INTRODUCTION

 

 
To look for knowledge wherever it exists
By António Andrade
 

António Conceição Júnior’s work is the sheer range of areas to which he applied his creative talents within the context of design, the visual arts and entertainment, and extending, within this same scope, to cultural animation and cultural management.

The first thought likely to cross your mind when visiting the website of António Conceição Júnior (ACJ) is the sheer range of areas to which he applied his creative talents within the context of design, the visual arts and entertainment, and extending, within this same scope, to animation and cultural management. Also noticeable is the suggestion of the desire for absolute control. In examining his work in its entirety, in other words, one can perceive the constant aim of exercising control, as far as possible, over the various aspects involved in each initiative for which he was responsible.
I have always identified this desire in ACJ’s work and clearly recall how it became apparent to me with the utmost eloquence, as early as 1978, at the beginning of his spell in charge of the Museu Luís de Camões, his first position in Macao and one with obvious civic and cultural implications.
By this what I mean to say is that his vocation for managing processes is rooted in a solid cultural awareness that pre-dates his position as director of the museum, wherein ACJ had the opportunity to put his talents to work for the benefit of the city.
The Museum’s collection as it then was, as well as the state of Museological lethargy, and amateurism in which it found itself and the socio-political conditions of the time, challenged this awareness to assume the actions and objectives that, with tenacity and clear sightedness – an even, in the in the circumstances, a pinch of quixoticism… - ACJ wisely proposed and implemented.
In fact, in establishing criteria for the classification, selection and exhibition of the collection, conceiving a plan for the renovation of the Museum facilities, defining personnel needs and providing them with training suited to the fulfilment of their various functions, planning and implementing public awareness initiatives, driven by pedagogic and culturally enlightened criteria, and being able to above all to defend and sustain, over various years, not only the opportune adaptation of his initial intentions, but also the adoption of cultural policies based on the presuppositions of institutional responsibility – an indispensable pre-condition for any cultural programme built with the future in mind – ACJ, at the age of twenty seven, set off along a path whose course he has expertly charted with a style that has resulted in achievements of outstanding significance for Macao’s development over the last few decades.

The strategic importance of a museum
I watched with some interest the process of revitalizing and transforming what until then had been the Museu Luís de Camões, home to a valuable but uneven collection, for years lovingly cared for by Luís Gonzaga Gomes and a small nucleus of co-helpers, but limited by the confines of its tiny budget, a sign of those times of scant governmental interest in education and culture.
I therefore believe that the willingness of the post-1974 government to introduce a new cultural policy for Macao fortunately coincided with the emergence of a person capable enough to conceive of ways in which it could be realized, by virtue of a wisdom capable of looking far beyond the resigned mediocrity and daring enough to propose a dream, without succumbing to the frustration of seeing projects at times elaborated in great detail occasionally rejected. (I remember, for example, one proposal by ACJ to extend the museum’s facilities that would have turned it into a multicultural center, in which not only did he present a drawing of the building’s site, dimensions and functions, but he also outlined what he thought should be the principles governing its programme…And while that proposal may not have been successful, others followed that were…).
Furthermore, naturally modest signs of success, in areas where success must be measured according to very particular criteria, fundamentally attentive to the quality of the cultural product provided, but simultaneously understanding of the slow rate at which public acceptance grows, never seem to have shaken the convictions that fed ACJ’s long term strategic vision, which was based on a project of certain cultural and civic importance.

