‘White Nights’ is Julião Sarmento’s most comprehensive retrospective to date. This major survey comprises more than 160 works – including drawing, painting, performance, photography, sculpture and video – and spans his 40-year career. It successfully sets out to highlight the Portuguese artist’s exploration of the domestic sphere; works were grouped around representations of the home and of architecture.
The museum’s interior structure is used to highlight the works’ relation to space: ‘Seven Houses and Six Flats’ (2006), a set of photographs and architectural plans of the houses in which Sarmento used to live, is presented in two groups. The series is divided by the doorway of the room showing R.O.C. (40 Plus One) (2011), a video of a woman undressing as she recites extracts from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Remarks on Colour’ (notes he wrote in the last months of his life, in 1951). The intimate information about the artist’s life in ‘Seven Houses and Six Flats’, revealing the inside structure and the outside features of his most private spaces, is echoed by the model’s nudity in the video. The two short 8mm films, Shadow and Faces (both 1976), that flank R.O.C. (40 Plus One), further develop a sense of voyeurism. The films reveal brief glimpses of naked female bodies obscured by shadows, extreme close-ups and the texture of the footage; this erotic game of hide and seek is magnified by the hut-like constructions in which they are installed that allow the visitor to see the images from the outside.
In her essay ‘Cut! Reproduction and Recombination’ (2012), Hito Steyerl analyzes the ways in which cinema reconfigures the human form; bodies are fragmented and reorganized by the cinematic frame. Sarmento’s work relates to this cinematic device in the sense that the highly sexualized female bodies that inhabit his universe are often mutilated – in his large white canvases of the 1990s, such as A Seemingly Innocuous Dialogue or the life-size fibreglass and resin sculptures such as Licking the Milk Off Her Finger (both 1998), in which the faces are left empty, erased or cut. In the sculpture A Human Form in a Deadly Mould (1999), another faceless life-size female figure wearing a black summer dress bends forward with a rope around her neck, balancing herself against a wall. Voyeurism here is clearly highlighted, its repressive violence enacted.
The analogue slide-show and sound installation Cage (1975–6), created after a performance inside a tiger’s cage at the Lisbon Zoo, is a further example of Sarmento’s interest in the power-play of the gaze. The installation documents the animal’s point-of-view; the observer becomes the observed. The proliferation of different gazes (the artist, the visitor, the objects looked at) echo the instability of desire and of its representations. In the show’s title piece, the large-scale drawing White Nights (1982), a central image of two female figures touching each other is combined with smaller unfinished and abstract drawings. It’s a representation that hints at the fleeting presence of desire and at the impossibility of ever fully portraying it.