Two friends are having dinner in an apartment, the conversation extends to dessert. While they talk, the woman who lives in the apartment curls her hair absent-mindedly. From time to time she plucks a hair. She repeats the gesture again and again until she gets up from the table. The mutilated strands end up in an ashtray. The guest feels a strange mix of revulsion and fascination at her friend’s behaviour, owing to the mystery of people who harm themselves uncontrollably.

Square Disorder (2008), part of the Leal Rios Foundation Collection (Lisbon), was renamed Rectangle Disorder for this presentation, and is the result of several years of research by Susana Mendes Silva. Pieces like Please, do not touch (2004), Obstacle (2005) and Disorder (2006) were important precedents regarding the relationship between the space, the work and the viewer, while other projects, of a more linguistic nature, such as Did I hurt you (2006) or Ritual (2006), suggest a symbolic universe in which affection and pain merge. 

The sculptural and conceptual approach of these works by Mendes Silva has a clear historical reference to Eva Hesse, who inspires younger female artists intent on shaping feminine subjectivity. One could mention, justifiably, Louise Bourgeois too. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to categorise these types of work, which are as powerful, from the phenomenological point of view, as disturbing, in the psyche, to a particular genre: proof of this is the work of Bruce Nauman, for example. Square Disorder was also associated with “institutional critique” when it was first presented in 2008. One could add to “romantic conceptualism”, as one among other trendy labels at the time. All this makes sense – if we take into account the relative transcendence or accuracy of such classifications – but the truth is that this is an original piece, which simultaneously converses and sets itself apart from these trends and traditions. 

The work can be physically described as an orthogonal grid, made from dark brown artificial hair – the same colour as the artist’s. From the top hang long strands of hair of about a meter and half in length, forming a kind of “forest of lianas or fine rain”, as the artist André Guedes described it expressively. At its first presentation, in Appleton Square, the installation was lit by natural light coming through an L-shaped window, which runs through two of the four walls of the room. 

Surprised by a piece that can only fully be appreciated in proximity and whose immateriality is increased when it is bathed in sunlight, the viewer must decide whether or not penetrate it. Many do so without hesitation, so they can play and experience it. Some remain outside, as voyeurs. Inside, the artwork provokes a set of contradictory feelings. The fragility of the hair causes some apprehension, enhanced by the fact that it is a work of art. However, overriding this fear, the artwork offers itself up, welcoming, to be touched and caressed. This duality produces a phenomenon of attraction and repulsion, which is both physical – even on a level as subtle as static electricity – and psychological. All this translates into an experience, to some extent, dreamlike, surreal; as if the “forest of lianas” could suddenly become a jungle of fine underwater algae. 

The work can also be perceived as a drawing in space. As an orthogonal but organic structure, which contrasts with the severity of the architecture. Attached to a joyful and sensual rhythm, Square Disorder deadens the harshness of geometry. This same attitude was developed by artists belonging to the Latin cultural universe to which Mendes Silva belongs, including Jesús Rafael Soto and Lygia Pape, in the sixties and seventies. Both are authors of artworks that could easily be considered predecessors of what we face here, in spite of the obvious differences between them. 

The characteristic “motion” of the work, gently cradled by air currents in the room, is transmitted as an invisible vibration to viewers, who find themselves exploring ways forward, tenderly separating the “lianas”. It suggests to us the image of a mime gesturing with empty hands to pass between the hairs. The presence of other people certainly works as a reflection. It facilitates an intimate encounter that serves as a basis for the performance, divided into three stages (opening, interlude and closing), which Susana Mendes Silva and Miguel Pereira prepared for this new presentation at the Leal Rios Foundation. 

The assembly of the work itself is revealed as a choreographic sequence: there are documents that show the artist going up and down a ladder to build a nearly transparent structure, like the web of a spider. Just as a web, the piece surprises us with its strength at the time of its destruction. It is not as easy to demolish it as it seems at first glance. It requires commitment to bring down the tangled hairs that, combined, become more resistant. The entire piece is filled with such subtle duplicities. 

Hair was a material prized by the Avant-garde and its followers. There are iconic cases, such as the cup and spoon covered with animal skin by Meret Oppenheim. And more contemporary approaches as Mona Hatoum's. Nevertheless, the symbolic universe of hair is not confined to the art world. Popular culture has used it in various and original ways. In some rural communities, teenagers used to let it grow indefinitely as a religious offering, creating magical and monstrous pictures. Without going to such extremes, the truth is that having long hair still is a source of pride for many young women – to the despair of some feminists sectors. In fact, it was a tradition, in countries like Portugal or Spain, for brides to embroider kerchiefs with their own hair as gifts for prospective husbands or to shave their hair completely when they became widows. Hair, as a dead body – except at the root – is the only material that the body is unable to fully digest. This is one of the reasons why it becomes an object of desire and fetishism, a substitute for the absent person. From these uses we deduce its strong links with affectivity. 

Given this constellation of referents, ranging from popular culture to psychoanalysis, the work of Susana Mendes Silva can be viewed, taking into account its sophisticated combination of tactility, eroticism and intimacy, as a caress whose effect varies depending on the person who receives it: from tenderness to possibly some kind of farfetched sexual perversion, as those we sometimes hear about from Japan. Pursuing this thread, there would be another way to experience Square Disorder, in which its serenity and softness would suddenly be transformed into something obsessive, compulsive. The gentle loving gesture of these endless fingers would metamorphose into a jealous embrace that resists our departure. 

At that point, if we consider this interpretation plausible, the artwork would cross the fine line that separates affection from possessiveness, freedom from control – it is no coincidence that the work resembles a grid – to enter an unsettling territory, like a giant labyrinth of hair. It is hardly by chance, in fact, that only young children can evade this dichotomy, able to run from one side to the other under the mesh, suspended one meter above the ground. 

The Freudian concept of unheimliche, popularised in the art world as uncanny in 1993 by the famous exhibition with the same title, curated by Mike Kelley, in Arnhem, the Netherlands, describes a feeling that some works of art, like Square/Rectangle Disorder, are able to provoke: a feeling that takes hold of the body like a shiver, but that comes from memory, from the domestic and of fragmentary or mutilated representations of inert bodies. So we return to the story of the woman who pulled out her own hair – and to the sensation of comfortable estrangement or uncomfortable familiarity that gesture provoked in her friend – that consciously or unconsciously she always performed in the privacy and safety of home. 

Pedro De Llano