(Bulir Exhibition- Fundación RAC Pontevedra - Spain)
Bring to the boil
Artist talks with Bea Espejo
DALILA GONÇALVES is one of those people who seem to live in an imprecise time and in many places at once. She claims to be an escapist, and offers no resistance to walking. She behaves like water: transparent, she could not stop even if she wanted to, trying to name everything, as if the current had taken her to an open place, full of parallel realities and invisible connections. Fairs and flea markets are just that, strange territories that you see, look at and see again, here and there you feel affection for something, but immediately that affection disappears, and you return, often empty, but with words. Dalila chooses one as wide as an ocean: bulir. It is the title of her exhibition at RAC Foundation but also a song of intentions. To speak of affections and passions requires feeling them or expressing them vehemently... In reference to the sea, it implies a certain agitation... A synonym word for ebullition, bulir is close to bubbling, boiling, simmering. Stew, poach, or bake are also related words. In Galician, bulir means to boil and is synonymous with hurry. Also, to rush, agitate, abbreviate. Bulir is to do something as fast as possible, to move tirelessly from one place to another, to feel restless by a multitude of impulses or by the turmoil of ideas that we usually have in our heads.
Bulir is to do something as fast as posible, to move tirelessly from one place to another, to feel restless by a multitude of impulses or by the turmoil of ideas that we usually have in our heads.
This is how her studio in Porto looks, in one of the quietest streets of the Bonfim neighborhood. There is a 112 somewhat hidden and without a bell. Inside the studio, the language of chance rules... There is a small blue strip next to her working table and a wooden knot resting on the top of it, as if it were an accent, actually it shows yearnings of branches that were never born. Witnesses to the passing of the years, a subtle action dissecting natural timelessness. It is a previous work to Disecar, from 2019. On the wall, two badminton balls in perfect unstable equilibrium, a photograph of a statue of Pompeii and a sulfated lemon that reveal the affection towards a natural and a patrimonial element. The extraordinary versus mundane. In the background, kettles are beginning to pile up waiting to be boiled in future projects. She looks at them with the desire to start working. It is curious that bulir a kettle is also synonymous with tenacity.
This is Dalila: steady, persistent, with iniciative. She is an artist open to fascination and, at the same time, with a certain unavoidable distance. At times, she seems to think with her eyes, aware of W.G. Sebald’s maxim that reality is always different from everything else. The work of this artist, born in Castelo de Paiva, Portugal, in 1982, consists in rediscovering in objects and materials as many layers as possible, trying to dive into them, based on the conviction that there are hidden and fascinating stories in them. Collecting and inventorying is one of her almost daily jobs. Gonçalves plays with the different ways she presents her works. Sometimes an evocative appearance, paradoxical regarding its origins: materials full of experiences and memory that enhance their own aesthetics, which, in turn, transmutes them into works of art. A sort of objets trouvés that, due to their history, generate other narratives. We will slice them in this conversation.
Bea Espejo (BE)
In the exhibition Bulir there are two kettles and two birds that sing when the water boils. A piece entitled Correntes de Ar (Airstreams). How did you come up with this idea? What is its emotional anchoring?
Dalila Gonçalves (DG)
During lockdown, spending most of my time at my parent’s house, I was able to notice and dwell on details that had always existed but to which I had never paid much attention. The sound of the kettle that makes me run from my room to the stove, the silence of relief after the whistle, the window with the trees behind, the birds and their background singing ... that scenario comes to my mind whenever I see the kettles with the birds in the exhibition. In a way, it reminds me of that kind of almost magical comfort where stories intersect and communicate in different places not quite knowing how.
(BE) A poetic gesture that hides another, a far more political one...
(DG) I could say it’s a symbolic gesture, poetic, and its political strength probably lies in this, given the breadth of that word. Faced with the impossibility of changing the world, of fighting inequality, faced with excessive consumerism, constant acceleration, this almost anti-heroic gesture is the most I can do as an artist. I’m interested in the simplicity of the small things, our memories, objects that bear the marks of their use, the stories inside them, objects about to become obsolete, but which are not yet obsolete, perhaps because we still remember them and their functions.
I’m interested in the simplicity of the small things, our memories, objects that bear the marks of their use, the stories inside them...
(BE) They say that birdsong is a sound that can represent peace. The same could be said when thinking of a kitchen with a boiling kettle...
(DG) In this installation, I use one of those everyday objects, some old kettles to which I change the scale and I adapt to the space of the RAC Foundation, especially in relation to the window, to the outside space and to the gap between the two floors. To put it simply, I can say that I invite the viewer to listen to two birds “talking to each other”. Two yellow birds, like Alessi’s Italian kettles, rise to the level of the trees outside. The sound and the kettles, though manipulated, remind me of those bygone routines, but also of other conceptual levels of perception. I’m interested in that time of relation between what seems obvious, simple and recognizable, and at the same time not so much. I would say that I am interested in that intermediate place, that game of what is and what is not, between the real and the imagination, that urgency to make precise and improbable connections, that defines my work as an artist. And to dedicate my life to this is certainly a privilege, and certainly a political stance.
