You could think of Dalila Gonçalves as an alchemist, after all she has described using ‘materials to speak of themselves.’ Hers is not a workshop grinding away at making gold though. She is interested in the value of more humble matter: sand speaking of sand, for example. Individual grains poetically shifting shape to form something new – but still sandy. Her exhibition title at Lehman + Silva, ‘Nem tudo no navio se deteriora no porão’, loosely translates into English as ‘not everything in the ship rots in the hold’. As far as Gonçalves is concerned, it sails into new territory.
Everything changes with time’s inevitable passing. Just think of how skin starts to lose its elasticity, soft wrinkles deepening, concertinaing – our body even replaces itself with an entirely new set of cells every seven years. Rocks erode, smoothing out kinks as water and wind washes over, or sediments amass, building up layers. And what of diamonds? Carbon condensing over centuries, coal becoming clear, polished perfection. Time ticks on. For Gonçalves, it can take different registers. She recognizes the time of daily life as being accelerated, linked to speed and industry, while conversely there is the time of nature, slow and organic, and even the time of the weather, working away at the earth’s materials, forcing it into new configurations. Her work examines this cross over, where life meets nature, where ‘activity’ merges with ‘silence’ to make a new sound, to form something other.
In Desgastar em Pedra (Segundo ensaio) (‘To Wear in Stone (Second essay)’, 2018), a giant blue patchwork hangs from the ceiling, draping itself over the floor. Made of nearly 240 individual sheets of sandpaper, each square has been striped of its coarseness, delicate tones of turquoise, lapis lazuli, cobalt and sapphire catching the light as you walk around the object. Nearby, a bright ultramarine rock rests, weighty and textured when compared with the buoyant, flowing tapestry. Formally, the installation combines the geometric language of Minimalism with Yves Klein’s ‘Sponge Sculptures’ series, where he saturated sponges with paint, then drying and mounting the forms upon stone bases – painting tools becoming sculptures. Similarly, Gonçalves’s method transforms one medium into another, in this instance, sandpaper into sandstone (remember, sand speaks of sand).
Working with a community of people from her home in Portugal, the town of Castelo de Paiva, Gonçalves asked them to soak each sheet of sandpaper to remove its layers of grit, a time-consuming and even ritualistic process. I imagine the fingertips of her participants becoming simultaneously coarse and wrinkled: ruffed up by sand and saturated in liquid. She has described how, ‘Normally my work is about the collection of materials from daily life and the process of different layers of time.’ Gonçalves gathered these loose sediments to combine, shape and solidify them into a pitted tongue-shaped stone. So she literally did ‘wear in’ stone, as the work’s title suggests, translating one material into another, its structure, shape and texture shifting out of two-dimensions.
What happens to time when we act collectively, when each of us gathers with our own different perception of time to work towards one goal? We share an experience of time while we’re together, though for one it might be fast, for another slow. Our own time registers define us. We are individual sheets of paper knitted into a whole; we are Gonçalves’s metaphor.
While hers is a clinical observation of materials, concerned with taking matter to its limit, it too is poetic. During a 2018 residency at the São Paulo-based art and research centre Pivô, Gonçalves became fascinated with the floor of her studio, one that itself looked like sandpaper, bearing the marks and scuffs from having been repeatedly trodden upon. As the artist phrased it, there were ‘different layers of time’ underfoot. Making the video “Concerto” (2018–19), she turned this floor into the site of a dynamic painting, one that moves and changes. Colourful discs of sandpaper spin above this surface, their own eroded faces contrasting with the mottled abrasions beneath. In one, red and orange concentric circles slowly rotate, while another sees a patch of brown that has been slowly worn away, another that appears as the speckled iris of an eyeball, another marked with crisscrossing geometric lines. Each camera angle shows a new painting, turning. The influence of 1950s Abstract Expressionism, where the likes of Mark Rothko created colour fields that pulsed with vibrancy, shifts into something kinetic: moving, revolving, whirling. Gonçalves response to what has come before in art history, to the layers of time buried beneath her.
Her colour fields are also synesthetic, tone translating into sound. In the film, a microphone rests upon the top of her spinning forms, black and red wires emerging from a bronzed disc. Complex textures of noise result: scratchy and inconsistent, the rough abrasions tickle the microphone with erratic notes. The artist invited a double-bass player to respond to this sandy symphony, the strings of their bow gliding across the instrument to produce a mournful mood of longing. Simultaneously, planks of wood are pressed against the sandpaper discs, wearing themselves down as they play. Together, the discordant but pure organic sounds of the double bass merge with the industrial scoring of the sandpaper, to score a musical script. Colour becomes sound as the organic and industrial meet.
What is it about that merging of industrial and organic that so fascinates Gonçalves? Where man tries to harness nature, to shape and mould something new from its raw materials. To become alchemists. Of course nature too attempts alchemy. Take, for example, the bee nest (distinct from the word ‘beehive’, which denotes a manmade structure used to house honey bee species). Within these nests colonies of bees work together to form an internal structure made from beeswax of hexagonal prismatic cells. Here they store their gold: oozing amber honey laced with pollen and packed into these chambers. Perhaps humans are just like these little buzzing bees, working together to harness nature and use it for our own ends, collectively finding purpose in the process, trying to make sense of it all.
Gonçalves’s work Vazios (Empty) (2018) is a porcelain cast of a bee’s nest. Appearing at first glance as an undulating sheet of bubble wrap, its pristine white, puckered surface gathers together tiny bubbles. Foraging for these objects, Gonçalves then uses a practice of pressing porcelain into each of the bee’s honey cavities, clay consuming the negative space created by the hollow of beeswax. Just imagine matter filling this impression as the artist’s thumb pushes it into place, one hole after another disappearing. Emulating the lost-wax technique of bronze casting, Gonçalves places the whole form – clay cast and mould– into the kiln, and the heat of the oven melts away the wax. What is left? The ghost of the bee’s home; a former moment in time that was dynamic and busy, now fixed and preserved, present but also destroyed. She documents a memory that we stand in front of in the gallery, waiting, watching.
Philosopher Henri Bergson explored issues of time and memory, specifically considering the tensions between watching and waiting, arguing that ‘there is no perception which is not full of memories. With the immediate and present data of our senses we mingle a thousand details out of our past experiences.’ He used the example of sugar granules dissolving in a glass of water to consider the anxiety that is induced for the observer in the process of waiting for something to change, underlining that personal consciousness is imperative in actually making us stand our ground to wait for a resolution: ‘the glass of water, the sugar, and the process of the sugar’s melting in the water are abstractions … in the manner of a consciousness’. So the viewer’s own memories and their will to wait feed into their experience of time and their subjective understanding of any moment.
In front of Gonçalves’s work we might fill each cell with our own memories, the individual moments that comprise our lives. We might never catch the exact moment that the sugar dissolves in the glass, that the wax melts in the oven, but we know it has happened, just as we know time is passing, second by second, minute by minute, cementing our existence into its layers, before we too pass, our bodies enacting alchemy, becoming earth.