From nothing to exorcism

Helena Almeida, Lisboa, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian


Republished in Helena Almeida: Tela Rosa para vestir [catalogue],
Madrid, Fundación Telefónica, 2008.

Sweet anarchy (D. Davies) or "epistemological dadaism" (Feyeraben) – these are some of the expressions with which significantly one has tried to name the present state of knowledge, including scientific (post Positivist) knowledge. And by a major exclusion of parts, the same might be said of knowledge. What is important to underline in this general and... "catastrophic" overview, is that the simple re-emergence of the new, novelty/(vanity) is less legitimizing than the production of difference: paradoxical, paralogical, rnenipaeic... Throwing it into a systematic opening, a vast sea of indeterminateness, a rigorous methodical adversity. Besides which, frequently the intended innovation does not go far beyond a fashionable arrangement of the old, already codified... a reactionary purveyor of "new" easy readings, parallel to other consumerisms; the new, itself, is derivable from the system, as is segregation or request: or, in the final analysis, comes to be used and absorbed by it in the improvement of respective efficiency. On the contrary, the search for instability, the paradoxical blow tends to effectively alter, sooner or later, the pragmatism of knowledge and power, expectations and tastes...

Myths and great narratives explain certain human states, merely in a local and limited fashion. They do not invent, because they do not invent the unknown: the real difference always arises outside the rules of the system. For example, the idea (ideology) of the family, besides its pragmatism, always correspond to an appearance of logic and closure; to the definition of a cohesive and determined social state ... protected with blood and ideas, teeth and ideas. And meanwhile, its systematic reality is indeterminateness, rift and instability... Soeren Kierkegaard never solved the problem: either cruelly seduce Cornelia, waiting for the day when "woman may be transformed into man": or face marriage as aesthetic legitimacy. Marriage is choice in general, as a decision of existence; and he concluded: "Although nature is created from nothing, although I myself as an immediate personality am created from nothing, as a free spirit I was born from the principle of contradiction, that is, I was born by the fact that I chose myself".

The epiphany of the Work (of Art) in the cultural discourse that involves us corresponds to an early ingenuous, later desperate attempt to assume the death of the sacred, the death of God. In this sense, the artistic adventure of so-called Western culture (from the 15th to the 19th centuries) begins as an unsuspected profanation and continues as a paralogism in the face of socio-cultural systems. This adventure would (will) eventually die at the edge of our century, "the 20th century, the era that does not die", – in the words of Almada Negreiros who, of course, would see in it the equivalent of K4 Blue Square. But the thought of Almada is not considered to correspond to an ingenuous futurism. Futurism in general, including ours, can only be voluntary, a pure invention. There is a history of ideas that explores this will, this ingenuousness, typical of a gambler. It is the "profound will-faith" of Rabelais, the wager of Pascal.

When we identify the avant-garde, or a rift, one is dealing with a "minimal" life. But profanation no longer has a meaning (other than operational, didactic), though Festive Society still constitutes an alienated utopia. To be able to think of it in terms of risk and a clean conscience is to live now in the future. "Paradise now." And so, since profanation is devoid of meaning in a society where everything is profane, neither does it make sense to insist on the creation of Works (of Art) which, as Hegel intended, would have "an end in themselves". It is not by chance that Hegelian philosophy can be placed at one end of the evolution of thought that can be established in the axis of Heracleitus/Hegel/theory of catastrophe.

But profanation, more than a state of affairs, is a structure, (our) knowledge of which corresponds to a diachronic mode: the fruit of time, the illusions of history. A happening, a "time", a slowness, in which we still participate. Also, the way to the Festive Society is diverse, contradictory and multiple, meandering rh rure onl' blooms on the surface of knowledge. The vanguard of this advance is a single one, though everything there seems confused and diverse. There was the great directly provocative phrase: "everything one sees is false" (Tzara), "everything the artist pisses is a work of art" (Schwitters). It was a question of denouncing and foreseeing material or bourgeois pseudo-truths, the system, which was to deteriorate into the present consumer society (where even communication directly creates non-communication). But from the first, not only provocation: the ethnology of Schwitters and ready-made objects of Duchamp already contained the richest aesthetic propositions for those days, and especially the aim of the Work (work-of-art-that-finds-justification-in-itself-rivalling-God). Today provocation is in the field of prophylactic. Or it only has the reach of hygiene. There is more to be done ... To risk, to gamble on dissent.

