Everywhere one escapes to there is a desert,
and then a way out of the desert

By Pedro Neves Marques
For Joana Escoval
New York, 2018 

She is sleeping in a rental car, dawn, a light cold surviving, still, from the night, the desert is opening up to her. It is always a good thing to begin a story with an action, or a non-action, such as sleeping. Drowsy, sore, alive, she wakes and recalls herself—her road travel, alone across the desert, feeding off energy bars and apples bought along the way, up to this lonely farm somewhere near the Four Corners, Navajo Nation. Her uncomfortable body, mortal. Time passes, this much she knows (the hard way), but in the years ahead she will feel younger again, I am witness to it.

The native woman, whom she spent last night talking to, a low voice, subtle conversation, before they both said goodbye and went to bed—because the night had fallen early—steps out of her small, worn out wooden house and invites her in. Though she was not allowed to sleep inside, for she is as stranger, after all, she is again welcomed at the table for breakfast—a tradition. Air conditioning and the scent of artificial cars; the sound of the door closing behind her, as she walks to the woman’s house, echoes like a murmur across the sand, the sun is coming. There is nothing but sand and sun around.

What could this old woman ever offer her? Still, after coffee, she follows the woman, helps with opening up the fence, and walks the sheep out. Together, they walk for a long time across the desert, the shrubs, red sand, and the sheep baaing. The walk takes longer than expected, the horizontality of the red desert, and the distances, trick her. Returned, at noon, she gets in the car, waves goodbye, and leaves, weak, her head spinning, exhausted, alive.

All of this is true.

Close enough, at least.

I did not go with her to the desert. I regret it still. She invites me, but I do not go—for what? Personal reasons, economic reasons? Justifications. She has seen an America I have not; I am taken only by superficial images. But it was good that I did not go with her. She has her needs; I have mine.

; is a division

a marker of difference—even in friendship.

She was looking for spiritlines. Strands of yarn woven by Navajo weavers into their textiles, these lines are usually found at one edge of the rug, share in the overall color pattern, and seem to escape from the geometric design toward the outer border. When misread or looked at carelessly they may look like nothing but a simple mistake, when in fact they are intentional ch’ihónít’i, “pathways,” “ways out,” “roads.” Seen in this way, these spiritlines feel alive, energized with an agency both theirs and the weavers. Theirs is a trace of a separation between weaver and work, woven into the artwork to release the artist from it once it goes out to the world to be sold in the marketplace. The spiritline is a purposeful broken tie between subject and object, shaped by the Navajo extensive notion of personhood and the passing of time as encapsulated in things.

The more stylized her work has become the more personal. Did it start in that desert? That liminal transformation into lean objects? From climatic remains (like pools) and living subjects (like trees) to portals and metal alloys and gold circle rings and the thinnest of animal-like shapes, animal shadows. Memories. Passageways. The concentration of energy into the most economical of spaces. Sometimes gold instruments have cat whiskers. Sometimes reflexological feet have copper skeletons. Humans too have their own antennas.

Everything the body retains.

Body burdens. 

Sensors. Invisible rain, and the wind flowing between rain drops. Directions. Connections made of gold—the invisible world. Thunder. Does it ever rain in the desert? Far away, Atreides’s deep blue eyes wash the desert planet in Dune, connecting clouds to sand & the human in-between heaven and earth. I Ching sensibility.

Now she finds herself in Japan, yet again driving, this time by night, mostly, while I, in the southern tip of Latin America, bond with a Japanese guy who tells me over beers, I am now the age my father died. He was 37.

          She loves to drive.

          I almost passed out driving with her—I was scared, alive.

The cursed early-twentieth century anthropologist James Frazer once wrote about the magic of contact or contagion as the notion “that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after physical contact has been severed.”[i]

          She, tricked by misjudging distances in the desert.

          Spiritlines to severe contact. (this sentence can be read in many ways)

Passageways. Memories. I’m not talking about the magic of an artist’s touch, but rather about how love and pain, and desire and aspired goals, intimate confessions and public claims, the silence in one’s studio, or the songs and stories told there, remain in objects. Like vibrations in the wind, static on the radio. Now, years hence, she sends me a video on the phone, waiting for the red light to open at night, pitch dark on the outskirts of Nagasaki but for her car’s headlights illuminating the gray grass at the crossroads, while DJ Firmeza plays, perhaps its mellowest beat, on her stereo.

Everywhere one escapes to there is a desert, and then a way out of the desert.

Her life translated into the description of objects she has been in contact with. Objects. People. Friends. Family. All of them pathways. She flies directly from Japan to the Arab World. Later she will tell me how she barely saw the sand, took in the dusty winds—all the time nothing but the sterile air cycles inside the glossy cars—but then the sun hit her face and she was outside. She stepped out of the tall jeep, her large feet on the hot sand. It was a very different desert. Her lips dried instantly, and a sudden, natural thirst reminded her that a desert too, though unlike the green of the forests she loves, is an ecology as well. For

the word for world…[ii]

can also be desert.

[i] Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (Routledge, 1993), 52-53.
[ii] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest, 1972.


About the artist

Joana Escoval lives and works in Lisbon. A selection of exhibitions and projects include Fiducia Incorreggibile, Vera Cortes Gallery, Lisbon (2017), Transmissions from the Etherspace, La Casa Encendida, Madrid (2017), Current Detours, HalfHouse, Barcelona (2017), I will go where I don ‘ t belong Volcano Extravaganza, Forucci Art Trust, Stromboli (2016); I forgot to go to school yesterday, Kunsthalle Lissabon and Kunsthalle Tropical, Iceland (2016); Lichens Never Lie, La Criée Center for Contemporary Art, Rennes (2016); Matter Fictions, Museu Colecção Berardo, Lisbon (2016); The lynx knows no boundaries, Fondation d entreprise Ricard, Paris (2015); Europe, Europe, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo (2014). She won the BES Revelation Prize in 2012 (Serralves Museum) and was nominated for the EDP Foundation New Artists Prize in 2015, in Portugal. Escoval has received a fellowship from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and FLAD Foundation in 2013. Among other residencies attention is drawn to Fiorucci Art Trust Residency in Stromboli in 2015, and RU, in New York in 2013/14. She has recently published two flexidiscs with Atlas Projects and Palmário Recordings.

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