performance art in Portugal: a chronology

by Verónica Metello  |  Translated by João Florêncio

(from 1960s to 1980s)

Performance art in Portugal was, until the 1970s, one aspect of experimentation in the passage from objects to the art of experience, one in which artistic objects were replaced by procedures and devices aimed at a pure experience of art, that which Michaud called “volatilisation of art.”

1960s: the emergence of performative experimentation

Poema para Bailar, the 1961 painting by João Vieira, can be seen as the beginning of the tendency that drives non-performative art practices towards performativity. Based on a poem by Ana Hatherly, the painting demands a reading mediated by movement due to the poem’s radial circular composition. In line with his pictorial research on the sign as index of movement, one in which Poema para Bailar is included, João Vieira made, in 1970 at Exposição Dura (Galeria Judite da Cruz, Lisbon), what Ernesto de Sousa called an “action-spectacle” and João Fernandes a “performance of destruction.” The following year, Vieira took letters of the alphabet to the catwalk and, in 1972, he made the performance Incorpóreo I for Expo AICA 72 (Exhibition of the International Association of Art Critics Award), which took place at the Sociedade de Belas Artes in Lisbon.

The first “happenings” took place in the context of music and experimental poetry. In 1965, the first Portuguese happening took place at Galeria Divulgação, in Lisbon, with artists and organisers coming from the universe of experimental poetry and music (Ernesto Melo e Castro, Salette Tavares, Jorge Peixinho, Clotilde Rosa, António Aragão, Mário Falcão). Later described as a “neo-dada manifestation,” CONCERTO E AUDIÇÃO PICTÓRICA was introduced as a “experimental concert, a musical theatre show” that led to an important public discussion around the guidelines of international experimentalism.

In 1967 some of the people involved in CONCERTO E AUDIÇÃO PICTÓRICA prepared CONFERÊNCIA OBJECTO at Galeria Quadrante, in Lisbon. Thought by the involved—Ana Hatherly, José Alberto Marques, Ernesto Melo e Castro and Jorge Peixinho— as a happening programmed in detail, the event followed closely the conceptual ground and theoretical formulations of magazines Operação. Operação I and Operação II, organised by Ernesto Melo e Castro and Ana Hatherly, set out to be both magazines of experimental poetry and mobile exhibitions, with the aim of documenting the two main research avenues of its organisers: one visual (Ernesto Melo e Castro), the other concerning linguistic mechanics (Ana Hatherly).

CONFERÊNCIA OBJECTO started with a brief introduction by the critic and art historian José-Augusto França. That was followed by Hatherly’s reading of a text on the guidelines of structuralism which was periodically interrupted by either Ernesto Melo e Castro or José Alberto Marques, or even by the simultaneous playing of recordings of two works composed by Jorge Peixinho for the event. CONFERÊNCIA OBJECTO was repeated by Hatherly at Galeria Alvarez in Porto, also with the presence of Jorge Peixinho, in an occasion that served to introduce the magazine Operação. The event consisted in a talk by Hatherly on structuralism, an explanation of her Alfabeto Estrutural, and a simultaneous audition of three pieces by Peixinho, and made the news as a shocking event in Porto’s quiet cultural scene.

Ernesto de Sousa’s 1969 event Não Estamos Algures, in Algés, was also poetry-related; an exercise in poetic communication that was later called a happening.

 1970s: performance beyond poetry and experimental music

In the 1970s, performance in Portugal develops into something different. Information on performance starts circulating and a series of International Encounters trigger new dynamics of experimentation and radicalization of the modes of production and consumption of art.

In 1972, painter Espiga Pinto made the performance/happening Egotemponírico in Valadares. The work was later described by the important programmer and critic Egídio Álvaro as a “symbolic path/environment of large objects that adapt themselves to the trees and modify the landscape. In that temporary space birth, suffering, and departure were approached, with the artist using his own body to make poetic and almost mystical connections between man [sic], nature, and cosmos.”

Chronologically, though, before analysing Egídio Álvaro’s work, one must take into account the activities of the Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra, where important events took place in 1973, 1974, and 1976.

The Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra (CAPC), founded in 1958, played a central role in programming some of the events that ought to be inscribed in a chronology of performance in Portugal in the 1970s. Of note are A Minha Nossa Coimbra Deles (1973), the celebration of 1.000.011º Aniversário da Arte (1974), and Semana de arte na (da) rua (1976). As part of 1.000.011º Aniversário da Arte, organised by Ernesto de Sousa, Albuquerque Mendes does his first performative intervention: the distribution, along the route Porto-Coimbra, of hundreds of paper flowers inscribed with “art is beautiful all is beautiful,” followed by the installation of fabric sheets with floral patters at the entrance of the CAPC building.

Worth mentioning, also in relation to CAPC, the creation of the Grupo de Intervenção do Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra (GICAPC) and the Grupo Cores.

In 1973, Galeria Alvarez in Porto began collaborating with Egídio Álvaro, a Portuguese art critic based in Paris and founder of the Diagonale gallery, responsible for hosting important performance events in Paris. The collaboration between Álvaro and Galeria Alvarez, directed by the painter, collector, and gallerist Jaime Isidoro (1924-2009), resulted in a ground-breaking and decentralised programme that was contiguous with the developments of the international avant-garde.

