D I A L O G U E S  W I T H  P L A C E S

I. THE PLACE OF GRIEF

There’s a vibrant relationship between spaces and the meaning they convey to us. We may often try to articulate those meanings, impose our ideas to define their shape, influence and control their outcome and leave our mark. I could write a very long list of places and objects and the arrangement of their disposition and variability on my mind. As if there’s a perpetual need to fix, neat, clean, add, change, play, superimpose meaning or constructing a dialogue with every object, building, street, sidewalk, bench, tree, park, wall, ruin and the people who inhabit them. Nothing is quite like I’d like it to be, so in my mind I replace, subtract, add and rearrange every possible structure. I try to conjure symbols, emotions, social needs and norms; materials, textures, large and small in hypothetical futures built by others or with my own hands. But I often chose to ignore two determinant emotional tones that define how I relate to those spaces: the underlying grasping that determinates this approach –ultimately useful, but so exhausting as a process, since more authentic results arise from having means and ends combined. Despite the general veneration of being permanently occupied, I don’t find it fulfilling to live constantly finding faults. Cultivating thoughts and ideas as imagination and a world of possibles, certainly is positive, but having a constant, intense focus on what’s around can be very draining. It’s interesting to create; but first, to reflect on the artefacts in advance and the qualities we’re leaving behind, without tension or grip. The second emotional tone is related to memory: the imprint I have towards the places and objects I’m working with. There’s always a historical aspect portrayed in a certain mood made of several layers of narratives, across time. Sometimes it’s the resemblance to another thing, that provokes repulsion or attraction. Other times, it’s a more subtle feeling, and so it becomes easier to peel those meanings until the necessary level of clarity is achieved.

 

Both emotional tones – grasping and memory – conform deeply ingrained elements of perception, with variations in how they emerge as I go about my work and daily life. But it’s interesting, and useful, to have the self-inquiry into these aspects of the psyche that so much can tell about basic fears and experiences; and so, point the way into a resolution.

 

As an example, I’ll take my favourite place. Nature is still. There’s a very specific quietness in this area; with scenic views towards the lagoon, and the large wall that structures, forms, contours and supports with a shoulder-like quality this place. It’s a city opening into a natural park, whose legal framework of preservation is often contoured. This area is a very imperfect place that has changed over time. It’s formally composed by a pedestrian walk along the waterline, cut through by the changing uses and materials of a street where cars park and into a small yet affirmative wall gate where they seldom pass. There’s a certain body movement when coming out of that gate and into this space, out from the old walled town, hypnotizing and opening into the horizon of the lagoon: the body leads the way with an anticipation of the scenic view, of guessing its contour, details, amplitude - the view to the openness, the horizon of the lagoon, of the reflective light on stone, the islands and the sea. Arriving at the outside of it there’s a pedestrian feeling of a square, which is puzzling because it doesn’t formally correspond – a large sidewalk on one side, and a street and confusing parking that goes to the other. But the sense of the square is there - an inviting opening, a hall. In front of it, there’s a small railway and its short protective wall, so small it doesn’t visually interrupt the pedestrian connection into the pier, now unfortunately harbouring the intensity and noise of the uncontrolled boat traffic to the islands, chaotically urbanising this opening into the sea.

 

There has been a small reconfiguration of this public area, a pastiche pick of maritime themes in which neither colours nor materials establish any dialogue with the pervasive elements, of the old city wall and the sea. The sidewalk is now filled with tiny shops selling tourists the best boat deals, with such an intense activity that overflows and denies its natural essence of quietness. There’s loud music, a character kill; it’s as noisy, confusing, superficial as a shopping centre. One can only wonder about the seriousness in relating to the lagoon natural park status, with its supposed restrictions and care for biodiversity, when the urban limits are done with such fanfare and disregard. It’s such a strong gesture, putting materials in the ground and erecting structures; it stays and leaves an imprint in people’s lives, changes their movement and flow, cuts or allows places to live, to breathe, to feel. Done this mindlessly, it shocks in its disrespect towards the simplicity and natural beauty of context, of both sea and cultural heritage. Like many, if not all, places that exist in the borderline between urban and nature, its natural vocation is of elevation and awe, of calm and contemplation to our senses; and as an opening door to nature’s regeneration and people’s education towards it. The natural park that conveys this lagoon is one of the few places in Portugal that holds seagrass meadows, the vast gardens of the sea that are home to the locally endangered seahorses, while providing shelter and food for local fish stocks and playing an essential role in mitigating climate change as they excel as carbon sinks.

 

When projects show an attentive reading of landscape properties, to its environmental needs and look ahead into the future, it brings positive results. When it happens, urban territories are enriched with life enhancing qualities that, especially in our nature-deprived cities and with our current challenges, are essential. It makes absolutely sense that, given the challenges of our on-going climate crisis, the vast role these areas represent. We do have the technological abilities to make the most out of those areas in a sustainable, resilient way, as Watson so eloquently demonstrates through traditional knowledge. Unfortunately, in this territory I’m focusing on, the building pressure into the natural ecosystem has denied this. Here, I’m left longing for a soft gesture of materials and atmospheres that slowly become each other, in a stretch towards the sea.

