Museu Mineiro
Isabel Carvalho

Opening | 24th september| 4pm

In the exhibition
Museu Mineiro (Mining Museum), Isabel Carvalho continues her research on the notion of "nuclear", especially on Portugal's historical involvement in the controversial debate about its uses and the effects of this energy in the international context. Combining real facts, past and present, and fiction, in June 2022 the artist presented in The Grotto (Galeria Quadrado Azul, Lisbon) the first moment of this project, composed by the reading of a short story of her authorship and a sculpture, both entitled "The Grottos Community. New findings", where she approached the permanence of an American agency of seismographic detection of nuclear tests located in V. N. Gaia. She is now showing a body of work in Oporto, which takes as a starting point the claims of the population of Urgeiriça, in Viseu, for a Museum that does justice to their mining past. As has been evident in her career, the working process begins with a literary text that serves as a reference. This time, the text is a second short story by the author that has been written along with the construction of the works on display.

UM MUSEU MINEIRO (A Mining Museum)

We have passed, on a daily basis, by windows such as those of trains, of houses, and of those others where I now try to research the subject of the "nuclear".
[1] These are framed glass windows, filled with shifting configurations of light and color, moving rapidly while revealing fleeting realities. As I open them, sequentially, I receive an explosion of particles that bring me different perspectives, testimonies, and imaginaries coming from afar[2] and revealing that nuclear power is something not concrete, that cannot be seen, or touched, that goes through everything in a discreet way, and that is factually lethal. By noting these characteristics, under a kind of vertiginous attraction, I try to understand the scope of its manifestations. The discursive apparatus around "nuclear" is indeed gigantic. I grasp only a small piece and delude myself into thinking that I may be close to understanding the potential of its various dimensions and levels, for the windows, though translucent, are simulacra, deceptions of the gaze, and there is (always has been) not much transparency in the mediation of this subject. In this way, I witness only a flux of data that is harmful when the information is not accurate. Moreover, the perspective that each window gives us is only a fragment. But it is possible that the most appropriate approach to this invisible and impalpable materiality is to keep accumulating small pieces – fragments – in order to create a kind of mosaic and do a sort of an historical reconstitution.

It is probable that the idea of speaking of "nuclear" departing from windows has arisen from the impression caused precisely by having read a short testimony from someone who, through them, witnessed the spectacle caused by nuclear explosions, which, at first, appeared as something magical, similar to a festive firework, a display of visually stunning lights and colors, but who then felt up close the death caused by the radioactive effect on the bodies and how they silently rotted away.
[3] What is certain is that there is, from the very beginning of its use, an approximation between the nuclear apparatus and aesthetics.[4]


In the current context of war, we are witnessing the occupation of the main nuclear power plants in Europe and successive threats that call us, through generations, to revisit the past under this danger, as if it were the inescapable imaginary of the end of the world, of human extinction, which seems to us, ironically, cohesive and familiar at last. It is a globally distressing situation because we already know enough about what is at stake and what the consequences for life on this planet are. My effort has been to dissolve fear (a feeling so present and instrumentalized in discussions about "nuclear") by turning my attention inward: either to the body, or to that same body located in a certain space. To guide me, I started to formulate the following question: what is the (political) role, widely assumed to be as neutral, of "our" geographical position? For a moment, I’ve remembered that for several years in the beginning of the 21st century, my family and I spent our vacations in a hotel located right in front of the deactivated mines of Urgeiriça, in Viseu. This town appeared in the news at that time because the population boycotted successive elections. The memory is now revived and has taken on a very concrete form. When I returned to Urgeiriça this year, I saw the same streets, already deserted before, but now punctuated by black flags and claiming canvas. The mining population of Urgeiriça demands a Mining Museum that fulfills historical justice, confirming the damage done to their bodies traded for so little, while contributing so much to technological advances and the eventual production of nuclear weaponry. And this is the image that I retained, of a collective desire to restore the truth and to tell another story. The indignation is fair: it is due to the scant information circulating about the damage that resulted from the period of radioactive exposure, the political abandonment of that place and the people who built their lives there, as well as the uncertainty of the future...

Similar examples abound in Portugal, perhaps less mediatic compared to the geographical areas of other countries where nuclear accidents have occurred, demonstrating that even in this case, under the discourse of (false) "neutrality", it is never convenient to return to the past.

