Julião Sarmento

Julião Sarmento talks about his current and recent shows

Julião Sarmento, Five Easy Pieces (with Alice Joana Gonçalves), 2013, performance view, Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas, Elvas, Portugal, June 22, 2013.

Julião Sarmento is a Lisbon-based artist well known for his critique of the male gaze. He recently had a retrospective at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Serralves in Porto, Portugal. This summer he has exhibitions at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City and at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Elvas in Elvas, Portugal. Here, he discusses his recent and current shows and his ongoing interests and experimentations in architecture and performance.

PERHAPS BECAUSE I’M GETTING OLDER, but the fact is that in the past nine months I have had a retrospective—my largest to date—and eight solo shows. Still, I don’t feel the need to look back; I’m always thinking about what I’ll do next. I’m already planning my next series of solo shows, which will take place over the next year at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain in Nice, France, among other venues.

“White Nights” was my retrospective at the Serralves museum. I borrowed the title from a 1982 series of paintings—originally presented at Documenta 7 that year—which alluded to Dostoyevsky’s 1848 short story “White Nights” and also to a period of my life in which I had a day job and spent sleepless nights at the studio. “White Nights” featured 168 works, made from 1972 to 2013, in both the 1990s galleries designed by the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza and the institution’s old villa in its sprawling park. The exhibition also focused on the architectural dimension of my output, a mostly neglected yet significant aspect. This organizing principle allowed me to revisit some of my early works that I hadn’t seen in decades. It is uncanny how everything made sense and fell into place after such a long time.

An Extreme Form of Privacy is a 2002 painting that lends its title to my current exhibition at the Carrillo Gil museum. Here, I’m presenting works made between 1995 and 2013. This selection addresses privacy, another key facet of my oeuvre. For instance, there are many depictions of the female body, which I employ as a way of examining the politics of desire. In a way, I feel like I’m always considering the same subject; it’s a bit like novelists who write the same story over and over. Nevertheless, I’m interested in so many things: literature, film, art, architecture, music, sex, nature, plants, and so on. As long as these challenge me, I dwell in them. Perhaps I’m always looking at the same stuff, but I don’t really know what that stuff is. If I knew, then it wouldn’t be interesting to me at all.

Performance and dance are currently catching my attention; I’m trying to explore the aesthetic potential of movement. Cometa (Comet), a work from 2011—which is on view currently in Mexico City, and was also presented in my retrospective—perhaps best encapsulates the questions that I am asking about these media, such as, What is the role of physical and mental space in the performative? It consists of a heterosexual couple in a room that act out a series of ritualistic gestures to the sound of the music of Portuguese singer and songwriter Legendary Tiger Man. The performers initially sit on chairs and then the woman starts walking—or dancing—while the man observes her; finally, the man meets her and they start touching each other in a subtle yet suggestive manner.

Five Easy Pieces (with Alice Joana Gonçalves) is my latest work of this genre. The Portuguese choreographer and dancer Alice Joana Gonçalves appears in a room with a chair, a closet, and a table. Slowly, she moves from sitting in the chair to the table. There, she imitates the pose of the mannequins in my sculptures Licking the Milk off Her Finger, 1998, and Milk and Honey (Under the Table), 2004. She slowly moves again, from the table to the closet, which she violently thrusts against the walls. The work is part of “Index,” my solo show at the Elvas museum. Since it echoes other works of mine, it might shed some unanticipated light on my practice, something that I am always looking forward to.