"It's not easy being Portuguese," a curator told me during a recent trip to Lisbon. "We are neither in the middle, nor on the periphery." Lisbon is certainly on the geographic margins of Europe, but the city is not quite outside the European cultural mainstream. Lisbon's art scene is still emerging from the cultural isolation forced by the Salazar dictatorship, which was finally overthrown in 1974.
As one local art dealer pointed out, the old Portuguese aristocracy isn't interested in contemporary art, and the country's new upper middle class is too small and unsophisticated to provide much serious support for the contemporary art market. But things are changing.
In 1755, Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and the city center rebuilt in a modern grid. The rest of the city is exhaustingly hilly (as in Rome, there are seven of them) with tiny one-car streets, narrow mosaic-covered sidewalks and pedestrian-unfriendly drivers. Now as then, Lisbon is being constantly revamped, recently adding shiny new trams next to the river Tagus and, on the western fringe of the city, the enormous Centro Cultural de Belem, built in 1998.
In central Lisbon are the excellent Museu do Chiado, which was showing a James Coleman retrospective during my visit, and the prestigious Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. What the city lacks is decent galleries. You can count them on one hand.
Among them is Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art, which is located in the Estrela neighborhood. On view was an exhibition of color photographs by Susana Mendes Silva, dubbed "Life Cage" (many shows by Portuguese artists seem to be titled in English). Large, crisp images of male or female hands, alone or together, their fingers conjoined by a coil of scotch tape, lay bare the strange intelligence in the movements of hands.
Mendes Silva's video, titled Polaroid, is similarly mesmerizing. A Polaroid photo of the artist slowly develops out of pure whiteness -- a simple and familiar idea, though still a marvel. Watching the process again and again on a looped video repeats the thrill of exposure and also guarantees that we can never quite grasp that thrill.
At Galeria Filomena Soares, which boasts the largest gallery space in the city, two young artists were showing new work: Francisco Queirós and António Olaio. Queirós' gnomic, moody videos are shot against a black backdrop, and accompanied by ghostly blizzard-like sound effects. In one, white-shirted women carry white flags across the screen with quiet determination. It starts snowing, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the studio setting -- breaking the atmosphere and thereby revealing how intense it was in the first place.
In another film, a figure falls through black space while a subtitled conversation unfolds underneath, arguing whether it is capable of feeling. "But it's only a tree," it finishes. On a third enormous screen, a castle turret of Lego bricks eerily constructs itself in time-lapse photography. In the gallery adjacent, which is pitch black except for small fluorescent white lights half-buried in black sand, Queirós has arranged a gang of plaster-cast white rabbits. They seem to have been caught doing something faintly evil, and look up at the viewer with a malevolent gaze. It's deliciously creepy.
António Olaio, who showed his cryptic, cartoony paintings of "haunted china" and "40 years in an airplane" in New York City at Kenny Schachter's gallery in the West Village, is like many young Portuguese artists -- well educated, with penchant for using critical theory and philosophy in his works. Is Speech Faster than Thought? shows a thick black hose emerging from a woman's head and stretching across a cartoonish landscape. Perhaps Olaio is saying that the best thinking happens when there is no thinking.
Olaio also can write a good pop song. At Filomena Soares, a TV plays a music video called Pictures Are Not Movies, an addictively melancholy tune that lodged in my brain for days. In a creepy, whiny American accent, Olaio sings, "When I look at your picture / It makes me sad / Just looking at your picture won't make me glad."
Several studio visits were also on my agenda, including a tour of Julião Sarmento's work space, which is the size of a small factory (and has the feeling of a mini-empire). For his forthcoming exhibition at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York in March, Sarmento has taken quotes from Michel Foucault on Georges Bataille and transgression, and silkscreened them onto muddy white canvases. Next to the texts are Sarmento's familiar diagrammatic outlines of perfectly proportioned women in suggestive, sometimes self-destructive poses. Like all of Sarmento's erotically charged work, it is stripped-down beautiful and accusatory at the same time.
Life-size sculptures based on the same diagrams -- a woman crouching under a table, a woman bending over a table -- were wrapped up, waiting to be shipped to New York. In one image and sculpture, a woman (with the top two thirds of her head sliced off) sits alone in three rows of chairs. Not having time to fully absorb the dense Foucault quote next to it, I asked Sarmento to elaborate. "Well, it's a woman and 14 chairs," he answered.
João Louro, a young conceptual artist who shows at Cristina Guerra, has a studio virtually next door to Sarmento's. Louro makes road signs that give directions not to places but to philosophers (Wittgenstein was the furthest away, I think). He also had a wrecked Volvo in his studio, which he had stenciled with the names of apparently random historical events. Louro said it was about the past becoming intelligible only in the future. But it reminded me of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, hurtling backwards into the future like a drunken driver, while staring in horror at the wreckage of history in its wake.
Doubtful of the enduring power of images in the mediated world, Louro also makes canvases with very faded images, or no images at all. Along the bottom of these empty panels are vaguely suggestive captions, like "Giselle is writhing in the sheets." This cheeky and rather despondent trick becomes reverential in one work, a monumental six-meter-tall pure black slab of perspex bearing the caption, "At 9.02 am, with the north tower of the World Trade Center already in flames, United Airlines flight 175 slams into the south tower."
João Onofre, probably Portugal's best liked young artist, has something of the presence on the local scene of a reckless rock n' roll star. A visit to his studio, however, revealed a more contemplative, hesitant and highly intelligent artist. He showed his video performance works, including the celebrated Vulture in the Studio from 2002, in which a live vulture casually wreaks havoc in the artist's small apartment space. He has a show scheduled for I-20 in New York later this year, and claims to have no idea yet what he'll do there.
I didn't really expect to pick up a coherent picture of contemporary Portuguese art during one brief trip to Lisbon. What I did find, however, was very crisp, intelligent and dematerializing. Today's art world is borderless, really, so it doesn't matter if Lisbon is on the periphery or in the center.
JAMES WESTCOTT lives in New York and writes on art and politics.