In the article published in 2018,
Carnation Atoms,[5] the "nuclear" issue is associated with the despotism of the Estado Novo – which not only sold uranium extracted in Portuguese territory as it also hoped to use the resources of the empire's colonies – and there it is mentioned that are the civil epistemologies that emerge already in democracy that are seen, optimistically, as the truly "anti-nuclear" ones, by confronting the "core" of a centralized power. The “Festival pela vida, contra o nuclear” [Festival for life, against nuclear power] (1978), which took place in Ferrel, is the paradigmatic case that illustrates how popular mobilization, allied to scientists (and not astrologers, hippies, as was said to delegitimize the mobilization), against the installation of a power plant, can win. The fact is that we don't have nuclear power plants like our neighbors in Spain, but it is "lyrical" to think that it was in fact the local populations, those previously erased from History, who managed to sway the already democratically elected government from its decision. After all, this government was also in favor of nuclear power, perhaps as a manifestation of its modernized position – following the opinion that a non-nuclearized country is an underdeveloped country, since a country does not necessarily use their reserves to its advantage. Popular mobilization, undoubtedly, has had a strong influence on nuclear imaginaries, enlightening them, forcing them to expand their limits, and above all eradicating the cunning lies based on fear, on the need for protection (the famous "peace atom", during the Cold War), and on their other dubious benefits. Nothing would pass without a counter-image that proposed to restore the truth of the facts. Civil epistemologies were effectively formed from fragmentation, from the shattering of the "core" – from the former centrality of the non-self-determined collective plan. In effect, to assume an anti-nuclear position is to think together, democratically and, in face of an urgency, to form alliances.

For this exhibition, which I present as a moment to be continued
[6], I considered it particularly interesting to attend to the epistemological changes and, inevitably, to the perceptive changes, visions and imaginaries that reflect a combative position of the body(ies), mainly on the "anti-nuclear" front. In an apparent explosion of the real along with the implosion of the bodies – in the perception of themselves, of their subjectivities, confirming a change to a kind of solidary living and survival that can serve to model imaginaries about the nuclear – I wanted to create pieces that could be associated to memory and to how we are haunted by past facts. Visibly, these pieces (re)present both "things" (bones and lungs, suns, fungi, tunnels, etc.), as well as the matter of which they are made and their concepts, resulting in something with a wide degree of uncertainty. My proposal is to depart from this point using literary fiction exercises, expanding the means and the space of reflection of the creative process.

Oporto, August 2022.

Isabel Carvalho

[1] Theme of the next Leonorana magazine – an editorial project I have maintained since 2017 – which is currently being worked on by the editorial team composed of Vanessa Badagliacca and supported by José Carlos Marques as a consultant.

[2] The concept of the atom appears already in antiquity, although it was thought of differently.

[3] Alexievich, S. (2016). Vozes de Chernobyl: história de um desastre nuclear. Translation by Galina Mitrakhovich. Lisboa: Elsinore.

[4] When the first tests were conducted on American territory, under the name Trinity, the physicist responsible for the project, Robert Oppenheimer, described the "spectacle", praising the scientific achievement and minimizing the harmful effects of the explosions, recalling a Hindu poem - If the brightness of a thousand suns/ were to burst once in the sky,/ it would be like the splendor of the mighty. The poetic comparison, in the public communication of the occurrence as being in the realm of the sublime, may cause outrage today, but at the time it passed unscathed.

[5] Pereira, T. S., Fonseca, P. F. C., and Carvalho, A. (2018). Carnation Atoms? A History of Nuclear Energyin Portugal. Minerva.

[6] Preceding this exhibition is the event held in June this year at Gruta – a project by artist Hugo Canoilas for the Quadrado Azul Gallery, in Lisbon – when I wrote, read and published, in poster format, a short story entitled “The Grotto Community ... New discoveries” about Portugal's involvement in international nuclear policies.

Isabel Carvalho e Clara Batalha, Frieze of geoglyphs (detail), 2022 
Museu Mineiro. Quadrado Azul, Porto. Exhibition view, 2022.  
Isabel Carvalho e Clara Batalha, Frieze of geoglyphs, 2022. Plaster, acrylic spray and acrylic. Variable dimensions 
Isabel Carvalho e Clara Batalha, Frieze of geoglyphs (detail). Plaster, acrylic spray and acrylic. Variable dimensions 
Museu Mineiro. Quadrado Azul, Porto. Exhibition view, 2022.  
The little lamps: the last inhabitants, 2022. Glasses, glass paints and wooden support. 181 x 70 x 60 cm 
Isabel Carvalho, Civil Epistemologies: For a Mining Museum, 2022. Plaster, Acrylic spray. 163 x 350 x 5 cm 
Isabel Carvalho, Accidental Sun, 2022. Glasses, glass paints ans wooden support. 181 x 164 x 30 cm 
Museu Mineiro. Quadrado Azul, Porto. Exhibition view, 2022.