An active conscience
Examining the dates of the first projects for which ACJ was responsible as director of the Museu Luís de Camões immediately reveals that he was driven by an impetus to act that from the very beginning went beyond merely re-arranging the Museum. Dating from the same year of 1978 is the publication of the magazine ARTIS and already in the following year maintenance work on the building was begun, from which very significant improvements resulted such as the complete redesign of the permanent exhibition areas and the creation of a gallery for temporary exhibitions. The Museum reopened in 1980 and it was in that same year that ACJ also realized both the “I Macao Fortnight” and the exhibition “Macao 400 Years of East” in Lisbon, at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Also dating from that year is the signing of a cultural exchange agreement between Macao and Hong Kong, conceived and proposed by ACJ.
Other initiatives then followed, planned according to the principle of strategic coherence. Based on the careful inventory of the museum’s collection (in some cases with recourse to expert examination in order to verify controversial classifications), these even extended to the selection of works for precisely organized exhibitions of local and overseas artists, which were always accompanied by the publication of catalogues, the trial launch of a periodical – the aforementioned magazine ARTIS – and, in book form, the re-publishing of important works by Macanese authors and the organizing of several highly important initiatives outside Macao. And the operational basis for all this was the re-structured Museu Luís de Camões and its promotion, both inside the territory and out, as the main focal point of a Macanese culture in expansion.
His many years of often pioneering work in Macao were justly recognised. Not only was his work supported, but also he was rewarded with a more senior position in the establishment hierarchy with his appointment in 1984 as head of the City Council’s Department of Leisure and Culture. In fact the appointment merely consecrated and reinforced what had already become self-evident: ACJ’s all encompassing dynamism had already carved out a place for itself in the city’s cultural life and made his promotion to programmer and coordinator of its entire cultural programme a mere formality.
ACJ’s influence is evident in all of these initiatives, both in the formulation of their general concepts, characteristic in an informed and speculative age, and in their respective realisation and control over details, founded on a very personal taste for the manual and the visual, two aspects which, alongside with an insatiable curiosity, have decisively characterised his work.

From working solo to team co-ordination

Based on a constant inner dialogue between thought and action, mental exertion and sensory experience, it could be said the ACJ’s ideal is to achieve the unity one expects from what is considered an original piece of work, even in those aspects which are the responsibility of his co-workers.
This testifies to ACJ’s ability for forming and handling teams to work on projects of his own in which the specific objectives, form and spirit presiding over their completion are clearly defined and consequently his personal influence can be stamped on them. These undertakings were as diverse and complex as, for example, the aforementioned “I Macau Fortnight” in Lisbon, the series of exhibitions entitled “The Last Hundred Years of Portuguese Painting” and the exhibition “The Last Hundred Years of Chinese Painting” (Macao 1986 and 1987), the exhibitions “Macao Past and Present” and “Macao – A Spell” (Lisbon, 1990), the presentation in Macao of the exhibition “Images of Portuguese Painting of the XX Century” (1995) and “Macao Silk Way” (Queluz, 1993) and also, naturally, as an example of his initiative, creativity and ability to organize on a large scale, the various fashion shows that he staged from 1990 onwards and at which collections conceived by himself and created under his direction were shown.
This talent for organizing large and complex projects, which requires the co-ordination of specialist areas by a single person capable of guaranteeing the harmonious realisation of an Idea, is surely, for any creative person, a development of the solo work in which as a rule they first trained, gained experience, and put their ideas into practice. In which, in short, they accumulated knowledge and broadened their horizons.
It is, however, unusual for one person to be able to work equally at ease in such distinctly different areas, alternately (when not simultaneously) at an individual and at a group level, and even be able to establish an intimate dialogue between them without moreover distorting their respective characteristics. This ability demands great working discipline, requires a reliable knowledge of different subject areas and their respective techniques, presupposes the existence of an extensive sensibility and imaginative and bold ambition and, therefore, also a keen sense of self criticism, without which the risk of failure through incompetence is enormous.
Thus, examining the variety of specific areas in which ACJ has expressed his creative talents, one inevitably recognizes that he has had at root the type of broad sensibility and involving sensory curiosity that direct the interests of certain (rare) people towards different artistic activities, in that they satisfy a very specific pleasure: the pleasure of manual work – the enjoyment of manipulating materials, necessary for reinventing forms, the attraction of experimenting with new possibilities, the fascination for the personal disco very of new contents of signification and so many other impassionate dimensions of the aesthetic creation process.
For that reason, it is in fact surprising to see ACJ dedicate himself to areas as varied at times as graphic story’s drawing, jewellery, easel painting, fashion shows, coin and furniture design, photography, museology, stamp design and Japanese swords, etc.
And what one sees is that the standard reached in each of these areas is always, at the very least, perfectly satisfactory, as if he had been waiting merely for the right circumstances to come along that would allow him to start creating something new in new spheres of expression, with the maturity of an experienced practitioner.

