“Alternativa Zero”

Galleria Bianca/Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa

This exhibition attempted to reconstruct the artistic climate in Portugal immediately following the 1974 fall of the dictatorial regimes that had, for nearly half a century, isolated Portugal from the flow of ideas circulating throughout the rest of Europe. From its title to the forty-odd artists represented, the show was an almost exact historical re-creation of an exhibition organized in Lisbon in 1977 by the poet and film director Ernesto de Sousa, who was a key figure in the Portuguese cultural renaissance. At the time, the show represented a veritable rupture with the orthodoxy and congealment of the past, and its title reflected a commitment to starting over “from zero,” catching up culturally with the rest of Europe after so many years of political isolation. The original show also functioned as a critical confrontation with aesthetic languages that had been in the vanguard in the West for nearly a decade, such as arte povera, Conceptual art, body art, mail art, and urban interventions.

Many of the works had strong political connotations. In his Film Sabotado No. 2 (Sabotaged film no. 21,1974, Pedro Andrade constructed a three-dimensional path with 16 mm film, making reference to the censorship that the just-overturned regime had applied to filmmakers. Armando Azevedo, superimposing pages from newspapers over images of everyday Catholic life, pointed up the power and prevalence of the Church in his native country. Noronha da Costa’s miniature theaters, complete with curtains, contained photographs of places where he had been assaulted during the dictatorship. Robin Fior constructed a brick desk “for a society under construction” as an ironic comment on the recent revolution that had led to the regime’s downfall. Julião Sarmento, whose paintings later earned him the greatest international recognition of any contemporary Portuguese artist, exhibited two works of a documentary nature: The first was a panel made up of photographs, drawings, and texts of his interviews in 1975 with sixty artists about the status of art in Portugal (only half of the original piece was shown here); the other was Untitled, 1975, a photographic triptych featuring nine women, portrayed from the neck down, wearing fur coats. On various levels, all the art betrayed a euphoric desire to break with a past that clearly was exceedingly frustrating when not downright oppressive. Through their installation and documentation, curators Teresa Macrì and João Fernandes succeeded in capturing the climate of a bygone era, creating not just an effective formal reconstruction but rejuvenating, without falling into pedantry or fustiness, a mood of revolutionary foment.

Mario Codognato

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

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