Looking Inwards

Strata in Evora

How site specific art can ground its current impact in the history of a space.

by Yiyao Yang

Few visitors notice the inconspicuous lines among the colossal color array. And even fewer receive an artist’s hidden messages from their first glance of the work.

Such is the case with Deanna Sirlin’s exhibition Strata in Évora, the capital of Portugal's south- central Alentejo region. This exhibition consists of 20 digitally printed translucencies installed on all the windows of the first floor of the galleries, each 94 x 45 inches and two acrylic paintings and a video work.

'What do we possess as art in the pandemic?'

The latter are placed at a specific position on the wall where "you can feel calm after chaos" — viewers can observe the translucent compositions assembled in two different rooms simultaneously if they stand right in front of the paintings. The sunlight as it passes through the translucent glass panels are materialized by projections on the walls and the floors. The interior lights at night allowpassers-by to appreciate them at night and pose the subtle question to whoever sees it: what do we possess as art in the pandemic?

"It is important to see the outside world through these color grids,” writes Sirlin in an email. “They alter the viewers' perception of the world."

In the 15th century, Évora became the residence of the Portuguese kings. Sirlin’s installation is on view at the Centro Cultural de Évora, in the building where the Court of the Inquisition was located from 1536 to 1821. As a site-specific artwork, Strata questions, confronts, and interrogates the aesthetic imperatives and socioeconomic ramifications of its host building.

'The inquisition room and the prison bars surrounding the building are fixed, actual, and historical - Strata alters them'

Strata seems to filter the passing of time. The work becomes a node that connects history and the present. The inquisition room and the prison bars surrounding the building are fixed, actual, and historical. Strata alters them, rendering them fluid, ungrounded, and dream-like. This transformation textualizes space and spacializes time.

Sirlin’s color grids are bold and generous; they accommodate dark lines without abrupt divisions. Growing up in New York cultivated Sirlin's sensitivity to color. The sunlight of Portugal inspired the interplay between color and light she has created here.

'Sirlin's absence lends new meaning and impact to her work.'

Under the invitation of José Ferreira, the curator and art director of the Centro Cultural de Évora, Sirlin began to work on this exhibition in 2019 and visited Évora for a week in February 2020 to plan it. “It was an intense and fruitful dialogue between Sirlin and me,” José said. Because of the pandemic, she has not been able to visit her own exhibition, which opened in June 6 of 2020 and will be on view until June 6, 2021. Her absence lends new meaning and impact to her work.

The entangled relationship of authorship, expressive style and the unique context of this exhibition enacts Roland Barthes’ concept of the “death of the author,” by which he meant that the author does not determine the ultimate meaning of the work. Barthes also posited an “amicable return of the author” as a collaborator in the work’s meaning.

In her literal absence, Sirlin has nevertheless been central to the evolution of her work. “I was told that my presence was felt in every part of two long-distance collaborations: between myself and those who made and installed the work, and with the viewers who now experience it.”

Both the messages viewers convey about her work on social media and 3

Scherzi 4 Strata, a video, sound and dance project that multidisciplinary artist Nuno Veiga and choreographer Ana Silva project made for the foundation’s website in response toStrata, allow Sirlin to experience her own work from a distance and to participate in collective acts of making meaning.

'But I see the history embedded in Strata: what happened in the past.'

Contemporary art discourse sometimes is criticized for lacking substantive ways of addressing the historical grounds of site specificity. But I see the history embedded in Strata: what happened in the past. The Japanese Ichigo-ichie philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness of each experience is contained in the ephemeral configurations of light the installation creates.

Dasein, Heidegger’s way of describing the essential mode of human existence in the world, is temporal: having been "thrown" into a world implies a "pastness" in its being. But what surprises me is the transformative design. When the sun goes down, the grids start their monodrama. It is beyond impermanence and transience.

I embrace the immaterial, process-oriented, ephemeral elements of Strata together with the related online performances. But I appreciate more the statement it makes beyond its site-specificity.

'This rebellious site-specific art permeates the sociopolitical context.'

Strata is not the first exhibition in an old prison where religious dissidents wrote lament in blood on the walls, but it digests the heaviness and turns it into abstraction and variation. This rebellious site-specific art permeates the sociopolitical context. It is not just in a specific site alone, but in a place where disenfranchised social groups exist.

I visited the Fremantle Prison before the pandemic. It is an old prison full of sketches and paintings of prisoners exiled to Australia in the 18th century, including one created with a metal buckle by James Walsh.

I appreciate artists who turn personal sorrow or the empathy for the disenfranchised into something that the world would later cherish. It is not that I am not convinced by a work of art that was created without conflict, or struggle, or pain. But I always find the piece that might change the climate of the era very appealing, especially in a time when we scramble to thrive on this beautiful and messy planet.

About Deanna Sirlin:

Deanna Sirlin received an MFA from Queens College, CUNY. She has received numerous honors, including a Rothko Foundation Symposium Residency, a grant from the United States State Department, a Yaddo Foundation Residency and a Creative Capital Warhol Foundation Award for its Art Writing Mentorship Program. Read more here.

Photo credit:

Images 1-3: Deanna Sirlin,”Strata”, photo: Francisco Pereira Gomes © Fundação Eugénio de Almeida

Images 4-5: Deanna Sirlin,”Strata”, photo: Nuno Veiga

Yiyao Yang is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She pours expression and authenticity into her daily policy school life. Don’t date her. Your stories might rest on her keyboard. But her friends are often the most lovely characters in her never-published novels.