Re-creative innovation

In my opinion, ACJ’s creations as a rule are neither experimental (and even less so experimentalist, in the sense corresponding to any attempt at the avant-garde), nor constitute points on a graph demonstrating a developmental sequence of original discoveries.
They are rather other manifestations, made possible by the application to different expressive and manual realms of a fertilising notion that is bequeathed, felt and applied to that end for the purpose of reinvention, based on the assimilation of known formal guidelines within which ACJ chooses to work.
ACJ himself once wrote, though in a different context. “I merely try to look for knowledge where it exists”, which, in my view, sets in stone the overall behavioural model that drives his incessant creative journey.
In fact, the emphasis in ACJ’s creative work is placed more on reinvention than on the search for originality as an intrinsic value and the quest for “pure”, and therefore impossible, innovation. In other words, his works re-appropriates identifying forms from pre-existing cultural worlds rather than attempts the absolute invention of new forms. This explains why, throughout his work, the characteristic traits of a contemporary European aesthetic (in design, graphic stories’ drawing and painting, for example) are as much in evidence as elements of clearly Eastern influence (Chinese, Indian and Japanese, in fashion and furniture design, for example). And these references, which can be fused in a single project or even a single object, combine element from a diverse cultural matrix with sensibility and sense of harmony.
Ultimately, his work is the finalisation, within the methodology of formal solutions, of a transcultural vision that is so dear to him and which he so insistently places at the very heart of his entire civic and artistic achievements.
Therefore, cultural miscegenation, transculturalism and interculturalism are no platitudes devoid of substance, demagogic proclamations, or mere words for ACJ. While fortunately not the only cultural agent in Macao whose actions result from a transcultural approach, we are nevertheless forced to recognize that no other figure in this domain has achieved quite so much.

Essentiality, elegance and solemnity
There are several concept words that identify, reasonably accurately, the characteristics most common to the majority of ACJ’s works: essentiality, elegance and solemnity.
Others could also be included to paint a more accurate picture of a taste whose defining traits have long been recognised: refinement, religiousness, sincerity, rituality and formal synthesis. Excluded from this list are aggressiveness, grotesqueness, psychological drama, and extravagance.
This then is the word list for that could be said to represent the boundaries of the aesthetic world to which ACJ’s work pertains.
With time, humour and luxury crop up. As for sensuality, its presence can be felt everywhere. To a greater or lesser degree, these are the ingredients selected by ACJ and present in all of his work and which gradually began to concede more and more space to the element of ritual solemnity, the most obvious manifestation of the influence of his growing interest in Eastern philosophies. This affiliation to a certain extent contradicted, at the artistic level, his broader transcultural tendencies (which ACJ himself wished to maintain equidistant) in favour of an orientalism, which, in turn, began to give particular preference to a formal affinity with Eastern philosophies and Zen spirituality.
One could therefore conclude that the journey to which I previously referred, among different technical and expressive areas, was undertaken hand-in-hand with another inner journey, by which ACJ came to have a clearer insight into the philosophical world in which he sought to develop his understanding of Life.
An example of this phase I think is the practice of Aikido and others aspects of Eastern philosophies and indicative of this “irresistible attraction” is the study and making of Japanese swords, which ACJ dedicated himself with profound interest (which extended to the publishing of texts) and most particularly the various swords that he redesigned and sold attest.
Furthermore, this appears to be the manifestation of the fifth essence of refinement, precision and rituality of an area that began by seeming odd to us, but which we eventually come to see as the inevitable action of an artist who is ever more decidedly delving into the fascinating world of Eastern spirituality.
It is still too early for us to know whether he is reaching his destination, or the end of a trajectory, or finally completing a circle. What we do know, though, is that ACJ is preparing once again to enter a new realm, or make further progress in one he has previously travelled. In his hands, and in his mind, the constant values of essentiality, elegance and ritual solemnity will yet discover many other opportunities…

A new tool in the same struggle
As you would expect of an intellectual with ACJ’s critical capacities, there came a time when his preferred form of direct expression consisted of publishing texts in the Portuguese language press in Macao. Three long series of articles have already been completed, “Lugar de Cidadania” (Citizenship Place) 1999, “Entreposto” (Trading Post) 2002, and “Conversas do Chá e do Café” (Conversations of Tea and Coffee) 2003, in which he broaches a multiplicity of themes, in places favouring the less immediate use of metaphor and in others calling a spade a spade, while at times, employing the bitterest irony, symptomatic of a contempt that dwells on the outer edges of civility but that refuses to be silenced.
At the civic level, these articles represent, in a continued and thematically extended form – and, possibly, in a more fitting context – a desire to speak out about certain aspects of life in the city, including those he had previously addressed (impertinently?) in the opening passages of some exhibition catalogues.
If we are to give full justice to this examination of ACJ’s work over the last twenty-five years, giving its civic dimension the elevated importance that he himself manifestly attributed to it, then we cannot forget to stress the significance of a body of literary work that complements his overall scheme and that has taken various forms since he first started work at the Museu Luís de Camões. And which, with these articles, places the proclaiming of his Ideas and Principles on a more explicit level of critical actuation.
Leaving that aside for now, as a discussion of these texts is not our objective here, we want above all to note how frequently phrases appear in them that can throw light on the interpretation of meanings, or help to understand the multiple combinations, influences, analogies, transpositions, metamorphoses, in short all those bridges that make it possible for ACJ to move between different processes of mediating meanings. We think that this is clearly exemplified by the series of quotations that can be accessed both here or at the end of this text, which we suggest be re-contextualized as an aid to understanding his artistic work.
Out of all this is hardened the distinct perception of the civic and cultural coherence that manifests itself at all levels of ACJ’s work, which is all the more surprising given the multiple areas in which he chooses to express himself.

