Carpe Diem: A Guided Tour with David Oliveira

David Oliveira’s wire sculptures aren’t just about lines— they are also about what’s between them. He freezes motion in time and, through the use of wire, marries the movement it with the space itself. This is the simple yet stunning experience of each sculpture in his current Movimento Total exhibition at the gallery space Carpe Diem (now closed, unfortunately) where Oliveira gives a twist to his signature wire “sketches”.

Tulle strips have been cut and attached to 3D cage-like sculptures of species of the land, air, and sea to illustrate the animal’s movement from origin to destination.These colorful trails show you how the animals relate to and affect each other in space, like sparks from a shooting star or the wake of a boat at sea. We can see where they have been, we can visualize where they are going, and we can follow them around the space.

David Oliveira at Carpe Diem

The 111 Gallery in Lisbon introduced Oliveira to Carpe Diem one and a half years ago. Seeing it for the first time, he fell madly in love with the former palace, with its grand marble staircase, its vaulted chapel ceiling, the paint on its dilapidated walls peeling to expose remnants of brocade, its creaky floorboards, and of course, the light flooding the inside.

Oliveira, at that point, had already decided that using white cubes to display his sculptures was getting boring— and the space itself inspired much more than he had done to date. He wanted to explore movement and this was just the place to do it. Atlas was taken through the exhibit by the artist himself, who told us about his process, why a vulture was put in time-out, why Spiderman’s suit is inspirational, which of his sculptures is pregnant, and what happens when the lights are turned off inside in the haunted palace.

We started with Oliveira at the bottom of the stairs. “We’re actually going backwards,” he said, “we should really be starting at the top and coming down.” There in front of us was Spiderman-hanging upside down, watching and welcoming us. “I love the way [Spidey] moves and to be honest, I wanted kids to enjoy the museum experience. This one is for them. I want to connect with them…and to make him, all I had to do was to follow the lines in his suit! It was one of the easier things I did because the contour work was done for me already.”

False ceiling removed at the former palace to expose paintings from past owners, possibly the current ghostly tenants

Moving up the stairs, we came upon at least six of his birds — a vulture, a parrot, a crane, and others, suspended mid-flight around us with their tulle trails scotch-taped to the walls and floors. The whole concept is about interaction. You move through the space leaving behind your own forces, your own heat, your own breath, your footprints, just as the animals around you are doing.

“The lifeforms here are precious, just as the space around them is precious…that’s why I wanted to protect the walls here. I chose scotch tape so it wouldn’t ruin them. I also used plexi-glass underneath the vulture so that they can keep the space clean.” At the top of the stairs, he has also created wire forms that you are expected to touch — the experience for him is not complete without interaction. Atlas was compelled at this point to ask about his process, as we were looking slack-jawed at rows and rows of life-like feathers and beaks wound expertly out of wire.

“I start with the central line of the body just as you would do in a sketch. Then I find the movement lines which are always based on bone structure. I build from there a bit more from the inside out… My first vision was to peel back the skin to expose the bone, and [when the exposition opened] on March 6th, 2015, I said, it’s THIS: here is the formula to find what is inside of and around you. The vulture was the most difficult, I think. I started on him and then had to put him in a corner for a while. The rows of feathers took a while to get right.”

Oliveira’s Fish bathing in light at Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa

The first room he intended for the exhibit was the last one we visited. “This is the ocean room.” Oliveira said, with pride. “I first saw her (the room) at 6:30pm and the windows were closed. [I opened them] when the sun was setting and the light made the space look like an ocean of pink and blue- I knew immediately what this room had to be. I thought, Oh my god- that’s the best thing about this room!” Floating in the air around us were fish of various types, a sea otter (with a baby in utero), a few jellyfish, an octopus, and more.

He led us into the center of the space, asking us to note the quality of the floor. He was right— these were beautifully-finished floorboards were in every other room there were years of water-damaged wood underfoot. He explained that he had polished the floor himself with the help of a sponsor, again, wanting the room to be part of the experience from top to bottom. But that isn’t all he has in mind.

“I want to use this space at some point for storytelling. Do you have a flashlight?” He turned off the lights as we handed him a smartphone flashlight which he held underneath the jellyfish. The shadows cast around the ceiling were magical– we felt as if we were at the bottom of the ocean looking up, imagining the movements of the creatures around us and almost feeling the weight of the water on our skin and in our ears.

The use of the space and the celebration of life— every life— is the most intoxicating take-away from the exhibit. Oliveira noted he had exhibited large shows like this around Lisbon several times: at the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown, at a friend’s studio, and at a former palace in Alcântara, but none offered him the same experience. “This palace is a bit creepy. When the sun goes down, the building makes noises. You can here footsteps when there’s no one there. This place is alive.” Atlas is glad that working there inspired him to focus on the living, but it’s cool to think they are exhibited among the dead.

David Oliveira with some of his past work. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Oliveira wants his work exhibited publicly in environments where his animals belong, which is something that most galleries can’t understand: For him, it’s not about the money.

“[Gallery Representation] played a role that was important, and that role should have continued into the present, but it didn’t. Now with the internet, artists can do that stuff on their own. It’s fine that they take care of the financial agreements, but that’s where it ends.”

So it makes sense that Oliveira will continue to be a bit unorthodox in terms of where and how people can see and buy his work. Here in Lisbon alone he mentioned wanting to permanently exhibit at The Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Natural History, and the Oceanarium.

“I like to know where my work is. I don’t want it in someone’s house closed off to people. I’d also like to exhibit on Portugal street in Rome, so I made a Pietá based on Michelangelo’s sculpture– it’s there in the [Carpe Diem] café right now. As I was selecting the pieces for this show, there were some smaller things I didn’t need. I sold them right out of my studio for ten to twenty euros a piece. The gallery would never approve of that, but I think art should be accessible to everyone.”

So what next for Oliveira? Over a glass of wine in the back garden, he noted he would like to go to London for his next exhibition. “I want a space in the Tate: a big project in a big space. I could really have fun there.” Atlas noted the sheer size of Carpe Diem’s garden (a must-see) and wondered why he hadn’t chosen to use that area in his exhibition. He responded, “Oh, there’s a snake hidden out here somewhere- I won’t tell you where it is. You’ll have to find it.”

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