(BE) There has always been a great tradition of that kind of kettles in Portugal, right?
(DG) Yes, especially in the old days, a kind of kettles with whistles that warn when the water boils. It's also a sound that reminds me of trains and old factories. The use of the steam whistle, as with the kettle (it sounds to alert us to the urgency of turning off the fire), serves to call out, to give a warning. It was used to inform workers of the time of entry and exit, or to warn that a train or a freight machine was about to pass through a certain place. It is a warning for a change. I was born in a land of coal mines and that sound is still part of my memories and of family conversations. To produce this piece, using the examples of kettles that I had at home, I worked with a craftsman who produces copper stills and other copper objects. In my village there is a strong tradition in the manufacture of these artifacts. In this case and using knowledge in the production of stills, we produced these kettles and the support to heat the water, in the most similar way to the original but respecting the scale of space. It is yet another process that interests me: the path between handmade and industrial production, without rejecting either one. In fact, I’m interested in time and marks in the matter that separates the two.
(BE) There were many of these type of birds in Colunas de ar (Air Pillars), an installation made for Quadrum gallery – EGEAC – Galerias Municipais, in Lisbon, in 2021 and that seems to have a direct relationship with this project in Pontevedra.
(DG) Yes, what gave rise to the installation presented at Quadrum Gallery was precisely the fascination for this kind of simple object, clay whistles in the shape of animals that I came across in my last artistic residency in Mexico City. When I came back, I kept researching about these whistles, I devoted to this during the pandemic. I started looking for them all over the world and collecting them. I found the first one in Mexico, imbued with the feeling of being taken to another landscape by someone who was selling a simple souvenir. Today they have a function most of the time playful, but historically they were used for hunting,in religious rituals or to scare enemies. They can be found in geographical and cultural contexts as diverse as Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, or Portugal.
(BE) In Colunas de ar (Air Pillars), sound action, installation action, and object are combined.
(DG) Yes. The first part takes place outside the gallery. The exhibition space is seen from the outside. Visual information is reduced to white metal wires, that serve as support, and four wooden ladders also white. There are performers who play ocarinas (with animal sounds), hidden and camouflaged among the spectators and in different parts of the building, as part of a choir previously rehearsed by the musician and director Tiago Enrique. In the second part, the sound ends and eleven performers, also hidden, come together one after another. They carry in bags, specially designed for this purpose, more than 600 clay ocarinas with shapes of different animals, from countries across five continents. Ocarinas that are suspended in order of height: aerial animals above, land animals in the middle and aquatic animals and reptiles near the ground. Finally, without ocarina sound and without performers, visitors who saw everything from the outside, through the glass, are invited to enter and wander among these small animals that have swallowed the space; wherever we go and wherever we look, there they are, mute and looking at us.
Objects are open to failure, to the weariness of that day, the joy, sadness, or a certain energy. There is an organic time closer to nature.
(BE) In your work there is always a dance between the traditional or artisanal and the mass-produced. I understand this conceals a broader reflection on time.
(DG) Yes, on how time makes the material and the object. Even if the craftsman makes the same pieces, they would never be the same and that interests me a lot. Objects are open to failure, to the weariness of that day, the joy, sadness, or a certain energy. There is an organic time closer to nature. On the contrary, the industrial time is closer to that of the city, the speed, the instantaneous, the simultaneous. I move between those two worlds and unconsciously that translates into my work. In some works, I explore it more directly. For example, in Desgastar em Pedra (Wear in Stone), with the help of family and friends, I removed the sand from hundreds of blue colored Bosch sandpapers. In the end, the work became a large blue fabric, stuck to the ceiling, next to a blue stone on the floor. In the different sandpaper squares that compose the work, as a kind of patchwork, you can see different temperaments, strengths and energies, different people in that slow and sufferable process of removing the sand from the fabric. Through this simple and literal handmade action, the traditional sandpaper, which we link to something industrial, has undergone a dissection. There is in this work a clear example of this path, from industrial to organic, following your line of thinking.
(BE) That leads me to think about the many layers of meaning that are hidden in your works, though some are very literal.
(DG) I could say that almost all my works are a dissection process, of discovering objects and materials in all their layers until they are seen from inside. I’m referring to a form of immersion, of research of its plasticity, sometimes of its history, sometimes of its function, sometimes of everything simultaneously. I am fascinated by discovering everything that shapes objects and their materials and showing what distinguishes them. For example, in the case of the kettles or the whistles installation, I emphasize the sound as part of the work, it is another layer that characterizes them. So, even though they share the same sound, when the object is associated with a recognizable form, we can associate the sound with the form, hearing a bird, a jaguar, or an owl... It is as if, in this process of being a surgeon, I wanted to make a tunnel to cut the crooked path of a mountain so that, on the way to that short road, we can dream of the mountain or, if that tunnel already exists, I feel like winding through the mountain to understand why and at what point the tunnel was made. It is in this balance of two opposite poles that I am somehow moving.
