A critic of no critic or how ‘Vernadsky Station’ exists beyond criticism

How does art critic work in other countries? I don’t know. In Portugal, it’s changing. The online magazines and blogs have created platforms where different people write about art and publish critics on exhibitions, publications and short stories on art events overall. So yes, there’s a lot more time spent of the activity of writing about what contemporary artists are producing, but what about the real impact and value of that time? I’m not sure if critiquing the artwork of a visual artist is any different from reviewing a book, a music album or a movie. Critics want to share their thoughts about the artwork and impact others. Either they want to share their appreciation or their disapproval. But there’s more to it than that. Throughout history, the critic has become a very renown figure in society. As with everything else, people want to believe, they want to be invited into the authenticity land, where things are labelled as genuine, pure, original, singular; they also want to be invited into exclusive clubs, where things are labelled as rare, excellent, genius, extraordinary, etc. The point is: the culinary field, the sports, the art field, they all have their popes and these are the ones who legitimate and create value. So, as we all end up realizing, one way or another, critics are very important figures in the art market.

So what happens when an exhibition has no critic at all?

Does it have zero value? Of course not. The system is far more complicated than that. In Portugal, the situation is quite perverse. Any exhibition that happens in Lisbon will have an endorsing critic, doesn’t really matter if the artistic value is there. Also, if the work doesn’t please the critic, he/she doesn’t usually write about the work. They often go on to social media and write two or three harsh sentences about it and, as far as the critic goes, that’s it. It’s a small market, so well known critics end up writing about what’s closer to them. It’s a VERY small market, so people know each other and avoid getting into confrontation. And, I regret saying this, this confrontation phobia is deeply encrusted into this country. We just hate being bothered.

Anyway, what really brings me here is an exhibition I visited last weekend. Because I know one of the people involved in the project, we ended up chatting about its lack of visibility and wondering: what happened? The project in question is Estação Vernadsky (‘Vernadsky Station’) and was showed in Sines, an industrial city in the south of Portugal, located by the sea, roughly 1h30m drive from Lisbon. Sines is extremely well-know, for a variety of reasons, so it’s not like the critics don’t know how to get there. Also, the project was exhibited during a very privileged period – from July to October – when a lot of people travel do Sines to see the FMM (world-music festival) or on their way to other beaches. So, if we establish that at least half a dozen critics have seen the exhibition, can we speculate on the reasons that prevent them from writing about it? Let’s try:

1) the critic was on holidays and couldn’t be bothered;
2) the critic was interested in writing, but the chief-editor wasn’t;
3) the critic thought it would be too difficult to make such a critic and couldn’t be bothered;
4) no one pays the critic for her/his work;
5) the critic didn’t like the project and couldn’t be bothered.

What’s more likely to be the correct answer? You choose… 

Estação Vernadsky is everything people hate about conceptual art, but it’s also everything there is to love about conceptual art. For instances, the project addresses a real person – Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) – as well as an historical concept – Noosphere. This embeds the project with a certain gravitas and that is enough to scare off some visitors, and apparently critics as well. Although the exhibition is coming to its end in Sines (the 15th of October), the project’s website is an excellent indicator of the sort of experience the collective was after.

As I experienced it, the exhibition fell short in some aspects, namely: it’s too big and split into two spaces (Centro Emmerico Nunes & Centro de Artes) – it would take any visitor at least two hours to do a proper visit and she/he may not be prepared for that; the exhibition map doesn’t help – I kept trying to find my way around and that distracted me from the experience; I felt the central point of the exhibition – the 2 stations where people can send and receive info (the installation intents to question the grounds for a collective conscience) – is not properly highlighted, so one definitely sees it, but may not realize how to interact with it and participate in the project; and, finally, the upper level (the Noosphere) of the largest exhibition space was just off – the dialogue between the materials was just overboard and the tension dissolved quickly. Overall, there’s tooooo much information, but if you keep your focus on the morphology of the project, you’ll actually be able to experience the sort of play that went into creating it.

So, on a more positive note: all artworks have a particular presence on their attempt to, as a collective, create knowledge about the Vernadsky’s thoughts on systemic geology; there’s an invisible flow of information – sometimes in the form of noise, sometimes in the form of images, but mostly because of the materials – that succeeds in conveying an energy of its own; there’s play everywhere, so there’s a lot of vitality – between forms, colors, shapes, etc.; the scale and dimensions of the artworks establish a spatial awareness that sort of engulfs the visitor in their own language; there’s just enough tension for the visitor to be attracted and repelled all at once and I find that very successful in addressing the sort of knowledge one is not usually confronted with. 

The project largely surpasses the dimension of its exhibition in Sines. Because it gathers visual artists (Mafalda Santos, Ricardo Pistola, Sara Morgado Santos, Soraya VasconcelosandSusana Gaudêncio, researchers (Alex Gomez-Marin, Álvaro Domingues, Garcia da Selva and José Carlos Calazans)and web designers (Ana Teresa Ascensão and Nuno Bengalito), it’s obviously difficult to get a sense of how rich the  creative process may or may not have been. As an outsider and a visitor to the exhibition, I feel the current of thoughts that energized those involved in Estação Vernadsky does come through in some way and there’s tons of references displayed for those interested in finding out more about Vernadsky’s thoughts. The project will now travel to Lisbon, to Travessa da Ermida(from 28/10 to 26/11), but in a very short version, so I’m sure a critic awaits. But will it be fair?

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