Lisbon

“An Atlas of Events”

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum | Lisbon

The very first work encountered in “An Atlas of Events” presented the theme of the exhibition. Rodney McMillan’s Untitled, 2006, is composed of two large-scale black columns that resemble the Twin Towers, atop which are two embalmed baboons. As this work suggests, the show intended to examine post-9/11 society politically, economically, and culturally. Brought together by António Pinto Ribeiro, Debra Singer, and Esra Sarigedik Öktem, the twenty-eight participating artists offered multiple points of view on this theme. Such diversity made for a rich exhibition in which each artist’s personal experience was more important than any overall perspective. At the same time, however, there was a sort of splintering of topics that lessened the show’s capacity to encompass such difficult subject matter—it was as if, instead of one, there were three exhibitions, each with its own curator.

The show was housed in two galleries, the first of which contained some of the more challenging works. For example, both Kelley Walker and Josephine Meckseper deal with consumerism: Walker superimposes abstract patterns and slogans such as FIGHT CAPITALISM/REAPPROPRIATE onto images, downloaded from the Internet, of mansions destroyed by natural disasters (Then We Joked About How We Had Always Wanted a Sunken Living Room, 2001); in Sfera, 2006, Meckseper alludes to the display windows of luxury shops in an elegant arrangement of documentation on antiwar protests. Not all the works on view established as clear a dialogue, but others that illuminated one another included those of Mircea Cantor and Paul Chan, both emotionally powerful in their metaphorical staging of the human condition. In the video Deeparture, 2005, Cantor investigates the tension between predator and prey by filming a coyote and a deer trapped in a gallery. In Chan’s 5th Light, 2005, a digital animation projected onto the floor (from his well-known series “The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007, which evokes the seven days of biblical creation), the successively falling shadows of people and objects pass through a triangle of light, forming a dreamlike flow of imagery that evokes the collective anguish of our time.

In the second gallery, videos and installations occupied seven consecutive rooms. The most striking of the works here was Sergio Vega’s Crocodilian Fantasies, 2001–2007. Combining a corporate atmosphere with the tropical imagination, the artist created a lounge for experiencing representations of the other in general and of the exotic in particular. This installation directed the viewer back to the first gallery, where other works addressed the topic of neocolonialism. For example, Ângela Ferreira’s photographic triptych Abandoned Settlers’ House (Mozambique), 2007, illustrates the appropriation of a half-finished modernist house abandoned by the Portuguese colonizers by inhabitants of the island of Benguera, off the coast of Mozambique. However, it is Michael Rakowitz’s The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, 2007–, that best exemplifies the continuing relevance of neocolonialism as an issue. The work consists of a long table on which sit replicas of archaeological artifacts—made out of Middle Eastern newspapers and food wrappers—that were plundered from the Iraq National Museum following the recent American invasion; their stories are also told through captions and a chart. With this ongoing project, aimed at reconstructing the cultural history of a country, Rakowitz brilliantly encapsulates the critique of the contemporary state of affairs that is the subtext of the exhibition.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.