Thursday, 4 June 2015

Something is happening in Evora

The banner hanging on the façade of the Forum Eugénio de Almeida (FEA) in Évora made me smile ... "What museum do you dream of?" is a kind of promise or invitation to reflect and to dialogue.

It looks like that's just what the FEA and curator Filipa Oliveira seek: "(...) the beginning of a new path and the first moment of a new relationship between the FEA, the city of Évora and Portugal; (...) a programmatic reflection around the dilemma of how to articulate the singularity and specificity of its local context with the challenges posed by international contemporary artistic creation and the currents of thought associated to it."

The exhibition I will visit is called "The Coming Museum". Quoting once again the curator: "An exhibition-manifesto. ‘The Coming Museum' is exactly that: a mission statement. The show asserts these principles not by listing them, but by presenting a number of questions that may help us reflect on the role and importance that spaces like FEA have today. 'What is the purpose of art and art exhibitions? What is the purpose of curators? What is the purpose of museums? How do we, the public, relate to this entity? Do we desire it? Do we need it? Do we want the museum we have the right to or the one that is given to us? And what do we want this museum for? What role do we want this museum that we dream of to have in our community?’ (...) "

I loved it! I loved the positioning, I loved the questions, I loved - yes, yes, yes! – the simple, accessible way - but no less intelligent or knowledgeable, for that matter – in which Filipa Oliveira seeks to communicate with visitors. This is not the time for her to show off, trying to impress us (or turn us away...) with long and complex sentences, with flowery words which, when together in a sentence, convey no meaning and with references to names that few among the visitors would know. The curator does not seek to put the common visitors (the non-specialist visitors) 'in their place”, to ignore them because they’re ‘ignorants’. She is trying to involve them, to share her thoughts and to communicate with them.

Having said all that, I think, however, that this attempt for a new positioning, engagement and the promotion of a joint reflection and dialogue still needs to better consider a number of details, in order to meet the expectations of the FEA, the curator and also the visitors.

Let's see how my visit took place:

Yona Friedman, Street Museum (2008-2015)

After the initial smile caused by the banner, I approach the building. Still in the exterior, there is an installation entitled "Street Museum" by Yona Friedman ("acrylic boxes, community objects", one reads on the label). On one of the cases, people wrote "Our museum" and "The best museum in Évora." There are objects (those called “community objects”?), such as empty wine bottles of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation arranged in a box. There is also a lot of garbage. Is there some meaning here or was there no cleaning service? I'm puzzled...

I enter the building and at the reception I am given a multi-page brochure on the exhibition "The Coming Museum", which I put in my purse to have a look later. For now, I want to visit the exhibition. I look around and I don’t know which way to go, there’s no signage. I walk into a room that is not the exhibition I am looking for. I come out and I start going up the stairs. On the wall, a statement: "The museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections". I don’t like it, don’t agree. After they have asked us what museum we dream of, why are they making such a statement...?

Luis Camnitzer, The Museus is a school (2009-2015)

I reach the first floor. Here's an exhibition, yes, but I don’t know if it's the one I am looking for, it is not identified. A nice gentleman, properly identified, introduces himself as a volunteer and says he’s at our disposal, should we need something. He confirms that this is the exhibition "The Coming Museum ". From there, and for much of the exhibition, he’s always following us, giving explanations, anticipating moments. We didn't ask for this...

In the rooms and in relation to the works exhibited, the approach is the usual: labels with the artist's name, the title of the piece, the materials it is made of. In most cases, it all remains meaningless for me. I never dream of a museum like this, but it is the museum I normally get...

Carlos Garaicoa, Draft City (2011). Wood, watercolour pencils, plexiglass, metal.
I'm sitting in a dark room where the film of a performance is exhibited. At one point, and because I'm sitting, I remember the brochure in my purse. I look for it, I open it and .... revelation! Texts, contexts, everything I felt I needed and I would have expected to find on the exhibition walls, is here, in my hand! Things start to gain meaning, including the installation outside the museum or the statement that bothered me when coming up the stairs. I feel more orientated, more prepared to reflect on what is exhibited. As in the museum of my dreams...

They didn’t tell me at the reception what the purpose of the brochure is, it’s a pity. And if the purpose is indeed to provide the necessary information throughout the visit, considering the length of the texts (moreover, without a distinction between Portuguese and English, which makes us think that we have to read the double), it would be necessary to have more seats in the rooms and in places where visitors could read and see the works at the same time. Ideally, these texts (well written and, in general, accessible in terms of comprehension) should have been a bit shorter so that they could have been placed on the wall, next to the works.

Click on the image to enlarge.
It is in this brochure that we also find the introductory text by Filipa Oliveira, the one I cited earlier. We feel surprised at the fact that the curator addresses the visitor in a informal way. It is unusual in Portugal and it is not consistent with the way the question on the banner (and on the back cover of this same brochure) has been formulated, in the usual formal way. We are also left thinking that the question, the one that sparked a smile and seemed to be inviting us for a dialogue and joint reflection, is probably a rhetorical question. The curator herself tells us in this text what museum we should dream of: "[a museum that deals] with many of the issues we think as essential to this debate: participation, sharing, diversity, exploration, community and the creation of new narratives and new pespectives". I don’t disagree, on the contrary. But if the question on the banner was sincere, this would be the moment for the curator to admit, rather than making a statement, that this is the museum she dreams of and that his dream may or may not be shared by visitors, that she is willing to discuss it.

The details I have set out here resulted in the experience in the exhibition "The Coming Museum” not fully corresponding to my expectations. But something is certainly happening in Évora. The reflection that Filipa Oliveira shares with us, the way she communicates it, the exhibition and parallel programming which are not limited to the FEA, but expand elsewhere in the city of Évora, are, I believe, the right ingredients to achieve the positioning that was initially announced. I will try to keep in touch. It will be with great pleasure, curiosity and expectation that I will follow FEA’s work, which might just become the museum I dream of.

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