(BE) I see many kettles in the studio waiting for upcoming projects. What do you want to do with them?
(DG) I'm thinking of creating a kind of “kettle orchestra”. With different types of kettles that I've been collecting, my idea is to make some metal tubes for each one and add different animal figures that I find and that I want to bronze or resin. I still must think it over. As they will have different forms and materials, also the sounds will be very different from each other and can be explored with boiling times. I keep doing daily tests, but it is in São Paulo that I will bring this project to life, with a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in a residency and exhibition at the beginning of next year.
When I look at my works, the thing I like most is to remember the process, the history with the person, that time of travel, of searching, of change, that moment of going to the market, of being recognized, that someone continues to keep coins or kettles for me, even when I no longer work with them.
(BE) Can you explain me this idea of collecting as a field of work?
(DG) Actually I collect histories. I’m not a collector, I never have been. I'm not organized, and whenever I've tried to be, I've lost interest in the middle of the process. But at work, yes. Now I can understand why some objects or materials fascinate me and others don't, the points of union between them. When I look at my works, the thing I like the most is to remember the process, the history with the person, that time of travel, of searching, of change, that moment of going to the market, of being recognized, that someone continues to keep coins or kettles for me, even when I no longer work with them. There was a time when everyone knew the coins I was looking for. I feel people coming together to do the work with me. That generosity is amazing. I think this collaborative work comes from the faculty, when I was drawing with corn in the city spaces and then photographing the pigeons eating and doing my drawing while erasing it. I needed people to help me make the drawing quickly and scare the pigeons away so I could finish it. And, in many other actions I was doing outside. I have always needed people to help me.
(BE) Earlier, in 2020, you also worked with the sound in Atrapasonidos (Sound Catcher), in Mexico. What exactly interests you about that sound history of objects?
(DG) This installation began in Brazil at the Pivô residence, though in a different way, and it was concretized with a video entitled Concert. Later, in Mexico, I used the same worn sandpaper sheets, from woodworking shops of Portugal and Brazil to build Atrapasonidos (Sound Catcher). The name comes from “atrapanovios”, a toy made of palm that is commonly sold there. With a craftsman I made some replicas with specific scales and used them to hold metal animal claws with a crystal ball, which formed part of the base of pianists' benches (especially those used in the United States) and other artifacts that I found, such as fish or birds. Underneath these objects, I placed some simple rotation mechanisms, hidden in wooden or ceramic bases, that made the sandpaper turn like vinyl records or water like mirrors. In fact, it is a group of different times and works. There is also another work, from the Playing with Time series, consisting of 840 snooker blue chalk cubes…
(BE) Do you always work with several projects at once?
(DG) Yes, I do, I’m somewhat chaotic, at least at a certain stage of the process, because I am interested in several things at the same time. I believe that because of the nature of my work, because of the time I often need to find things, because of the time it takes to produce the pieces, it is almost mandatory that I work on several projects simultaneously. On the one hand because of my temperament, on the other hand because I have to produce works for different exhibitions, otherwise it would be impossible.
(BE) You talk about the project Playing with Time, where you reflect in a very specific way on the passage of time and the traces it generates. I think of white snooker balls that were yellowed over the years and that you sort as a pantone, from lighter to darker. What is the meaning of time for you? What is it metaphor for?
(DG) In my practice, time has different meanings. Sometimes I use it as a tool or as a medium, that is, the passage of time in itself already generates the work, as in the installation of snooker balls you mention. I also use it as a metaphor when, for example, I talk about the loss of time or the idea of time associated with money, or when I look at objects that are about to expire, to become disused because the passage of time has made them obsolete. I think of a CD full of information, of stamps, of writing feathers, of paper archives... I would call that “time as a metaphor”, when I evoke it to speak emotionally, that absurd unnatural rhythm of our daily lives. A rhythm that I also share.
I have been working with objects, though decontextualizing their reading. That
is the starting point, however, the way of doing it has been changing.
(BE)Has your work changed much over the years?
From the beginning I have been working with objects, though decontextualizing their reading. That is the starting point, however, the way of doing it has been changing. In general, there is a process of poetic reorganization of a collecting practice, either by inventorying everyday materials (coins, pens, pencils...), or by their singularity that transforms them into unique objects. Sometimes I rethink this process. At other times, I see it as an experimental game where I put them in dialogue with other objects, building narratives that can be documentary or fictional. Thus, in a practice with a strong processual side, I use video, photography, ceramics, sculpture and installation to approach different lines of interest: the idea of time as medium and metaphor, the rescue, the obsolete, the experiential journey between the industrial and the organic, between mass and handmade production.