The history of that profanation is, as we have said, marked by a time, a slowness. But from the beginning the basic structures of a future Festive Society are present, and it is not by chance that the history of utopias accompanies all this. These basic structures would be basically eroticism (human love) and intimism (the family), the transgression and return of the Prodigal Son. If it is true that in some regions, as in Italy, for example, where ancient culture has left living roots (that is, still working structures), the dialectic of the sacred and the profane appears in the consciousness with evanescent glow and superficiality, only to capsize immediately either in academic idealism or gloomy realism, in the most long-lasting and ardent nuclei of our culture, in the regions where the first great social organizations (the bourgeois states) were to arise. Hence the profane, the Work (or desire for it) does not appear immediately as such. Though it does not intend to be a divine presence straight away, as happened with the icons of the high Middle Ages, for example: the autonomy of the work tries to constitute an offering to God.

Eroticism (love), intimism (the bourgeois family) attempt the creation of a protected space, closed and intimate, which at the same time is of divine and human creation. Mirror of God, mirror of the profane. The" Arnolfinis", with the order-beauty-luxury-calm-voluptuousness of Baudelaire, we are witnessing the weaving of a complex structure with its theoretical opaqueness/transparency, the reading of which begins with the history of hereticism and ends with exploration torn apart by existential anguish.

So, anguish, erotic love, and intimism arise in differing doses whether as problematic of the bourgeois work-of-art, or as the edge of the past in many anti-art attempts of the avant-garde. Socially these values constitute a decisive bourgeois creation, and though marked by the "narrative" label of humanism, such creation is damaged by the presence of divided man, the part separate from the whole, the hand on one side, intelligence on the other, feeling without consent isolated and exalted, simple taste justified and justifying, closed.

But as we have said, that attempt at consensus would not resist structural truth whose most important elements are evident from the first bourgeois masterpieces. Interior-exterior dialectic, the principle of every open work, the principle of destruction of the Work, a profound identity between profanation and anguish. Anarchy, eroticism and intimism, human love and family, etc. We could also study this subject through other fields, topology, phenomenology, structuralism, for example. Let us say, to sum up, that from the beginning an attempt has been made to create a space for love independently of Love (of God).

Obviously it is a question of an inhabited space. On the other hand this structural rigidness, this profanation would be, from the point of view of living, heretical and paradoxical: a new living-space for it. But the same workshops that conceive and produce the "Arnolfinis" (poetics of objective intimacy, of eroticism, and of the family, all with trappings of sacredness), at the same time produce in the Ghent altar-piece one of the last attempts at imaginary synthesis of a global world faced with the earthly nakedness of man and woman. In any case the structural way towards the modern was traced even though this meant the passage of centuries through an ambiguous creation, the work of art, where the opening to the world would be presented more and more and in fact hypostatized from the real. In the National Gallery the "Arnolfinis" open to the outside world, to visits, seem to be everyday not only as a reflection of some transcendence or other. But immediately they shut off this desire in an effort of representation. A heretical desire that is only revolutionized by the modern desire of a Festive Society which, in fact, will have nothing heretical or profanatory, not being satisfied by mere representations. That is one of the reasons why the aesthetic object and principally the work-of-art, mortally wounded, are followed by the aesthetic process.

An open system. Time and sarcasm

In this new structure rigorously established in its essential lines from the 15th century on, the representation of the external world necessarily required the invention of a series of specific visual devices. Especially landscape. From the representation of landscape to the election of Nature (with a capital N) is also a long embroidered stretch which goes via the Divine Marquis de Sade and slips on the naturalism-realism of the last century. It is also the history of looking, from inside and out, of opening and closing. A time, a slowness until arriving at modern consciousness and serenity, a world without centre, without Father or without the Name of the Father, without God. A world in which "je ferme le paysage et j'ouvre l’objet" (Merleau Ponty). In which objects no longer exist as such, and give way to processes, relationships between objects.

Meanwhile, such slow meanwhile, deceptive, and where (to continue using the image of the path and history) not everything is a step forward, much is Penelope-like retreat. Words also die, their semantic net works enmesh and dialectic, more than to open-the-object, is often used to justify the system.

That is, stopping, slow time, landscape. This even seems to be the fiercest destiny of an instrument for freedom which began by justifying and exalting the existence of the Prussian state (that is, the State). It is in these interstices of a slow and often retrograde time that the dialectic may arise as an apparent force of inertia. Time is saved then through caricature, through sarcasm, paradox and Carnival. Tragic nobility turns farcical. All this is profoundly connected to our mediate cultural involvement, but with the most immediate.

