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Free admission – Sunday after 14:00
‘Gris, vide, cris’: three words taken from a poem by Alberto Giacometti bring together in this exhibition two artists separated in space, in time and in the forms of their sculptures. This factor of separation encourages us to question the meaning of the act of uniting two artists who never met – Rui Chafes was born in 1966, the year of Giacometti’s death, and there are no biographical or historical details to connect them in a way that creates a dialogue. This exhibition was thus devised as an encounter.
The idea was not based on any formal analogies, mimicries or affinities. On the contrary, it was an awareness of the differences between the two artists’ work – and particularly the potential for their works to resonate – that allowed the project to develop. Both artists seek to achieve a state of incorporeality and transcendence and to represent the invisible, albeit in different ways: Giacometti through a process of exasperated de-materialisation; Rui Chafes by challenging the limits of iron and of imponderability.
Without departing from the nature of his own investigation, Rui Chafes proposes a unique approach to the work of Giacometti, a sensory experience in which silence and solitude come to dominate. Nineteen works by Alberto Giacometti will be exhibited alongside several new sculptures by Rui Chafes, specially made for this project, the first edition of which was held in 2018 at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s delegation in France, now with a developed and updated concept, including a new exhibition design project and a new catalogue.
For one of Giacometti’s sculptures (the first study in plaster for Le Nez, dated 1947-1950), the Fondation Giacometti in Paris invited Rui Chafes to devise a structure from which to suspend it, thus forming a sculptural work of dual authorship, also to be shown in Lisbon.
Helena de Freitas
Five years after the initial presentation in 2018, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Delegation in France, Rui Chafes and Alberto Giacometti are being exhibited together again at the Foundation’s head office in Lisbon, united by the same words, Gris, Vide, Cris, in a larger, different space, and with additional works.
The time that has elapsed between these two moments has allowed us to incorporate the history of this encounter that, in truth, has expanded, in time and in geography, beyond the limits previously envisaged.
In 2018, in the institutional space of a Haussmannian building, Rui Chafes used his own sculptures to receive Alberto Giacometti, allowing us a first view of the Swiss sculptor’s works. In 2020, that gaze was symbolically returned in Stampa, Switzerland; Giacometti now welcomed, on his own familiar artistic turf, a powerful sculpture by Rui Chafes, Occhi che non dormono [Eyes that do not sleep], descended from La Nuit [The Night], which was presented in Paris and will always allude to the landscape in which Giacometti was born and worked.
The exhibition presented in 2023 includes the images and memory of these two earlier events and allows us to add a space of reflection.
Although aware of being in an entirely different museum space, with a specific architectural project and with new works, it is important to convey the essential aspects of that first experience that was simultaneously intellectual and physical.
In 2018, Rui Chafes guided us along a path from which we could not exit indifferently. The exhibition was entered through the inside of a sculpture (Au-delà des Yeux [Beyond the Eyes], from 2018), a space that opened into darkness, via an indecipherable and unpredictable route ill-suited to speed or hurry, instead demanding time for adaptation and revelation. Vagar [slowness] was therefore one of the three words that it seemed appropriate to add to the lexicon that links the two sculptors. Here we find an immediate statement of rupture, not just in terms of the visitor’s spatial relationship with the work, which is inverted, moving from the passive status of external observer to forming a body with it, but also in their necessarily slower temporal relationship.
The path that leads us to view Giacometti’s works through the inside of two of Chafes’s sculptures is not an easy one, travelling through a constricted space, echoing the exasperating process that tormented the Swiss artist for years as he attempted to represent what he saw. And this brings us back to one of the fundamental aspects of the construction of this project: vision. But for us to receive that experience of vision and revelation, we must enter a sensitive space, where emotion is possible. We face the darkness, the imbalance and the unknown, we hear the sound of footsteps, we can sense the smell of iron and the contrast of scales, we can touch the sculpture, or at least feel it like a wrapper or skin, which introduces a sensory dimension to this otherwise strictly formal experience. And indeed, this can be found in the senses present in its title: Gris, Vide, Cris.