(BE) Do the objects find you or do you find them?
(DG) I don't really know. In a more rational way, I would say that I am the one who finds them because I open myself up to the path of searching, but it is also true that I often find things when I am not looking for them. There are several stages within the collecting process. Finding an object or a material, and even a situation that might lead me to something, is a very special moment, though usually at that time I don't know what I will do with it. There are moments when that singular discovery is enough, but at other times the process can take me months or years to find a way to bring meaning to it.
(BE) You clearly work with several ideas at the same time. What are those working materials, these ideas that are on the table with which you work simultaneously?
(DG) They are materials all around me. I'm a bit of a travel and walking addict, so the term “around” has a wide range. Regardless of the objects or materials I have, another question that occupies a large part of the process is how to find the best medium to convey an idea or enhance the material I have, whether it's photography, ceramics, video, or installation. It is in this discovery that the success of the work lies. A success of its own, of course. So, when I am exploring an idea, I usually surround myself with objects from the same family or that I somehow connect. Though afterwards, and most of the time, I don't use them.
Regardless of the objects or materials I have, another question that occupies a large part of the process is how to find the best medium to convey an idea or enhance the material I have...
(BE) Right now there are a lot of gourds in your studio ...
(DG) I’m working with them for an installation. This idea has taken many turns. I was very focused on sound associated with musical instruments made with them, or their ability to carry liquids... so I surrounded myself with instruments, sounds, toys, but finally, they resulted in completely silent pieces.
(BE) You often say that you do not have much of an ease with language, but there is something about it that interests me very much in relation to your work. You have been using it in the most precise possible way so that the details are materialized and reach a meaning. The use of words can make all the notes sound, manifest all the registers. Then the resulting image, as with a poem, organizes the history, leads to a series of complex associations.
(DG) In the faculty, they urged us to explain everything, and I hope that over the years I can explain less and less, and just follow an intuitive intelligence. Sometimes I think there’s something very visceral, I do it without knowing the reason. Other times, and as contradictory beings that we are, I do the opposite.
(BE) Do you believe in the routine of work? Does it take you somewhere interesting?
(DG) There is some routine in the process and in thinking. I leave audio notes on my mobile, take walks, travel whenever I can, I must tell you that much of my work does not happen in my studio. Sometimes the work in the studio is somewhat forced and painful, even though I enjoy experimenting and working with the materials, the uncertainty of decisions is not easy to face. I can work anywhere, especially in the process, but I tend to return to my network of affections. There is an emotional and practical logistics created over time that makes it much easier when it comes to materialize. That is becoming increasingly clear to me.
I leave audio notes on the mobile, I take walks, I travel whenever I can, I must tell you that much of my work does not happen in my studio.
(BE) Did your work change when it entered the market?
(DG) If I look at it with perspective, yes. But I don’t know if it has to do with the market or the experience, and it also doesn't cross my mind to do something that is more commercial. There are some strategies of choosing the best work for a given context. Trying to present some works in contexts that are not those of an art fair, thinking, within the works I make, which are the best to be seen in one space or another.
(BE) One of your best-known works is the Kneaded Memory, made for a square in Blankenberge, in Belgium. Objects that resemble rocks, shipwreck images of different shapes and sizes. This work made you very well-known and made the market embrace your work.
(DG) I was very young when I did this work, I was 28 years old. I was invited to participate in a Triennial in Belgium. They had seen a photography work where I wrinkled photographs of facades of vacant buildings in Porto and then, because of the framing and light, they looked like stones. Actually, they were garbage stones. They were interested that I explored the relations of Portugal and Blankenberge. The Portuguese brought tiles from Antwerp, in exchange for salt. The organizers of the triennial wanted the work to focus on the transformations undergone by the city, the diminishing tiles on the façades, and the new concrete constructions in that coastal area. But those pieces were made of paper. I am not sure how, but there was a misunderstanding. And it was out of this misunderstanding that Kneaded Memory was born. I agreed to do something in ceramics, without ever having done anything with this material. In the end, I focused on a town square surrounded by houses that still had some tiles on the floor of the entrances. I used those patterns and made this kind of wrinkled concrete facades, some with tiles and some just concrete. I think the pieces were there for a year. And, yes, the visibility was very high. After a few years, the pieces came back to Portugal and the Porto City Hall bought three of the nineteen pieces from me and now they are in front of the city's train station. The most curious thing is that we discovered that Belgian patterns also exist in the Porto tile archive, so I began to see the pieces as stones moving between spaces and histories. This seventeenth-century commercial relationship has been transformed into another unexpected relationship between the past and the present, between memory, remembering and forgetting.