DADA provocation, answering back, are always part of the other side of that history which is the history of humour and laughter. But not to be confused with bourgeois comedy, with the superficiality of spectacle, with the avatars of distraction It is a question of a sexual love that really ends up in bed, which is erotic. Humour-love. As a working method this humour has but one rival in modern society, which has not shown all its strength: the desire to take on, to include in itself the Other.

Interdisciplinarity, interculturality. From American campuses to Mays still to come (May 68 in Paris; 25 April in Portugal are Mays past) to admit alterality is certainly one of the most dangerous and most promising characteristics of our time. Without really realizing it, all avant-garde (trans-avant-garde or post avant-garde) pulses in this direction, though sometimes with cold, distant methods. It is also a question of a bedside or pocket paradigm able to measure the "futurist capacity" of an individual or institution through conviction/suspicion, lucidity/opportunism, enthusiasm/coldness, etc. so as to accept the Other, the different, the strange and even the exotic. In practice this may also be translated by a certain difference or hostility for the similar, the familiar... It is still a reaction. It is in the face of these two opposing forces that so many seek others in their own body, with all that this implies.

My body is your body. Your body is my body. Or further: not being face to Face with God, I am now alone and irremediably face-to-my-face, which is the only way to discover myself in other, the Feast.


For example, why in 1970 in one of the most advanced centres of Europe, does the German Buthe advance at the same time as Helena Almeida along the same lines and, of course, totally unaware of each other? Such a situation would also explain why the present progress of Helena Almeida can be seen as being totally coherent with the past, without any significant influences from "out there". Helena Almeida is at present following a line that is at the same time analytical and non-romantic, but this was really happening (almost) since the beginning, but along sidelines like the questioning of a painting or humour.

We could say that one of the keys to understanding the "most advanced" aesthetic process of our time lies in the way forward and not in understanding what is being called analytical art. Beyond the jargon and specific ways of the "school", beyond the value that is, or may be, attributed to respective achievements, the important thing is that this "school" has translated into communicable terms (school-wise) one of the highest moments in aesthetic perceptiveness of all time, of our time, (“We are in the 20th century, the era that does not die"). By definition, theoretical transparency and practical opaqueness should meet at the limit and merge into one line. This would be the case of the English group "Art & Language" and above all the American Joseph Kosuth. It is interesting to point out, in passing, that Kosuth considers himself to be in a post-conceptual phase and occupies himself now with what he himself classifies as anthropological art. The "discovery" made by Kosuth is that it is impossible to eliminate ideology from any aesthetic operation. It is clearly a discovery already made in other fields, but in this case arises with special importance and significance for aesthetics and modern communication techniques. Such a discovery corresponds to the recognition that a point zero (an empty operation) is absolutely necessary, not only in writing but in communication in general. In other words, we are living at the climax of a decisive crisis, a break: "Is necessary to be absolutely modern", said Rimbaud; avant-garde, trans-avant-garde or post-avant-garde others might say... "What do mere words matter in vague semantics being reconstructed from the very basis?"

Deconstruction and provocation, questioning and humour (or even scorn) are only primordial elements on the catastrophic but necessary way towards a break and something new. Utopias, "paradise now" and madness or marginal or questioning savagery would be other elements that come together here. We have stated (in 1972, at the exhibition "From Void to Pro-Vocation" AICA-SNBA) that all these elements are pro-vocatory... the vocation is what is New or even paradoxical. And it is by no mere chance that in that exhibition Helena Almeida was competing for the conclusions we have arrived at in a work significantly entitled The Family. This work dates from 1970, a year in which the artist's outlook had reflected the past, and had suddenly discovered that the dialectic of inside and out could correspond to "two equivalent forms of inertia".

One could also say that the artist had discovered that the destruction of traditional painting could only in itself (and this was certainly happening in 1970) correspond to a useless, outmoded, inert operation.

What was important then was to destroy the family picture, or rather destroy the terms that family was made from. The other pictures from this time are sarcastic (though polite and good-humoured), with such titles (and targets) as "spring", "bride", etc. Painting, and art too, would be in this case a family target: one of the pictures, for example, represented "a picture", suggesting a traditional perspective.


