O Moustro no Aquario The monster in the aquarium

THE IDEA OF THE aquarium evokes in me three different recollections and feelings. In the first place, in chronological order, we have the small aquarium of childhood: an open sphere of transparent glass, almost full of clean water, where, without stop, small red fish move. The child places both hands around the aquarium and stares at the fish, his eyes wide open. The predominant feeling is one of fascination with a life form that is both strange and thrilling. Curiosity takes an enchanted form. A suave type of fear transforms itself into a ludicrous pleasure—the bowl and fish are small, the child is comfortable in his superiority.

Then, in adolescence, we discover the huge museum aquarium, where species captured and classified by specialists are exhibited and preserved. Marine animals, from the most exotic to the most mundane, are plunged into profound indifference. They oscillate behind thick, translucent glass. In the almost deserted rooms, the light is dim. The atmosphere is suffocating, and the silence becomes embarrassing. We lose the centrality and authority of the child’s view. Monsters of the sea circulate slowly around us. Even without looking at us, they condemn us to abandonment. The tendency toward depression and anguish characteristic of adolescence transforms itself into the impotence of old age: we detect the scent and proximity of death. When we step outside into the street, we experience a feeling of relief. We have escaped from suffocation, from mental surfeit, from premature death.

The paradigm of the adult aquarium is the aquarium in a James Bond movie. The confrontation is now less direct, and our feelings are kept at a greater distance. Between the monster and the observer intercedes not the glass but the screen. The dreadful and deadly animal is but a symbol. The dramas of desire, power, and fear appear already subjected to the written rules of narration. We have an aquarium raised to the second power. The theater and the screen constitute a second aquarium in which the images of the film float like a domesticated monster. The observer is no longer the interlocutor in a confrontation but instead a spectator of an imaginary event.

Julião Sarmento’s paintings offer the results of the intense manipulations to which he subjects the things of the world. Magmatic backgrounds, unclear colors, intractable textures, gloomy lights simultaneously attract and repulse. like seduced spectators, we allow ourselves to be hypnotized by the obsessive, enigmatic forms that he chooses, images in which sense and mystery, crypt and cipher, leave us to guess and invent. There is no possibility of psychological explanation or trivial narrative—monsters in the aquarium.

A dolphin touched by death floats heavily in The Purloined Letter, 1989. Below it, vague marine forms oscillate and to the right, is a translucent table, on which rests an open envelope. If we think of the Edgar Allan Poe tale that gave the title to this work, and of the seminar that Jacques Lacan dedicated to it, we may understand that, for Sarmento, the issue is the untrustworthy, unstable nature of the communication process. That which is communicated is never what is meant to be communicated because all communication implies a deviation. This swerving results from the ability of some to see things that others do not see, or the inability of some not to see things that others cannot see. Sarmento’s is a game that establishes what there is to be seen in the world——what the artist sees, what the artist exposes, what the viewer sees.

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O Náufrago do Céu The shipwrecked of heaven

The artist suspends vertigo: it’s a type of courage, forcing a silence in which a gesture must occur. He is standing, by chance, before the vast magnitude of the sea, when, at night, the entire surface of the water is illuminated solely by the moon. It is dark water, blue-black, that slides endlessly upon itself. The still lunar light reaches us in a silver mode, by the imperative of necessary, eternal, cyclical movements. The horizon line is lost; the horizontal surface cannot be distinguished from the vertical. Neither is the sea distinguished from the heavens, nor the light from darkness.

The artist is no longer the observer from behind the aquarium glass. He has fallen to the other side. He has become the monster, a humble animal, pursued by the infinite, lost in the unknown, condemned to wander and drift. He is a flying animal floating in the deep seas. He is the shipwrecked of heaven. The author gets lost and dissimulates within the painting, becoming one of the small figures in it, challenging the laws of gravity and understanding.

Catorze Anos Depois I (Fourteen years after I, 1988), is the title of a painting in which the factors of autobiographical projection operate. Six narrow, vertical panels constitute a background that seems indifferent until we apprehend the richness of the chromatic and textural brushwork. Small lost figures and forms drift in the space of the painting. The viewer, observing these ziggurats, an airplane aloft in a sea of dripping paint, a set of double rings, a fetus in its womb and several crouching figures, can elect the points at which Sarmento inserts himself into the work. But if there is a story to be read here, we must be the ones to decipher it. The artist is deliberately mute.

Projecting himself into the work in a discreet act of exhibitionism, Sarmento allows us the discreet pleasure of voyeurism—if, and only if, we are willing to play his game. We must accept the risks of drift, of error, of destruction; we must accept the challenge of the shipwrecked of heaven.

Let us imagine a warm sea, profound, dense, and threatening. The solitary figures who inhabit the picture are the shipwrecked—the survivor, the suicide, and the corpse. Even w hen the surface of the waters seems calm, we are aware that that calmness hides an endless vertigo. No figure or image is able to obtain stability or security. All forms are defined—and dissolve—in accordance with the rhythmic movements of immersion and submersion (Golpe de Misericórdia, Coup de grace, 1988).

The palpitation of these lost images, which sink in a sea of blue-black paint, is like the anxiety of the wounded survivor w ho has already forgotten the words to tell his story, w ho dies before he can reveal his secret. It is part of the Romantic tradition that the most deadly passions must fulfill their tragic destiny at sea.

