Alternativa Zero: Polemic Tendencias in Portuguese Contemporary Art

Alternativa Zero, Lisbon, Galeria Nacional de Arte Moderna


THE SALON. The permanence of French words is the real proof of the presence of a certain European way in the field of Portuguese culture; the vernissages and other similar events reach a diversified but safe success up to now – may be because their taking place could be endured by a reduced number of people, who constituted precisely the milieu a social micro-class, more or less seIf-supporting, with its conservative reserves, its inner vanguards. "We are in Portugal three hundred people making believe they are cultured" as a writer of the 40's used to say picturesquely. But the "others" should not be entirely left behind since from the milieu they could reach a vague but full of prestige knowledge almost a substitute of the aulic stories, enjoyed with more or less authenticity. In fact, this is not a purely national phenomenon and it could be described as extensive of an evolution of modern society where culture gets loose from the great dying myths and tries the adventure of an autonomy, torn in pieces, because in the limit, not attainable. (Cf. Almada: we are nowhere). Let us say that this hypostasis of which the "Salon" is a symbol (and the Museum, in general, another one) can be lived in many ways by common people, from the owner's pride such in some forms of the Spanish esperpento; up to the false illusion of possession; a kitsch way which affects mainly the medium classes.


THE LIMITS. All idea of jury being put aside, (which is in general a disguised form of power, inevitable if...) we based ourselves in first place on two quite similar previous experiences, From void to Pro‑vocation, in 1972; and Projects-Ideas in 1974. Starting from this first core and with some restrictions imposed by other conditions – we shall refer to later – we went as far as possible not only in order to investigate individual activities achieved after 1974, but also in the course of the so‑called Opinion Club experience (1975) and through the "borrowed" exercise of our critic activities. We also took as starting point the decentralizing attention; for this purpose the work undertaken in common with the Círculo de Artes Plásticas, of Coimbra (Óbidos, 1972: Aggression with the name of Joseph Beuys; Coimbra 1974: Anniversary of Art; Coimbra, 1976: participation in Art in the Street).

That choice – and this is a fundamental limit and fundamentally an anti salonard limit – aimed not at the constitution of a representative group except of itself. Therefore no former and "outer" values have been considered (quality, the best and most authentic, the most original and the most representative ones are reasons or pseudo‑reasons we have not considered for our counting), since in rigour terms, value shall be confused with our cutting in a kind of amorphous, fluctuating mass (Saussure): the contemporary aesthetical activity. The rightness of such cutting shall never be known in advance: only after confrontation, after the dialogue and after the decurring study one may eventually come to an evaluation game. And this if we succeeded in building our own model, an image of our own activity, a standard for an inner measure.

Technological slowness, but cultural also... Real opposition to the age of moon travel and of computers, but not for counter‑cultural reasons which could make preferable to us the non‑sense reasons of madness, the Feast Society, the Paradise‑Now. It is what Jorge de Sena pointed out quoting a forgotten author:

                                              I believe that it must be returned
                                              to great stupidity the dignity
                                              it ever enjoyed in this Academy

There is still an ethic limit. I do not mean the aesthetics‑ethics binominal of such a great importance for the discussion of modernity and of which we shall talk later, but a much more common thing: a simple morality for domestic uses. National or international, we refuse to consider any experience where a pig is sold in a poke; for example "art" or "vanguard", to disguise mean commercial interests. It is obvious. But it is necessary to stress it, mainly when, incautious foreign observers may be fooled, by taking part in Lusitanian little parties of dubious commercial and ideological impartiality.

Tzara had already warned, "all that can be seen is false". This is true, especially to the veiled gaze of the inhabitants of some Marienbad... Madame’s breasts are false, even with no silicone shots. Explanations based on what happened last year or in the time of preceding generations are just baby food or the food of rich families off spring who can pay the doctors lessons. Such an imperialist origin search is the last alienation in an almost-fatherless, almost-godless society and where the "work of Art" is still wearing coat and tie, pretending still to replace these lost and increasingly less sacred values). Instead of God, or Daddy. Beauty. New names are invented. The word People, for instance (Puppets for the People) is often used as a metaphysical entity, an excuse for lack of imagination. Against these bows and those reasons pretending to be historical, ZERO ought to be one of our limits and thence TO BEGIN, as Almada Negreiros would say.

This does not prevent, it rather complies, to a critical perspective.


It is any one going after one's idea or one's idea going after any one.

