WHAT TIME IS IT IN PARADISE? . PAULO REIS

According to Biblical narrations, Paradise – known as the Garden of Eden, was a terrestrial site situated in some remote ancestral locus. In this atemporal location, Man, made in the image of his creator, lived in communion with nature, sheltered from all manner of evil and affliction, since immortal.  With original sin Man becomes mortal and with his act shifts the earthly paradise into the realm of metaphysics, descending it into an immaterial and remote locale, where He would only be sanctioned to enter if expiated by the Creator of his sins. Paradise, with the fault of Adam and Eve, would be converted into a mythical place, reachable only to the good, transmuting itself into a metaphor for the possibility of righteousness and beauty. Paradise occupies a privileged position in all belief-systems and religions. However, this does not take place only in religion but also in the arts and philosophy, for the most distinguished authors have made use of the image of Paradise in their works; ever since Dante Alighieri – in literature, Hieronymus Bosch, in painting – Thomas Hobbes, in philosophy – Machiavelli, in politics, among many others, it has been utilized as a moral tale.

Nevertheless, it is the English poet John Milton (1608-1674) who will compose in the seventeenth century the most important work on the subject of the lost Paradise[1]. Inspired on the book of Genesis and written in 1667 it is an epic comprising twelve cantos. In the story, Satan, realizing a new race shall take the place of the rebelled Angels, decides to act. God foresees the Fall of Man and his possible redemption in the case of someone sacrificing himself for him. The Son offers himself in holocaust and man finds himself redeemed even before the Fall. God orders the Archangel Raphael to warn mankind’s begetters of the diabolical plans and he relates them the rebellion of the angels and their subsequent plummeting into Hell. Eve, however, allows herself to be seduced and induces Adam into sin as well. Adam suffers the consequences of his irremediable fault; he undergoes a vision in which he contemplates what shall happen in future times right up to the birth of Christ. It is with Jesus’ physical death that man shall be saved. Milton’s allegory becomes a manner of comprehension of the human values amidst the attempt of reaching the eternal sublime.

Birth and Death, Earthly Existence and the Eternal Return are the main questions that have mobilized Western thought from anthropology to science, from religion to art. Following the death of the body the soul arrives in Paradise – Hell merely being a religious speculation, as some skeptics would say. It is speculated that the first question Man makes once he arrives there is: what time is it here? The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to justify the essence of existence in man’s necessity in recognizing himself, taking as a starting point the binomial space and time[2]. Under this premise we can speculate the reason for the title What Time is it in Paradise, which the artist Albano Afonso chose to name his show. It serves as an index for the comprehension of the existentialist element in the scope of the artist’s visual experience when he exhibits skeletons in the gallery space; for the skeletons are not real, they seem to have their real dimensions but can only be seen as metaphysical experiences, for they are mensurable only in our interior individual experiences. Devoid of their apparent physicality, these bodies, one male and one female, present themselves as physical particles of light, emitted by the incidence of a beam over them.

Albano, by dint of placing two bodies plastered in mirrors (Still Life – Couple, 2007) in the upper exhibition space, exhibits his vision of Paradise. These lay recumbent in a half embrace having amidst them the paradisiacal surroundings of a forest. The images of the work entitled Florests (2007) result from a play of mirrors where the artificial and the real are confused in order to create a chimerical environment.  In the main exhibitory space the artist has placed three glass boxes. In the first, a pair of heads, in another, two giant hearts, and in the last box two entwined pelvises, one male one female. On the adjoining walls the artist has projected prism drawings made with lights. They are images of hands borrowed from Mannerist and Baroque paintings depicting the receiving of the stigmata. Once again the artist resorts to the history of the image in order to create a new one. Complementing the artist’s Paradise we have a double projection of the same video, these are, however, presented unsynchronized. The identical images grow distinct as time interferes in their visual sequences[3]

The bones and organs repose in glass boxes, transparent caskets of sorts, in the guise of archeological finds. Seen in space, this double image could look back to both the body moulds found in the excavations of Pompeii and the images of Adam and Eve of religious paintings: Mantegna, Dürer, Michelangelo, Caracci, Cranach, Grossaer, so many painters immortalized the Expulsion from Paradise. Albano Afonso’s Adam and Eve allude formally to another one of his pieces, a further Adam and Eve from the series Illuminated Pictograms. In the first work, dating from 2000, the image is composed of micro lamp bulbs that create an image from the emission of light into a two-dimensional drawing, yet incorporating the electrical wires feeding the piece as the bodies’ filaments (veins). In the second piece, this one coming from the series Still Lifes, the naturalism of the body is concealed by the post-pop and allegorical visual effect of the small, mirrored slivers encrusting it projecting into space, by means of a beam of light atop the casket. The particles arising from these reflections create a body expanded in air.

Light, central as it is in his work, can appear in the photograph’s intentional reflections, in which lights coming from camera flashes are fired onto a mirror - akin to the fugitive glimmer of a star - and captured in a spot of his studio. Nevertheless it is in the series Illuminated Pictograms and Light Paintings that light’s mass of energy is employed as plastic molding. The Light Paintings wish to be incorporeal paintings. The series began in 2000 when the artist exhibited the first version of Adam and Eve. Maja (2000), Leda and Prometheus (2002), Martyrdom (2005) and Metamorphosis (2006) followed. In these pieces light is projected onto a mirror holding outlined images that are reflected onto space in the form of light anamorphoses.  At other times light is projected directly onto glass objects, such as in the Still Life with Head and Heart (2005) and Déjeuner (2005), or covered in mirrors, such as the unassembled skeleton the artist showed in a glass box, still in the Light Paintings series. The piece in question, besides femora, tibiae and shoulder blades, left conspicuous a skull.

A pop vanitas, luxuriant and seductive in the eyes of the incautious, for the human skull, unequivocal symbol for the eminence of death, has always been employed as allegory. It surfaces in Hamlet’s existential monologue To Be or Not to Be as well as in Renaissance and Baroque still-lifes. Albano Afonso’s mirrored skull holds the same metaphorical nature of Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites (1997) – a checkered chessboard skull – and of Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted For The Love of God (2007). All of these vanitas contain the same formal departure points and search for the conceptual reasons that led Hans Holbein to paint a skull anamorphosis in The Ambassadors (1533) before the glories and riches of life. This is what Gabriel Orozco’s, Damien Hirst’s, and Albano Afonso’s works deal with. 

What Time is it in Paradise proclaims the transient state of life which only art is able to perpetuate. Do we necessitate the existence of an unattainable and Biblical Paradise? I believe that if we do need a Paradise, this Paradise is Art, the only vital complement, aesthetic and ethical, which man can leave behind as legacy to future generations.

Paulo Reis, Lisbon, September 2007

1 John Milton. Complete Poems and Major Prose, Merritt Y Hughes (ed.). New York, 1957.
2 Artist’s statement.
3 Claude Lévi-Strauss. L'homme nu. Mythologiques IV. Paris: Plon, 1970.