Filipa Ramos and António Contador, Curators’ Lab, Guimarães European Capital of Culture
Through the residency and workshop, Revisiting Ernesto de Sousa in Kassel – an initiative of the Curators' Lab, held in Guimarães from November 28lh to December 1st, 2012 – António Contador and Filipa Ramos revisited the experience of Ernesto de Sousa – a multi-faceted man of culture and a key figure for Portuguese art during his visit to Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. Ernesto de Sousa left us with around 300 slides from this journey-concerning the exhibition, its artists, visitor and works. A considerable number of these images, previously scanned, were brought to Guimarães, in order to be observed, commented and discussed in a series of group sessions. The workshop proposed different approaches and ideas concerning Documenta 5, rediscovered through the documental gaze of Ernesto de Sousa, at the same time as it focused on the importance of this event for de Sousa's cultural initiatives and thinking. The present text is based on this collective reflection. It does not try to exhaustively describe everything that was said; instead it aims to share the core issues from the conversations that occurred during the workshop, illustrating several unexpected and surprising directions of the discussions.
1. Ernesto de Sousa in Harald Szeemann's Documenta
ANTÓNIO CONTADOR: The underlying guideline for this conversation is Ernesto de Sousa's journey to Documenta 5 in Kassel, where he met key figures for his thought and activity, in particular Joseph Beuys. This encounter appears to have been a milestone in his trip to Kassel, which leads us to think about Ernesto de Sousa's career up until 1972 and the motivations that brought him to Documenta in 1972. His initial training was in photography and his career was multifaceted-spanning theatre, cinema, art criticism and curating.
FILIPA RAMOS: Documenta was created in the post-war era by Arnold Bode, who curated and managed its first editions. Bode chose the small city of Kassel, close to Frankfurt, due to the fact that a large part of the town had been destroyed during World War II, thus ridding it of any strong identity. This relative neutrality allowed him to build a new cultural project linked to contemporaneity. The initial idea-of periodically holding a major exhibition, with a significant number of works and artists that address relevant issues within contemporary artistic practices-has been maintained over time, hence being called Documenta. Throughout various editions Bode successively expanded his working team.
Returning to Harald Szeemann and Ernesto de Sousa, I think the obvious programmatic breakthrough in Documenta, devised and implemented by Szeemann, was critical for Ernesto. Not so much, as some might argue, as a source of inspiration for his future activities, but rather as a confirmation of the work that he was then pursuing, in his interest in vernacular artistic expressions. It was also in tune with his attention towards more experimental and radical artistic practices and thereby made complete sense.
AC: Yes, Ernesto, like Szeemann, was someone who had a vision of the exhibition that was clearly at odds with a certain tradition of Salon that still remained in vogue in Portugal in the 1960s. Furthermore, he was one of the main opponents to the logic of the Salon as a space par excellence, for the reproduction of class cleavages between a few - a conservative, bourgeois, Francophile elite-and the others-, generally excluded from this universe and its rituals. In a text concerning the exhibition Alternativa Zero (1997), curated by him, and which is included in the book Ser Moderno ... em Portugal (Being Modern ... in Portugal, 1998) he stated the following: "The SALON. The permanence of French terms denounces the presence of a specific European mode within the fields of Portuguese culture; the vernissages and other comparable events had a different but secure destiny until to day-perhaps because their coverage could be guaranteed by a small number of people, who precisely constituted the milieu: a more or less self-sufficient social micro-class, with its conservative reserves and internal avant-garde movements. In Portugal, 'we're three hundred people pretending to be cultured' as a writer picturesquely commented in the 1940s. But the 'others' didn't remain entirely outside, to the extent that in the artistic milieu, a distant but prestigious level of acquaintance was achieved, almost a substitute for stories of the court, enjoyed with more or less authenticity. (...) Let us say that this hypocrisy, symbolized by the salon (and the museum in general, at another level) can be experienced by ordinary mortals in many ways, ranging from the pride of ownership to the false illusion of possession-the kitsch mode that primarily affects the middle classes". It is perhaps in this sense that Szeemann appears in the eyes of Sousa; as someone who dares to break with the tradition of the salon with mediatic and artistic aplomb. In Chroniques de l'art vivant (#32, August/September 1972) there is an interesting article by the French critic Irmeline Lebeer who visited Documenta 5 and whose content clearly addresses this paradigm shift in relation to the exhibition space in the wake of Szeemann: the museum (bourgeois, classist, exclusive) is no longer a space that is merely for exhibition purposes and instead fosters contemplation and aims to serve as a meeting place, where new life alternatives are discussed and debated, amongst other issues. A kind of laboratory for new forms of life, so to speak. The article begins with a quote from Maurice Blanchot, which is fairly instructive in this regard: "L'art n'est plus dans la perfection d'une ceuvre, il est nulle part, et si le Musée a un sens, c'est qu 'il semble être ce nulle part dont il porte l'inquiétude et la puissante negation"?
