By Julia Flamingo

For the inauguration of the Lab Box project space, consisting of an exhibition within a 1,20m x 1,20m x 2,35m white cube, Art Curator Grid platform invited Portuguese curator Luísa Santos. She in turn challenged artist Joana Patrão to conceive a micro-exhibition for this space, which the young artist titled “Céu de Sal, Sal da Terra” [Sky of Salt, Salt of the Earth]. The installation will be displayed in the offices of Art Curator Grid, in Lapa, Lisbon, between March 5th and May 17th, and is made up of an unlikely landscape with height, width, and depth.

Read below for the interviews we carried out with Luísa Santos and Joana Patrão in order to understand the piece’s process of creation, which had as starting point an intense dialogue between the curator and the artist.

Lab Box#1 in Art Curator Grid office by Bruno Lopes, 2020

Julia Flamingo - When the Art Curator Grid addressed this invitation to you to propose to an artist the challenge of creating an exhibition for a box a little larger than the size of one body, what was your choice pathway until you reached Joana Patrão? What were the criteria you considered necessary to address that invitation?

Luísa Santos - It was in fact a rather short and quick route, a sort of one-way street. Pauline had already spoken to me about the new space and I was immediately very enthusiastic about its potential – to be able to create a 1 to 1 relation, 1 art piece for 1 person at a time, is extremely interesting in current times. All is done, thought, felt at the speed of a click, of a like, and here time is asked of us. Time in a place, time to see one piece at a time as opposed to seeing multiple walls, or multiple pixels on screens at the same time. I met Joana Patrão through the Appleton Grant program, which began last year and which was awarded to Augusto Alves da Silva, allowing him to spend 5 months in Brussels. Joana submitted her application and only Vera Appleton knew some of Joana’s work, for Miguel Wandschneider and me it was a very pleasant surprise (Joana finished her degree in Fine Arts a very short while ago and has already done residencies and exhibitions, it’s remarkable). The moment I saw the portfolio, and later with the interview, I was certain I wanted to work with Joana because she has a solid, serious practice, founded on research that is spread out through disciplinary fields like History, Biology, and Ecology. These intersections interest me especially because they reflect what art does at its best – to think about (and sometimes act upon) the world in which we live, a world featured by numerous social systems and disciplinary fields. On the other hand, Joana’s practice asks for our time – it is not possible to view Joana’s work in mere seconds and also not without entering (at times physically) the pieces. The invitation by the Art Curator Grid happened a few days after getting to know Joana’s work and the choice seemed intuitively obvious to me.

Luisa Santos Portrait by José Pedro Cardeiro
Luisa Santos Portrait by José Pedro Cardeiro

JF - Some theoreticians, artists, and even curators believe that the work of a curator does not make itself necessary for a solo exhibition. Do you agree with that? And to what point does the exhibition by Joana Patrão for Lab Box differ from any other solo exhibition?

LS - I do agree, yes. In fact, the work of a curator is not at all necessary. Curatorship is not, in my opinion, a discipline which fulfills any type of need. What is rather at stake is adding layers, some more visible and material than others. And it is precisely because it adds layers – conceptual layers, layers of knowledge, sometimes even formal and contextual layers (which are not always desirable, but that is another discussion) – that curatorship is fascinating and, though not necessary, at its best it makes the discourses at the same time denser and clearer. Joana’s exhibition for Lab Box is different for the features of the space, which is very peculiar, it would be very hard for this to be a project that was not site-specific. The great differences from exhibition to exhibition, solo or collective, are the same as those of telling stories – the space, time, context, and characters (and by that I mean the artists and the audiences).

Nanogaleria Ana Vidigal Quebra Gesso (2019) installation shot
Ana Vidigal, Quebra Gesso (2019). Installation shot, Nanogaleria. Photograph by João Neves

JF - You are also a curator for another project in which size is one of the main features of the exhibition of a piece, the Nanogaleria. In that specific case you ask artists to create a piece to be shown on the window display of Miguel Palma’s studio, in Alvalade. To what point does your interest in non-traditional exhibition spaces have a spatial appeal or to what point is the appeal conceptual?

