Photography and Memory at BES Arte & Finança and at the Berardo Collection Museum

By Sandra Camacho

Rui Calçada Barros, The mirror suitcase man #5, 2004
Courtesy of the artist
Leading Portuguese private contemporary art collections BESart and the Berardo Collection form the basis of two thoughtful photographic exhibitions currently held in Lisbon. Interestingly, the shows not only feature works by some of the same artists but they also seem to be founded on similar premises. 

The Banco Espírito Santo (BES) has supported the arts for a number of decades, particularly the decorative arts. Thanks to the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation, the Museum and School of Portuguese Decorative Arts opened in 1953. An interest in contemporary photography led to the establishment of the photography collection - BESart - as well as the launch of the annual BES Photo Award in 2004.

Júlia Ventura, From here to eternity,1983
Courtesy of BESart

Curated by Luís Serpa, Transition Territories #11 – The Experience of Silence is held at the BES Arte & Finança multifunctional space and runs from 6 June – 19 September.  The show features works by Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Christian Boltanski (b.1944), Helena Almeida (b.1934), Daniel Blaufuks (b. 1963) and Jorge Molder (b.1947), among others. The inherently nostalgic black and white images contribute to the exhibition’s evocative feel and offer a glimpse into the diversity and importance of the bank’s photography collection.

Grouped into seven distinct sub-themes covering broader subjects including ‘Territory as Landscape’ to more personal and traumatic ones such as ‘Territories, [Precarious] and Unstable Existence’, the show is most successful under the themes of ‘Territories and Mind Body’ and ‘Territories and Silencing’. 

Eurico Lino do Vale, Retratos de homens, 2003
Courtesy of BESart

‘Territories and Mind Body’ features works by Helena Almeida, Júlio Ventura (b.1952) and in an adjoining room, by Eurico Lino do Vale (b. 1966). Facing the same direction and exhibiting an eerie likeness, do Vale’s portraits of anonymous men surround the viewer. At first glance, the men seem to belong to the same family but upon closer inspection, one begins to question this assumption. Circulating around the room one falls in and out of this certainty.

The question arises: are the faces only similar because of their position in relation to each other or are the men actually blood related? Given that no names are shown, it is impossible to know. However, as the viewer continues the same repetitive circular movements around the room, it is one’s own bodily relation to the pieces that takes centre stage. 

Christian Boltanski, Lumières (blue pyramide - Claudine), 2000
Courtesy of BESart

Further along in ‘Territories and Silencing’, Christian Boltanski’s work Lumières (blue pyramid – Claudine) (2000) stands in conversation with Sherrie Levine’s Pyramid of Skulls: 1-12, (2002). Besides the obvious similarity in their pyramidal configuration, the pieces supplement each other with regards to discussions of the archive and its role in memory, death and trauma. The repetition found in Pyramid of Skulls: 1-12 is reflected in the use of identical light bulbs in Boltanski’s piece - almost as though each light and each picture become stand-ins for life and death.

Sherrie Levine, Pyramid of Skulls: 1-12, 2002
Courtesy of the artist

Insomuch, similarities can be found with Between Memory and Archive, an exhibition curated by Ruth Rosengarten and held at the Berardo Collection Museum from 3 July – 29 September. Established in the 1990s and opening as a museum in 2007, the Berardo Collection focuses on modern and contemporary art. As such, it is unsurprising that both shows have some artists in common.

Marcel Duchamp, Boîte (Serie C), 1958
Courtesy of the Berardo Collection

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Watertowers, 1988
Courtesy of the artists

Taking a somewhat historical approach to the archive with the inclusion of works by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (b. 1934) and Boltanski, the exhibition progresses from ‘Consignation’ to ‘From history to fiction and back again’. Although the first few rooms successfully convey a broad notion of the archive – particularly through comparisons between Duchamp’s Boîte (Série C) (1958) and Wolf Vostell’s (1932-1998) Suitcase V40 (1971) or via the interesting approach of Allan McCollum (b.1944) with regards to repetition and his Rorschach-like drawing series – the jump to the sub-theme of ‘Performing the body’ is rather discombobulating. 

Christian Boltanski, 364 Suisses morts, 1990
Courtesy of the Berardo Collection

Installation view with works by Allan McCollum and Robert Wilson
Courtesy of the Berardo Collection

For after viewing a series of monotone works, one struggles to understand the sudden change into sequences of a colourful go-go dancer and nudes. Adding to this, while at BESart the sub-theme on the body and performativity is consistent with the rest of the show, at the Berardo Collection it is difficult to comprehend how some of the exhibited works fit into the broader themes of archive and memory.

Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, After fifteen days of fasting II: Self-portrait, 1930
Courtesy of the artist

In the end, although Between Memory and Archive has some positive moments such as developing associations of trauma, memory, reality and fiction through the works of Daniel Blaufuks, Boltanski and a few others, the exhibition does not create such an interesting progression. The flow of Transition Territories #11 – The Experience of Silence is made easier from the get-go due to Serpa’s selection of solely black-and-white works. This interesting choice makes his show more cohesive and easier to follow. 

Installation view with works by Daniel Blaufuks and Vivan Sundaram
Courtesy of the artist

Transition Territories #11 – The Experience of Silence at BES Arte & Finança
Artists: Helena Almeida, Dieter Appelt, Daniel Blaufuks, Christian Boltanski, Rui Calçada Bastos, Luís Campos, Hannah Collins, Tacita Dean, Hamish Fulton, Rodney Graham, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Sherrie Levine, Craigie Horsfield, Eurico Lino do Vale, João Louro, Cindy Sherman, Vera Lutter, Jorge Molder, Abelardo Morell, Thomas Struth, Júlia Ventura

Between Memory and Archive at the Berardo Collection Museum
Artists: Helena Almeida, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Daniel Blaufuks, Christian Boltanski, Marcel Duchamp, Allan McCollum, Chantal Joffe, Tracy Moffatt, José Luís Neto, Gabriel Orozco, Pedro Quintas, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Augusto Alves da Silva, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Vivan Sundaram, Jemima Stehli, Wolf Vostell, Robert Wilson, Francesca Woodman