Inventing the Language of a Country Without Exile
Béatrice Josse

It was 2006 when I first met Marco Godinho, then a young graduate of the École nationale supérieure d’art et de design in Nancy, France, and we’ve been talking, exchanging ideas and travelling ever since. We share two passions: books (mostly hard-copy) and walking. For if there’s one way of getting to know the world that fosters shared understanding, it’s wandering about on foot, head in the clouds. Talking together as a way of engaging in theoretical discourse, walking together as a way of sharing territory, Marco’s world is vast and open.

Representing a country like Luxembourg in one of the art world’s most important international events, the Venice Biennale, is at once a challenge and a source of pride, and some artists are more apt to achieve this than others. Marco is one of them. An eternal traveller, he attempts to understand the world through his body and to share his research through a predilection for refined works. Whether they take shape as a book, a written installation or definitive erasure, the forms are as important as the making process. There is something of an ecological approach in Marco Godinho’s practice: the use of humble materials, performance reduced to simple gestures, shared walks and meditative isolation. His oeuvre is at once poetic, philosophical and conceptual, and could be seen as a spiritual quest, one where only the path counts, not the destination.
A Graphic Poetry

Let’s postulate that Marco Godinho’s entire universe is hidden behind the title of one of his earliest works: Le monde nomade, produced in 2006.
Here is how he describes it: “A physical (paper) map was cut up into sixty individual vertical strips, tallying with the measurement of time, in seconds and minutes. The thin strips, which are rolled upon themselves, can be put together as wished, proposing, from one intervention to the next, ephemeral visions of the world. The strips unroll slowly depending on the temperature of the space; they can also be stored after having elastic bands put round them in a transparent tube, making the object easy to transport.”
The influence of typography, a field he knows well for having studied it, remains fundamental in Marco Godinho’s visual universe. In meticulously cutting up a wall map of the world along its spatial-temporal lines (defined by our Western societies!), he offers both a critical reading of the territorial parcelling and infinite possibilities for metaphorically and physically repositioning the lacerated world. Furthermore, with the travelling version of this piece, a translucent tube that, like a reliquary, contains the sixty delicately rolled little strips, he invites us to reconnect with our fetishistic attachment to certain sacred objects.

Quintessential graphic poetry, this conceptually simple work is emblematic of an artistic approach that strives to make everyone’s experience of an artwork sensitive and unique. One can either maintain the suggestive power of a work in progress by deciding not to open the tube, or hang the map on a wall and reconfigure it on a regular basis. Either way, the piece is protocol-based and can be remade again and again, to the point of becoming a multiple. The artist does not impose his vision; on the contrary, he welcomes otherness in his creative process.

A few years later, in 2012, Forever Immigrant built on and synthesized the simplicity and remarkable visual efficiency that Marco Godinho began pursuing with Le monde nomade. It explores the ideas of protocol, wandering and graphic poetry that have been his trademark all the way to his immense creation for the Luxembourg Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. A simple ink stamp serving to print these two words: Forever Immigrant. Indeed, the work could be reduced to displaying the stamp itself, its administrative use being supplanted here for the purpose of denouncing the fate of asylum seekers in Europe. The Portuguese-born Luxembourgish artist, who lives in the border area between Luxembourg and Germany, and studied in neighbouring France, is a staunch European. Being familiar with the situation of exile for having lived it himself, he in this way denounces, with the sole but powerful means of visual poetry, the Europe of Schengen, the Luxembourg village on the banks of the Moselle at the junction of Luxembourg, Germany and France, which hosted the signing of the famous agreement that allows free movement of people and goods and launched the construction of Fortress Europe.

Diverted from its regulatory function, the stamp serves as a painting tool. Repeatedly apposed, thousands of times, the marks made on the wall overlap, intertwine and merge until they suggest cloud shapes. Sometimes dense, sometimes scattered, the “clouds” appear in their fragility but also in their agility to adapt to all situations. Enormous or modest in size, the clouds of Forever Immigrant are a metaphorical reflection of the human flows that traverse the history of our ancient and contemporary societies. No one escapes the nomadism intrinsically linked to the human condition. Searching for a better land, security or, more simply, utopia, displacement is inherent and undeniably tied to living beings.