All this made a certain parenthesis, time to look over "what had been done, a step into the blue, a step into laughter. (Whether you like it or not Helena! Blue as of God, like heaven, laughter of the Devil like hell: to be able to be moved and laugh at the same event, at the same time, as you said, is not only the way towards a certain wisdom, but also an opening to being torn apart ... with no way out in sight.)

From 1969 Helena's drawings were looking for another rigorousness, an overtaking of systematic contradictions in the milieu; shyness, tearing apart, accepted up to a point. Another rigorousness, beyond the perceptible, and the representation of it, on the way to rediscovering oneself starting at zero, which is always a communication zero: there are no absolute zeros.

In this phase, over the next few years (today) Helena has turned back to her own body. That which, in the jargon of "modernity" could be classified as "body art" was in fact a rigorously (and still using the same jargon) pre-conceptual attitude. To try and clarify these names and nicknames may help the understanding of the Helena Almeida case.

Let us say from the start that turning back to one's own body and especially in terms of some “body art" or other, has nothing to do with so-called narcissism. As we all know, Narcissus was drowned in his global image, which, as a megalomaniac, he was in love with. Now, the "body"-artist can go as far as hatred for the body-as-appearance, that is alienation. What is important for Almeida is her-own-body, which hardly coincides with the body itself. For example, this may be only an involvement: like the house, like the family, like the city. The house-involvement is the house involved: the house signifying and the house signified. Can one understand the difference? Beyond all that (beyond all accidents, in which signified and signifying can even change places) there is significance. This is the field of conceptual "art", pre-conceptual in the case of "body-art". And why this reservation with a definition we wish to be scrupulous about?

Because in body art, and in spite of everything that has been said, the body is still a material obstacle.

That is, it still belongs to the society of the spectacle.

Although in minimal fashion (in case one insists on a rigorous definition, and, let's say, one for the specialists), Clarification for the non-specialists: this minimum spectacle, which may yet be characteristic of any body operation, frequently takes on spectacular appearances and even sometimes aggressive ones. We could rightly say that "the most intimate is sometimes the most external" or like Don Quixote: "Facts are the enemies of truth". What is important in the body is not the apparent spectacle, strip tease or some visible gesture, but that which in all this is entirely conceptual, imperceptible, evanescent, though not necessarily transcendent. So, in fact, what? Let each person call it what he will. I shall use the term common to anthropologies and utopias (Festive Society, precisely as opposed to society of spectacle). I call it gift.

Body art is body-giving. A huge operation. Because to give one's body, but the body-itself, is to give oneself entirely. It can be assumed in many ways, as discipline, as hygiene, as teaching and tactics by example, as an anxious question with no concessions ... or even, as an act. When Cravan gave himself to the sharks to eat he was making body art. As an act, inarguably. (However, in an act like this there is all the rest: example, supreme discipline, practically and theoretically, absolute confidence in the destiny of the body-itself, and of course: hygiene.)

But let us come back to Helena Almeida, who-doesn't-give-herself-to-the-sharks-to-eat. Though she does give herself to some invalid commentary, some provocatively aroused. Of course this matters very little and besides coincides with a frequent artist’s fate. The artist or whatever we wish to call him has nothing to please, and even less to produce what they expect of him. This is the work of producers of "kitsch" or of the producers of a "kitsch kitsch", according to definiton of Harold Rosenberg in which "mid-cult" is disguised as highbrow, tears for Death-in-Venice, Surrealist decor for elegant houses.

Since 1969, subtly, rigorously, Helena Almeida has followed the line of respective gestures. The line of gestures, the out line of the body. And let us repeat it: not any body, or even one's own body, but the body-itself. The Body gift, with all the characteristics of its own. Because whoever gives, gives something.

Gratuity. Something which of course has to do with the body of Helena, an artist, daughter of an artist, mother of an artist, wife of an artist. A body of an artist. Who can doubt it? At a first stage, this body giving is not totally alien to previously assumed contradictions. For example, Helena appeared wrapped in a sheet (oh intimacy!) disguised as a Roman matron (oh maternity! oh empire!) but those attributes or preoccupations gradually disappeared to leave the painting, Helena's body, the body oO)i.~ painting. "Af~ as idea."