Eyes to the future do not exist as yet (therefore all that can be seen is false). We know or bet in the way of Pascal a certain coherence with past. But this cannot be demonstrated completely. Any look to the world is already a theory and therefore implies a murder – in practice – of all the Present. The word perspective is the way to bring some apparently diachronic water to the synchrony mill. Thus the reader who is not quite familiar with the deep and serious enjoyment of paradoxes is alerted: the words perspective, evolution and other similar ones are used here only as figures of rhetoric. We want to start and are onIy taking out of past that what may be used for the definition of this zero, of this wager.


All this could be summed up, in spite of certain diverging aspects, in this opening phrase of Merleau‑Ponty:
"...Je referme le paysage et j' ouvre l'object" (I close the landscape and open the object).

But it is evident that once the object is open, painting becomes effectively and strictly a mental thing. And global.

It was romanticism and Wagner who had the first intuition of a grandiose "global work of art" in which the isolation of different arts would disappear under the hegemony of theatre and music. In the modern era there has been much talk of the integration of the arts. Architecture, or even urban planning would lead the arts reducing them, as the expression of precise, functional aims to the terms of a City, which in spite of a technocratic conception, might be considered as the heir of the Ideal City of the Renaissance. The "notion of design", for example, with its tendency to globalize, would be sufficient to effect the reduction mentioned above, substituting the great conceptions of individual artists by a vast organization of technocratic and functionalist tendencies out of which would be produced the designs for the shoe, the building and the city. The arts would die reduced to the state of simple decorative forms, merely expectable as such. This finite conception (and in this aspect opposed to that of Wagner) is vulnerable on all sides. Not taking freedom into account, ignoring one of the most disturbing problems of man; the contradiction between his ephemerality, the obvious obsolescence of all systems and cities, and the aspiration of infinite human life.

And how have "the arts" come through all these conceptual tempests? Let us say, mortally wounded...


A factor of disintegration, the really modern work of art contains its own destruction. A painting does not allow a frame, not a sculpture a plinth, which would separate itself from the real involvement which it contributes to create.

A rupture therefore in the concept of space and involvement. In this space all of us are actors ready to live life as an aesthetic experience; and authors  – that is absolutely responsible. Space in this case is an involvement created on the basis of our thoughts and actions and the opened objects... In this context art has no meaning, nor "materiality" as such; everything will be eminently aesthetic. And everything will be eminently ethical. Many roads lead to this Rome in a world without a centre... and without Rome.

"Desire devours objects" Hegel said, but as for aesthetic objects the author of the Phenomenology of the Spirit reserved a nobler death, on the margins of the "death of God2. In fact, we can understand with greater and greater clarity and not always without melancholy that only desire leads to eternity, to deep eternity... (Thus spoke Zarathustra).  

Thus spoke also the Dane Kierkegaard, in the first half of the XIX century who in all his work views in an entirely modern way the decisive problem of the relationship between aesthetics and ethics "because aesthetics is not the evil, but indifference"... "and ethics corresponds to choice".

On proposing a balance ("enten-ellen" between aesthetics and ethics he defines in responsible terms the total freedom of existence, "I was born by the fact of my having chosen myself". Here aesthetics and ethics are balanced dialectically. Constant awareness and the necessity of choice were later put forward by Duchamp on a par with aesthetic indifference; "ready-made" total perspective indifference, complete pertinacity of freedom. Schwitters would say "everything the artist pisses is a work of art".


Irreversible direction of transformation, dialectical cut with the past dragging violence and incomprehension in its wake, refusing slow and staid reforms; mutation of the aesthetic into ethical; definition of future utopian freedom, the aim of all present actions. A first step, freedom from all forms of eloquence, reduction to zero of all discourse, freedom of the word. Duchamp is to Saussure as Marx is to Freud.


In fact "Tucuman Burns" was an aesthetic-political conceptual operation carried out in 1968 by the Rosario Group from Argentina in close collaboration with the Union Congress – which replied in practical terms to all these questions. One could also refer to the "Art Workers Coalition" America 1969. The "Artists Liberation Front" formed in London in 1972 and many others. But all this underlines one of the polemical aspects we would like to attribute to Alternativa Zero. Within a choice characterized by semantic exactitude (semantic zero) to attempt an internal discussion on the state of aesthetic research in Portugal, using as a model that provided by the works and ideas contained in this exhibition themselves, here in Belem (Lisbon). Will this be possible, in spite of the cold, of all the "cold" which attack and sap the strength of Portuguese Culture? That's what we are going to find out.