Miguel Leal: Control strategies – the archaeology of their utopias

João Fernandes

Miguel Leal’s recent work uses allegory for the critical deconstruction of some of the representations of power that are detectable in contemporary society, questioning the idea and place of art in its relationship with the discourses and strategies of ideology, as soon as this shows itself to be open to interpretation as a system of social control. After a series of projects in which the artist explored the possibilities of artistic practices as “experiences of the real”, his work now centres on the organisation of systems of representation that are allegorical of a similar number of systems of domination in the iterative production of images and utopias. As allegory consists in the construction of an image that redirects our attention to another underlying image, Miguel Leal appropriates iconic or textual references to construct models that subvert the ideological codes inherent in these systems. The Museum and the Island appear in this context as referential concepts of a topology of social control. The Museum becomes definable through a strategy that brings together and concentrates images and discourses, whilst the Island, setting itself up as a libertarian and dispersive image of the paradigms of utopia and liberation, can equally be definable by its isolation and limits, as a deceptive illusion of those paradigms. 


In the Bunker Project, developed between 1996 and 1999, Miguel Leal constructs the model and practices of a Museum of Modern Strategy (MOMS), structured into three Departments: the Art Department, the International Department and the Analytical Department. The artistic project as a critical proposition of its institutional spaces of representation is clearly evident in the autonomy and isolationism of the proposed bunker. Whereas Broodthaers had established the “mise en abîme” of the place of art in the place of the museum, Miguel Leal allows us now, through his Bunker, to confront the self-segregationism and integrationist self-sufficiency of the art institution within the context of strategies for the visibility and concealment of a global system of power and control. Objects, documents, websites, architect’s models, diagrams, posters, books and leaflets are structured within a complex constellation of situations resulting in a fictional cosmology, an allegory of the “very nature of museological ambiguity as a critical device and a possible mausoleum of the specialisation of power and its many different strategies[1]”. The appropriation of objects and systems of representation, as well as their recontextualisation, appears as a methodology that the artist frames within his assumption of both the object and artistic practice as “organic mutants”, revealing the tension and paradox existing between “the elastic variability of artistic practice and the apparent corpselike rigidity of its objectualisation[2]”. The Duchampian ready-made is clearly surpassed in these organic mutants: although they start out as a selection of existing and functional objects, they will not, however, be merely “transformed” or replicated as objects of art; instead they present themselves as phantasmatic images, which are sometimes abstract and conceptual, directing us back to reality, although they break away from their semantic convention by being transferred to a different ideological context. In this way, an industrial rubber stamp or a pair of binoculars are identified and referred to as “industrial objects”.


The isolation and autonomy that are detectable in the Bunker Project are once again identifiable in the emergence of a new topology in the works of Miguel Leal: the Island, whose representation, based on the project Une petite révolution cataléptique (2002), is associated with the universe of the traditional histories of corsairs and piracy. In that project, a group of pirates’ flags were placed at the centre of a space from which there proliferated the cartography of various islands, between the verisimilitude of the real and the invitation made to the imaginary, represented by various drawings placed on the walls. The Island, in its decentred isolation, always evokes the question of mobility and social utopia, in a vast paradigm of which we can find countless examples in western culture. In turn, in the History of Piracy, the Island occupies the place of refuge and conquest, with this same History being a forgotten preamble to the economic globalisation that has been in progress from the 16th century to the present day.


In Phantomatic (2003), the project that is now being presented at the Serralves Museum, the Island is the territory from where the images proliferate, blending together two narratives as an intertext of the occupation of the Museum undertaken by the artist: the history of Captain Misson, presumably narrated by Captain Charles Johnson and attributed to Daniel Defoe, published in 1724[3]; and the history of Captain Mission, as narrated by William S. Burroughs, in 1991[4].


Misson was a French pirate who, together with his associate, a Roman priest by the name of Caraccioli, took command of the ship Victoire, and became involved in a whole series of different adventures along the West African Coast, later arriving at Madagascar, where, in around 1700, he founded a libertarian colony by the name of Libertatia. This colony was governed by a set of Articles that anticipated many of the human rights later made famous through their enshrinement in the French and American Revolutions. There was no capital punishment, slavery, imprisonment or any restraint on social life through religion or sexuality. The colony was decimated by the natives after the Victoire had sunk as a result of a night of debauchery. Caraccioli died; Misson decided to set sail for America with another pirate, Captain Tew, but he disappeared in a storm that beset his ship halfway through its voyage.


