Matthew Crookes // On the work of Nuno Vicente.

Sculptures made of earth, water, fire, air (pp. 71-74)

When we make art, there is always an element of Faith. It is unavoidable; the creative act is a call in the wilderness, and one can only hope that it will be answered and understood. Nuno Vicente’s practice is one in which transformations happen; elemental transformations, transformations in physical states, transformations in psychic and in emotional states. In his work we are made aware of the constant state of becoming.

In such a state resolution is an elusive and abstract concept. Complete resolution, like tomorrow, or the horizon, is something just beyond us. If the completion of a life is death, then we should be glad that our state remains unresolved and inconclusive. We still have a tomorrow to look forward to.

Jean-Paul Sartre tells us, in Being and Nothingness, that this becoming state is one in which we must all exist. While it is possible to appear to capture a moment in a photograph or a memory, these things are themselves subject to time and the inevitable changes. The very fact of their remaining static as the world around alters makes them a continually evolving something-else; in their (outwardly) static state, they come to mean something different in relation to each change in the world around them. And ultimately, even memories and photographs fade away and disappear. There is no stasis; even a still object is in a slow process of entropy, of molecular change, of transition. Our world, our universe is forever in a state of flux.

If we send a radio signal, or an image - an imprint of our own hand, say- out into space, as it goes further into space it ceases to belong to time, since the distances it will travel are so vast that they become abstract. We have all learned that the starlight we see in the night sky is hundreds, thousands, millions of years old, and that the constellations as we see them no longer exist in that form, but that does not make them any less real. They are still there each night, just as we, and our ancestors, have always known them. But the light is coming to us from different distances in space; each star that we see is separated in time from the others by maybe centuries.

We will never see the stars, as it were, in unison. What we see in the night sky is a little like an old television picture; never quite complete, and as we register the image on an old CRT screen, it starts again from the beginning, remaking itself. Will our own lost radio and TV broadcasts, and our images, cast out into space, one day become the fabric of some other world’s mythos - an indecipherable phenomenon, but with too many recognizable patterns to be a random event?

Vicente has in recent years closely examined the transition between living and death - the underlying idea being that death is not an end, merely another stage in an endless process. Even those works in which stasis is the stated aim are something other. Or those works in which death is apparently present, as it is when a butterfly is trapped with no chance of escape. Again, this is not the end, merely the completion of one state and the transition to another.

The fascination with entropic states and the effects of time on the physical state of things has fascinated artists since antiquity. In our own times, the split between science and the arts, itself a contrivance of the nineteenth century, has led to many artists venturing towards science and scientific theories in an effort to inform their work and break away from the homogeneity that such demarcations must surely lead to.

In the years after the second world war, artists such as Joseph Beuys, John Latham and Robert Smithson all developed practices in which the scientific application of time was an integral part. Smithson’s fascination with the atomic process of entropy appears frequently in his writing, and he is credited with bringing the term into a Fine Art usage. Latham attempted to formulate his own cosmography based around the concept of ‘Flat Time’, which was based on his claim that the Universe was in fact time based, and that human language had evolved only to express the universe in spatial terms. This deficiency he felt was at the heart of dissatisfaction with religion and philosophy felt by so many people in modern society.

There is also a hint of melancholia in Vicente’s practice; it is inextricably linked with the theme of death and renewal. There appears to be an acknowledgement that there are many ‘deaths’ that we experience throughout our lives; ‘petits-morts’ of various kinds. Growing older is a succession of gradual ‘deaths’ before the final one; our bodies replace themselves completely roughly every decade or so, a process which takes longer with each renewal and with diminishing effect, giving rise to the effects of ageing. Other ‘deaths’ can arise from a conscious choice as well. For example, a change of identity, a gender reassignment, a faked disappearance; all these suggest a form of death, even when they imply a rebirth.

Passport photographs, left to fade to oblivion in the elements. The implicit erasure of the person through the fading of their image. We invest so much in the image, in the face. The power of an image, especially a portrait, cannot be underestimated. It remains something deeply disturbing to imagine a face disintegrating and disappearing. The cold, rational knowledge that the faces looking back at us from Victorian Daguerreotypes have decayed and no longer exist, simply does not fit with what we see. The image has a life -and death- of its own, distinct from that which it depicts.

There is a dissonance between our own experiences of death and loss, and the way in which we are brought up to believe in the permanence of the image. The image offers a form of immortality, but that immortality belongs to the image, not to its subject. Disappearance and decay are inevitable. But they are not to be feared.

Matthew Crookes



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