Vasco Araújo

Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Let’s begin with a question: What might one have done to induce an apt mood for viewing Vasco Araújo’s recent show “L’inceste”? My recommendation: Listen to Mozart and read the Marquis de Sade. For “L’inceste” was a contest between reason and perversion, elegance and corruption, good and evil. And the only rules of the game are those that determine the theatrical power of staging and interpretation. The show was composed of ten works spread over three rooms in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum). The dialogue between the traditional pieces on permanent exhibition and Araújo’s intervention was an additional element of complexity or, if you prefer, perversity in reading the show. Araújo’s works here (each titled L’inceste, 2004) were standard museum vitrines, inside which were porcelain pieces installed on a gray moiré fabric base with embroidered texts. The objects chosen, obtained at a secondhand market in Brussels, were replicas of German, French, and Portuguese originals from the eighteenth century, representing domestic court scenes, bucolic settings, and animals (birds, frogs, toads, and lizards). The texts were quotations from Sade’s Eugénie de Franval (1800), a novella recounting an incestuous affair between father and daughter and one of the author’s most concentrated works.

One showcase contained the declaration of mutual love between father and daughter, accompanied by a depiction of a rural couple in which the woman offers a glass to the man, whose amputated arm lies in front of the cited texts. In another vitrine a lizard approached two chicks. The legend described the incestuous couple in flagrante before the offended mother/wife and included, in an accusation made by her, the sole use of the word “sadistic” in the show. One case containing a procession of frogs and toads illustrated in a more distant and allusive form the most generic moral maxim of this series: “No, sir, there is nothing in the world, nothing that deserves praise or censure, nothing worthy of reward or punishment, nothing that, being unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away; there is, in sum, no true evil, no eternal good.”

In another recent work, Jardim (Garden), 2005, not in this show, the same type of (essentially political) concern with the general reversibility of social and moral judgments is evinced through a video made in the Jardim Tropical in Lisbon, a garden created in 1906 and known then as Jardim Colonial. The film offers the contrast between a bucolic atmosphere and the garden’s strange sculptural representations of African peoples by European sculptors. These mute figures are transformed by the film’s sound track into characters in a narration in which passages from Homer come to function as subversive commentary on the relationship between us and others, between citizens and foreigners, in a context of invasion, war, and confrontation. In the war of interpretations and narratives on a global scale, who are we and who are the foreigners? Who will relate the next story—Sade or Fragonard?

Alexandre Melo

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.