OF SUBTERRANEAN LIFE

 

Limestone and water have drawn a flower on the ceiling of Casa da Cerca’s old cistern.

Visitors coexist in a subterranean-life installation in the cistern – once, an almost unreachable location; now, a space open to lookers-on, idlers, observers…  

The installation is based on the hypothesis of a re-flooding.

As we come down the stairs, we find tables and chairs belonging to the Almada Town Council.  

Below, in the reservoir, other Council objects (tables, chairs, wood and iron structures) are piled in column-like formations.  

A matter of rescuing and preserving the moment, the instant, by moving objects to upper levels.

Elevating rough, mutant sculptures, communicant beings. Characters. Pit-dwelling, subterraneanaquatic beings.

Raw clay sculptures, which in case of flooding would vanish. They would begin to decompose, leaving behind a few traces of dust at the bottom of the water.

What would remain? Tables, stakes, chairs… And absence.   

 

 

DEAR MOLE, I BELIEVE YOU ARE CHEATING AT CHESS

 

CR (Catarina Rosendo): We could start with something like: take a look at what is in the cistern (pieces of furniture, domestic appliances, creatures on top of all that, a feeling of untidiness and of something out of the ordinary) and ask: what has happened here?

 

ST (Susanne Themlitz): On my second visit to Casa da Cerca we met. We talked. Then we went down to the cistern. I was considering the possibility of creating something for it. At once, the vague notions I had about the history of this place, of the cistern, combined with the marks on the ceiling. I suppose this is the sort of thing that may happen to anyone who visits a place like this – I felt at once the desire for changing or manipulating the cistern’s history, or adding something to it. The historical fragments (certainly already removed from the facts, too) and the gradual transformation of this deposit took me at once “on a journey” – but I was in doubt about whether that journey was to the past or to the future. Then, I decided to create an installation of a hypothetical present condition, by resorting to the memory carried by the cistern. At the time of my visit, Casa da Cerca was undergoing a profound overhaul, and that may have further strengthened notions like the transformation of space, the adjustment of structures and the erasing or highlighting of remains.

 

CR: While being interviewed by Margarida Medeiros for Artlink, you said: what interests me in the process of combining visual elements and familiar, not to say everyday, situations, is that you get to manipulate at once the values and contents, promptly archiving them, according to different systems of selection, in your associative pigeonholes. Your work can be (and it is) approached in terms of archive, memory, archaeology, anthropology. But there are always elements in it that, objectively, cannot be taken for granted, there are always gaps. Games of association can help us to create an archival system, but they equally establish boundary zones between terms (by casting both light and shade upon them), thus creating room for uncertainty. Some have detected in your work the quality of strange familiarity, or Unheimlich, which I also find in the contradictory activity of erasing or highlighting the remains in the cistern. Freud quotes Schelling, who writes: “Unheimlich” is the name for everything that ought to have remained… secret and hidden but has come to light. What is interesting about Unheimlich, I think, is that the coupling of the terms “familiar” and “strange” includes the interval that exists between the two, where uncertainty may manifest itself. The cistern installation crystallises a fragment of time that is full of uncertainties: from the past (we do not know what has caused that situation, or when it has happened/will happen; if it is yet to happen, then we must not look at what is there as something real, but instead use those elements to reconstruct a previous reality); from the present (the imminence of the fall); from the future (rescue and escape; or sedimentary decomposition, if that situation is to continue indefinitely)…  And there is also the idea of the journey.

 

ST: The idea of the journey leads precisely to the uncertainty you have mentioned: we start “journeying” because of a lack of neuronal control, because we are confronted with something we are unable to define with precision, or which will not fit into our system of reasoning and values. Consequently, when I speak about a journey, it is a fictitious journey. It may begin with the process of perception or much later than that. A suspended moment. A suspended place. But I have my doubts about this state bringing us back to uncertainty, as you say. I am much more of the opinion that the reconstruction of ideas, images, connections and values, which occurs during these journeys or divagations, rather enriches our outlook on existence, acting perhaps as a prop that allows us to go on daydreaming. It is an attempt at understanding situations and capturing ideas, from an ego-adapted standpoint. Our memory is like a model in which, from time to time, walls, frames, levels are switched around. The brain is a sea of pictures: it inscribes information, creates, invents and likes giving itself to manipulation. There are experiments in which people were shown photomontages depicting, for example, a boat trip they never took. Yet, many of these people proceeded at once to minutely describe moments of that fictitious excursion. Memories that change according to convenience. Emotion leads us on. It filtrates, values, selects and activates connections. The work in the cistern is part of that process. Ultimately, it is not just the place that is intruded and inhabited by a transitive condition: that can also happen to the memorial organ of any visitor.