Misson’s utopia was to be transferred by Burroughs to the focalisation of a contemporary ecological conflict: the extinction of the lemurs on the Island of Madagascar, where, of the forty species in existence when human beings arrived at the Island, only twenty-two have survived, all of them threatened by demographic growth and deforestation, which has destroyed ninety per cent of the forests originally existing there. In Burroughs, one of the Articles of Mission’s “Constitution” banned the killing of lemurs, respecting an ancient native taboo, and it was this that was to lead to his downfall. Betrayed by one of his companions, who had been corrupted by those wishing to bring an end to Libertatia, Mission was to die in battle, but not before he had created the Museum of Lost Species and condemned the world to the curse of the return of extinct diseases.

Burroughs explains that “the Museum of Lost Species is not exactly a museum, since all the species are alive in dioramas of their natural habitats.” A Museum is thus transformed into an Imaginarium, whose topology is a succession of images. More (or less...) than a utopia, the Museum is converted in this way into an a-topia, into a non-place where preservation curiously raises the ethical question as to the legitimacy or veracity of the context surrounding the representation of this same preservation.


In Phantomatic, Miguel Leal causes the intertext of his readings to come together in an operation for the transformation and displacement of the very Museum where he is presenting his project. The structure of this museum has its origin in a cosmology created from the representations and actions of two groups of mechanical beings, confronting small robots that are sensitive to light or movement, with other small toys, curiously known as “mustaphas”. Each robot was assembled and transformed by the artist in such a way as to introduce a set of movements that give them a specific identity in the community to which they belong. Two video projections establish the location of his characters, filmed against a cut-out surface that has the shape of a map of the Island of Madagascar. Suggestively, the filming took place on the stage of the Museum’s Auditorium. The representational territory of the Island acquires an objectual quality in the exhibition, surrounded by artificial plants that move in response to the stimuli provoked by the spectator’s movements. As he walks around the project, the spectator will also be confronted with the phantasmatic images of small robots, drawn as “organic mutants” on the museum’s walls. At the museum entrance, a yellow acrylic sphere emits the sound of air conditioning ducts, which the artist walked through and filmed, revealing them now in another autonomous video projection.


Phantomatic evokes various times and paradigms based on the synchronous confrontation of the spectator and what he sees. The Museum as a place is constantly questioned. However, we find ourselves in the heart of the Museum of Fictional History, the sceptical heir of the Natural History Museums of the Past. Literature, History and Geography summon up an artistic project that transfers them to the territory of a post-science fiction narrative, where utopia is converted into atopia, the present is revealed as a strange archaeology of the future, the museum preserves, presents and classifies the images of mechanical beings created exclusively for it, the artificial vegetation quivers in response to the presence of the spectator, who is himself confronted with the display of elements from one or several stories, of one or several contexts, supports, languages, sensory and cognitive stimuli.


Being phantasmatic, the place of art blends with the place of the institution that presents it, in the intersection of its labyrinths, in the revelation and concealment of its intertexts, in the possible and impossible paths followed by the spectator. Is the topology an aesthetic fiction, in the same way that all of the cartography is a political fiction? Will the Museum be capable of showing itself to be the Interzone where Burroughs situated the transgression of all limits? In these times of the so-called New World Order, are the small “mustaphas” the last lab pets of our social behaviour?


Just like any artistic project, Miguel Leal’s work raises more questions than it provides answers. Its allegorical dimension is latent, but not ostensive, the reference is generative but never conclusive, the fable contextualises a possible moral, but never enunciates or denounces it. Phantomatic opens up possible new conflicts about the experience of art, as well as the place and time of its production and reception. The Museum and the Island converge as figures that structure the allegory of experience and observation, in the detection of the instances and circumstances of social control. Observe the observer observed[5]. In a Museum, art is always the Ghost of Chance.


[1] Cf. Miguel Leal, in Projecto Bunker (1996-99), Círculo de Artes Plásticas de Coimbra, 2000, p.48.

[2] Ibid., “Um Outro Orgânico Mutante”, ibid. in p.7.

[3] Cf. Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Most Notorious Pirates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn, London, Dover Publishers.

[4] Cf. William S. Burroughs, Ghost of Chance, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2002; Portuguese translation. O Fantasma de uma Oportunidade, Teorema, Lisbon.

[5] William S. Burroughs, Ghost of Chance, p. 18.