Helena Almeida’s ‘Untitled’ (2010): material entanglements.

005-helena-almeida-theredlist[Untitled 2010. photograph, Helena Almeida]

This photo Untitled (2010) by the Portuguese artist Helena Almeida is one of a series showing her tied to her husband with plastic coated wire wound round their lower legs so that they are doing a slow, shuffling, non-competitive three legged race. While working on the series, Almeida made a black and white video that I’ve just seen at her retrospective exhibition at the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris, (thanks to my friend in Brussels for recommending it).

260_4_helena-almeida_-untitled_2010[Untitled 2010. photograph, Helena Almeida]

Tied round their legs, Almeida and her husband trudge haltingly back and forth between the camera and the wall repeatedly for just over 18 minutes, filmed in one long unedited take from a fixed camera.

Almeida untitled adjusting

[Untitled 2010. photograph, Helena Almeida]

The video begins with their lower legs filling the frame close to the camera as Almeida makes final adjustments to the wires before they turn somewhat laboriously and set off towards the wall, sliding the feet that are bound together then stepping forward with their free leg.

01_obra_helena-almeida_40-copia-580x535[Untitled 2010. photograph, Helena Almeida]

They aren’t very coordinated but just do what they can in an almost ordinary, everyday way. Gradually the wires loosen and slip down towards their ankles. Every now and then as they pause by the wall, Almeida bends and reaches down to adjust the wires, her husband leaving his hand around her waist as she does so. It gradually becomes clear that she is not re-tightening them but actually loosening and re-arranging them so that they create interesting shapes in space around their legs and ankles.

helena almeida-42

[Untitled 2010. photograph, Helena Almeida]

Towards the end of the video, one piece of wire after another falls away and is left on the tiles, sometimes lying where it lands, sometimes being inadvertently kicked as they trudge along. When the video fades to black at the end, the last piece of wire is still clinging loosely to their legs. The wires were already tied when the video began, so that even at the end we never get to see their legs free.

There is no narrative, just the execution of a task or process. The wire is a three-dimensional drawing in the space around their legs that is continually moving and in process of change and development. At the same time it is hard not to be touched by the sight of two old people cooperating wordlessly in an undramatic, relatively minimalist but nevertheless intriguing performance.

Almeida was 76 when she was working on this series. I mention this not to draw attention to her age but because Untitled (2010) comes out of a long, consistent process of exploration of a few conceptual parameters that juxtapose the matter of fact materiality of the body engaged in simple actions with a wry, intelligent sense of humour.

For the last ten or fifteen years, Almeida seems to have devised a process where she initially uses simple, outline pencil drawings to imagine some actions, then often makes a video of them before choosing particular moments for life-sized, black and white photographic enlargements that catch the body (or in this case bodies) in movement.

Drawing (with pigment) 1995-9 by Helena Almeida born 1934[Drawing (with pigment) 1995-9, Helena Almeida. Collection: Tate Gallery]

Almeida_03 sans titre[Untitled (1969) Helena Almeida. Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto]


[view of Jeu de Paume exhibition]

It is the video that I find most fascinating, though, because I see it as a dance, and indeed art curators writing about Almeida’s work talk about her choreography. I’m not sure if anyone else has thought of this, but, for me, there are parallels between her work and that of Trisha Brown. Brown, (who was born in 1936) was working on her Accumulation pieces and the series of structured pieces that were at the time called Line Up, around the same time that Almeida (born in 1934) shifted her practice from paintings – that drew attention to the materiality of canvas and stretcher – to sets of black and white photographs in which she wore or became part of her paintings. Almeida was moving towards the performative while Brown was producing dances that were at the time closer to fine art practice than to mainstream contemporary dance.

Almeida_01a toile habitée[Pinturas habitada (Inhabited painting) Helena Almeida, 1975-77]

In her Pinturas habitadas (Inhabited paintings) series of photographs with paint from 1975-77, Almeida holds a paint brush up to a mirror so that we see both her and her reflection as if she is painting a self-portrait. But on the photograph itself she has brushed thick strokes of blue paint as if they have come from her brush, these paint patches often obscuring part of her image. They are like inverted self-portraits in which she is painting herself out of the picture.

Almeida_01b perinture habitée[Pinturas habitada (Inhabited painting) Helena Almeida, 1975-77]

In some other sets, Almeida photographs herself drawing in space between herself and the camera / viewer, and then draws a real line in Chinese ink onto the photograph which, in places, changes into a piece of horse hair that pierces through the photographic paper to occupy real, three-dimensional space in front of it. These kinds of explorations of drawing in space seem to continue in the process of making shapes with the wires around Almeida and her husband’s lower legs in Untitled (2010).

Almeida_04 dessin habité[Inhabited Drawing, 1975, Helena Almeida, Black and white, Indian ink, horsehair, 60 x 55 cm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Porto]


[Inhabited Drawing, 1977,Helena Almeida. One photograph & one horsehair]

In all of these works, Almeida takes an abstract, conceptual idea whose execution requires simple, clear materialisation. But the fallibility of the material, living body introduces something in excess: one can see what she is trying to do while enjoying the ironic gap between this and what she is actually capable of executing.

In an interview with Marianne Goldberg in 1991, Trisha Brown said that

The body doesn’t move with the clarity of line or mechanics that I wish for (…) It’s the human failure factor in the exposition of form that makes for this marvellous thing called dance, which is highly imperfect from the beginning. In recent years I have found as great a passion for evidence of life as for the articulation of perfect form.

Almeida too exploits the fact that the body doesn’t move with the clarity of line or mechanics that her simple, task-based concepts specify.

What I find moving about the series with her husband Untitled (2010) is an antinomy, an unresolvable contradiction. There is a tension between the concept and the shuffling, endearing awkwardness of a performance that facilitates the ever-changing shapes that the wires draw in the space between the camera and the wall.

26701[Untitled (2010) Helena Almeida, Video black and white, sound; 18’ 08’’, Ed.1/5 + 1 PA 2010, Galeria Filomena Soares]

The photos and video hold together these two contradictory poles in an irreconcilable relation. The power of this series derives from the way that they draw attention to the entanglement of human and non-human. This is something we all need to be thinking a lot more about.