LISBON — Since 2008, the Lisbon-based art and architecture collective Os Espacialistas has been developing site-specific interventions that introduce new perspectives to public spaces and reconsider the politics they embody. The group is especially interested in the human body’s ever-changing relationship to space, place, and landscape, which they’ve explored by hosting and documenting live-sketching sessions in various sites, including market squares, historic houses, domestic interiors, and farms across Portugal, to name a few examples. The collective has also engaged viewers with what it describes as “portable + touch / projects + objects or ‘Port(ouch)able’ and ‘pro(b)jects)” — i.e. objects that can be moved, touched, and stacked, encouraging viewers to not only move through spaces but continually reconfigure them.
For their ambitious new exhibition O Palácio vai nú (The Palace Goes Naked) at the Marquis of Pombal Palace, in Oeiras, the group has filled all of the (usually) empty palace rooms with found and readymade objects that have been appropriated for the retelling of the palace’s history. Designed in the 18th century by Carlos Mardel (1696–1763), a military engineer and architect who would transform the agricultural industry in Oeiras and Portugal at large, the palace is one of the most notable and monumental symbols in the municipality. The vast aristocratic country estate, generally open to the public, is made up of areas dedicated to both leisure and industry, which at one time engaged in profitable and experimental agricultural activity.
The installations range from the miniature to monumental, with stone and wood cubes spilling out of rooms and into corridors (“Cubic Corridor”), heaps of soil piling onto troughs, and photocopied pages of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers bursting out of a cupboard and littering the floor. The naked palace is now filled entirely with materials that refer to the palace’s industrial and agricultural history, alongside found objects, like farmer’s boots, T-squares, and birdhouses, thus creating stories for the site. Visitors are encouraged to engage in an element of “child’s play” (in the collective’s words) and move many of the objects around.
A number of the readymades pay homage to familiar works by Marcel Duchamp, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, and Marina Abramović, which have been reinterpreted through the eyes of Os Espacialistas. A “human readymade” humorously references Duchamp, while commenting on the Marquis of Pombal’s execution of the Távora family and the Duke of Aveiro. A standout display, “Malha-Sol LeWitt,” presents miniature wooden grids, arranged in rows on the floor and accompanied by wall drawings exploring the grid’s repetitive, multiple, and infinite function, bringing to mind Rosalind Kraus’s essay on the subject where she argues that, “Logically speaking, the grid extends in all directions to infinity … By virtue of the grid, the given work of art is presented as mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.” These fragmentary and disorderly displays of objects consider the forms and materials that constituted the building of this palace. However, the sheer scale and volume of works at times feels slightly overloaded (wooden cubes in almost every room) and perhaps this would have been benefited from editing out works to allow for a more contemplative viewing experience.
Os Espacialistas move away from the formal constraints of their individual disciplines — the visual arts, architecture, and landscape design — by presenting a hybridized and playful view of art and architecture. The grandeur of this once-aristocratic palace celebrating one man’s colonial, economic exploitation and personal profit has now been transformed into a conceptual playground of everyday (invaluable) objects, which might be interpreted as a dissatisfaction with the ways such sites have achieved celebratory nationalistic status. However, a critique of the palace’s origins is not central to the collective’s methodologies; rather, Os Espacialistas’s aim is to have viewers rethink, relook, and reinterpret space as something that is never fixed but fluid and transformative.
O Palácio vai nú (The Palace goes naked) continues at the Marquis of Pombal Palace (Largo Marquês Pombal 21, Oeiras, Portugal) through April 30.