Quel Amour!? An Exhibition Review

Quel amour!?

Only the question “What a love!?” truly requires an interrobang, don’t you think?

Love has so many facets, so many tangent emotions, some wonderful, some painful, some entirely unforgettable. It is an emotion, or rather, an experience, that the world has been trying to capture for thousands of years, but only rarely are we afforded a glimpse into a view of love beyond our own hearts, in the context of a great universal expression.

Uniquely, the exhibition Quel Amour!? in Lisbon’s Museu Coleção Berardo does exactly that.

Through the highly emotionally charged exhibition, curator Éric Corne weaves a magical and painful visual bible of love through the ages, carefully balancing decades of work and every kind of love imaginable.

The entrance to the Quel Amour!? exhibition, spinning above a set of spiral stairs.

From the moment I entered the space, the entire exhibition became an experience. While physically a large area, and spread over two levels, the exhibition pulled me between white space and the art, both blatantly displayed and hidden behind corners. In a subtle statement I have seldom seen before, the space houses the very definition of coexisting despite all differences: artworks from one hundred years ago stand next to pieces from less than one year ago in hundreds of styles and dozens of media – and not grouped by any subset if love.

Yet the most astounding aspect of this is that the way in which the exhibition is built so closely mirrors its subject matter. The undulating current of coexistence supports a framework of pieces expressing the core essence of love in every and any form. Romantic. Sexual. Personal. Friendly. Familial. Gentle. Rough. Straight. Gay. Literal. Abstract. Singular. Universal.

In a phrase, the exhibition explores the very meaning and power of love.

Yes, chide me for the cliche, but it’s true. While simple and archetypal, love is at the literal heart of the discussion the exhibition seeks to have with the audience, from the striking and haunting to the much more intimate.

As a viewer, I was confronted by every side of an indescribable emotion, with every step, first catapulted into far-over-PG-13 depictions of sex, lust, and physical love, then in a sharp turn taken towards violence and internal conflict, and then again towards outer conflict and finally towards the love for and of the self, with thousands of increments I do not have words or space for in between.

You have been warned, this exhibition embraces and encompasses all of love and relation, including the conversation around sex and desire. From the small photos scattered across Autoportraits by Antoine D’agata to the much larger Rouge by Gérard Fromanger, sex, lust, need, and want are scattered through this exhibition. Sometimes, as in the case of the aforementioned Rouge, below, these are loud and rhythmic compositions, evoking the purest forms of passion as a facet of love and the physical connection.

But away from loud passion, pieces like the vividly colourful Amour & Pastèque by Chéri Samba nearby show a much more intimate side of connection.

This is the beginning of a shift away from the brash and active depiction of the body and more towards the reality of emotional fragility so intensely mirrored in the Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin just steps away.

This still from the slideshow of photographs shows the artist Nan Goldin some time after being battered, and brings a sobering reality to the discussion of human capability in regards to love – and it’s ability to produce physical pain.

This series of works very pointedly shows the incredible power of reality in the exhibition. In society, we tend to minimise or even hide the ugly sides of love and loss. We do not talk about it, sexual assault, manipulation, pain, hurt, and, frankly, we keep to the perpetuation of an idealistic image of love and sex provided by the pornographic and movie industries.

Not every couple looks like they just walked out of a Hollywood rom com, real sex and real life with long term partners involves an immense amount of trust and love, and there are a lot of facets in a relationship that require teamwork, patience, understanding, and the choice to work as one.

In a phrase, we keep the false in favour of ignorant bliss. This is what Quel Amour!? does incredibly well, combining each of the hidden and un-hidden facets in a comprehensive discussion of real love by real people.

This is what makes the next pieces so impactful and really, so true. The exhibition does not stop at the discussion of the physical, it dives deeply into the emotions pertaining to the partnership of love: the alchemaic partnership between two people, between the self and desire, between culture and country.

Among the painting and photography, audiovisual pieces like Turbulent by Shirin Neshat display internal conflict.

In this particular piece, a man and woman sing from opposite ends of the room, more through sound than speech, and show the barrier between genders and the inescapable communication barrier as a result. This particular piece also shows us the difference between male and female societal privilege, and, in regards to relationships, also suggests the way in which the harshness of not being understood, especially across genders, is a violent struggle between the want for love and personal pain.

While love is undoubtedly a push-and-pull of want and preservation of the self, it is just as equally a partnership between two individuals. Pieces like Helena Almeida’s Untitled below tug familiar heart-strings, and explore that very notion of love as a partnership, and one which can be very painful.

Helena Almeida, Sem título, 2010. Gelatin silver print.

In fact, this piece almost likens relationships to a three-legged race. As the saying aptly goes, relationships are about solving a whole new set of problems you never would have had in the first place.

Well, it’s true, isn’t it? Not very romantic either.

And yet neither is the statue of the Wild Woman by Kiki Smith.

Well known for her feminist art, Smith shows love in an entirely different way, implying love for oneself and the inner power that lies within us. It just goes to show that not all love is romantic.

Modern society has led to a narcissistic love of the self through selfies and social media. As the exhibition booklet puts it, “our contemporaries have fallen in love with their own image: the selfie or photography’s recording and archiving of each second have become mantras of the passage of time, or at least of its acceleration…” Yet pieces like this show the possibility of a very different kind of core love, very different from the falsity of digital friends and the “show” of social media.

Opens up your view on the subject, doesn’t it?

Love is lustful. Love is gentle. Love is romantic. Love is painful. Love is a partnership. Love is an entity as much for yourself as it is for someone else. Staying in love is a choice. The journey of love is all of these and then some.

Indeed, you may not notice until the very end, but the exhibition itself is this journey; the space itself is designed in a way which fuses the meaning to the very walls and floors.

With its two entrances at different ends of the exhibition, Quel Amour!? leads the viewer into two different experiences: one which represents a dream-like euphoria, and the other of which symbolises the entry into the Underworld. With two very different artworks at either end, these doors create an interactive psychological space and give way to the maze of the exhibition, in which friends, lovers, parents, anyone can go separate ways, re-converge, approach from opposite directions, and view the art, all in unique ways and configurations the experience of love offers.

Because of this and because of people as, well, people, anyone may take a completely different meaning from any of the pieces shown. But that is the beauty of it; love is experienced, as so well stated in the exhibition information, both singularly and universally across cultures and across the world, and, dare I say, differently and universally undefinable for every person.

Corners himself says it best when he writes, “Whether it evokes Agape or Eros, spiritual love or physical love—endured or liberating, sacred or profane—we have desired an invigorating exhibition for the visitors, where their intimate experiences of love can be projected (exposed) in view of the artists’ proposals.”

So through this web of artistic dialogue, the exhibition takes the viewer through the universal dialogue of love, across the ages and across every relationship; a dialogue which forces us to reflect and confront the very essence of our pasts, and exactly that which makes us human.

So, in the end, really, it is up to us to answer the question.

Quel amour!?

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