M. Botelho, Sculptor of Tombs

J. Pinharanda, 2019

We know of the alliances between photography and death. They are commonplace in anthropological accounts and aesthetic and philosophical reflections on photography, as well as in the relationships established by their practices and consumption within certain social groups and some cultural and historical realities.
Manuel Botelho has never forced this relation into his work, in the sense that he has never illustrated it, but he also never strayed far from it, in the sense that he has been working the theme of death since he took up photography as his favoured medium of artistic expression.
With the same seemingly systematic approach with which he now photographs these tombs, in his first photographic works Manuel Botelho registered a vast collection of firearms used by the belligerent parties involved in the Portuguese colonial wars. After doing that, the artist took up arms, dressed in military garb and surrounded himself by contextualizing objects to portray a soldier in a series of episodes that resulted in successive demystifying, (self-)derisive series that build up a fragmentary narrative evocative of a certain good soldier Švejk. Sometimes in these series, his cooling body lies unburied on the ground as a forgotten “mother’s little boy,” but this option for a death on stage is rarely assumed (1).
And now, when this connection to death seems even more obvious, with Botelho systematically photographing tombs and their recumbent statues, it is perhaps the moment when, paradoxically and decisively, he attempts an escape from his usual circle.
Even if this register is seemingly systematic, we would rather call it, much like its predecessors, obsessive. In fact, Botelho does not reveal any concern in classifying, surveying or clarifying iconographies, nor does he care for clarity in the register and transmission of the forms or of their artistically meaningful details (2). The viewpoint and lighting of the images are determined solely by the value that Manuel Botelho intends for the scene (we may call it a scene, given that it is staged, as carefully staged as the scenes he created with live models) and not by a need for clarification imparted from some historiographic discourse — this is precisely why these works do not require the erudition of a text on the period’s Portuguese tomb sculpture.
Like his previous works, this project develops as an initial exploration of possibilities, an intense work full of doubts and anxiety. He was interested in how art has overcome the horrors of the carnage of war or of the agony of diseased bodies, in how one can set aside ideological or religious justifications when confronted with the power of these disembodied but charmed figures. Manuel Botelho addresses the great death, not the one that stops the body in one final breath, but that which defines humanity’s ultimate common ground: the end of times, that is, the end of action. He is interested in how the aching spasm is translated into a moment of stone (more an appeasement than a paralysis), without internal time and subjected to nothing but to the destructive action of external time. Based on these concerns, Botelho sets out to find a personal, anthropological and trans-historical sense.
In this work, Botelho explores the possibilities of attempting to avoid death. He observes and registers several methods that, by congealing the bodies of the nobility of a catholic Western society in the time of the Ancient Régime in a protocolary position of eternal rest, free them from the transience of their social and historical context, but also from the law of death. Like their deaths, their lives are extended, transformed in the face and in the body of each one of us (3). To die is to live, forever in stone. Now, photography adds another layer, it casts a thin veil on these bodies, replicating them. Here, photography is no longer a common proof of death or of the theft of the soul of the portrayed or, in a demystified and non-magical version, the simple register of death; and death itself might be seen as a developing photograph.
Manuel Botelho became fond of these recumbent bodies, of their massive vaults and removable covers, of their figurative and symbolic decorations, of the architecture that frames them. He grew affection for the shadows, the dust, the damp patches and the tracery on the stone, the textures and the colours. He found a fondness for time – not the time that passed him by (because it is unnervingly slow and imperceptible at an individual scale), but the time he saw that had passed by those sculpted stones. In a subjective system of equivalence between the arts, his photographs fulfil the role of the tomb sculptures they depict. A sculptor of tombs, Manuel Botelho memorialises these figures, he imagines self-representations in the image of the ones he made use of. Seeing himself dead in a time that could never have been his, he sees himself surviving in a future that is now (this exhibition) and in a future that will not be his (the future where the perpetuity of his work will run alongside the perpetuity of these sculptures) (4).

Quotations taken from the text The (Im)permanence of the Gesture, a conference Manuel Botelho presented at the International Congress Souls of Stone. Funerary Sculpture: from Creation to Musealization, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, 2017.

(1) “[…] it is not death that I feel but rather a strange sense of suspension, of evoking something that may not be life… but is certainly not death.”

(2) “[…] none of them was made with the intention of illustrating any scientific book on the subject. […] they were all made only with the available natural light and in no case was there any priority given to the pedagogical clarification of the forms and the iconographical elements.”

(3) “It is no longer kings being celebrated in this chancel, but all humanity.”

(4) “[…] in capturing this image, […] I have unwittingly become one of the guardians of its preservation […],” or “And if the stone crumbles, as in many cases is already happening due to the extreme fragility of the limestone, perhaps, despite it all, the images may survive.”