Press Release of the Exhibition
The voyeuristic gaze is the subject of much of Julião Sarmento’s work. Desire, sexuality, control, and violence—emotional and physical—performed via female bodies, reappears in myriad forms in his work. The exhibition Reel Time includes a number of films, videos and performances, created at different points during a forty year period, from 1976 to 2011. Sarmento’s moving image and performance works are rooted in a history of performance and conceptual art from the mid to late twentieth century, that uses the body as both a site of action and a tool—by the likes of Marina Abramović, Bruce Nauman, and Carolee Schneemann. Yet Sarmento’s protagonists, and their performative gestures, are also restrained by a kind of stylistic formalism that recalls late Nineteenth century impressionist figuration—Edgar Degas Little Dancer Aged Fourteen c.1880 comes to mind—which is present in his three dimensional works, in particular his sculptures of female body parts. Yet this formalism is subverted by a highly staged form of sexuality, akin to that performed by the female protagonists of Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic world.
The subject-hood and object-hood of Sarmento’s female protagonists is blurry. Sometimes they perform a powerful psychological agency. Other times they are reduced to the signifiers of their femininity. The film Faces, 1976, is a triptych of sorts. Two heads of hair, a blonde and a brunette, rub against one another at the bottom of the screen. This is followed by a close-up shot of two women kissing. The camera focuses on their mouths and tongues—licking, sucking, and moving in and around one another. At first glance it might seem erotic. But as time passes, and the kiss goes on and on and on, the tongues become chunks of wet flesh, the movements less sensual, or erotic, and more grotesque, becoming rudimentary in the abstraction of the close-up. Eventually, although beautifully shot, it becomes almost dull to watch. The final section depicts the two woman sitting, nude, but with heavily made up faces, one leaning her head on the other’s shoulder—a tender epilogue to the intensity of their performance.
Faces was made in Portugal just after the country had reached the end of a 41 year dictatorship—decades in which expressions of art, sex, religion and politics were censored and forbidden. Read through this lens, the film has much wider connotations of freedom, privacy, and complicity. The kiss has, of course, been the subject of numerous studies by artists, from Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt, to recent contemporary performances by Tino Sehgal. Yet, when viewing Faces through the lens of the Internet revolution—the fuzzy intimacy of its kiss, and the fact it is performed by two women (particularly when considered in the context of works that directly explore queer and lesbian identity)—it reads as a historical artefact, as the digital world is filled with videos of women performing with other women for men. Yet this actually serves to emphasise what Sarmento confronts: the desire—and all the cultural and social influences that surround this—of the viewer.
Doppelgänger, 2001, plays with clichés of communication in heterosexual relationships. Two women, one dressed in black, one in white, one inside, one outside, perform an almost identical script. As the woman in black cleans her face in a hotel bathroom, the other walks along the seafront. Both answer calls from men whom they seem to be in romantic relationships with. The calls begin cordially, then digress into an argument of sorts. The two men state similar phrases: “Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my thoughts, I start staring at things…”. The woman empathises, then explains that she feels sick with a fever. The men reply: “Bloody hell, you’re such a bore, always on about your illnesses and problems!” The two women swap positions, the woman in white washes her face in the bathroom, the woman in black walks. The title of the film eludes to the idea of the doppelgänger, or doubling. The two women are experiencing identical situations, enacting a humorous, yet sad, performance of gender roles in heteronormative relationships. Sarmento has often worked with diptychs of female bodies in his paintings and sculptures. However, these two characters, and their actions and narrative, are closer to the idioms, and the clichés inherent in these, of cinema, that to the archetypes of painting. Clichés become clichés because they are circumstances that occur frequently. We know of their existence, because we have experienced them. The cliché is not “bad”, rather it is a cultural short hand for a collective, sometimes unconscious, truth.
Sarmento addresses considerations of colour and form, and the affect of the language used to describe these things—which, in turn, alters our perception—in the video R.O.C. (40 plus one), 2011. A woman slowly strips as she reads Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, 1950. This text considers how the perception of colour manifests in the language used to describe it. Wittgenstein touches upon ideas that originated in Goethe’s Theory of Colours, 1810, which addresses the psychological ideas at play in our experience and understanding of colour. Wittgenstein focuses on the perception of whiteness, lightness, transparency, and opacity, and the impact other colours have on the way we perceive these states. In Sarmento’s video, as the text becomes more elaborate, the woman stumbles over the pronunciation of certain words and phrases, whilst painstakingly folding each item of clothing after its removal, to place it on a chair. What would normally be considered an arousing act—the striptease—becomes mundane. Three systems play out simultaneously—colour, language and the body—the semiotics of one, relates directly to the other two, in this conceptual triangle. However, R.O.C. (40 plus one) also recalls Andrea Fraser’s performance Official Welcome, 2001, in which Fraser reads a pastiche of a welcome speech—created from a collage of quotes taken from art world protagonists—whilst stripping naked, in a feminist critique of the position of women in art history. In this context, the male artist, directing the female performer to strip as a conceptual act, is complex.
