children’s playground; two horizontal metal cones— the wide end large enough to crawl into—amplified the merest whisper, offering every loudmouth in the vicinity an annoying soapbox. One of the architectural attractions on the site was a gently curving roof designed by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza. It looks like a vast cloth stretched between two walls, sagging gracefully under its own weight. Like much of Lisbon architecture, it probably has a maritime reference, but it reminded me more of the ubiquitous washing lines all over the city.

If the Expo site was the future-past, I decided to see what the future-present held in store. A billboard for the “Biggest Casino in Europe” at the nearby seaside town of Estoril promised unimaginable wealth, and also boasted an art gallery. How could I resist? I boarded a commuter train and half an hour later emerged to a one-room, two-platform train station that spilled directly onto a road. It seemed particularly dark and deserted for a casino town, whereas I had been led to expect boisterous crowds and razzle-dazzle. When I asked a nearby gas station attendant for the casino, he pointed to some Christmas lights in the distance.

With a sense of the future being definitely imperfect, I headed towards the lights and was pleasantly surprised to encounter splashy and luridly-lit fountains. This was more like it, although the streets were still deserted. After a little more wandering, I discovered that the fountains were at the back of the casino, and around at the front there was peculiarly very little of interest. On entering I was asked by the doorman to remove my hat. Inside, I noticed that everyone else was in semi-formal wear. The casino area seemed small, even with the mirrored walls, and I walked through, past a store selling “lucky” buddhas, towards the gallery, which was enviably-spacious and professionally-lit. Sitting behind a desk was a glamorous, red-suited woman, a dead-ringer for Tess, the Julia Roberts curator character in Ocean’s Eleven—one of the trans-Atlantic in-flight movies. I plied her with questions. Who runs the space, how are the artists selected, where are they based, etc. She was at first bemused but soon became irritated by my questions. I was being unfair, since after all this was no more than a salesroom, and she a saleswoman (of course, one can say the same about any gallery). But here the clash— or rather the commingling—between Art and Commerce seemed particularly delicious in its transparency and simultaneous subterfuges of denial.

The idea of a casino exhibition (apart from Las Vegas’ Bellagio collection, and the failed incursions by the Guggenheim at the Venetian across the road) reminded me of shows curated by Jeffrey Valance in 1997, at the short-lived Debbie Reynolds casino and at the Clown Museum in nearby Henderson. For the Debbie show, Valance placed the works around the casino itself, but they were woefully lost amidst the visual excess of slot machines. I vaguely remember some generic portraits of Debbie but they might have already been permanent fixtures. At the Clown Museum—which was essentially an assembly-line factory that churned out clown figurines—there was little else to distract the eye, and the show consisted of paintings and drawings by clowns, of clowns, and possibly for clowns. The already-overwhelming creepiness was catapulted into the horrorfreakshow by the inclusion of a self-portrait by Pogo the Clown, sharp-lipped alter ego of cannibal killer John Wayne Gacy. (The lips of most clown faces are rounded at the sides so as not to scare children. Apparently.)

The nearest the Estoril casino had to a clown painting, amidst the landscapes, doe-eyed women and fifties-era abstractions, was a Picasso-esque harlequin standing on the back of an animal that could have been a dog or possibly a cow. Valance and fellow artist Jim Shaw have established artistic reputations as connoisseurs of bad art, but their appreciation has the knowing distance of kitsch. When confronted by people who genuinely love what I can only think of as an offense to culture, I’m at a loss—partly because I’m unwilling to puncture their liking and partly because I don’t know how to explain why I think something is bad. It’s an issue that seems rarely addressed: how to develop serious and non-dismissive art criticism of really, really bad art. I decided to cut my losses (a favorite casino pastime) and return to the station. Outside, I continued around the side of the building and discovered that the side was really the front, and the front had merely been the side entrance. The doorman here allowed me to keep my hat, but made me check my bag. This must have been some kind of classbased dress code, since here was the regular, mostly geriatric, hoi-polloi, seemingly plugged into the serried ranks of slot machines as though by feeding tubes. Now it did look like the largest casino in Europe, and also a scene from the Matrix. I was about to leave again, when there was a blackout. Maybe this was the Matrix. I imagined there would be panic, or at least an attempt at looting (you can take the man out of LA, but…). No one moved, no voices were raised, as if this were a regular occurrence. Within twenty seconds, a few dim lights came on, but all the slots were down. There was a roulette wheel, but it turned out to be video roulette with the wheel just for show, and that too was down. People just sat where they were, patiently waiting in that typical Iberian manner. Two minutes later, the house lights came up at the side of the gaming areas and gradually, over the next ten minutes, the machines came back to life with their familiar cascades of tinkling lights.

Outside again, the streets were still dark and deserted, as though the casino had siphoned off the juice from the rest of the town. Or, and this seemed just as likely, the town was merely a façade to provide a setting for the casino, and the train station was the real entrance.

Leaving Lisbon early the next morning before breakfast, I had a layover in Frankfurt. This was a pilgrimage of sorts for me, since Frankfurt Airport was my first encounter with the West after leaving Kenya nearly forty years ago. It’s become part of my personal mythology that my enduring memory of that encounter was the pristine toilets. I remember acres of glistening tile, their white purity confirming all my desires. And fears. (And using that toilet was my first, gleeful act of polluting the West.) Imagine, then, the enormity of this return. I searched out every toilet in the airport, going from one terminal to another. Imagine, then, also, the enormity of my disappointment at how lackluster, how small, how dilapidated, how untiled, how gray those toilets were. Perhaps I should have performed a Helena Almeida-style antiexorcism, getting down on my hands and knees, kissing the floors, running my fingers along the porcelain, invoking the residues, the traces, the ghosts of the toilets. Now that would have been a performance.

Allan deSouza is an artist who returns regularly to LA.