These wall paintings have been revived by the artist in many countries and cities (from Lampedusa to Medellín to Gdansk, Dakar and more), often with the migrants themselves. They testify to the attention Marco Godinho pays to people directly and indirectly impacted by Europe’s highly discriminatory migration policies. By including them in the process of producing the work, he seeks to reinforce the connections between artist and audience, between art and its recipients.

A Search for Horizons

Marco Godinho’s installations have a direct, simple appeal that expresses itself independent of their content’s complexity. The visual approach is always accessible, apparent, not, however, through consensus and harmony but through contradictions and spheres crashing together like systems colliding to generate new orders.

The evidence of form found in the artist’s vast narratives stems from a fruitful relationship with the fundamental elements of our universe: water, sky, etc. The incommensurable immensity as landmark. Near-obsessive reference is made to the horizon, the imaginary and perpetually moving line between sky and water, between sky and earth.

The quest for an impossible geodetic point is rooted in his habit of walking, which inspires and contributes to the creation of his works. This spiritual and artistic approach makes Marco Godinho a worthy successor to the travelling artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, the difference being that he takes an interest in the lives of the people he meets. In fact, “witness” would be the best word to qualify his approach as an artist engaged in 21st-century society.

The protocol-based work L’horizon retrouvé, launched in 2014, is an invitation to collectively create a long line from pieces of string, cord and other items usable as ties found on walks. A new horizon fashioned from urban waste is, of course, the plastic finality. The metaphoric finality consists of finding meaning together in our isolated, scattered, torn lives, creating a new, shared horizon line.
The idea to create an infinite line came to Marco Godinho during a residency in Paris, at Les Récollets, near the Gare de l’Est where migrants camp before continuing their journey. These people, who sleep in the street, use odds and ends of string to tie up their meager bundles before tossing them into trees to hide them during the day.

This, then, is about the tremendous hope of finding a better life. The exile’s isolation is made clear in the humble gesture of picking up and knotting together bits of string. The work can be presented as a line simply pinned to the wall, or as a ball made by winding up the long string. The protocol of this eminently symbolic action can be adapted for a wide variety of publics: children, people living in isolation, shelters, and other communities that advocate doing and living together.

Crossing the horizon without losing track of those who follow the invisible paths of exile. That fittingly describes Marco Godinho’s artistic and human approach, and it is particularly true of Written by Water, created for the 2019 Venice Biennale. This project features a collection of almost three thousand notebooks immersed at different locations around the Mediterranean. During his travels, the artist submerged the blank notebooks in the sea, allowing each page to be drenched and suffused with the water’s memory.

Marco Godinho takes inspiration from the pilgrims who, in all ages and whatever their origin, could hardly carry objects in their scant baggage. Hence, he favours the notebook, a lightweight, portable object, to bear traces, to be a witness to the journey. The notebooks soaked in the Mediterranean waters bear the invisible story of those who leave no trace of their passage. Since 2013, the artist’s aim has been to build a library of those stories, of our Story. But just as Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel could not contain all of the books in the world, Marco Godinho’s library will not be able to gather all the stories of the exiles who have known this sea in the midst of lands. He is the collector and custodian of useful lives whose sacrifice is a poignant call to open all borders.

In this respect, his work is similar to what the social anthropologist Tim Ingold calls “anthropological art,” one that “is generous, open-ended, comparative and critical. It is inquisitive rather than interrogative, offering a line of questioning rather than demanding answers; it is attentional, rather than fronted by prior intentions, modestly experimental rather than brazenly transgressive, critical but not given over to critique. Joining with the forces that give birth to ideas and things. … Such art rekindles care and longing.”

One could get lost in the wanderings of Written by Water, teeming as it is with enigmas suggestive of paths. Natural paths or imaginary paths, there are many ways to get to the meaning. However, building on fundamental elements – Sky and Earth, North and South, this world and the great beyond, the dream of a different world and the reality of our lives – Marco Godinho’s installation lends true materiality to utopias and broken dreams. It’s up to us to seize this world and rethink it.

Béatrice Josse is the director of MAGASIN des horizons – Centre national d’arts et de cultures, Grenoble.