 

CR: Your visitor, who is a much more active and involved subject than the simple spectator, dedicates him/herself, while wandering around, to the suspension of moments and places. Perhaps that “suspension” may be read under the light of the Lacanian notion of significant discontinuity, which the unconscious brings to the experience of reality, opening it to the exploration of new forms and meanings. Many of your works feature this notion of double suspension, and Of Subterranean Life is one further instance of that: there is a suspended moment, that is to say, an interruption in time’s normal flow, which contains pointers for the reconstitution of the past and the exploration of the future. And there is also a suspended place, not only in its generic sense (the work and its environment), but most of all literally: the Subterraneanaquatics and their accompanying structures occupy the whole upper section of the cistern, between the walls and ceilings. They are thus situated above eye-level, away from the traditional perspectival axis, and demand a different kind of perception or comprehension. Is it possible to map out the connections activated in the visitors’ mind by this suspension, this temporary condition that is materialised in the cistern? In other words, to understand how this condition stamps itself on their memorial organ, taking into consideration that this is a suspended moment/place?

 

ST: Having a frog’s-eye or bird’s-eye view of things (of which fine examples can be found in architecture illustrations) fascinates me, because it puts us from the start in an uncomfortably comfortable position. Comfortable, because in principle it focuses us on the task of being nothing more or less than observers. Uncomfortable, because not only are we unable to have the illusion of mapping out a situation/condition, due to the distance, but our physical dimension and condition are also put into question. So, the visitor has a view of a horizontal map, on the plane above him/her. There is another vertical map in which the visitor is a sub-being, placed on the cistern’s lower plane, below the structures and objects. Another plane can be found on the stairs through which he/she came in. And there is also the cistern’s opening, with its inaccessible lighting-hole. Planes. Or layers. Earth layers. Cranium layers. Labyrinthine excavations.After visiting the cistern, the p.p.o. (perceptible/perceptive organ) climbs back the stairs and returns to the outside, always inside its own memorial labyrinth.

 

CR: But let us yet remain inside the cistern for a little while longer. At the start of the descent, the visitor sees nothing at first, because all the installation is outside the view allowed by the stairs’ disposition – even though he/she has already been prepared for this vision by an accumulation of objects at the top of the stairs. The dislocation of the objects from the centre of the cistern to its margins, together with the various planes and the bird’s-eye and frog’s-eye views, bring a subtile unease to a situation that is, on several levels, a familiarly human one (and we may return here to the Unheimlich). This unease is not due solely to the strangeness of the Subterraneanaquatics, or to the precariousness of the stable unbalance (or unstable balance) of the structures supporting them: it mostly comes from the combination of multiple points of view. The visitor’s physical dimension and condition are put into question because the device installed in the cistern inverts the modes of perception: the clearing of the central area and the view from above turn the cistern into a tribune or anatomical theatre, where the ongoing dissection (of souls or bodies) is performed on the visitor, who passes from curious bystander to object of curiosity, from analyst to analysed object, seen from the upper plane, where the Subterraneanaquatics are installed.

 

ST: Anatomical theatre… I feel unsure when I hear you talk about theatre, for there is no staging here. But from the historical point of view it seems okay to me. Now, all we have to do is find out who is being studied here, by means of dissection.

 

CR: Connections are activated between the visitor/visited and the unfinished-looking clay beings. Links are created between them, since these pit-dwellers are communicant beings… They are made of opaque, thick matter; their surface is rough and incomplete, their imperfection verging on formless. Yet, they are expressive enough to allow the visitor to project onto them his/her own experience, organising them around a story where the boundaries of truth and invention are not clearly defined, but which is, nonetheless, plausible enough to integrate the figures, as well as the strange architectures they inhabit, into a possible world. And that brings my mind to bear on doubles and reflections.

 

ST: Dimorphed doubles and altered reflections. I think that the appreciation of my work becomes less vitiated whenever I resort to such elements. I do that, not so much to achieve a surprise effect, but to free the piece from direct associations. Hence their form, which you call incomplete, almost like a transitional sketch. The sketch as the definitive form of an instant allows us to follow a thought. A dream. A journey.

 

CR: A moment of transition, like the one that drives the visitor out of a banal or common situation and into the cistern’s space – a location detached from the rest of the Casa da Cerca’s architecture, once united to the yard, but only by a conduit that carried the rainwater into it. It is as if, here, that transitoriness you associate to the pieces also possesses a concrete correlative in the visitors’ bodies and physical mobility, as well as in their memorial abyrinths.

 

ST: A cistern acts almost like a hothouse, an enclosed area in which the temperature is artificially raised. A device for laboratorial cultures. But does not any landscape feature always (or as well?) a clear concentration of objects, structures, vacuum?

 

CR: The landscape is often a part of your work, but here, if we feel like being literal-minded, it is absent from the space of the cistern-turned-into-a-hothouse. We may bring it in here, via the modes of viewing which landscape conventions have introduced into reality. Here, namely through the succession of planes that unfold before the viewer, the picturesque may be brought to mind. But if the journey is more mental than anything else, and if it is influenced by concepts like uncertainty, instability, or transition, then the sublime may be a more appropriate notion.

 

ST: Transition and water; the basement that lives under the landscape. With stalactites and stalagmites, mutant traces of the subterranean layer. A basement whose electric implements are also fed from the upper plane. Where the landscape eventually exists in a fragmented gaze or in a connect-the-dots approach, as in the printed labyrinths where you follow a line with your pen.

 

CR: A fragmented landscape, which the visitor is supposed to reconstruct through his/her memorial labyrinth?

 

ST: I have no idea.