2. At Isabel Alves' house
FR: It all began when I found a reference to the 300 slides that Ernesto de Sousa had taken during his trip to Kassel. José Augusto França had mentioned them, and they had been used by Thierry de Duve in a conference in Lisbon (within the framework of the MA in Curatorial Studies organized by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon). After speaking with António, we decided to try to track down this material. That was how, in the house of Isabel Alves – who travelled to Kassel with Ernesto and has a substantial part of his archive – I encountered the problems of accumulation, deterioration, order and conservation that are inevitable to any archive and that are blatant in Ernesto de Sousa's archive, illustrating what I would call a proper "Archive Fever".
The slides are distributed across several boxes; and due to time and extensive handling they have lost the criteria and order that Ernesto had given them for his classes and public performances; nonetheless there are still boxes with different nomenclatures. Given the need to preserve this material, we felt that this initiative would be a great opportunity to restore and digitize the material, since many of to Guimarães – they remained in Lisbon – but we did scan a significant part of them which were jointly selected by myself and Isabel. Once in Guimarães, António and I decided to use a topographic criteria to organize them, dividing them between the exhibition's central locations, the Fridericianum and Neue Gallerie, which were photographed by Ernesto; we have left a third part for the outer zones, of which there was also a series of images. We divided the presentation between these spaces, plus some material that had no determinable location. In addition to the images captured in loco, there were also many slides that are photographs of books, taken by Ernesto a posteriori, to complement his own images. We saw the slides on the second and third days of the workshop [respectively on the 29th and 30th November 2012].
It seemed absurd that a group of unknown persons could enter a room and spend five days watching and discussing this material without having any idea of who the other people in front of them were. For that reason, and drawing inspiration from Ernesto's activities and high degree of sociability, we decided to commence the workshop with a walk from the ASA Factory to Monte de Santa Catarina, also known as Penha, thus creating an opportunity for everyone to get to know each other in a more direct and in formal manner. Regarding the slides, the first temptation what we most enjoyed was the opportunity at least for me, given my training in Art History – was to automatically try to identify the items observed, in particular the works that have been photographed. Operating outside an academic context, what we most enjoyed was the opportunity to spend hours watching and discussing these images, allowing them to speak for themselves, in addition to our inevitable penchant for taxonomy, without thereby losing the necessary degree of precision and accuracy. And in fact, we spent a great time observing what they had to tell us.
FR: The slides are not dated, but we realize that Ernesto and Isabel were in Kassel in September, at the end of Documenta.
Haus-Rucker Co.'s Oase Nr. 7 was very surprising. It's linked to the utopian architecture experiences of Ant Farm, Superstudio or Archigram. It's curious to note the wear and tear of the work, which seems to be patched and also the number of visitors, even though we're at the end of Documenta.
3. Ernesto’s interest in the text, in orality. The posters placed in the columns of the Fridericianum
FR: We started to identify a number of elements found in many of the photographed works. Would they be accidents? To evaluate this hypothesis, we identified certain recurrences, which in certain cases are related to important issues in Ernesto's career. The first of these recurrences is the large number of images of works with a strong textual component, or written words, of handwriting. It is curious to think that the first Portuguese Pavilion (which he curated in 1980) revolved around the artistic representation of the written word. We observed a particular interest in works in which text-and particularly handwriting and its aesthetic appearance-assumes a prominent position.
PEDRO BARATEIRO: In relation to the first picture, I thought it was amusing to see that the columns are filled with posters. Nowadays this would be impossible; the exhibition space became so sacred that this could no longer happen.
FR: It's funny, it's a temptation to say that things were freer than they are today.
PB: The approach is now much more museological...
FR: These days no one would think of doing this. And especially because they're posters, some even of Documenta. In this case Fridericianum's architectural structure was used to affix posters.
AC: And they're not just pasted posters, they're also interventions in relation to the posters themselves, collages on collages.
FR: Nowadays I don't think that anyone, not even Beuys, could affix posters, even in order to announce things that will occur in Documenta.
LÍGIA AFONSO: It's a bubble, it's a very specific moment in time [the 1970s]: this idea of freedom ... this visit [to the Documenta 5] is truly steeped in freedom. Especially Ernesto who, even though he had travelled widely, encountered an opportunity of exception and, imbued with this role of a messenger, collected this documentation that he knew wasn't for him.
