ART AND CONVERSATION: MARIANA VIEGAS

Mariana Viegas is an artist from Lisbon, Portugal, who works mainly with photography. Her work explores links between landscape, images, language, cultural and individual monuments. It questions how we understand these concepts, and what part photography and documentation have to play in their construction.

As a contribution to the New Life Berlin Festival Viegas introduced some of her works, one of them evolved in the context of the Lisbon Capital of Nothingness, an interdisciplinary festival which in contrast to commercial events like the Lisbon Capital of Design, intended to make visible that which is not there, because it has not yet been recorded.

Her documentation of the vegetable gardens of Marvila, on the outskirts of Lisbon, demonstrates to what extent culture and living space are constituted not just by architecture but also by the necessity or just the habit of growing food - in this case not commercially but privately. These vegetable gardens are built by people who have moved from rural areas to Marvila, where they develop their own structure on the urban site, which then becomes a myth to sustain the memory of their traditional way of life, and manifests their individuality through the organization of their surroundings.

Following up this investigation of subsistance autonomy and its social nuances Mariana Viegas' project Paths (2001) went deeper into the array of social interconnections within the area of Marvila. Against the background of the festival Lisbon Capital of Nothingness, Paths draws attention to the many paths which emerged inbetween the gardens, living areas and schools of Marvila as a marginal system which is neither mapped nor has ever been planned. Showing the photos she made of these paths to pupils of Marvila's schools, who could sometimes recognize their colleagues walking down the path, she raised interest for her project and asked pupils to draw maps according to the paths they used. Within the scope of the festival, Viegas exhibited the photographs in collaborating schools, each map underneath and corresponding to one of the photographs.

As a counterpart to these two projects on Marvila, a third project was initiated in Lisbon responding to the opposite - the planned and controlled approach of urban development, for which the interventions into urbanism by authoritarian regimes are the most sustained examples. In 1944 pine trees were planted in Lisbon by the state, to project Portugal's everlasting vitality, as pine trees are always green, whereas the deciduous trees growing naturally in Lisbon like olive and cork trees, lose their leaves during the Portugese summer. A small forest of pine trees was planted in the eastern part of the town as a recreation area, and several pine trees were dispensed to sites of historical importance, for example the Torrą© Belem, the statue of CamoąĀs (PortugalíńŰs most important epic poet) the castle of Lisbon and many other places, which are popular in the summer. These places and the pine trees themselves, which are not native to Portugal but are imported by overseas travelers, are all associated with Portugese braveness and success as voyagers especially in respect of colonialism. This makes the trees monuments to Portugal's history.

While the paths of Marvila are first of all just a means to an end and meant neither to state nor to document something, the pine trees of Lisbon manifest a historical moment, still contributing to the cultural memory of the nation, and literally growing into the history to follow. The paths of Marvila represent incidental traces of civilisation in nature, while the pine trees represent nature civilized and domesticated for political reasons.

Which leads to the basic questions of Viegas' work: to what extent do we construct landscape, images and language, and the relationships between them, and what can be considered a monument imposed by culture? Playing around with a formal understanding of monumentality, one of Viegas' works declares a stick of wood to be an individual monument. All it takes for the stick to be transformed in this way is for one person to attach arbitrary significance to it. In fact, photographing this object - as Viegas does - seems to be a way of attaching significance. The photograph supports monumentality as a platform for memory, through the act of documentation.

Christin Niehoff

Christin Niehoff is an arts student at Berlin WeiąŁensee, ctinitc@gmx.de

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