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But we could also imagine the opposite: that Sarmento’s is not a weighty fall into the abyss of the sea but, rather, an ascension or flight. In this formulation, the artist projects himself, gains altitude, balances on the winds, in the heat and the cold, begins to distinguish once again the water and the air, the colors of the rainbow, and the foam of the waves. He regains command of the helm and the wheel. Within space upon space, he begins once again to have the capability of establishing his point of view. In a painting such as Noite Americana (Day for night, 1989), Sarmento literally projects himself into space as a parachutist. The pleasure of flight is mixed with the fear of the fall. The power to dominate is combined with the anguish of insecurity. The joy of the flying balloon lives beside the terror of a hideous instrument of torture that floats in space alongside it. We may fly above the world, but continue to be suspended, dependent, condemned in this same world.

O Nadador da Noite The night swimmer

Alfredo Marceneiro, who was one of the best interpreters of fado, the most popular and nostalgic form of traditional Portuguese song, said that he only knew how to live at night. Fado is sung at night and with the eyes closed.

During the day we have incidents, routines, events that constitute material for newscasts. At night, there are occurrences. Night is the heaven of the living who do not believe in or do not want to wait for God. Day is a functional and utilitarian space, hierarchically structured by codified situations and meanings. Night is an imponderable and emotional space, inhabited by intensities and mobile and voluble effects. Information is replaced by emotion, logic is replaced by vibration, and repetition is replaced by revelation. Emotion, vibration, and revelation are all plastically present in Sarmento’s work, witnesses to his personal experience of reality.

Night is the home of all perversions. In the case of Sarmento we want to speak of sadomasochism, voyeurism, fetishism: in Seraglio, 1986, the bound body of the naked woman, hung upside-down, her hair cascading into space. The caress in Mehr Licht (More light, 1985), which threatens to become a throttle-hold. The embracing decapitated man and monkey in David and Devil, 1986. The staging of the exercise of absolute power upon the body—the wish for physical convulsion—is a form of despair, the despair of solitude. And violence is the insuperable and unbearable solitude of desire.

Yet Sarmento wants us to look, encourages the viewer to repeated acts of voyeurism. The artist has, in fact, dedicated a 1986 painting to Michael Powell’s 1960 cult film Peeping Tom, whose serial-killer protagonist photographs the deaths of each of his female victims. Looking, for Sarmento, is not a neutral act.

Fetishism is also an act of attention, a process of infatuated selection—of fragments, perspectives, details. We return to the stare that, from behind the camera, can zoom, make large, freeze images—canceling all the rest, suspending the reality of the world.

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Desire is a vice. It abandons the addicted to the slavery of an ever-increasing hunger for bodies. And the most perfect body is the corpse, because it is the only body upon which we can exercise an absolute power. What makes the dead body absolute is the fact that it is the only body with whom we can be alone.

Desire resembles a prisoner who draws on the walls of his prison cell, the child whose hands destroy toys. And the artist, Sarmento, burns with this desire for possession, for marking, exhausting each surface until it gives him the veracity of skin. He drains each and every form until it confesses to the absence of a body—and to obsession with its loss.

A Doença da Cidade The malady of the city

The city we are interested in, the imaginary corollary to the artwork of Sarmento, is the city of labyrinths and corners, of oblique stares and fortuitous meetings, of provocations and brutal encounters.

The artist is like the perverse taxi driver who only works at night in the most dangerous areas of the city—the man who exposes himself to contamination. A collector of images and situations, Sarmento offers his glance, and retrieves in his vision, the vapors of the city as if they were the scents of a lethal perfume. Dangerous objects proliferate—the inverted hook, whose point seems ready to enter the forehead of the woman in O Espaço Entre as Coisas I (The space between things I, 1989), the idle whip, lovingly observed, in The Swiftness of Skin, 1989.

The histories that unfold in this urban night are obscure, as the objects of desire are obscure. Taking inspiration from Luis Buñuel’s 1951 film Subida al Cielo (Ascension to heaven; released in the U.S. as Mexican Bus Ride), Sarmento paints a restless ribbon running from male to female mouth in The Space Between Things. The geography of Boy’s Town, 1989, leads to the vices of anonymous bondage due north and transvestism due south.

Chicote do Fantasma The phantom’s whip

It is about skin after all. The Swiftness of Skin has an exact texture, makes concrete a precise sensual feeling resident in each of his paintings. Materiality is paramount: sea, sky, night, body, skin. This crucial painting elicits one last image that may be said symbolically to characterize Sarmento’s universe. This is the phantom, he who, instead of dragging chains, makes the whip crack. The phantom is not material; he belongs to the realm of the dead and of fiction. But he exhibits himself in physical form in the world of the quick and of reality. When the shackles are replaced by the whip, the phantom is no longer a passive or nostalgic figure. He becomes active—aggressive and creative. Then, the phantom is no longer an abstract idea, but becomes a mark engraved in the skin—or in the surface of a painting.

Alexandre Melo is an art critic who teaches at the Universidade do Lisboa.

Translated from the Portuguese by Silvia M. F. Sardeira.

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