FR: And he was visiting a place of freedom; he was living under fascism in 1972 and travelled to a free country.
LA: That's it. It's amazing, I remember talking to older artists and this fear really existed; that's what existed: black and white books and Gulbenkian scholarships, that was the country we had.
AC: There is an interview where Julião Sarmento speaks of how he and Leonel Moura used to go to the FLAD, just to leaf through Artforum and Art in America. What is being said is absolutely essential, the fact that Ernesto de Sousa, as an aesthetic operator, is above all an explorer and an aesthetic sharer. An explorer of new trends and proposals that were unknown in Portugal. An explorer and missionary, as Lígia suggests, he goes abroad with the intention of returning modified and to modify.
FR: In addition to the written word, Ernesto's photos reveal a great interest in Ben Vautier's works. He documented more works by Ben than by any other artist in the show.
AC: There seems to be an interesting parallelism between Ernesto's interest in the written word in Documenta 5 and the subject of orality. The idea that orality serves the encounter between the art works and the people who produce them. Orality as something which makes the meeting happen. There is a book by Ernesto de Sousa about orality that has just been published in Brazil.(3)
And here, once again, we find the written word, in a work by Robert Filliou [p.382]. Filliou enabled us to talk about the friendship between them-Ernesto and Filliou, and Ernesto's interest concerning Filliou's 'badly made' work, 'of doing things badly'. This conversation took us to another discussion, about the ingenuity and ignorance associated to the creative act and its fruition, to a certain need to return to purity and ingenuity that was connected, of course, to orality and popular art-something that was always present in Emesto's thinking: the need to think about the avant-garde from the perspective of the 'rear guard'. He often wrote the word avant-garde ("vanguarda") as "vain guard" ("vã guarda"). There are many word games in Ernesto's writing. He is a creator-hyphenator-of words.
FR: Often this desire to document the written word led him to photograph elements and projects of little relevance. Such as this intervention of an art therapist [p. 383]. There were small seminars with a highly de constructive language that questioned the concepts of figuration, notation and connotation. This shows that Ernesto loved word plays, understanding the potential of the written word.
AC: That's right. He had a calligraphic, graphic interest. I remember the artists he liked, such as Ana Hatherly and Alvess who both explored the written word, Almada as well, of course!
FR: Another issue arose when we realized that some of the photographed pieces didn't seem to be documented in the catalogue. The catalogue of Documenta 5 is very rigorous in terms of the artworks, but it is unclear in terms of their respective identification, because it contains no photographs or images. We were unable to identify many of the images in Ernesto's archive, which aren't in the Documenta archive. This one [p. 384] for example-we tried to understand what it was. It's quite interesting because it was a huge book, there was a series of photographs associated to this event – a performance with people lying down. António thought it was a work by Franz Erhard Walther, but we were unable to find any pictures that proved this. This is one of the examples concerning the items that aren't recorded in the Documenta archive.
AC: We also considered the hypothesis that the person handling the book was Isabel Alves and that Ernesto took the photographs on purpose. (Note by I.A.: Yes, you are right, it was me handling the book of F.E. Walther)
FR: And it's curious because there's a series of photographs from this book that also cover the documentation of the performances with the book that was on the walls. This seemed to us to be particularly curious because it seemed that he was interested in documenting this gesture and we didn't understand why – Was this allowed? He wanted to take photos and since he wasn't allowed to do so, did he take the opportunity that had been provided by someone turning the pages?
GABRIELA VAZ-PINHEIRO: Yes, the cord indicates something...
FR: But at the same time the safety cord is so soft, it almost seems that one could manipulate the book. Another image we were unable to find in the Documenta archive was the Death of a Hippie by Paul Thek, which is curious, given that there is a record of the artist where he regrets the fact that it was completely destroyed in Germany; I think he's referring to the transport back from Kassel. In relation to Thek's work, there are also many images of ARK, Pyramid [p. 385] that Ernesto photographed extensively: he seemed to be intrigued by that form and that installation, where we could sit at the table surrounded by sandy ground.
AC: Yes, and in the middle of this process we were presenting biographical data about Ernesto; in an attempt to understand why he chose these images rather than others, in an exercise of clear speculation.
FR: Yes there are interesting things, some of them quite obvious: the fact that he used slides-many images that perhaps, today, someone would take and then throwaway, because they lack quality, are blurred or shaky, but given that they were taken on film, they've survived to the present day.
AC: This relates to what we were saying about the source of the images; the fact that we suspect that some of them weren't taken by him.
