Antonio Vasconcelos Lapa and Sacred Spaces (essay for art exhibition)

26 April 2018

António Vasconcelos Lapa and Sacred Spaces
Richard Zimler


Artists committed to exploring their own lives and the world around them invariably create exhibitions in which they offer us a map or diagram of their inner landscape. Their traumas, delights, fears, desires and triumphs appear in their creations, curiously enough, even against their will at times. Most obviously, they shape the expressions on the faces of the figures who inhabit in their canvases and sculptures, but they can also influence elements as subtle as the blending of colors and the organization of space. From this point of view, their work can be seen as an attempt to understand exactly how they arrived at their emotional and spiritual present tense, as well as an attempt to communicate what they have discovered (and uncovered!) about themselves.

In the best such work, this creative process includes a strong component of spontaneity, for by giving free reign to their imagination, artists allow unpredictable images and shapes to enter their hands, brushes and carving tools. In that way, they are not only able to create depictions of what goes on in their conscious minds but also of a great deal that hides and crouches in their dreams. Very often, this translates into a strong focus on their obsessions – on whatever still perplexes them about themselves or needs to be examined more closely. Or, put another way, they tend to focus on the mysteries that pervade their fantasies and evade their understanding of themselves and the universe.

In the case of António Vasconcelos Lapa’s “Journey to the Barroque”, we gain an understanding of the artist’s inner landscape by studying and appreciating exactly how he has transformed the Botanical Garden of Ajuda. Curiously, what we find both confirms the accuracy of the title he has given the show and – at the very same time – calls it into question. Why? Although the colorful, wildly imaginative and highly ornamented ceramic pieces he has created reflect the baroque sensibilities and tendencies of Lapa’s native Portugal, on a deeper level, they seem to be Lapa’s way of exploring an aspect of the world that is both more profound and important: the sacred space. And of giving it a very personal twist…

In both Eastern and Western traditions, sacred spaces are typically watched over by fierce and even monstrous guards charged with keeping out trespassers or those who have yet to be initiated. For instance, the Book of Genesis indicates that the Lord stationed terrifying beasts at the entrance the Garden of Eden in order to keep Adam and Eve and their kin from reentering paradise.
In the Eastern tradition, temples and other sacred places are nearly always guarded by demons, warriors or mythological beasts. In Sri Lanka and many other Buddhist countries, for instance, terrifying beings known as Nagas – human from the waist up, snake from the waist down – guard nearly all temples. And throughout China, dragons typically perch on the walls and roofs of buildings meant for religious gatherings.

Why force visitors to confront these beasts? Because in nearly all religious traditions, they serve as a reminder that the space we are about to enter is different and dangerous. After all, contact with higher powers or immersion in a transcendent reality involves leaving behind one’s habitual surroundings and abandoning one’s everyday self. In short, the beasts are saying: enter here at your own peril, for what you find inside may disorient you and perhaps even force you to struggle with feelings of madness and terror.
In keeping with these traditions, the visitor to “Journey to the Baroque” is met first by the heads of fearsome, colorful, fang-toothed creatures who guard the descent down a stone staircase into the expansive garden. Are the wolf-like beasts variations on Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld in Greek mythology? Lapa would prefer that each visitor make up his or her own mind as to their nature, and indeed he has created a number of hybrid animals that defy easy classification. A couple of them seem to be threatening birds, others a mixture of crocodile and dog.

Visitors who defy the warnings of these angry-looking sentinels and who enter the main part of the garden find themselves in the artist’s sacred space: a magnificent, verdant garden filled with exuberant, voluminous, highly colorful constructions that Lapa describes as temples. A number of these sculpted temples have organic shapes and arms, looking to me like glistening and very peculiar jellyfish.

Lapa says he was influenced to create these uniquely organic constructions while on a visit to Burma, where the Buddhist temples are highly decorated, often with gold. Such religious buildings in Burma are nearly always guarded by Chinthe, as well – lion-like creatures revered by the locals.

From my perspective, what the artist has done in this exhibit is remind us that sacred spaces exist even in a world ruled by smartphones, laptop computers and the social media, and that we have opportunities for coming into contact with them nearly all the time – or even creating them ourselves! As a diagram of his own mind, I believe that this exhibition indicates that Lapa longs for such encounters and may even feel at times as if he is cut off from transcendence in contemporary Portugal. If not, then why create strangely alluring temples based on Buddhist sites of worship, place them around a garden in Lisbon and invite visitors to see them?

By making his sacred space so colorful and exuberant, Lapa has also cleverly subverted both the Western and Eastern traditions. This sacred place – this garden – isn’t a place lurking with hidden dangers. Instead, it is euphoric with color and visual delight – and playful, as well. Not only do we have that most lowly of creatures – the snail – transformed into sparkling guides who lead us down the central staircase, but we also have amusing and sexualized aristocrats made out of tile who greet us at various sites around the garden.
And yet, by creating such an inviting and enchanting space, Lapa may very well have created a secretly dangerous space after all. Perhaps, through its glistening beauty, “Voyage to the Baroque” is inviting us to give up our cell phone and Facebook for a time and discover the possibilities for transcendence around us. Or, said in another way, perhaps the peril in this powerful and uniquely alluring exhibit is that it will encourage us to change our lives in order to engage with what is sacred and most mysterious inside ourselves.

Michael Fieni