I have not seen the performance Cometa, 2009, in real life. I have only watched video documentation and listened to Sarmento’s description of the work. As such, I can only relay what I imagine the experience of it might be like. A lone person enters a room. Inside they find a man and a woman seated on two chairs in a space that is painted entirely green. Bright, almost luminous, forest green. When the door closes behind them, the woman stands and puts on music. She begins dancing alone. Soon the man rises and joins her. The dance becomes heated, more sexual. As they reach a kind of climax, the music stops, and they sit down again. Sarmento described the experience as violent. And that viewers feel as if they are somewhere they shouldn’t be. That they are too close to the performer’s intimacy to be a voyeur. As such, the viewer seems to enter into a kind of unspoken psychological threesome.
Art historian John Berger famously wrote: “A woman is always accompanied, except when quite alone, and perhaps even then, by her own image of herself. While she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she cannot avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others–and particularly how she appears to men–is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” Indeed, women are socially conditioned to be aware of their image at a young age. Yet surely we have moved past this binary consideration of female object-hood and subject-hood.
In the Internet age, these conditions apply to everyone, as we perform our lives in public. Yet the emphasis Berger places on how a woman must appear to men, and how this is of crucial importance for the success of her life is, sadly, still dominant. It implies a woman’s personal and public value is derived via her sexuality. And although feminism and civil rights movements advanced the cause for women’s status via their achievements, the latent subtext that a woman must remain sexually alluring, attractive by society’s normative standards, is stronger than ever. Sarmento’s women in “Reel Time” are not alone, as each addresses a different form of relationship: between two women, a woman and a man, a woman and an audience and a woman, a man, and one viewer. The contradictory states of intimacy, performed persona, and the joy and violence that occurs in the act of looking—both voyeuristically and objectively—is highlighted in Sarmento’s work.
Press Release of the Exhibition
Julião Sarmento offers us recurring themes and surprising innovations in an exhibition made of small independent,
dialoguing sets. We are able to recognize house plans, images and shapes conjuring feminine bodies, reflections on
painting and drawing, and the use of photographs made by others, direct and indirect references to Marcel Duchamp,
Alexander Rodtchenko, Barnett Newman, Bart van der Leck, Edgar Degas, Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman; the
sum of all these elements forming a small panorama that stands out like a plastic autobiography. This happens with
some of its elements, where we can observe a peculiar melancholy, oscillating between colorful exuberance and
lead gray, the color that usually accompanies this state of mind. However, in the traditional iconography this color is
often associated to melancholia generosa, referring to invention, research, and curiosity as well as to contemplation
and moments of emptiness and speculation that could certainly be one of the explanations of the celebrated formula
by Delacroix: «L’ennemi de toute peinture est le gris.» (Gray is the enemy of all paintings). This theme is represented
by a set of works displayed on a gray wall, in front of which we can see a startling sculpture or a strange object (First
Easy Piece, 2013), an interpretation (not a copy) of Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. When it was first
shown, in an Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the statue was received with surprise and amid scandal because of
its realism (real clothes and hair, and painting imitating skin color) and eroticism. Julião Sarmento emphasized the
traits of this young nymph, almost a woman, further eroticizing them – formed breasts, nudity – while transforming
the statue into an object, a dehumanized material. The paintings displayed behind contain all that: emptiness,
abstraction, objects and materials, constructions and speculations, including a diagram explaining how to draw
We find other ellipses in certain paintings, especially in one (Thing White Plants, 2013) where a drawing unfolds as
if it was a plant or a flower blooming, and that, because of its shape, forces us to think of certain photographs by
Karl Blossfeldt in his Wundergarten der Natur (1932). We can also find an interpretation (also not a reproduction)
of Duchamp’s Why not sneeze Rose Sélavy? (Parce Que Rose, 2013), a work whose title we can find inverted and
modified in a painting behind the ballerina. If we bend down a little, we can read part of title under the cheese maker
– reproducing the device of the piece Duchamp made in 1921. If Julião Sarmento’s work denotes other duchampian
elements – the small rectangles, the thermometer, and the cuttlefish bone – it is not a Dadaist or Surrealist statement,
nor is it another ready-made. It can be seen as an ironic reference to a certain dehumanization of Art, necessary to
the evanishment of forms and to their perpetual renovation. Thus, most important in this exhibition is the formation of forms, how a form forms itself and how that form comes to being. If we look at the hanging forms (142 Silicone
Leftovers, 2013), it is as if they were in a butcher shop – they look hard and ceramic, but are just made from silicone
– we are lead to think of animal parts, and they are precisely that: molds of human body parts.
