“They gave me a lot of freedom. They threw it to me like a soccer ball. In the beginning I didn’t know what to do with it.” There was a moment in the late 1980s in which words were not enough for Luisa. It took some time for her to transform verbal language into visual expression.
Incidents (of Travel)
Pedro de Llano
“I can´t be sitting, I rather stand because I think better. It can be even at home, but I think better if I walk”. These words by Luisa Cunha are very telling regarding her restless character and her understanding of artistic practice. Since her beginnings, Cunha has resisted limiting her work to the traditional spaces of art: the studio and the gallery. She needs to go out, both in order to “hunt” ideas, as well as for finding places to show her works. “Actually I don´t work. I am a pretty idle person. Works show up”, she confessed at some point during the day we spent together in Lisbon, December 11th, 2016. Examples could be sound pieces such as É aquí! (It´s here!), 2010, whose first “spark” came out in a pastry shop, or another one which deals with a meeting by chance: “On the street, everybody stared at the man´s hat…” (1997).
Luisa was born in the “freguesía” (neighbourhood) of S. Cristovão e não Santa Maria Maior, in the “baixa”, the very center. By that time Lisbon was different to the African, cosmopolitan, and tourist driven city of the present—which some people begin to address as “the new Berlin”, because of the growing population of artists and curators in the recent times. Cunha says about herself that she is not “a contemporary artist, but an artist of the everyday”. She also acknowledges her roots in the Portuguese context and her affection for the South, as a whole: the Mediterranean sea, Africa, Latin America… In fact, Lisbon is an ideal city for an artist who likes to be in touch with people of all genres and conditions, and reacting to what is going on around her and in the world. The town surrounded by the Tagus is a mid-size city where one can easily find a balance between anonymity and hood conviviality and familiarity. Furthermore, its pleasant weather and legendary luminosity incite the wish to be outdoors and stroll.
Cunha did studies on German philology and uses several languages in her works—depending on her intentions. In 1976 she moved to Madeira and she worked there for eleven years in a school. She made use of her stay in the island to organize a number of projects with local artists, which the Ministry of Culture supported generously, in the period immediately after the Carnage Revolution, in April 1974. The artist still remembers - with a mix of affection and disbelief - the chauffeur and the jeep at her disposal, to drive around the island, moving exhibitions from town to town. Years later she also lived in the Algarve, south of Portugal. When she returned to Lisbon, at thirty-seven, her life shifted and she decided to sign up intoenrol the art school Ar.Co. Our journey began exactly there; at Ar.Co school facilities in Almada, on the opposite shore of the Tagus, looking to Lisboa from a distance.
This process took place at Ar.Co, a space which generates special feelings for her. The school is a private project supported by the Costa Cabral family. The venue in Almada is located on a quinta (farm) owned by the city council. Workshops take place in different spaces and the students can arrive and leave at any time. Sometimes they even spend the night there. “Being there is like being in another world,” Luisa remarked.
While she was a student at Ar.Co, fellow artists there included Susanne Themnitz, Joana Vasconcelos—who back then was dedicated to jewellery making—and Pedro Gomes (a graphic designer). Her first works were created and shown in the school. Pieces such as Drop the Bomb or Hello! (both 1994), which have since been exhibited in several international exhibitions and museums, were born in Ar.Co’s café or its restrooms. These sound pieces played with the modulation of Luisa’s voice and addressed the viewer directly. Another famous work from this period consisted of a radiator that was installed in the patio of the school and turned on (Straight to the Point, 1993). Since then, Luisa hasn’t stopped looking for alternative locations to present her projects.
Recently the artist returned to Ar.Co in Almada, where she also taught later on, for a new project: a mural in which she appropriates the process by which painters make color tests when renewing the façades of Lisbon’s buildings. Pantone (2016) is an abstract and luminous composition—with ochres, yellows, greens, and blues—which creates a contrast with the old, cracked, and damp layers below. This piece is not only interesting because it references one of the most relevant characteristics of Lisboeta vernacular architecture (color and light) but also because it shows how, almost inevitably, many artists go back to painting—or take on a critical evaluation of the medium—no matter how radical their practices might be.
