Brooklyn is Holy in Portgual

The milky light in Lisbon, Portugal, has been shining down on new art since last week, when a scattering of public works was unveiled around the city as part of Portugal Arte 10, the country’s first biennial. Everyone has an opinion, of course. “Shit,” my taxi driver said as we sped by a circle of drooping figures by Robert Melee that looked only half-chiseled out of chunks of rock. But the driver brightened as we approached the Faile Temple: “Beautiful,” he beamed.

The Brooklyn-based collective Faile’s site-specific work seems to be the hit of the biennial. It’s a shining ruin, an open-air dialogue between the sacred past and the secular present. And it’s an easy match for the historical architecture encircling the busy Praça dos Restauradores, which is probably why your average cab driver likes it–and why foreign tourists passing by have been trying to look it up in their guidebooks.

Faile’s Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller were inspired by Portuguese churches and the relief work of the Renaissance sculptor Luca Della Robbia. From a distance, the Temple looks holy. The irreverence announces itself closer in, with melodramatic messaging borrowed, in typical Faile fashion, from old cowboys-and-Indians comic books and a central shrine that’s a marble bust of a horse with a snorkel.

“The ceramics were the biggest challenge,” Miller said, looking tan from the weeks he’s spent in the sun putting the piece together with laborers. Traditional Portuguese tile-work is one of the country’s great contributions to art and architecture, and it’s not easy to imitate. Faile had its designs produced in China, of all places.  “It’s the ultimate irony,” Miller confessed. “But the piece is ironic in a million other ways.”