The body, in its infinite possibilities, is the centre of the exhibition, the bodies created, the bodies of visitors, and the space that exists between them.
We know that the formal analogies between the two artists are irrelevant. In truth, the comparative protocol between the sculptors, or the model of duality itself (two artists, one dialogue) is eventually superseded. Beyond the two names, or the formal distance between the objects on display (and we have known for a long time that neither sculptor makes objects), what we are given to experience is a force field, permeated by the resonance of the works,6 as well as by that immaterial energy that, in many inverse ways, both artists pursued and in which they ended up meeting.
In total, the Lisbon exhibition adds ten works to the first edition. The immense generosity of the Fondation Giacometti in Paris has allowed us not just to keep all the most essential sculptures in the exhibition, but also to add a further four, which make this version even denser and its web of relationships more complex. The new works on display pose challenges, imposing themselves in the space with a very different materiality from the first sculptures chosen, more vulnerable and with less physical substance. They are medium-sized figures, heavy and majestic.
A new series by Rui Chafes picks up some paths and advances further along others, but in all the works created for this new encounter we find a way of deepening and radicalising the points of tension, as well as a play of oxymorons between past and present. Some of these sculptures (Nada existe [Nothing exists]) are a continuation of earlier forms. On the reverse of these abandoned, suspended bodies, where for the first time the artist rips through the silky skin of his sculptures to allow us to glimpse the roughness and scars of their construction, we find the first marks of this sculptural encounter.
Tu nem sequer me vês [You don’t even see me], from 2021, is a more recent sculpture, a defensive and vigilant body, made to live on a diagonal or on a corner, as an excrescent mass. A sculpture-gargoyle, it fulfils its historical function in the space, defending, dramatising, and draining. This gargouille (throat) seems to contain, in the powerful architecture of its elevated forms, another configuration of shouts or muffled, scattered sounds. It is as different as it could be to the exuberant and expansive form of the dying breath of La Nuit, and in symphony with the image of Giacometti’s bodies, silent, heavy, and significant, on the solid bases that hold them.
It is undoubtedly by questioning this integral element of the Swiss sculptor’s works that Rui Chafes develops his most recent sculptures, Aprendemos a esquecer I and II [We learn to forget I and II], from 2021, on structures that we could call ‘planes of support’ or ‘planes of suspension.’ Supported on these iron plates, as fine as leaves and precisely outlined (at a specific angle), these sculptures, far from holding on to the ground, are thrown skywards, erecting themselves like broken wings, in a gesture of impossible projection, as though the artist has inverted their function and, in a visual game, suspended on the ground sculptures that should be floating from the ceiling, thus maintaining their imponderable nature.
In this visual challenge, five years later, we thus witness the transformation of the light and its lingering trail. It is unusual to be surprised by an artistic experience that is so intense, which presents in a structural rather than illustrative way, and in exclusive dialogue with the artistic matter, fundamental changes to the aesthetic and ethical paradigm, which today shock the art world. Sustained in a very old conversation that he has been able to continue with his peers (Alberto Giacometti, among others), Rui Chafes keeps alight and in motion the questioning of art and its function in the contemporary world.
In this exhibition, constructed with no rigid script or agenda, we can recognise the intense reverberation of the pulsation of humankind, as we do in each of Alberto Giacometti’s fingerprints.