This photo provided Courtesy of the artist.
Luisa is part of a vigorous artistic community in Lisbon. She especially appreciates conversations with artists such as Fernando Ribeiro or Ana Jotta, as well as with her dealer Miguel Nabinho, and the younger generation including André Sousa, Vasco Araújo, Bruno Pacheco, João Onofre, and so on. However, the figure that she really admires the most is quite a surprising one: Paula Rego, the Portuguese figurative painter who has been living in London for decades, and who is a mass-media phenomenon in her native country: “She is the work and the work is her. She melts into the work, the atelier, and the person. She’s like one of those dolls in her paintings. A free person.”
Ar.Co is close to another point in Lisbon’s periphery where the artist spends time unwinding during the winter: Costa da Caparica. Her retreat there is a hotel less than fifty meters away from the beach, which extends itself south along 30 km of coast towards Cabo Espichel. From her room in the hotel Luisa took the thirteen pictures that compose her piece It is what it is (2015)—images of the ocean and the beach show light changing in intensity, from abstraction to figuration.
At Caparica we found three places that the artist adores: the restaurant Pipo, specialised in grilled fish, the artisanal ice cream parlor Pope, and the pastelaria (pastry shop) Compota, where you can find a unique type of cream-filled pastry called filipinos.
After visiting the beach, Luisa drove us to the restaurant O Cabrinha, a very popular spot in the old town of Almada, a city ruled by the communist party since 1976 and known for its support of the arts and theatre.
Before driving back to Lisbon across the imposing Ponte do 25 de Abril, we took a short detour to Casa da Cerca to have a cafezinho. Casa da Cerca is a small arts center, still in Almada, where Cunha showed a piece in 2013, and from whose terrace and garden you can see one of the most impressive panoramas of Lisbon and the river Tagus.
Back in Lisbon we headed to Belém, a neighborhood by the river where Luisa lived for three years between 2001 and 2004. That was an especially tough period for her due to personal circumstances, she tells me. She considers that it was during this time that the second big shift in her career occurred, after getting started with her studies at Ar.Co in 1987. Her house in Belém, rented from a friend, provided her rest and peace when she most needed it.
Important works came out of this period, such as Words for Gardens, created for the 2004 edition of the Biennale of Sydney (she was invited by the Lisbon-based curator Isabel Carlos), and her first video, Mirror #3 (2002-3). For this latter piece she filmed the surroundings of the house, from all of its windows, including a skylight and a glass-brick wall, at four different moments—that reflected the variations in the environment throughout the day.
Mirror #3 represents a constant of Luisa’s practice as it relates to her interest in identifying her body within space, be it architecture, the city, or even the geography of her country, as we see in the piece Magnetic Needle (2015) performed for the first time in the context of Old School—a project run by curator and critic Susana Pomba in Lisbon. The other relevant element in Mirror #3 is that it deals with urban renewal. Making this work today would be very different as since it was shot, just in front of the house and across the highway, the new MAAT (Museo de Arte, Arquitectura y Tecnología) has been built. This institution, sponsored by the Portuguese electricity company EDP (whose government shares were sold in 2011 to a Chinese corporation for €2.7 billion) was inaugurated last October with great fanfare.
From Belém we went to another space that brought fond memories for Luisa: the storefront of an old clothing store at 122 Calçada da Estrela. Here, between 2013–5 curator Benedita Pestana ran the alternative project space A Montra (The Storefront). The idea behind A Montra was to invite artists to conceive specific projects for this peculiar site, placed in a very central area of the city that had seen many businesses close due to the economic crisis. I’ll be Back (2013), Luisa’s project, involved photographing the storefront of an empty premises in the Areeiro neighborhood where she lives, and transferring that image into the project space showcase.