LS - The nanogaleria is an independent project that I started with Ana Fabíola Maurício in Miguel Palma’s studio, departing from a visit to Miguel’s studio, who I’ve known for about a decade. Miguel has a body of amazing work and which is everything but nano – the universes in Miguel’s practice are very vast and the physical dimensions of Miguel’s pieces, more often than not, are also rather large. One of the times that I went to the studio to see these universes I noticed that Miguel had a piece on the window display, curiously enough a piece produced with my students from the  Curatorship seminar of The Lisbon Consortium at Universidade Católica Portuguesa which was featured at Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa, still at Palácio Pombal. It was just one piece on the window display and it had unbelievable impact. I asked Miguel why he did not use the window to display his work and the work of other artists. Miguel’s answer, always quick, was “let’s go at it, do that, this can be a nanogallery”. The idea of having a nano space within Miguel’s infinite universe seemed to me immediately thrilling. To answer the question more directly, I don’t have a specific interest (at least not consciously) in non-traditional spaces. I feel equally happy and challenged working in spaces like the enormous nave of the former CAM (Modern Art Center, now Gulbenkian Museum, of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation), or in the Lab Box space, or at Roskilde Contemporary Art Museum, which is an 18th century palace. Each place has a history and infinite formal and conceptual possibilities and, hence, is an integral part of curatorship.

Lab Box#1 in Art Curator Grid office by Bruno Lopes, 2020

JF - Taking a cue from the question above: do you believe there is a “tendency” in the artistic scene’s search for non-traditional exhibition spaces?

LS - I think there is more than a tendency, there is a need. There are more and more curators and there aren’t that many so-called traditional institutions. But I also think that many curators who work in the so-called traditional institutions (as well as artists) feel the appeal to work in less conventional spaces because, though they entail shorter or non-existent budgets (as a general rule, this is not always the case, and rarely do the large institutions have budgets fit for their size) they also entail an immense freedom. Fabíola and I invite who we want to invite for the nanogaleria, exclusively based on the program we want to develop, regardless of having worked or not with the artists before, of knowing them personally or not, whether the pieces will sell or not, since it is not a commercial gallery and it is not a museum that needs to give detailed accounts of funding reports, or activities reports, or audience reports. In an ideal world, I will always keep working in non-traditional spaces, as much as in traditional spaces and in academia. These three worlds have extraordinary potential but each of them allows for opportunities of production of knowledge and of reflection about the world which are very different.

JF - The proposal by the Art Curator Grid is that this piece be produced in a dialogue between the curator and the artist. Can you tell us about how your work process has been?

LS - Joana and I have not known each other very long and we had never worked together before, as I mentioned in the reply to your other question. Curatorship is fantastic work also due to the people that we get to meet and with whom we have the opportunity to work. Since the very first moment it was very easy to work with Joana, we began by talking about the specificities of the space and of Joana’s work and began to build the narrative departing from there. Joana was the one to suggest the concepts she would like to explore and, in my opinion, it could not be otherwise. Starting from an initial idea, we talked, questioned, thought about how the audience would react to being asked a specific action, how the curatorial text could be an integral part of the piece or not. In other words, we talked about each element that builds the narrative and discussed ideas in a way which I believe was cumulative and based on exchange.

Joana Patrao credit Angelina Patrão
Joana Patrao credit Angelina Patrão

Julia Flamingo - To what point do challenges put forward by spaces and curators – as is the case of your project for Lab Box – stimulate your creative process in such a way that you leave the “comfort zone” of your production?

Joana Patrão - The truth is that lately my artistic practice has been heavily featured by it. Since my work focuses on the idea of Landscape I have been more and more interested in exploring relations with different spaces. And so these proposals are very stimulating, because they bring with them a specific context, which allows me to rethink my work processes.

Unlike the work carried out autonomously in studio practice, in these proposals the exhibition space appears as an essential part of the work and not only as an abstract location that will welcome it later. Also, in my latest pieces I have felt a growing urge to understand the idea of landscape in a more comprehensive sense, seeking to establish relations with specific spaces and contexts: be it through the installation in the exhibition space, which in this case brings with it the near inevitable condition of it being site-specific, be it for the relation with the territory in which that space is incorporated.

Lab Box#1 at Art Curator Grid office, by Bruno Lopes- 2020

JF - “Céu de Sal, Sal da Terra” is your personal, imagined landscape, which you share with the audience. If you could describe your perfect landscape what would that be?

