And the elevator shot to the sky, through the clouds, towards the infinite...

And the elevator shot to the sky, through the clouds, towards the infinite...

Image: Susana Ventura, 2009.

“Life is organized around what is hollow.” 

Originally published by Nada.

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Never these words had made as much sense as in this moment. Alice thought, enthralled, repeating, to herself, to exhaustion, this single phrase, at the check-in line. She was still incredulous, after the news that made her come back from New York. And, unintentionally, it escapes her, once, out loud. In front of her, a rushed couple turns around, perplexed, and murmurs a phrase of indignation, which Alice, just, understands by the wrinkling of their foreheads and the shrugging of the husband’s left shoulder. But now what to do with that void? It wouldn’t be her, certainly, thinking about it, but she couldn’t get José’s image out of her head, in her last visit to the Bordeaux house. José’s accident had put him on a wheelchair, for a few years, and, he only got to be free again when he moved, along with his family, to the Bordeaux house. There, a whole void filled his days, the hours, the minutes that the outside world denied him. It wasn’t him that filled a void. It was that immense void, vertical, directed at the clouds, that received José and allowed him to do everything he enjoyed, without inhibitions, without restrictions. One exception only: when he wanted to take a peek at his kids in their bedrooms. A void united all the spaces in his house, an elevatory platform which was his house (and not the space around it) and one other void, abrupt, between him and his kids, who kept on growing up. But what to do with that void which was but him? It was impossible for Alice not to review all these images in her head, as the check-in line moved forward. Window or aisle? It seemed indifferent, the immensity of the blue sky, at this moment. What did it interest her? She wouldn’t be able to measure the air, to feel even the slightest change in the surface of her skin and, certainly, she would keep on breathing normally, without even having to inspire really deeply.

Only one idea occurred to her: to do like Joana. Joana was a collector of spaces and memories. To Alice it had never occurred that this was not but one of Joana’s metaphors, until the moment she passed, accidentally, in Staten Island and couldn’t resist to go and see with her own eyes. She asked the taxi driver to stop and peeked into one of the windows of Maison Vide. She couldn’t believe it. The house was there, right in front of her eyes, completely empty. And, however, she looked at it and saw the whole of Joana’s existence. All that Joana was. Without any nostalgia. It wasn’t about conserving the past or making any kind of revisitation of that time from Staten Island. Joana always said that the Maisons Vides were “an experience of herself, constructions where we existed, the architecture of our lives, the different spaces where we existed” and to keep them present was to tell the story of her life. The void, to Joana, manifested itself along the time, along with her work. She said herself that the forms excavated (or holes) appeared, firstly, as details, in one work or the other. But that, after the visit to the caves in Lascaux, they assumed themselves, clearly, as that negative form which involves and sustains the very exterior forces, even torrents of water if they may be. Only the void confers meaning to everything that involves it, but, more importantly, the void itself involves without needing the limits that contour it. It is, per se, a wrapping. Alice remembered The Sail well. But always looked at this Joana’s work as the demonstration of the physical qualities of an empty space. And it wasn’t because of this one being an exterior work and exploring the characteristics necessary for its survival in an outdoors space. No. The tunnel, as Joana explained, the first hole in the immense marble stone, which she had brought from her trip to Carrara, became an acquired characteristic of the block of stone. Just that empty space, from one of the faces of the block of stone up to its heart, gave meaning to the existence of the immense block of marble. And not only of the work itself. But, before the work, the existence of the stone, that might break, when perforated to its center. That empty space had made evident how its existence risked the survival of the work. How it exposed its fragility. The fragility of an existence. In the end, Alice liked to remember how the light emanates from that immense (it seemed infinite to her) inner void... An image that tranquilized her, in this moment, and had made her remain with her eyes closed for a second or two. A light that seemed to come from nowhere except from that void. And, as much as the image Joana constructed in many of her works, that of a hole, that of a lair of an animal, that of a refuge (and, simultaneously, that of a trap), understood that, in this case, it was just the void. And the infinity possibility of a void. Like emanating light. Bernini, Joana told, could not bear such a void. At least, not in his work. The empty space was his enemy. And, one face, one edge, which existed more intact, was transformed into a fold. An infinite set of folds, straight, molded, turned, contouring each millimeter of the work, until the filling of the totality of the brute space of a block of stone. Joana had thought for good to dedicate him a work. A work with a hole and, in its interior, a set of “folds”, little cylindrical volumes perfectly polished. 