The work was a sort of trompe l’oeil that was visible 24/7. It was extremely successful in transforming its immediate vicinity but it could also be easily unnoticed in a context where the only remaining businesses were a pastry shop and a pharmacy. A Montra also had a singular audience: passengers of tram 28 which connects the placid Jardim da Estrela with the hectic Chiado. The tram usually gets stuck in traffic exactly on this stretch, allowing for the contemplation of the projects which used to be shown in the storefront. Luisa’s work was a succinct and almost imperceptible representation of an especially critical moment in Lisbon and Portugal’s recent history. From the present moment, this work also seems to speak about the contemporary cycle of the city: modernization, crisis and gentrification.
This gentrification cycle is rampant at the present moment, with the city becoming a new "must" destination for tourists, artists and startups. This thread of conversation resurficed again on the last stop of our journey, at the Largo da Academia de Belas Artes in Chiado.
Luisa conceived a project for a public art work in this square, yet it never materialized. From here we witnessed a new phase of the city reaching boiling point. International brands such as Balthaup as well as a profuse offer of rental apartments for short-term holidays (Airbnb, Feels Like Home…) force closure on more traditional shops, increased rental prices for locals and provoke a worrying homogenization of urban space.
Faced with the current reality, Largo da Academia has an intimate meaning for Cunha: her grandfather, who had a great influence on her, was the director of the Fine Arts School in the first half of the 20th Century. Her idea to transform this space—not very graceful, urbanistically speaking—consisted in “intervening without producing an object,” as she put it.
For the unrealized project, Luisa would have removed some of the typical Lisbon cobblestones and substituted them with a layer of synthetic track surfacing in a light blue tone. On top of the paving one would have read simple descriptions of the built environment: Doce janelas, duas varandas, uma porta, catro platibandas, uma chaminé… (Twelve windows, two balconies, a door, four plaques, a chimney). With this gesture, Luisa’s work would have not only been an invitation for passersby to observe the city and the river anew, but also would have contributed to the creation of a peaceful oasis within a dynamic and noisy area.
If you’ve followed our journey this far, it might be already apparent that Luisa Cunha’s work is often characterized by a powerfully centrifugal impulse. Her pieces seem like vertiginous escape lines towards exterior spaces, while resisting being static or trapped by architecture. When we made this journey through Lisbon, Luisa confided in me about a performance she was going to do at the end of January 2017 at the artist-run space O Armario e a Sala, located in the same building where the A Montra project space used to be. The action, titled Beyond the Line (2017), eventually happened as follows: Luisa placed herself, standing alone and in front of the audience, in a room normally used for painting classes at the independent art school Arte Ilimitada. With a roll of tape she stuck a line on the floor, spanning the width of the room, and parallel to the audience facing her. Immediately after, she taped another line, this time a little closer to the public. And as she performed this drawing again and again, she got closer and closer to the audience. Then at a certain point the viewers were forced together and eventually were squeezed together and pushed out of the room and into the street where Lisbon’s nightlife awaited.
Pedro de Llano, 2017
An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.
Luisa Cunha is an artist based in Lisbon, Portugal. She studied Sculpture at Ar.Co – School of Visual Arts, Lisbon. Since 1993 she has been producing art through text, sound, drawing, photography, video, sculpture and performance. Her solo exhibitions include Hot Red Hot, Um Certa Falta de Coerência, Porto (2010); Luisa Cunha, Museu de Serralves, Porto, (2007); Luisa Cunha, Fundação Caixa Geral de Depósitos – Culturgest, Porto, (2007) and Words for Gardens, Chiado 8 – Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon (2006). She has participated in several group exhibitions including El Grito, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, León (2011); Oh!, Galeria Miguel Nabinho, Lisbon (2008) and On Reason and Emotion, Biennale of Sydney, Australia (2004).