As a result of that collaboration, the first issue of the magazine Artes Plásticas (1973-1977) was published, and the programme for Perspectiva 74 in Porto was devised. Taking Perspectiva 74 as a model, the four editions of Encontros Internacionais de Arte took place in the following years, between 1975 and 1977.

Encontros Internacionais de Arte aimed at bringing the community together around creative processes, the inscription of artistic practices in daily life, the discussion between artists and community, and the development and dissemination of the avant-garde. In order to achieve its aims, it organised exhibitions, debates, street interventions, concerts, and performances.

From Valadares (1974) to Viana do Castelo (1975), from Póvoa do Varzim (1976) to Caldas da Rainha (1977), it is worth noting the execution of several performances/interventions by portuguese and international artists as part of the Encontros. Namely, artists such as Grupo Puzzle (which, in 1976 at the time of their first intervention at Galeria Alvarez, was comprised of Graça Morais, Jaime Silva, João Dixo, Albuquerque Mendes, Fernando Pinto Coelho, Dario Alves, Carlos Carreiro, and Armando Azevedo), Albuquerque Mendes, Pierre Alain Hubert, Tomek Kawaik, Moucha, Artur Barrio, Roland Miller and Shirley Cameron, Serge III Oldenburg, Gerardo Burmester, Balbino Giner, Orlan, Chantal Guyot, Robert Filliou, Manoel Barbosa, Ernesto Melo e Castro, Miguel Yeco, Grupo Cores (see note 9), Collectif Femmes/ art (Francoise Janicot, Claudette Brun, Isabelle le Vigan, Francoise Eliet, Lea Lublin, Tanta Monraud, Gretta Grywacz, Monique Frydmanm, Elisa Tan, Colette).

After the dissolution of the partnership between Egídio Álvaro and Jaime Isidoro after the Quartos Encontros Internacionais de Arte in Caldas da Rainha (1977), Jaime Isidoro created the Bienal de Arte de Vila Nova de Cerveira (in its first edition in 1978 still named Quintos Encontros Internacionais de Arte), and Egídio Álvaro the Alternativa—Festival Internacional de Arte Viva, the performance festival that marked the 1980s, and the Ciclo de Arte Moderna at IADE in Lisbon.  The Ciclo de Arte Moderna took place in four editions between 1977 and 1982; it presented Albuquerque Mendes, Darocha, Manuel Alvess, GICAP/Grupo Cores, Miguel Yeco, Armando Azevedo, Manoel Barbosa and Elisabete Mileu.

The exhibition Alternativa 0 also took place in 1977, at the Galeria de Arte Moderna in Belém. The show was curated by Ernesto de Sousa, an art critic and programmer who, like Egídio Álvaro, played an important role in developing Portuguese discourses on performance in contemporary art. Alternativa 0 included an intervention by GICAPC, another by Ernesto Melo e Castro, and three performances by the Living Theatre in various locations in Lisbon. The Living Theatre then did a tour that took them to Coimbra and Porto where they presented, like they had in Lisbon, the piece “Seven Meditations on Political Sadomasochism.”

Also in 1977, Ana Hatherly made the intervention/performance Rotura at Galeria Quadrum in Lisbon. In that same gallery, Ernesto de Sousa curated, in 1978, the cycle Performing Arts that showed documentation of performance.

1980s: the proliferation of performance

With the end of the 1970s, portuguese performance acquired escape velocity in relation to the portuguese cultural and artistic context. Grupo Puzzle ceased to exist; Egídio Álvaro curated the exhibition Nova Sensibilidade/Figurações Intervenções at Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (SNBA); Grupo Diaspositivos and Grupo Néon were formed. In 1980, the II Bienal de Vila Nova de Cerveira takes place as do the Semana Internacional de Arte Actual of Vila do Conde and the exhibition Figurações-Intervenções, curated by Egídio Álvaro at SNBA.

In 1981 Egídio Álvaro starts Alternativa—Festival Internacional de Arte Viva in Almada, where it had three editions in 1981, 1982, and 1983, followed by one in Cascais in 1985 and another in Porto in 1987.

Besides his work as a programmer, Egídio Álvaro also played a central role in the internationalisation of portuguese performance during the 1980s through the programme of Diagonale gallery (founded in Paris in 1979) and as a mediator for the participation of portuguese artists in international festivals and events. Namely, he commissioned in 1984 at Centre Georges Pompidou the show Performance Portugaise in which artists Fernando Aguiar, Manoel Barbosa, Gerardo Burmester, Carlos Gordilho, Albuquerque Mendes, Elisabete Mielu, António Olaio, Rui Orfão and Miguel Yeco participated as well as musicians Telectu (Jorge Lima Barreto and Vítor Rua). Another festival dedicated to portuguese performance took place in Amsterdam that same year, between 25 November and 1 December, organised by Egídio Álvaro in collaboration with the dutch collective MAKKOM, and with the presence of artists Albuquerque Mendes, Carlos Gordilho, Anónio Olaio, Miguel Yeco, Rui Orfão, São Pestana and Silvestre Pestana.