FR: In addition to Ernesto's interest and insistence in photographing performance acts, another curious aspect is the contemporary nature of some of the pictures, such as One by threes [p. 386) by Howard Kanowitz. And one also begins to see how the mold has damaged the slides
AC: ... in some cases, producing very interesting images...
GVP: Was this in the catalogue?
FR: It was thanks to this that we knew it was by Howard Kanowitz. It is also interesting to carry out this exercise of going to the archive and seeing why it makes us remember things that we'd already forgotten-anyone who had the chance to visit dOCUMENTA (13), this year, is sure to recall the central zone of Brain, and see how there are references to the preceding Documenta(s). As is the case of the parallelism between Brain and these two display cases of Claes Oldenburg's Maus Museum, that was one of the five artists' museums in Documenta 5. Ernesto produced a series of photographs of the interior of the Maus Museum, in which we see how the objects were arranged within the display cases. There are impressive slides, in which we observe the enormous creative-destructive potential of mold, as in this image of the airship of Panamarenko [p. 387), in which this kind of violet galaxy has been created, or this image of the pavilion of David Medalla, where the depth of the image has faded. It seems that the memory has been consumed by time itself.
AC: There is the idea that Ernesto wasn't only interested in the work itself, but also in the display...
GVP: He almost photographs next to the work...
FR: Here the issue of display is even clearer and one sees the difference in the quality of the slides...
PB: But it's funny to talk about the question of display because in the Venice Biennale, I think in 2001 – the one that was curated by Szeemann – when you entered the Italian pavilion there was a wooden structure, with many sculptures of different historical periods, that was made by Szeemann. He combined sculptures from various periods in a kind of ramp – he created his own display. The exhibition was called Plateau of Humankind.
AC: In this Documenta there is also a section devoted to vernacular art; this is an ex-voto offering-there are very beautiful ex-voto offerings in the exhibition (a Portuguese photographer always takes pictures of ex-voto offerings and religious statues...). ln the 1940s [Ernesto de Sousa] had already demonstrated an interest in religious sculpture. What surprises us here, I think, is the possibility to see two things that didn't intersect with one another-popular art and absolute experimentalism. He realizes that there is a possible path to combine both elements and perhaps it was this aspect that most shook him at Documenta 5.
FR: And it is strange that it is something which he didn't do. For example, he tried the possibility of doing live painting, of putting together amateurs with professional artists to do murals in a spirit of freedom, but not to combine the languages of popular and contemporary art.
AC: Perhaps this junction between popular art and more experimental art has materialized into things that aren't so obvious. For example, his interest in the notion of ingenuity, that culminates in his interest in orality. In relation to Almada Negreiros and his work, he repeatedly refers to ingenuity, as the sense of setting aside 'written' knowledge, in order to open up to new paths. O encontro do Guincho (The encounter of Guincho) in collaboration with Noronha da Costa and the Oficina Experimental, 1969) is an example of this new artistic space, whose dematerialization of the produced object enables people to turn to the essentials.
RICARDO AREIAS: In the film Don Roberto, there's this aspect of the game, of childhood, of the serious side of childhood... This element of orality is integrated within his interest in addressing these issues, by combining philosophy with art, in order to be able to transmit his discourse.
AC: Once again the example of the interest in display-photographs of the works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude [p. 388].
GVP: The precariousness of the display is impressive... it's amazing.
FR: It is an almost scholastic form of display.
PB: Yes, it seems like an area that they created in order for these images to be placed there, it almost seems informal.
AC: There is also here, perhaps, a reminiscence of Ernesto's photographic past, his interest in ethnographic surveying, medieval sculpture, statues and costumes.
FR: We also found that some of the photographs were apparently taken out of context. There are three or four pictures that go in this direction and are extremely beautiful. Some in the context of Beuys' work [p. 389]. They appear to be superimposed over the photographs that Ernesto normally took. They're rather curious. They give me the idea that they were visiting the exhibition at the same time as other people, that they saw the rooms at the same time, such as the case of the boy with a grey jacket who appears several times. Or images like this [p. 390] – my favorite – a fabulous image.
GVP, PB: They seem to have come out from the paintings.
FR: And Ernesto's interest in photographing these people next to the Maus Museum? These people here [p. 391].
GVP: I think it's very clear that he is looking in a comprehensive rather than specific way to a work, it's the eye of someone who's travelling through space and who absorbs the actual experience of being there and which ends up by being transmitted in the angles, in the passers-by, in the spectators.
AC: And the star of Documenta 5: Beuys! [p. 392]. We commented jokingly about the fact that Ernesto's shirt was unbuttoned ...
PB: It was the 1970s, it was normal to have some body hair on display...