The same couple, rushing ahead of Alice in the check-in line, was now trying to be the first one boarding. The anguish Alice felt, in that precise moment, had nothing to do with the fear of flying. She had never felt estranged, before the void. And, she had never seen, in it, her condition of stranger in the city. It caused her, yes, strangeness to think that way. To think that the empty spaces of the cities are spaces where she sees her contemporaneous condition. And that in them condenses the still romantic imagination of the voyeur. Wanderer. Wanderer, as Paulo liked so much to call himself, seduced her, but she could no longer think of voyeur. And, it didn’t have to do with José. With his death. It seemed, simply, inadequate to think that the empty spaces of contemporary cities were a symbol of the strangeness with which one looks at the contemporary city and condition, the speed of atrocious urban growth, of information, the domain of the political and economic structures, associated to exemplary buildings, the infinite conglomerate of buildings and buildings and buildings... It had been long since she stopped thinking that those spaces are the future or the counterimage of the built city (and built by the different powers) or a critic to it, physically visible, amidst its own tissue. And, even less was she disturbed by the question that seemed, to others, like shouting from the middle of those voids. What to do? It seemed, for long, as absurd. And, simultaneously, contradictory.  Difficultly, would she accept anything to be done with those spaces, or with some of those spaces, because they are empty or obsolete or degraded spaces. Bernini’s fear. As, also, difficultly would she feel that enthusiasm for the empty space, as if it told her position in the world, that of a stranger. New York, in the meanwhile, has stayed back…

One day, Alice had just arrived from New York, when she exits the Chiado subway station and sees Artur. Artur was homeless. He lived in the Luís de Camões Square, in Lisbon, but, some times, he liked the silence of the enormous wall, which opens the Século street into a small square and tucked him in, when the wind blew from the North. He also liked to live there. There were times in which he liked, simply, to roam around the city. He knew all its obscure corners, all the garden benches, the ripped off planks, the shredded paint, the cold steps, the shadow that hid his face, when he wanted not to be noticed. Artur carried, always with him, a bag of papers, torn newspapers. On times, he used it as a pillow. On others, he used the papers to get warm. Artur liked to sleep on the street. To feel the empty city. Its sounds dispersed in the immensity of the air. If he was given a home, he would refuse it and keep on sleeping in the street. Now, there, standing, staring at the street through which the 28 tram passes. Immobile. Legs slightly apart, through which one notices the holes in his shoes. Alice noticed how Artur admired the passing of each tram. Immobile. Yet. At the passing of each. People deviated and looked indignant at Artur. Artur shouldn’t be there, not on the garden bench where he slept and spent his nights and, when he wanted, his afternoons. Artur should disappear. Disappear from all the spaces he chose to live, from all the empty spaces in town, where he liked to sleep. The empty spaces of a city should stay that way: without Artur. But Artur liked the void. The same way he liked the turn and the movement of the 28 tram, next to the exit of the Chiado subway station. Alice didn’t estrange Artur, because of that. She didn’t look at Artur with pity or even with mercy. She looked at him, fascinated. Artur saw the city the way she would never able to see it one day. For Artur, the city was his empty space. One day, going though the Luís de Camões Square, she found out Artur had died. She looked around and thought how much those empty spaces should remain, simply, as they existed. With its irregular forms, its accidental (im)perfections, its exiguous limits. Like the wall of the Século street or the inflection in the Belas-Artes Square that accompanied its abrupt dive into the Victor Cordon street. Some interventions could be done, but they should be minimal. Small repairs: leveling some curbs, replacing some of the more degraded urban furniture, painting the façades to whom one doesn’t recognize the color anymore, refurbishing some coverings... Many times, it would be, just, enough to clean up the space. On one of her visits to José, to Bordeaux, she heard that a couple of architects had refused to do any intervention on a plaza of a small residential neighborhood, because it only needed small repairs and greater care. And their proposal constituted, only, of a list of measures to take to conserve the plaza just as it existed. Its harmonious triangular form, the way the trees had been placed, without any protection around the trunks, the garden bench on which the inhabitants sat along the day, the houses around sober, but well proportioned, façades... She heard, as well, that the couple of architects had spent long periods on the plaza, simply observing what was going on there. Alice had always liked this attitude in Artur. Artur adored sitting, on one of the Luís de Camões Square benches, observing how the people transformed that space, apparently, empty, inert, uninhabited. Action on an empty space changes, totally, its perception, thought Alice. It transformed it, it molded it, infinitely. But, entering, perforating the void, implies knowing, as well, its matter. Its own life which, as Joana thought, also involves. Also emanates light. Like for example, measuring the quantity of air with the lungs, feeling its density on the surface of your skin, understanding its color amidst a profusion of other colors... Remaining, truly, in an empty space, in the void, demands that exercise of a body that is sensitive to small air displacements. It demands that we keep quiet, still, in the middle of it and understand its matter. What is the void made of? That void. A small oscillation of Alice’s head, made her realize she had started her descent to land at Lisbon. Paulo was supposed to pick her up at the airport for, in the next day, they would be leaving to Bordeaux together. Alice, suddenly, understood all that Paul had told her about the desert. He wasn’t interested in the enormous empty space, beyond sight, between the sweeping dunes, punctuated by small and rare vegetation. Nor even in that infinite line, which defines its horizon, concentrated, etched, dividing air and earth. But the wind, the small drafts of cold air, in between the warm air, heavy, immobile, the unending sound of the sand scraping between the vegetation, its dry color which immobilizes it... And twilight. That hour. 

Suddenly, an idea had occurred to her. It seemed perfectly possible for Marie to abandon the Bordeaux house, with her kids, leaving the house empty. Leaving José’s space to follow its course, void, as it had always been and waiting that one day the elevator shoots to the sky, through the clouds, towards the infinite...

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