JP - Actually, my idea with “Céu de Sal, Sal da Terra” is not that this landscape be understood simply as personal and imagined. My intention is that the sharing with the audience be made both by the invitation to enter it and through the relation with the materials used. Lioz limestone, the formation of which is marine and sedimentary, speaks of a time in which Lisbon was submerged under a sea, it is a material that bears witness to that origin and that brings an idea of sharing which is wider, of a common territory that goes beyond the sharing of my experience. There is clearly a mediation that is proposed by me, but it is not so much based on the idea of a personal landscape (also because I do not live in Lisbon). I was interested in understanding what material could relate with the landscape in a broader sense, in such a way that my dialogue is not established only with the exhibition’s circumstantial audience, but with the history of the place, both in a natural and a cultural sense. Beyond the context I mentioned, the lioz limestone is very much associated with the idea of monument, it was used in official buildings and colonial constructions, there is that narrative of power and of dominion which I was interested in inverting, bringing new context to the material, sending it back to its natural history. This is why my ambition is that this landscape not be read as a manifestation of an inner state, but rather as a possibility for dialogue, for problematizing, for the re-emergence of a pre-existing landscape. In this case we could think about what it means to step upon a set of extinct fossils, considering that we are now witnessing the exponential extinction of numerous species.

As for the second question, about the perfect landscape, I have some trouble thinking in those terms. It could only come from an idealization or projection, which only happens if we conceive of the idea of natural scenery, if we see it as an image. But this conception is also the source of distancing, alienation. So I prefer to think of the idea of landscape as a complex process, that not only witnesses a distancing, which comes about because we no longer feel a part of nature, but which can also propose a possibility for reunion.

I could speak of a landscape which is particularly stimulating for me, for its symbolic and formal potential – the marine landscape. My interest in the sea began through the association with fluidity, for the constant alternation of shapes, the repetition which is always different, representative of cyclical nature. I did some work which explores that condition, but it also became inevitable to think about the way in which the sea is a reservoir of metaphors in countless cultures, containing contradictory relations: life and death, calm and devastation, crossing and separation. More than a “perfect landscape”, the sea interests me for its ambiguities and tensions, featuring endless poetic potential.

Joana Patrão, Diaries - composed sea (2016-2019), black and white prints on acetate, 612 drawings, 237 x 378 cm. From Diaries - a daily sea (2015-...), series of diaries, pen on paper

JF - Landscape and nature are very recurring themes in your work. Do you consider yourself an artist-activist for environmental causes? To what point do the concerns with climate change offer a north for your pieces?

JP - That is a difficult question, because it always depends on what we understand as an artist-activist. I could say yes, that there is a concern with climate change in my work, revealing itself in subtle ways, in the interactions that I establish with nature, with the very materials, or in the inclusion of chance or non-control over certain natural processes. I am especially interested in working on symbolic matters, at a structural level: how to go beyond the abstraction of our natural condition, proposing our placement in the continuity of the world; how the artistic proposals can appear as possibilities for reunion, in a work of empathy, opening up to the idea of sustainability. I am interested in essaying with my work an idea of vulnerability before nature, rethinking relations of power, rejecting dominion or possession, and proposing relations of reciprocity, continuity, crucial to change the course of the environmental crisis.

Joana Patrão, The encounter. Tears. 2015-2016, laser print on photographic paper

JF - In the piece “O Encontro, Lágrimas” [Reunion, Tears], you also worked with sea salt and created a relation between that salt water and your own tears. I ask you: when you are working with the external landscape you are, in a greater degree, stirring your inner landscape, right?

JP- Of course, there is an inseparable relation. In my thesis I spoke a lot about two motions – immersion and travel, which beyond the association with the sea appear also as metaphors for ideas of introspection (inner landscape) and expansion (external landscape). In this piece specifically what interested me was the idea of finding a common language, a material of relation with the sea, establishing a relation between the salt water my body produced and the salt water of the sea. This allowed me a kind of recognition of belonging, material continuity. There is a very intimate side associated with tears, but this piece is perhaps one of the first where I began to think beyond my personal relation with a given landscape and began to frame it within a context. The Baltic Sea has a serious pollution problem, and it is also a sea that is not very salty. So I arrived at the symbolic act of offering my tears to this sea. It is an act that contains a double meaning, one laments its pollution and at the same time, by giving it salt, you make the sea a bit more of a sea.

It is a form of intervention that is very subtle, not effective at all (in terms of practical consequences), but that works symbolically, in a relation of continuity, internal and external.

Lab Box's salt sky by Bruno Lopes, 2020

JF - Lastly, I ask you the same question I asked Luísa: the proposal by the Art Curator Grid is that this piece be produced in a dialogue between the curator and the artist. Can you tell me about your work process together?

JP - It has been a very interesting process. Luísa put forward the proposal to me, told me why she had invited me, what had interested her in my work and I put forward my idea to her. During this process we have talked about some decisions and possibilities of the work itself and of its communication. In the case of the curatorial text, for instance, Luísa cast the provocation of doing something different and from that stimulus we began to think together. With a type of perception that is both from within and from without, Luísa has a very deep sensitivity and a keen eye. It has been a great pleasure to establish this dialogue with her.