In 1966, Alberto Giacometti died and Bruce Nauman held his first solo exhibition. A chronological coincidence marking the end and the beginning of two careers separated in time and geography but united, interestingly, by the presence of another solitary being: Samuel Beckett. In Le dépeupleur [The Lost Ones] (1968–70), Beckett describes the inside of a huge cylinder with hard rubber walls and floor. The entire space is lit by a weak yellow light. The cylinder is inhabited by indistinct figures that are difficult to characterise, who move incessantly, carrying out precise actions, and travelling specific routes. This movement is the only source of sound in the vast silence that prevails. Figures roaming aimlessly, wandering through the half-light, also appear in the pared-down sets of Giacometti’s sculpture or in Bruce Nauman’s cruel theatres, where the characters repeat precise movements, obeying strict and absurd orders coming from no one knows where. Fear of the void and the need for dialogue in that void: a bare tree, lit by a pale moon, was the set created by Beckett and Giacometti for Waiting for Godot in 1961 in Paris. Their shared need to create a ‘double of reality’.
Giacometti followed a path of negation, of reduction, of austerity and asceticism, of discretion, that led him to create a scorched space. Space is the matter of his sculpture: more than empty wrappers, his figures are spaces or impossibilities of occupying space. Here, he presents evidence of the Human stripped bare of individual qualities, the Human made into a locality, a place, a space. The Human destroyed, pierced, dissected, drained.
The dryness, the radical rarefaction of figurative intentions, and the reduction of the figure to its own torture paved the way for modern sculpture: the sculpture of the conscience. Indeed, Giacometti’s greatness lies in his extreme and radical conscience, which constantly led him to try and to fail and to always consider art as an attempt devoted to failure. The voiceless language of impossibility: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (...) The expression that there is nothing to express, (...) no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express’. Both writer and sculptor shared the conviction that ‘no matter what, you must always work, always try, always fail.’ The works of both, with their radical reduction of Human fear into a frighteningly definitive world of corroded shadows, are forms of desperate humanism and among the most important works of this century—not for their formal reductions but for establishing the negative space as a form. The artist gives us a testimony of what is possible to him. Just that. In some cases, that itself is a great deal. With Giacometti, we are moved by his choice (in its tragic dimension) of the almost-nothing, of the rarefaction of the presence, of eternally failing and starting again. In particular, we see the work’s capacity to perpetuate the (shadowy) myth of sculpture, the sculptor’s tradition. The ability to do this by showing only what is in between: that which lives in the corners, in the folds.
Along with Joseph Beuys, Giacometti is arguably the greatest sculptor of post-war Europe. Viewed through the lens of time, the two artists managed to establish a valid and solid language of resistance that could face up to the vitality, radicality, innovation, and capacity for affirmation (and for theorisation of the artistic practices themselves) of American sculpture. Starting with David Smith, and through land art, minimalism, and post-minimalism, American sculptors radically overhauled the history of sculpture. In Europe, however, post-war sculpture experienced a period of weakness and alarming impotence, probably the consequence of moral and physical disintegration due to the corrosion of a continent in ruins. Only some European artists were able to leave the rubble behind, feeding from that traumatic memory, and create the body of a Work. It is interesting to note that, unlike Beuys, for example, the memory in Giacometti’s work is a non-historical memory. It is relevant, at this point, to recall Jean Genet’s incisive words: ‘Never, ever, is the artwork aimed at the new generations. It is an offering to the innumerable people of the dead. And they either welcome it or reject it (...). Although present, where do these figures of Giacometti’s belong, if not to death? And they return from death at the slightest summons from our eyes, straight back to us. (...) To the dead, Giacometti’s work conveys the knowledge of the solitude of all beings and all things, and that solitude is our most certain glory! (...) Giacometti does not work for contemporary or future generations: he sculpts statues that finally rapture the dead.’ A very hard art ‘able to filter through the porous walls of the kingdom of shadows.’
As a sculptor born in 1966 (the year of Andrei Rublev by Andrej Tarkovsky and Au hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson), I live with the awareness that it is necessary to continue to carry the flame, as was the desire of Joseph Beuys, who, the previous year, had sat for three hours explaining to a dead hare how to look at pictures.
In Portuguese and English
Rui Chafes, «La Nuit», 2018, with plaster sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, «Le Nez» © Sandra Rocha e Guillaume Pazat
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