More clearly than in other works, this exhibition exudes the theme of human finitude, and in a cold, baroque extension,
the dialectic between nothingness and being, between past and present, ending and becoming. This circulation
from form to formless, from dissolution to reformation, appears clearly in these pieces as they interact, transposing
lines and colors from one to the other; or between these works and others that could even have had been made
with different materials, if we think in the films Parasite (2003) and Jolie Valse (2007). Therefore, we are allowed
to see in this collection a great composition in the form of a still life, a vanitas where each element tells us the
same thing: time flies. This is what is expressed by the flowers shown (One Too Many (Yellow), 2013 / House
Plan White Plants, 2013 / Estoril Yellow Plants, 2013) and represented in gray tones. The small golden model
(Templo), exhibited in a glass case as if it was an object of great value, reveals this want for eternity; desiring to
be a monument for posterity while presenting itself as ruin, fragment, not unlike the numerous images of modernist
architecture used by the artist. The piece Yellow Secret (2013), much like a reliquary, a small transparent box
containing wonderfully colored small feathers, sits just beside the cast of a venter and a small yellow monochrome
painting – a color that channels our attention to further yellow surfaces that we can find in other pieces. Differing
from what happened during the Baroque period, we cannot affirm the presence of a narrative or a symbolic, at
least not one as strong as the ones existing in that historical representation system, where everything signified and
always referred to other meaning. However, bodies, lines and colors are as present as they are impermanent, and
the ballerina appears to defy us in time and real space, as she is out there in a place and moment we will never
grasp. The forms are present, but beyond our reach. In the monochromes (Five Frames, 2013) there is no image
but the colors are lively, strong, and dense. The foot’s movement is fixed – we can see the drawing in the wooden
stand – and it’s gone. Just as Sarmento’s ballerinas resumed a gesture and remained in a lost temporality, and as
such were always fleeting forms, this exhibition resembles a large hourglass with its sand trickling down. If we turn
it over, everything recommences. Ending resumes.
JULIÃO SARMENTO Julião Sarmento was born in 1948 in Lisbon, Portugal and lives and works in Estoril, Portugal. He studied painting and architecture at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts. Throughout his career, Sarmento has worked in a wide range of media – painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, video and installation. He has had numerous one-person and group exhibitions throughout the world over the past four decades. Julião Sarmento represented Portugal at the 46th Venice Biennale (1997). He was included in Documenta 7 (1982) and 8 (1987); the Venice Biennale (1980 and 2001) and the São Paulo Biennale in 2002. His work is represented in many public and private collections in North and South America, Europe and Japan such as Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, U.S.A.; MACBA Museu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain; MOMA Museum of Modern Art, New York, U.S.A.; Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, U.S.A. and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Holland, among others.
Press Release of the Exhibition
Apr 4th > May 3rd 2008
Tension has always been at the heart of the imaginings of Julião Sarmento: a psychological and visual state of seizure and unrest. In this second exhibition by the artist at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art, Sarmento will be showing a new, as yet untitled series of large, mixed media works on canvas and a sculpture where an erotics of delay, in the exhibition as a whole, is differently explored.
As regards to this last statement, delay exists in opposition to consumption or use and is of course contrary to satisfaction and gratification. Tension is brought about by withholding from release, by affecting the viewer and obliging him or her to dwell instead of seeing though or looking past what is presented. Tension augments with opacity and delay.
In this particular show, Sarmento provides his viewers with works that manifoldly evoke this sense of delay. The first and most obvious sense of delay relates to interruption, the interruption of making an image out and the iconicity we have all come to expect from the artist. None of the canvases in the main gallery “represent”; none presents an image, a figure, a silhouette, a picture to entertain our gaze. Instead, what we see on entering the gallery is refrain from figuration: spatters, a grey-tone spray with an odd coloured speckle or blotch on an alabaster ground, where it seems almost impossible for our eyes to find rest. The second delay or suspension relates to the medium and to the painterly gesture. These seemingly (ejaculatory) inchoate sprays, rather than painted on the canvas, are silk-screened, and can be situated in the tradition of the Duchampian bachelor who no longer grinds his chocolate himself. In these works, Sarmento replaces the evident manual gesture of painting with a reproducible technique – that of the silkscreen. In addition to this, he apparently retraces the ultimate model of individual heroic action – abstraction – with an image that is hyper-real. In order to justify this statement, one needs to bear in mind the artist’s process. These works retrace Jackson Pollock’s valorisation of the floor in the sense that they depart from horizontality - pieces of paper the artist simply rubbed against the surface of his studio floor. The residue left from rubbing the paper is then magnified and silk screened, piecemeal, onto the surface of the canvas (by way of an equally horizontal process). In other words, even when lifted off the ground onto the wall of the gallery on which they are to be viewed, these works retain a memory of their production site - the floor - what Pollock saw as being below culture, out of the axis of the body and below form. Extracts from texts are then laden, to weigh heavilyon these works.
As to Sarmento’s sculpture, delay and suspension pervade this work which stages suspension, of an act, of the reflection of the subject and identity