Left: Outside the Museu Arte Arquitetura Tecnologia. Right: Architect Amanda Levete and artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

AS THE ECONOMY of the European Union’s arguably mellowest nation falters there are murmurs of a “Departugal” on the horizon. Nevertheless, 2016 seems to be the year that Portugal sashayed onto the runway of contemporary art. In March, a pilot edition of the ArcoLisboa art fair took place at the Fábrica Nacional da Cordoaria in the capital’s Belém neighborhood, and last week the Museu Arte Arquitetura Tecnologia (MAAT) opened just a few meters up the Tagus river. Helmed by Portuguese curator Pedro Gadanho, who left a post at MoMA for this homecoming, the museum is housed in a pair of buildings: the recently renovated former Central Tejo power station, an industrial complex of bricks and smokestacks in the time-honored tradition of alternative spaces, and a low-lying, alabaster spaceship next door designed by British architect Amanda Levete’s office AL_A, linked to the local style by a neutral facade of ceramic tiles.
It’s hard not to think of pixels while navigating Lisbon’s twisty alleys—and not only because of the necessity of incessantly dipping one’s face into Google Maps. In the analog world, the ground is packed with well-trodden scales of stone like the belly of a buried boa constrictor; above, shiny slabs of china are emblazoned on every building. Portugal’s decorative identity is rooted in an analog form of digital repetition, which in the age of apps evokes the colossal manpower required to install the entire city long ago. Art, architecture, and technology here go hand-in-hand—all brought together by energy, literally, both in the history of MAAT’s site as well as its sponsor. The museum is owned by EDP Foundation, a charitable subsidiary of Energias de Portugal, one of the largest energy companies in Europe, though the Portuguese government’s namesake share was bought out by China Three Gorges in 2011 in accordance with Portugal’s privatization mandates.

Tate director Nicholas Serota at the MAAT. (Photo: Paulo Coelho)

Art-worlders began to arrive on Sunday morning en route to London’s Frieze Art Fair. This bonny city already choked by the privatization of citizens (tourists) was further stifled by the Lisbon Marathon. “We love nothing more than marathons!” declared perpetual enthusiast Hans Ulrich Obrist—whose own marathon at the Serpentine Galleries was scheduled for the following weekend—despite the fact that our Uber to the Gulbenkian Foundation was vexed by traffic and street closures. At MAAT, a team of workers perched on hydraulic lifts were furiously working to complete the building’s facade in advance of the opening that evening. 
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster led us through the sinuous white corridors down to the inaugural program’s keystone, Pynchon Park, her faithful, sculptural interpretation of an environment described in Thomas Pynchon’s little-known 21st Century Tales: “a huge white arena surrounded by ramps, covered with a net and full of balls and giant colored books with soft carpeted pages.” Geometric, fun, and dystopian, it’s a perfect Instagram setting. Every twenty-four minutes the lighting scheme cycles through an entire day, sunrise to sunset, with shadows cast through the green-net canopy overhead, a remnant of celestial order presiding over her cagelike leisure zone.
As the city’s own natural golden gloaming turned dark, guests began to arrive along a promenade irradiated by a burning, Tungsten glow installed along the riverbanks. It was a who’s who of Portuguese society—or so I was advised; the crowd was mostly illegible to me. I spotted Iberian luminary Chus Martínez deep in conversation and caught Ingo Niermann waxing poetic on the somehow quaint scene before us: “This is like pre-9/11, or just the 1990s. The art world was already global but it was still Western-centered and manageable. No rush between fairs and auctions. The Bilbao effect was still a fresh hope in city planning. Art was all about ‘building bridges,’ with collectors, corporations, and governments as its humble supplicants…”

Left: Artist Haroon Mirza (left) and Semiconductor's Joe Gerhardt (center). Right: DIS cofounders Solomon Chase and David Toro. (Photos: Kevin McGarry)

As we were corralled from the new building and into the converted factory where dinner would be held, we entered a hall of gothic boilers and menacing piping that puts the Centre Pompidou to shame. “It’s like Berghain,” said David Toro of Dis, referring to the legendary Berlin nightclub. “This is the darkroom of dinners.” Indeed, the meal was not served here, but on a platform replete with Lucite chairs and stagey Edison bulbs suspended from several stories above. Over a bowl of “quinoto” (a neologism for quinoa risotto) oh so many acknowledgements were made by attendant leaders and dignitaries. António Mexia, CEO of EDP, joked about the last-minute, nearly finished state of the building that has just been unveiled: “It was on purpose, so it would be alive.”
More festive festivities were held on Tuesday as the museum’s debut week reached fever pitch. Over a caveman-scale chop of beef that night, (sometimes) Lisbon-based directors Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt shared an iPhone clip of a yellow Lamborghini turning donuts in the dusty courtyard of a nearby palace, evidence of the unique mix of history and lawlessness the city offers young artists. Everyone agreed that the museum’s commitment to showing work by contemporary Portuguese artists alongside international names was a good one, if still unfulfilled.
At the museum, Kuwaiti composer Fatima Al Qadiri warmed up the evening with a DJ set. By midnight the party was bound for Lux, a megaclub on the outskirts of town co-owned by John Malkovich (what?). That was about three hours too early, according to locals, and the party reportedly raged past dawn, abutting the final call for my flight to London, which allowed for an on time arrival at Regent’s Park, where a different sort of energy was swirling in a big white structure.

Kevin McGarry
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