An endless journey
The transition to different areas of artistic expression had the effect of interrupting his creative output in some of the benefit of others. We can see this, for example, in his work in the areas of graphic stories drawing, painting and photography, in which it seems the early promise ACJ had shown was prematurely cut short.
In ACJ the impulse to discover new spheres has been greater than that of remaining rooted to anyone of them (and yet, as far as I know, ACJ’s output as a painter and photographer consists of at least two distinct phases, in time and aims) and evident is his fascination with the prospect of working in areas that he has yet to apply his creative talents to. And no doubt there will be many more yet.
It could be said that Fernando Pessoa’s line “Não evoluo, viajo” (I don’t evolve, I travel) has found in ACJ’s creative persona a variant form in which the journey is made not between different personas but between different demarcated regions in the visual arts, design, stage direction, writing…and cyberspace.
Of course the idea that an artist does not evolve is unconceivable. But not only are there different types of evolution, there are also various ways in which a work can reflect them. Thus, for instance, whereas for confessional artists it is important for a work to reveal signs that testify to the hardship of the creative process – the mood swings and even the vicissitudes in one’s private life – in a more or less clear-cut autobiographical way, for others the allusion to hesitation, to progression and regression and even to the psychological and biographical, is something decidedly best left unsaid.
Obviously I would include ACJ in the second category.
The artistic persona, which adopts its own existential drama as the central substance in his work, tends towards a romantic and expressionist aesthetic, while the artist, who is not the subject of the work itself, is above all interested in the objectivity of the media and in abstract and symbolic thought. It seems to me that what fascinates ACJ is the possibility of speculating, not about himself, but about forms – and with them – and their meanings. What feeds his creative élan is the exhilarating possibility of being able to journey within a pre-existing symbolic world, aware of the referential dimension of the materials and of the anthropological value of the organization of the forms, and successively visit and rediscover the different realms in which he can exercise his technical sensibility through the metamorphosis of materials and meanings. And by means of this, to realise inventive phases that generate an appetite for new journeys and new paths…
These choices fail to ring true if not deeply embedded within a person’s character, which is moulded through interaction with its environment. For that reason, in ACJ’s case, they are not the fruit of arbitrary decision taken on a whim, nor the product of a coldly premeditated and voluntary design. And because a body of artistic world is inevitably characterized by how strongly or weakly it is influenced by a specific stylistic universe, with which an artist closely identifies himself, i.e. subjectively it is in the realm of multiculturalism, as a philosophical attitude, that the spirit of openness that dedicates close consideration to ethnic diversity and its cultural manifestations – inexhaustible sources of inspiration – is exercised, making them the substance of a strategic, social and historically-located reflection of great artistic and civic consequence.
It is surely for this reason that ACJ’s individual creations are expressive manifestations of a multiple cultural crossroads, whose referents belong to the “Portuguese-created world”, but in which Far Eastern aesthetic traditions have made their presence increasingly evident and are tending to become the predominant influence.
And this has only been boosted and given new pretexts for creative navigation with access to cyberspace – another climbing frame for ACJ’s mental gymnasium and a frequent subject for civic and cultural reflection and struggle.
And this is nothing, after all, that would not be expected of a Macanese intellectual who, physically and mentally established in Macao at the dawn of the 21st century, is navigating towards cultural horizons that are less tightly defined and more desirable.
Certainly not out of any reason for irresponsible escape, but out of thirst for knowledge, identification, balance and growth.

 

TO FRAGMENTS

From Revista Macau