 

Like in so many other touristic places, Covid-19 has allowed for a tranquillity that felt like a return to previous times. As in other pauses, it’s a freedom that allows a reconsideration of the affairs; a reflection before the action. A place so special as this has returned to its natural calm, incredible stillness and tranquillity enveloping our senses and guides us into the belief we’re in the presence of something holy. It’s absolutely remarkable, and a joy to live places somewhat back to their dignity. There’s the fine stone grain of the old city wall, with multiple tones and reconstructions. One can look at the stones and wonder how do they stay together, after so long; the porous quality of the materials, the reconfigurations it had, again and again. The fragile plants that, somehow, find their way into seedling and blooming in these vertical surfaces. The stones of polished road pavement, with its irregularity that truly keep us on our toes, balancing in a childlike act. The one line of railway, where old wagons cross, albeit not very often; and the tiny passage to the pier, with its rough edges and fragile verticals disappearing in the water. There are very few dissonant noises worth of notice: a crab over there, the constant soft influx of the waves on the pier, the fish one can guess swimming in the water. It’s smooth, stable, constant, both visually towards the sea, with long horizontal lines intercalated by far away yacht masts. One can guess the slow changes over the centuries, which contributes to the calm vocation of stability and fortitude of this place.

 

And there are the different moments when this scenario comes to life across the day. The air of the lagoon can be very strong during low tide; it enters the nostrils without permission and it stays there, with a ferrous quality, a stubbornness. The light changes, from a cutting midday sun, reflecting on the lagoon to the calmer blue, green, or grey tones across the day, and the voluptuous density of dawn and night. It’s always changing in colours, but staying the same in form. By night, the yellow light from the street lamps borrow a gentle allowance of sight towards the lagoon; a small reflection, a changing shadow over the water. The steps on the pier gain texture and drama, as we can’t always see where we’re going. There’s gentleness in the night waters, despite the absent horizon completely fusing sky and sea. It’s not a scary sight, albeit dark and majestic. It’s as if this place invites for a trust and acceptance in diving into grief and unconsciousness, all the uncomfortable pains of existence.

 

A place of complete honesty – of grieving and loss, aloneness and night. I wonder how many places open themselves to this possibility, of being ourselves fully: the happy, the sad, the grieving, the despaired, excited, lost, confused, hopeful, the part of ourselves that has died. Before the masses of tourists came, I remember a few fishermen, people from the inside walled neighbourhood; some with dogs, street cats around. The atmosphere was dense, dark, somewhat abandoned – the kind of abandonment that belongs, integrated in people daily lives, that is not so strict and grave as to destroy the quality of a place. I understand that mourning and other comparable strong emotions and processes is something generally considered to be done in private – or, alternatively, at the cemetery. It’s interesting that despite the range of emotions felt by people in the course of their lives, invariably touching easier and more difficult tones, challenging emotions have so little designated space to exist in our well defined, constructed landscapes. One certainly shouldn’t cry at the street, on the square, park nor public buildings; what isn’t a calm and collected mood, or a happy, joyous manner, a playful or flamboyant figurine is deemed to invisibility or as transgression. Historically, it wasn't always like this. No wonder the large numbers of depression from suppression – the same emotions that are the basic fabric of our own existence have become constricted to our private lives and out of where our normal humanity happens: changing moods accompanying the thoughts natural flow, and the seasonal flux of happenings that mark our existence. Not only in the privacy of our homes, but during all day, everyday. Natural spaces – or alternatively, the more secure ambiances provided by places that mediate the urban and natural areas – can provide this holding. There’s a natural ability of wilderness ever-changing phenomena to hold and nurture our most elemental needs in the discourse of forging a relationship with it. In the repetition, of todays like this, yesterday was slightly different, two days ago with another nuance, but still, the same basis, forming a structural atmosphere that allows trust and authenticity to surface.

 

On the course of many days I watched the afternoon, the sunset and early night in here. The soft currents were a comfort to my angst, revolt, pain, astonishment, guilt, confusion, shame, fear, denial. Like tides, each mental state came, and went, and returned, and went again. The landscape was the soft canvas to all those evolving changes of my bereavement in solitude. Nature had a soft, sustaining effect of comfort that allow us processing and resolve. It was dark, difficult and challenging; but somehow the background ruins and the stories one can sense of all the others who lived before us in that same place; the wars and plagues, daily lives sometimes with struggle, other times with peace; combined with the constant, yet changing views of nature provided the balm I needed, and that I guess, others need too. It’s a place that stayed in my existence like no other. Not the most beautiful place, nor my happy place, but it is my favourite place in the world, simply because it is my place of authenticity, where all masks fall.

 

Only in wild nature and interestingly, even more strongly, in this particular place I find a complete lack of desire for interpreting, transforming, doing. There’s nothing to conquer, change, affirm, win, act. Like many times before, I sit in complete surrender; there’s nothing for me to do; I don’t have to do nothing. There’s no impulse, but contemplation. Although uncomfortable, honesty is refreshing; a letting go of expectations, forecasts, possible scenarios. No need to analyse, measure, solve; there’s nothing but a deep sense of observing, feeling; like tidal waves. A return to the essence of things; a realness. The mind quiets and accepts, and so, life goes on.

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Lígia Oliveira © 2021