Almourol Contemporary Sculpture Park
Oddly enough, in a country dominated by its capital city Lisbon, one needs to go to Vila Nova da Barquinha, quite far from the cultural center, to discover one of the most interesting and accomplished experiences of contemporary public sculpture in Portugal. The only things that connects these two municipalities is the Tagus, a polluted, murky river that carries contempt for capitalism and for environmental neoliberalism while still remaining the structuring element of a region and of a landscape that were built in unison. It is precisely on the banks of this dark line of water that the Almourol Contemporary Sculpture Park (designed by landscape architects Hipólito Bettencourt and Joana Sena Rego) was created, not just to contain the occasional flooding of the city, but also to allow a truly democratic artistic project that would be mindful of the playful yet contemplative nature of a leisure park. There are no predefined paths here, but rather an attempt to translate a nomadic exercise and an experience (one could describe it as phenomenological, not reductive but expansive) within the landscape. The park is an invitation to wander, meander and daydream. However, the work of Alberto Carneiro, Sobre a floresta (On the Forest) (2012), stands at the entrance of the park, because of the central role of Carneiro in the contemporary artistic landscape of Portugal and of his approach that combines this double nature of art in public parks: playful and contemplative, even spiritual.
Next to a mirror of water, on the saturated green of the lawn, Carneiro sets up a series of granite columns, installed in concentric circles. Imagine a forest of hard trunks of granite, placed along several rings of different diameters. Once inside, the visitor immediately captures its mystical, cardinal composition that greets the elementary nature of the universe. To enter this sculpture, to observe the landscape through its now mineral trunks, is to establish an immediate, “nirvanesque” link with the cosmos. To the “west”, “earth” equals “life” equals “art”. To the “north”, “water” also equals “art” also equals “life”.
A little further, Ângela Fereira conceived Rega (Sprinkle) (2012) as an interactive object. This utilitarian work refers to industrial and mechanized sprinklers while serving as a swing for children to play. The artist plays with the language of associative memory to bring industrial objects in the realm of art. The visitor wonders whether the piece is a work of art, a practical object, or if these questions have any relevance and if Ferreira simply created something radically intuitive, immediate, and genuinely unpretentious.
Still in the realm of leisure and daily life, and that of time and local history, Cristina Ataíde created Rotter (2010-12), a sort of fish-trap used for traditional freshwater fishing. The simple act of enlarging the object places it in a dimension that is not only conceptual but also physical since it allows the body to enter it. Placed on a small embankment near the river, the trap is not intended for regional fishing but for humans, who can easily fit in the sculpture at this scale, held up by the red color that contrasts sharply with the green neutrality of the lawn and of the row of willows that weep above the river, and by the seemingly imprisonment of the body, as if it had been sucked inside this large toroid shape.
Before that, Xana tries a critical perspective with Casa no Céu (House in the Sky) (2012), a modular construction of plastic containers commonly used in supermarkets, reference to consumer society. The material and the formal simplicity create the possibility of a house for everyone, easy to set up, ready to live in, and expressing the vernacular typology of Portuguese houses. Strange, precarious body within a natural landscape that is definitely artificial but undoubtedly organic, it is hard to know whether this work refers to consumer utopia or social utopia.
Zulmiro de Carvalho, with Linha da terra e do rio (Line of the Earth and of the River) (2012) and Fernanda Fragateiro with Concrete Poem (2012) call upon the poetry of the line and of drawing. If in the first work the line is constructive, indicating and highlighting the line of water and earth drawn by the river and its banks, in the second one it is the tool that allows a reflection on the act of constructing itself. The line is therefore an architectural element that defines spaces, places and landscape. Also intimately interacting with the language of architecture, Carlos Nogueira offers Casa quadrada com árvore dentro (Square House Containing a Tree) (2012). The sculpture is almost of an emanation of philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s work, where the different poems and verses on the nature of space (welcoming and expansive, material and immaterial, physical and metaphysical) resonate. A concrete structure emerges from the ground to protect and enclose a tree. The human body gives way to the vegetal body for the almost timeless duration of art. The space is formed in relation to the tree and not to human whims. In S/ Título (Untitled) (2012), José Pedro Croft reflects on the dematerialization of the landscape and the reflection as the possibility of another landscape and urban reality. Four long vertical mirrors are installed in the continuity of the Tagus, with slight orientation distortions. The landscape is reconstructed by the reflection, revealing new dimensions and concealing others – a gigantic play on appearances, illusions and re-creation.
With Trianons (2012), Joana Vasconcelos adapts the pavilions of the royal and aristocratic promenades that were strictly reserved to these classes under the old absolutist regime and opens them to all the visitors of the park. The multicolored plastic ribbons bring life to the space and withstand time as well as the games of those who hide and wrap themselves in them, probably creating one of the artist’s most interesting works of art because of its historical and subversive dimension.
At one end of the park lined with high reeds, Pedro Cabrita Reis erects a powerful block of granite in the surrounding vertical environment, playing with appropriation and references to historical and architectural shapes. Close by, the Almourol Castle and its dungeon defy the surrounding elements, and so does Cabrita Reis’s sculpture Castelo (Castle) (2012). In the same fashion, the artist brings back the old marks and symbols of architectural and urban powers. After all, verticality is still the perfect expression of power.
Along the edge of reeds, close to the river, a strange creature curls upon itself, turning its back to the world, indifferent to everything. Rui Chafes’s Contramundo is exhaustion by weight, the unbearable weight that seeks out relief or salvation in isolation. Unnamable, indescribable, this black, powerful creature with organic shapes is the synthesis of all of Chafes’s work: between gravity and lightness, fall and asceticism, Contramundo is also the body that comforts by its peacefulness and by the affirmation of a gesture that surrenders to absence. In fact, no other work can better crown this vaguely peripatetic, exhausting journey, in a park which architectural and landscaping nature does not go against the site where it is located but offers encounters with some stunning examples of public sculptures that, in turn, sublimate the landscape, stretch the time and the space in which they are embedded, at times playful, contemplative or reflective. An exhibition, at last, that features some of the most important names of contemporary Portuguese sculpture.
Free admission, open daily.