AC: Ernesto was fascinated by Beuys' clothing, in some of his writings he talks about his hat, waistcoat, etc.
FR: What was he signing? Perhaps an autograph?
GVP: Is there anything in Ernesto Sousa's archive that has been signed by Beuys?
PB: I think there's an image.
AC: What's funny in this picture is that this meeting between Beuys and Ernesto originated a discussion between the latter and José-Augusto França [JAF] who took Ernesto's obvious fascination with Beuys in order, we think, to counteract this figure head of a certain paradigm of art that was emerging at the time in Portugal.
AC: JAF's reaction is above all a tremendous distrust in relation to what was happening in art in the 1970s, in light of the proposals presented in Kassel. This mistrust translates more or less into the following, he says: "ok, fine, the proposals are anti art" – anarte as he satirically described them – but anti-art is still art"-As if he wanted to bring the avant-garde artist to their senses.
FR: It's curious because the text is indecipherable, it's unclear what JAF is talking about. He doesn't talk about the slides nor about Documenta...
AC: He didn’t actually visit Documenta.
7. The "Ernesto de Sousa" archive
AC: How were the slides and other items archived? Were they conceived in order to form part of an archive?
FR: He had so much material that he organized it under a personal archival system. He had already so much that I think the archive that he began to create while alive was some thing that allowed him to work. His house was very small and the amount of material was huge. A bit like Szeemann, who was obsessed with the archive.
AC: There's nothing in the way that he handled things while he was alive to suggest that his idea for the future of his archive was subsequently betrayed? Couldn't he have wanted it to be destroyed?
SUSANA GAUDÊNCIO: The people who surrounded him during his life felt the need after his death, to study it and that’s how the site came to exist.
AC: Are there people who followed in his footsteps, commissioners or artists who took on the legacy of Ernesto Sousa? Or is his work a 'closed' oeuvre?
FR: It doesn't make any sense to talk about the followers of Ernesto. Many have studied Ernesto, but no one who claims his paternity.
AC: A figure that left such a distinctive mark on his epoch that it seems that it was easier to have been beheaded by the following generation, thus changing the paradigm.
FR: There was a greater need to overcome França – because he imposed himself as a canonical and distressing figure – rather than to avoid Ernesto Sousa. Given that the latter was a much more experimental figure he dictated much less-and he was not a historian as França was.
MD: What is your relationship with the archive? What are the plans for the Ernesto de Sousa archive?
AC: I have a very abrasive relationship with the archive. I don't think that you should save everything. I believe there are things that should be forgotten. Which things? I don't know, but I know it has nothing to do with the fact that they are good or bad. I think that chance governs the selection of those things that remain and those that disappear. I believe in orality as a key means of selecting items, of 'archiving' things. In short, I don't think things should necessarily have continuity.
FR: But that's also paradoxical; when everything we're doing is made possible thanks to that which hasn't disappeared, that which has survived!
AC: Yes of course, but we could have achieved it without the slides, on the basis of the idea that there were slides taken by Ernesto at Documenta 5 in 1972.
FR: But that would be completely speculative...
AC: It's still speculative in this case. There are so many issues on the one side and the other. I think the archive is a starting point. If we didn't start with this issue, we'd have to start with another... there must always be a starting point.
FR: No, a point of arrival.
AC: A starting point...
AC: The existence of documents enables us to build something, rather than other possible constructions. The existence of this conversation about Ernesto Sousa or Szeemann doesn't deauthorize others that will come later. The greatness of their work resides precisely in this aspect, I believe, that we're still talking about them here today.
Ernesto Sousa, Ser Moderno ... em Portugal , Assirio e Alvim, Lisbon, 1998, p. 67.
["Art no longer resides in the perfection of an oeuvre, it is nowhere, and if the museum has any meaning, is to appear to be this nowhere place from which it conveys a sense of restless ness and firm denial."]
Revisiting Ernesto de Sousa in Kassel
Oralidade Futuro da Arte? Textos1957-1987), (Orality, the future of art? Texts 1951-1981 Edição Ponte Velha/Coleção Escrituras, São Paulo, 2012.
Our sincere thanks to Gabriela Vaz-Pinheiro, Lígia Afonso, João Covita and the entire Curators' Lab team. Thanks to Luisa Metelo Seixas for her outstanding editorial work. To Sofia Costa Pinto, Susana Gaudêncio, Thea Von der Maase, Ricardo Areias, Mattia Denisse, Max Fernandes, Pedro Barateiro and Ricardo Nicolau for their active participation in the sessions. A very special thanks to Isabel Alves for kindly opening the door to her house and providing us the slides. Without her, this workshop would not have existed.