Language of AestheticsRomy Northover x Silent Living
‘We all have bodies, nervous systems, and beating hearts, which channel our emotions,’ observes Northover. ‘They have a natural rhythm. I wanted the sculptures to interact with that rhythm, and to make the viewer aware of his or her body. The outsized bench makes you aware of your own scale. Similarly, you find yourself measuring your height against the charred fence posts.’
‘Casa no Tempo is one of those spaces that makes me feel weak at the knees,’ Romy Northover tells us. ‘It has a delicate beauty, which harbours a subtle power. Portugal itself has a real bite, a taste, which runs through the food, the language and the landscape. It’s lyrical and it’s beautiful; I was drawn to that bite, that edge. At Casa no Tempo, it sparked an outpouring of creativity, culminating in a sculpture walk, which I installed in the grounds.’
Swathes of jagged grass bristle. Ancient trees curl their limbs towards a sky heavy with cloud, as if to support it. In the midst of expansive grasslands in Alentejo, Portugal, Casa no Tempo is a low lying strip of white. Architect Manuel Aires Mateus renovated the property; its wide windows survey the surrounding countryside, beckoning in the brilliant light, which lingers amidst its high ceilings and clay block floors. It is part of Silent Living: Four curated residences spread across Portugal. Each property is deliberately pared back to encourage quietness, presence, and fresh perspective.
‘I share Silent Living’s aesthetic values,’ Northover says. ‘As an artist, I’m highly sensitive to that kind of visual communication; it’s like a universal language. Like many other guests and collaborators they attract, when I saw their properties, I just wanted to be a part of it. At first, I planned a primitive ceramic firing for Casa no Tempo, but when I arrived, the landscape was speaking in a different way. The energy was explosive, and sculpture was the response. The project gathered such a joyous momentum that it spilled over into two of Silent Living’s other properties, Santa Clara 1728 and Casas na Areja.’
Through her work, Northover seeks to return to a childlike state: Not one of immaturity, but one without destination, which resides in the present experience. At Santa Clara 1728 in Lisbon, she created a set of simple instructions for guests, designed to take the performance anxiety out of making art. Through mark making, the exercise connected the practitioner to paper through the subtle vibration of charcoal. She took a similarly visceral approach at Casas na Areja, where she fashioned wooden bowls, each with a hole in the base, and covered the floors with sand. Guests were invited to scoop up the sand and let it drain through the bowls hypnotically. The rushing grains, reminiscent of an hourglass, echoed the subtle sound of the sea.
‘My time at Casa no Tempo was spent in relative isolation,’ Northover says. ‘I walked the grounds repeatedly, looking for the right observation points. I wanted the audience to find unexpected parallels between the surroundings and the sculptures I would place there.’ Four sculptures now grace the grounds of the house. Most of the materials have been sourced from the building itself, such as a marble slab, disused fence posts and granite planks, and in the case of the first sculpture, two hundred year old support beams brought over from Santa Clara 1728. ‘They were rotten,’ Northover says, ‘so there are rivulets of woodworm and grooves where moss and purple mould have grown. At first, it seems to be a strong, bench-like form, but up close there’s a living microcosm. This sculpture is visible from the property, although it’s nestled into the landscape.’
The discovery of each piece incites its own prickle of curiosity. ‘We all have bodies, nervous systems, and beating hearts, which channel our emotions,’ observes Northover. ‘They have a natural rhythm. I wanted the sculptures to interact with that rhythm, and to make the viewer aware of his or her body. The outsized bench makes you aware of your own scale. Similarly, you find yourself measuring your height against the charred fence posts.’
These posts follow the bench in the sequence of the walk, plunged into the earth and undulating like musical notes, emanating a faint scent of charcoal. ‘Charring them imbued them with a primitive quality,’ Northover says. ‘Behind them, there’s a line of cork trees. To harvest the cork, the bark is stripped to reveal the deep purply, red-tinged colour beneath. Visually, it’s really intense. I wanted the repurposed fence to draw attention to these trees.’
The boundaryless condition of the dysfunctional fence contracts into enclosure and security, as the wanderer encounters a square granite stack near a body of water. ‘The idea of the traditional Portuguese window, with its heavy mantled frame, really sang to me,’ Northover muses. ‘A frame’s function is to guide attention, either into an image, or, if the frame is a doorway or a window, to lead it outside. Laying the granite pillars down flat created a shape like a Shinto temple, where two people might sit and face each other.’
Northover plays with lightness and weight, and tricks of perception and sensation. The fourth piece, a marble slab with a stone step, is intended to bear the wanderer’s weight, giving a dual sense of elevation and grounding. ‘The shift in feeling is almost imperceptible but absolutely there,’ she says. ‘I like how it references modern architecture, this heavy piece of marble that seems to float above the earth. When you stand on it, you have a new viewpoint, and suddenly you can see the Neolithic stone formation in the middle distance.’
The trail ends at these standing stones, which, although they are believed to predate Casa no Tempo by thousands of years, act as a fifth sculpture. Encrusted with lichen, they jut from the ground as if grown out of it. At this point, Casa no Tempo comes back into view. The past looks out onto the future, and the wanderer stands between the two, dwelling in the present.
‘In no uncertain terms, this experience was life changing,’ Northover reflects. ‘Working with Slient Living at Casa no Tempo, I felt, and was met with, a deep sense of trust. These pieces are rooted in that trust. They will age and grow, the landscape will change around them, and the grass will grow taller.’
- Words: Libby Borton