In other circles, tangential to Egídio Álvaro’s work, it is important to mention the opening of Porto’s Espaço Lusitano by Gerardo Burmester and Albuquerque Mendes, mainly dedicated to showing performance; the work of Lisbon galleries Quadrum and Diferença, directed from the end of the 1970s by Ernesto de Sousa; the AICA which hosted various performances at its Salão AICA of 1985 at SNBA; and the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. The Gulbenkian foundation was an important promoter of performance in the 1980s mainly through its Service of Animation, Artistic Creation, and Education through Art (ACARTE) at its recently opened Centre of Modern Art (CAM).

Between March and June 1985, the Gulbenkian Foundation hosted Exposição-Diálogo Sobre Arte Contemporânea na Europa, which brought together representatives of various European museums under the sponsorship of the European Council. In that context, the ACARTE Service presented a programme of performance, theatre, and music, planned by ACARTE’s Madalena Perdigão with the collaboration of René Berger, delegate of the organising committee, and Ole-Henrik Moe and Joan Hoet, directors of the Sonja Henie-Niels Onstad Foundation (Norway) and the Museum van Medendaagse Kunst (Belgium), respectively. The programme included performances by Wolf Vostel, Carlos Gordilho, Stuart Brisley, Fernando Aguiar, Marina Abramović and Ulay, and Ulrike Rosenbach, as well as theatre companies with “a strong plastic component” or considered “at the forefront of modernity” like the Teatre de La Claca and the Teatro de Sombras of Lourdes de Castro/Manuel Zimbro or Jan Fabre and Jack Helen Brut. Mauricio Kagel, the Strasbourg Percussions, and the Oficina Musical were responsible for the musical programme. In the programme notes,  Ole-Henrik Moe, Jan Hoet, Madalena Perdigão and also Ernesto de Sousa and Fernando de Aguiar are evidently concerned with explaining the terms “performance” and “happening”, a concern that was also taken up by the newspapers, in a debate marked by the criticism directed at the more polemic works such as Wolf Vostell’s The Garden of Delights, Jan Fabre’s The Power of Theatrical Madness, Abramović’s and Ulay’s Nightsea Crossing, or the performances by the portuguese Fernando Aguiar (Ensaio para uma Interacção da Escrita) and Carlos Gordilho (O Desencanto do Dia Claro and Interior Maldito).

Considering that the previous initiative “represented an open door to performance at the Centre of Modern Art,” ACARTE organised, in November and December of that same year, the Quinzena Multimédia, where technological performances were privileged, “from the automatic-human characters in Performática by Grupo Néon, to the sonic and visual computer programming of L’Ecran Humain by the Canadian Group Performance Multimedia, through the light and body intersections of Nan Hoover.” A workshop organised by Cario Bengio and Paul St-Jean also took place, along with the talk “18 Attitudes of Performance” by Manoel Barbosa.

A year later, in November 1986, and because “promises are not made to be broken,” like Madalena Perdigão declared in the programme of the event, ACARTE presented Performance-Arte, a show solely dedicated to the work of portuguese performers and which, for that reason, constituted itself as “a sample, necessarily limited and incomplete, of the state of performance in Portugal.” After a break of more than two years but still under Madalena Perdigão’s direction, performance art returns to ACARTE as part of the Ciclo de Arte Experimental, organised as a tribute to Ernesto de Sousa.

It is also worth mentioning the cycle PROJECTOS & PROGESTOS in Coimbra. In 1979 that city hosted MULTI/ECOS, an international collective—happening. It came out of an invitation made by CITAC (Circle of Theatrical Iniciation of the Academy of Coimbra) to António Barros who was then joined by Rui Órfão in the coordination of the group’s theatre studio. The studio was aimed at plastic and paratheatrical experimentation, having also opened a provocative exhibition space, the Black Cube which was a black, not white, room. Porto’s Escola Superior de Belas Artes was also involved in the event. From it, then, the cycle PROJECTOS & PROGESTOS: Polemic Tendencies in Contemporary Artistic Languages was born, coordinated by Barros and Órfão, sponsored by CITAC, and with the financial aid of the Gulbenkian Foundation. The event showed the work of 91 artists from 12 countries in 48 sections of the show. It was a space of alternative artistic expression which included multimedia, performance art, experimental theatre, visual arts, video art, diaporama, operating theatre, experimental music, visual literature, phonetic and sonic poetry, and living sculpture. It took place until 1985.

Note also the Duas Noites de Performance organised by the ARCA school (which had been founded by dissidents of CAPC) at Coimbra’s Chiado building; and the PERFORMARTE—I International Encounter of Performance, which took place in Torres Vedras in 1985, organised by Manoel Barbosa and Fernando Aguiar.

* collaboration of Ana Bigotte Vieira and Ricardo Seiça Salgado on the paragraphs relating to ACARTE and PROJECTOS & PROGESTOS, respectively.