Julião Sarmento

“Flashback,” curated by James Lingwood, was one of the most important exhibitions in Julião Sarmento’s career, affording a retrospective view of twenty-five years of the artist’s work. As the title suggests, it links his “white paintings” of the ’90s to earlier phases of his work, specifically to his use of photography and cinema in the ’70s.

This admirable installation of 121 works occasioned a complete (if temporary) architectural reorganization of the Palacio de Velázquez. The open space was partitioned into twenty-seven rooms laid out in an almost symmetrical fashion around a small, dark central room, which was also the one through which viewers entered and exited the exhibition. Entering through a curtain, they saw a film (Untitled, 1999) that was both one of Sarmento’s newest pieces and the leitmotif of the exhibition. This work, made in Super 8, with the grain and shakiness typical of independent films of the ’70s, showed the legs of a woman walking endlessly—a loop—along a street: dark skirt, high heels. The woman’s image was cropped at the waist—as happens in many of the artist’s paintings—and the image shifted in and out of focus, oscillating between a sculptural definition of the silhouette and something like the quasi-abstract stain of informalist painting. Updating one of the artist’s most obsessively recurrent motifs, this film used the cinematic image to stage the privileged relationships that are established in all Sarmento’s work among recollected visual perceptions, the imagined structure of desires, and the labor of artistic creation.

After this central chamber, the heart of the exhibition, successive rooms were arranged to vary scale and atmosphere rhythmically. Filters modified the light in keeping with the nature and format of the works, creating a dynamic labyrinth that continually presented the viewer with fresh surprises, confrontations, counterpoint. One room offered another unusual new work, Flashback, 1999, done in collaboration with Arto Lindsay, who composed the original music (available on the CD included with the catalogue) that accompanied a projection of eighty slides. The montage of images captured by the artist between 1972 and 1999 ranged from photos of friends and acquaintances in intimate or mundane circumstances to landscapes, travel shots, or banal daily scenes. With this work, lulled by the soft, involving, insinuating rhythm of Lindsay’s music, the artist presented himself to his public—free of showy exhibitionism but with less modesty and secrecy than in most of his work.

Coming to the end of the exhibition, the viewer closed the circle. It was time, you might say, to rewind. At the far end of the exhibition space were two walls in which one discovered a small, almost imperceptible orifice. Through it viewers could see the same film they saw on entering, but now in black and white and projected in reverse, with the woman’s movements unreeling in retrograde fashion—as if to demonstrate that the flashback is a montage process that is always open, always reversible. As if to demonstrate that the imagination of desire, just like the work of creation, has neither beginning nor end but is a process ever in progress, an ever-expanding energy, in which past and present mingle and memory merges with the future of desire.

Alexandre Melo