Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ecological Mandalas: Aesthetic Notes from Portugal

From the 18th of this month, the Instituto Camões in Panjim has had on display images of the works of Alberto Carneiro, a prominent Portuguese artist. This particular exhibition represents the latest of a series of exhibitions that the Institute has been organizing for some time now, representing a reopening of dialogue between two cultural spaces that were suspended, somewhat uncomfortably, subsequent to the actions in 1961. What is refreshing about these exhibitions, and in particular the exhibition of the works of Alberto Carneiro is that they introduce us to a Portugal substantially different from the Imperial representations of the colonial era.

The works of Alberto Carneiro do not draw from the Imperial Portuguese tradition, and with the sole exception of a work titled Vessels Ploughing Never Before Navigated Seas, make no reference to the Age of Discoveries or similar imperial imaginations. On the contrary, the imagination that Alberto Carneiro employs is one from the agrarian heartland of Portugal. Carneiro was neither born and nor raised in the Portuguese metropole or former centers of the empire and presents therefore an alternative perspective into the Portuguese mind and the sources of its inspiration. A Field After The Harvest For The Aesthetic Pleasure Of Our Body is
an installation composed of dried sheaves of corn tied into bundles, arranged upright on the floor. It celebrates the cycles of agriculture suggesting an alternate source for aesthetics and sensorial pleasure. Beyond agriculture though, it is nature (that is if one wants to see the two as distinct) that forms the inspiration for Carneiro’s work and the materials with which he crafts his art. The Cane
Plantation: Memory-Metamorphosis of an absent body is presented to us as one of the works that marked a fundamental departure from his earlier works. Subsequent to this work wrought in 1969, Carneiro would work primarily around ‘ecological’ themes and their relation to our bodies and the relationship of our bodies to these ‘natural’ stimuli. Indeed, thanks to his authoring of Notes for a Manifesto of Ecological Art Carneiro is hailed as a pioneer in encouraging the utilizing of an ecological idiom in contemporary art. In doing so, Carneiro’s work opens up a mystical path toward contemplating contemporary existence and its relationship to nature.

The opening of the doors of mysticism in ‘69 seems to have Carneiro towards explorations of the traditions of the East through the 80’s and the 90’s. The ‘Eastern’ influence is manifest through his utilizing the motif of the mandala to structure his installations. A Tree Is A Work Of Art When Recreated In Itself As A Concept For A Metaphor is a particularly impressive work of this category, which one wishes one had a chance to encounter first hand and not merely through the photograph of the work on display in the exhibition. Arranged in a vaulted cellar, Carneiro has arranged a mandala-like placement of mud, tree roots, branches and twigs to make the meditative point rather elaborately articulated in the title of the work. Despite his acknowledgement of Eastern influence however, one can sense the urge towards expression in the form of a mandala in his work entitled A Forest for Your Dreams wrought in 1970.

It is a real pity that the Goan audience has to encounter Carneiro primarily through photographic representations of his work, since the scale of a number of his works are significant, more easily absorbed through immediate and intimate encounter. Indeed, it appears that this is the manner he would wish his works to be encountered. Since the late 90’s it appears that Carneiro has taken his art from out of the confines of the gallery space and released it into the expanse from which he drew inspiration. We have as a result the Mandala of the Forest in Ireland, and the Mandala of the Landscape in Quito, Ecuador, and the House of Earth and Fire in Ordino, Spain. These mandalas are truly monumental; the first two composed of tree trunks rooted in the ground in conversation with the environment around them. These installations would perhaps also serve the larger role of prompting popular contemplation of our relationship to the environment. The Mandala of the Landscape for example, is one that forces our contemplation of the devastation of natural forests in countries of the Third world.

While Carneiro’s works are prompted by an ecological ethic, the works prompt certain questions. I was lead to these questions when viewing the image of his work entitled The Orange Grove.

In this work the spectator is confronted with a triple representation of an orange grove; in sketch, drawn and projected - and also with the orange tree itself and its fruits, all of it arranged on a bed of earth that includes an audio recording (an auditory representation of the orange tree) that speaks of the relation between the earth and the orange tree during the different seasons of the year. What was troubling was the extraction of the orange tree from its ‘original’ context and placement within the space of the gallery. Does this whole arrangement of ecological art not lead at some point to making a fetish of the natural environment? Rather than exposing ourselves to the aesthetics of the agrarian life, arguably more rooted in the earth, do these art forms in fact suck ecology into the cycle of capitalist consumption? For example, what is the manner in which the materials for the installation are procured? Do they come via an anonymous transaction, or are they sourced from a landscape and community one is in communion with? Do such installations then merely act as token acknowledgements to the need for an ecological sensitivity, in that process maintaining these aesthetic and the cultural patterns they emerge from perpetually on the periphery?

The Carneiro exhibition is a wonderful example of the manner in which the Goa-Portugal dialogue could be resumed. It manages to avoid the exclusivist parameters of earlier dialogue, and open new ground for a democratic conversation between related cultural spheres. One hopes though, that photographic images of originals will soon lead to more substantial exhibitions from the Instituto Camões. The Carneiro exhibit is on display until the 2nd of September and open to viewing weekdays from 10 am to 5:300 pm. Catch it while you can!

(Published in the Gomantak Times 27th August 2008 as Ecological Mandalas)

(All images courtesy Instituto Camões)

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