Seldom does the inaugural show of a new museum so effectively bring together the very concept of exhibition with the architecture of the institution itself and its historical and social place in the city. The former prison that today houses the MARCO was constructed along the lines of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Some of Bentham’s plans were presented in the exhibition, and they illustrate the panopticon’s basic principle, which is the organization of space around a central zone to afford the optimum capacity for observation and control. This structure was preserved in the remodeling of the building and served as the point of departure for Bartomeu Marí and Dirk Snauwaert’s conception and mounting of the exhibition, which, like the cardinal points of a compass, radiated outward from a geometrical center.

Immediately on entering the museum’s atrium, viewers were startled by a violent, unpleasant noise, which turned out to come from the inside of a metal locker similar to those found in schools and gymnasiums. This work, Pedro Tudela’s A idade do cacifo (The age of the locker), 1999, alluded to adolescence and to the sense of constraint experienced by a body uncomfortable with the scope of its experience in the world; it served as the operative metaphor for an exhibition of works that, under different guises, lay claim to art’s capacity to both demand and breach new horizons. Having passed through this noisy initiation ritual, one found oneself in the central rotunda of the panopticon, where Pawel Althamer’s Cameraman, 1995, took the position of the observer/controller.

Everything in “Cardinales” (Cardinal points) was organized in keeping with the themes of confinement and resistance. At times, the curatorial effort seemed all too systematic: Some of the works functioned less by the efficacy of their specific presence than by their ability to illustrate the concepts at play—prison versus flight, control versus evasion, and so on. But there were also several cases in which the works, and the linkage between different works in the same wing, both satisfied the curator’s intentions and produced that stimulus to our senses and intensification of our anxieties that made a visit to this show so gratifying. One of the more surprising juxtapositions was the grouping of Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuis’s plans for a New Babylon, 1956/1974, with drawings from the ’50s by Hungarian-born French sculptor Nicolas Schöffer (1912– 92). These designs and models revealed visionary architectural perspectives that even today retain the power to challenge the viewer’s spatial imagination.

At the other extreme of the feelings that this exhibition aroused was the juxtaposition of a series of sculptures by Rui Chafes—iron masks with a medieval flavor—with the works of Gregor Schneider, including photographs, video, and the sculpture Tote Jungfrau (Dead maiden), 2001, all highly representative of his universe (his “house”) full of mysteries, snares, and menaces. Tacita Dean’s video Disappearance at Sea, 1996, provided the perfect expression of what may be the most libertarian dimension of this approach to the cardinal points, in which the recovery of an auratic sense of landscape opens the way for seemingly infinite horizons of vision: Around a lighthouse is arranged a set of mirrors, reflecting one another ad infinitum, among the subjects and objects of vision.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.