We live in trying times. News of violence, political unrest and terror reach us constantly and reports come in faster than we can process. We have greater access to information than ever before but truth has somehow become debatable. We’re more connected than ever but we are more in danger of insulation and isolation.
So what are we to do? What role can the artist take in society? What path forward can a curator hope to illuminate? These are questions at the heart of the Kunsthalle Lissabon’s programme, the Portuguese art institution that is currently exhibiting at the David Roberts Art Foundation as part of DRAF’s Curator’s Series – only the second time an institution rather than an individual has been invited. In ‘Greater than the Sum,’ the two curators from the Kunsthalle Lissabon, João Mourão and Luis Silva, have taken full advantage of this rare privilege.
Countering the discord found in the outside world, there is a prevailing tone of community and hospitality through the first rooms of the gallery. Take Laure Prouvost’s installation ‘GDM future franchise’ (2017), the first piece in the show. Prouvost has created a small, strange tea room, complete with tables propped up on books and chairs haphazardly ‘fixed’ with pieces of wood. The cups and coarsely made ceramic pots containing tea indicate a clear request – Prouvost is asking you to sit down, pour yourself a cuppa and chat, bringing a social act that usually takes place in sitting rooms and cafés into the gallery space. The installation is both the first thing you encounter and the last thing you see before leaving, offering space for a moment of reflection and connection.
This spirit of community is echoed in the second room of the exhibition where Diogo Evangelista’s ‘No Future in that Place’ (2012) is installed. A projection of a moon during a lunar eclipse fills one wall, and a group of black-and-white silhouetted women revel in the orange light. It is a joyful scene, and the phenomenon seems to have prompted the women to engage in an unknown ritual, inspiring solidarity and transformation.
Where these women are silent and their actions remain mysterious, in the next piece in the exhibition, André Guedes’ ‘Nova Árgea’ (2012), a community is given voice. A rough wooden hut displays a series of photographs accompanied by a narration, and we are slowly introduced to the fictional group’s daily activities. They are shown to collaborate constantly, a theme picked up by Jonathas de Andrade’s ‘2 em 1 (2 in 1)’ (2012). Through a series of photographs and technical drawings, de Andrade demonstrates how two single beds can be dismantled and reassembled to become a double, literally displaying how collaboration can create a space that’s more inclusive.
It is a generosity of spirit that is picked up in Amalia Pica and Céline Condorelli’s collaboration. Condorelli’s piece, consisting of a desk from a Royal Mail office, a ladder and book about friendship, allows you to step up and view Pica’s three works on paper which show designs created with stamps. While each element elevates and completes the other, the pieces are nevertheless coherent in the artists’ respective practices – Condorelli has long explored supporting structures and Pica’s art often returns to issues around communication. In their collaboration, however, they are able to skillfully use actual cultural systems to study social support systems in greater depth.
That isn’t to say that the exhibition is entirely without discord. There is a dark side to community, and the curators acknowledge it with the last piece in the show, Mounira al Solh’s video installation ‘Dinosaurs’ (2012). Drawing on four John Cassavetes films, the piece reenacts scenes of drinking. The dialogue is in Arabic but the emotions in the moments are clear. There is intimacy and loneliness, aggression and tenderness. After all, in friendship there is ample room for conflict, tension and coercion. Returning through the galleries with this fresh in your mind, cracks can start to creep into the other works, shattering any illusion of a community idyll.
Still, this is an exhibition that actively engages with notions of kindness and solidarity, showing that connection can be a powerful force. For Mourão and Silva, friendship is a critical mode of engagement. It’s political and rebellious. It’s an act of optimism and faith. These days, such a stand is outright galvanising. When I left DRAF, I felt something that has been in short supply lately – hope.