For he who may think that all this can be decried as gratuitous, art for art’s sake and vanity of the privileged "in the face of the grave times we are going through", we would remind him not as a scholar (which of course we are not), but as a provocation (or pro-vocation): If anyone doubts the decisive and gravely immediate importance of going into the notion of gift let him study anthropology, and above all rend Marcel Mauss. Read everything he can. Helena Almeida did not, to be sure. But through profound intuition and truly suffered (or enjoyed) work, she has discovered a rigorous and indeed modern way. She is an aesthetic operative who no longer produces works of art as such, but rather documents (photographic, filmographic, graphic) about her-own-activity, which is a true essay in gift.

An exemplary case, the modernity of Helena Almeida, an authentic modernity which has caused her to be sought after in a growing number of international events, which owes very little directly to-what is-done-out-there, very little to worrying about setting one's watch by other people's watches, but rather to a profound coherence, a great faithfulness to herself. An exemplary choice-of-herself.

Exemplary for whom?

Helena Almeida's present work is, in a way, an exorcism: the aesthetic practice of a negative theology, through the exaltation of one's conscience. This work, or rather its present state, has, as we have seen, a coherent past, and the memory of which gives strength to what she does here and now.

It was in 1971 that the principal aesthetic operation that has led to the present problematic and practice of Helena Almeida began: the invention of what we could call freedom of line, with the notion of line covering a vast field, from the most traditional notions with respect to DRAWING to its use according to Derrida's definition of archiwriting. These "drawing" lines go beyond the drawable surface, and into the field of the studio, the house, the city...

In a way, it is the beginning of a constructive stage, generally speaking. In particular we could say it is a question of a (re)birth of subjective consciousness (in the Hegelian sense, consciousness and the world, things; consciousness of self; in self and for self).

It is the struggle for freedom, including in this case, freedom of aesthetic intervention. It is the way, of course, of the unhappy conscience/consciousness, inevitable in any great artist, a thirst for the contradictions pointed out by Hegel. (Let us say in simpler terms: the struggle of consciousness for its freedom, in spite of the world, things ... labour, which is the state of the slave. In this particular case: freedom for family reconstruction, both through involvement and against it.) Assimilation of photographic technology. Photography as allusion to painting and drawing.

Photography as a double of the body, in Barthes' sense of "camara clara".

Let us continue with a quotation from Artaud about the performing function of the body which could apply to Helena Almeida's photographs: "C'est l'état de mon/corps qui fera le Jugement Dernier".

Photographs fix states, but as if each one were (might be) a Final Judgement.

(Let us point out, as it is a fact whose relevance goes beyond the merely biographical, that in terms of photographic "operation", it is very important that Helena Almeida has the collaboration of her husband, Artur Rosa, also an artist, architect).

Since 1980/81, Helena Almeida has been using black as exorcism of catastrophe, of mourning. As conquest of freedom, happiness-beyond-body-death. But black is still external, improvised and indeterminate.

Helena Almeida: "To live black was also an experiment in expansion in an uncontrollable and living space. It was as if my interior escaped to the extremities of my body, and with no further refuge, left, branching and spreading out into an indeterminate exterior". This explanation is an exact characterization of the struggle of the unhappy conscience with itself and with things: still an exterior indeterminate world. Let us note: the word refuge.

Happiness. Happiness and freedom are defined in a field that is contrary to any funeral rite; consenting, nevertheless, to a series of harmonic accords with anything that might suggest rites of passage. Black in Helena Almeida, in these more recent works, is a vast rite of passage. Towards freedom? Yes; but also as a refuge. Of course we are thinking of the character (animal? man? man metamorphosed into aniJllllm~) im "Der Bau" by Kafka. The burrow gets ever deeper as a refuge, in a series of rites of passage, exterior-interior, as far as an inviolable... impossible intimacy.

Helena Almeida: "It was this sensation of inconsistency, abandonment and at the same time plenitude that led me to arrive at this type of space-levitation/falling. This led me to immediately create points of support, hiding places (like someone who uncover traps), a useless strategy, full of openings. The interior images always came to me so direct and overflowing that it was as if they turned black going forward and they spread like a drop of ink in water, thinning out – without my being able to avoid the fact that these images were the interior of these same images, that this work was the intimate part of this same work".

Kafka's character would not be expressed in any other way. In fact it is a question of reaching NOTHING, but always as Hegel understands it: the difficult complete freedom of conscience, of oneself, reached only step by step, trench by trench, rite of passage by rite of passage. The picture (in-self) and the interior of the picture (for-self). A passage to a safe refuge of freedom.