“The Day After Tomorrow”

Centro Cultural de Belém

“The Day After Tomorrow” displayed a rough romanticism. Curated by Isabel Carlos, this was a show in the “provinces” that was not “provincial,” obsequious, or describing yet another horizon of “assimilation.” The exhibition functioned as a sober response to the malaise of the “end of history” syndicate and the smugness of the North. It also demonstrated that Carlos is neither innocent of the art of the North nor an isolationist, as it included major commissioned projects and works byJames Turrell, Cathy de Monchaux, Stephan Balkenhol, and Taro Chiezo.

Yeah, you would have found familiar themes had you been there to see it all. João Paulo Feliciano, Ângela Ferreira, Xana, and Gerardo Burmester are among the most promising of the Portuguese artists presented. Feliciano is light. As a member of the pop group “Tina and the Top Ten,” he designed The Big Red Puff Sound Site, 1994, to be a listening post for the band’s karmic beat. You entered to sample the droning feedback of guitars through headphones, as you lay gently cushioned by a wall-to-wall, cherry red, inflatable bean-bag thingy, contemplating the azure glow of the dropped ceiling. Think Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Ferreira is serious. She plays at the provincial rube who parades her own situation on the fringes of European culture. She is all chirpy and hyperactive over the prospect of finally getting out of the sticks. But the train is very, very late. The artist’s Departure Lounge is a large-scale color photograph of a section of Lisbon’s Gare Maritima; the image partially reveals the stunning, high-Modernist murals of José Almada Negreiros. Their significance remains enigmatic until contextualized alongside another of Ferreira’s works: a series of reconstructions and reinstallations of two of Carl Andre’s contributions to the definitive 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures.” Learning that these works have been fabricated and installed on the basis of her impression of them taken from a photographic installation view, we may appreciate how it is possible for an entire cultural moment that we New Yorkers take for granted to be framed and perceived by outsiders.

Burmester is camp. Treading ground similar to Ferreira, he demonstrates what it is like to “receive” the precious gifts of another cultural world, no matter how irrelevant and pompous they are. In Atelier, 1994, the artist presented a large, freestanding room: the exterior sumptuously paneled in rich hardwood, the interior completely tiled by white-felt squares. This was the studio; it housed stacks of felt, drawings on felt strewn about the floor and two wooden ladders leaning against a far wall, each supporting a felt bucket. Beuys lite you say? Don’t be so cynical: this felt was pure white, giving the impression that a luxuriant fungal growth had taken over. The constant operation of several copper-clad humidifiers at floor level created a suitably overbearing atmosphere; symbolic, perhaps, of the will to “sweat out” Baltic grayness.

Like everywhere else in the art world, money is key. Because Portugal lacks a permanent fund for the visual arts, an exhibition on the scale of “The Day After Tomorrow” could only have been realized with funds linked to Lisbon’s role as the 1994 Cultural Capital of Europe. The consequences for this new generation of artists and curators is clear enough: in the near term, survival strategies must necessarily be limited to the development of moves centered on a flat market for contemporary art and the good will of the Northern European Community. While a curator like Carlos must bank on more promising economic conditions in the long term, she does not have the luxury to sit around to wait for the benefits of recovery. Though for now, the Northern European Transatlantic art stream is the only game in town, the future of Portuguese art may rest with a proposed Southern Atlantic, Transmediterranean confederation.

Michael Corris