As softly spoken as her work, the Portuguese artist Joana Escoval admits that when she doesn't wear her glasses, she sometimes loses sight of her work, and after touring her latest exhibition, Sand, it's easy to see why.
A joint show with the German conceptual artist Daniel Gustav Cramer at Grey Noise gallery in Dubai, Sand features works by Escoval that are so fine and delicate that they succeed in blurring the boundaries between drawing and sculpture, and in making connections between what is visible and forces that are often imperceptible – gravity, light, humidity and temperature – but are always present nonetheless.
Their beliefs were passed down orally, and thus they could not direct one to written documentation (2017), being a case in point. A series of handmade silver rods with circular loops at either end, the work is arranged on the grey concrete floor of the gallery like a chain, the links of which have become separated, reflecting the light or disappearing from view, depending on the viewer's perspective.
Inspired by Indian cosmology and star maps, each link in the constellation-like work was cast by Escoval at her studio in Lisbon and, like elements in a drawing, the precise dimensions of each rod depend on variations in the amount of force and pressure the artist employed during their fabrication.
"The intention is to create a new drawing every time it is installed. Each part consists of two circles connected by a line, so for me, it's an idea that I use frequently that things go round, come back and go round again, they are in permanent circulation," the artist tells me during the installation of the show, which in Escoval's case includes pieces made from copper and brass as well as silver and gold, all executed with a jeweller's skill.
"When I use metals I am also thinking about connectivity, about energy flowing and electricity and interconnections in a more abstract way. It's more about physics than philosophy, but even physics has its mysteries when it looks at different concerns that are more connected to the cosmos," she says.
Listening to Escoval speak about the relationship between her sculptures, which she likens to scientific instruments that are designed to respond, often imperceptibly, to the environments in which they are exhibited, is like receiving a particularly poetic science lesson that uses art to reintroduce us to the enchantment of the universe.
Her works also make reference to a fundamental principle, versions of which can be found in everything from the most ancient Buddhist texts to the most cutting-edge research in quantum mechanics, which states that everything in the universe is connected.
For Escoval, this means works such as Outlaws in Language and Destiny (2013), a lasso-shaped hoop of brass she once installed as part of an installation in Iceland, changes subtly each time it is exhibited.
The blink-and-you-might-miss it Clean water provides healthy forests (2017), provides a slightly different example of Escoval's sensory approach.
Made from an alloy – brass – and an element – copper – that are combined and inserted into the gallery wall, not only does the work bend according to the weight of its materials but it also vibrates, like a tuning fork, in response to vibrations in the nearby environment and building.
"I wanted to explore more the idea of change, in colour and also from an element to an alloy," Escoval explains.
"It also casts shadows on the wall that create different drawings, but they are always about notions of weight, gravity, vibration, light and intersections."
In Escoval's work everything is energised and interconnected but nothing is fixed and everything floats and vibrates in a permanent state of movement and mutation, whether we are aware of it or not. This is not the first time that Escoval and Cramer's work has been exhibited simultaneously.
Their gallery, the Lisbon-based Vera Cortês Art Agency, showed the artists works together at the Parisian contemporary art fair, FIAC, in 2014, but this is the first time they have collaborated directly to create their own show.
Grey Noise's founder and director, Umer Butt, says he took a distinctly hands-off approach when it came to working with Cramer and Escoval.
"I love collaborating with galleries, I've been doing [that] since I started Grey Noise," Butt tells me, before Sand's opening. "Vera had shown Daniel and Joana together at FIAC, and when I told Vera that I was very keen to show Daniel, she also knew I had been to see Joana in her studio in Lisbon, so she proposed working with them together on a two-person presentation."
A gallerist known for launching shows that challenge his audiences aesthetically and intellectually, Butt admits Sand is a more a product of his desire to work with the artists and with what he describes as "building his own CV".
"After working [in Dubai] for almost a decade now, I've come to the realisation that I am refining everything," he says. "This work is not that difficult, it's not that impossible to show, but it's also about the idea of constructing an exhibition that might have a relevance in 20 to 25 years' time."
For Cramer, whom Butt describes as the most important German conceptual artist of his generation, coming to Dubai and working with Escoval represented the opportunity to create a dialogue that responds to a very different environment, with its own references and memories that are not available elsewhere.
"There is always the relation between the space we are in right now, this white cube, Dubai, the year 2017, and at the same time a second set of layers that is present as well: my memories, and yours, your childhood, the things that come to my mind when I look at you. Personal and collective memories," he explains.
The piece that gives the show its title, Sand, is probably the best example of this approach.
"For us, the title, Sand, is a work. It is written nowhere inside the gallery. It is just this word and the image it creates," Cramer says. "Every viewer sees a different one [image]: a children's sandbox, the sand on the side of the road to Abu Dhabi, the sand of time."
Sand features several of Cramer's works that deal specifically with memories, the associations they conjure and a very Proustian sense of the way that objects – whether they are texts, images or even natural materials such as blocks of wood and marble – can capture certain but very discrete moments.
"When you remember how you felt when you were at the beach last year, this memory, you know it's your memory, it is connected to you, but it's almost like a bubble. You don't remember what you did before or after, just this moment. For me, it has the feeling of a spherical sculpture," the German artist says.
In this sense, photographic works such as Waterfall (2017), 2 C-prints of the same waterfall that appear similar but that were taken at different times, operate in a similar way to the slab of Vietnamese marble that features in XXXIII (2017), which effectively captures time geologically, in its veins and patterning, what the images capture using the shutter of a camera: the passing of time.
Desert Wind, a small, eight-page limited edition pamphlet produced specifically for Sand, encapsulates many of Cramer's concerns about the relationship between sculpture and the nature of memory.
"The text work contains eight parts, eight fragments describing the traces created by a gust of wind, trawling across the land. For me, it is like a sculpture that lacks a clear presence, but still has a shape and a movement," he says, admitting that in many cases, he prefers making publications to installations and pieces of sculpture.
The care that Cramer takes over these is evident in the display of his works in La Bibliothèque de Pascale #1, a new space at Grey Noise, inaugurated by Cramer, that is being used to exhibit books and pamphlets produced by the artist, from 2009 to the present. Butt's idea is that from now on, the space will be dedicated to exhibitions of text-based works by other artists. But as the first artist to exhibit there, he gave Cramer the honour of naming the room.
"I tend to create exhibitions in which the viewer enters a space that is at first glance not offering too much," Cramer says. "Once he or she engages with a work, a beginning of a narrative of connections unfolds, and from one work to the next, the show opens up, in some ways similar to a book, page by page."
With Sand, both artists have produced works that appear static but which are actually about movement, whether it is the barely discernible vibration of Escoval's Clean water provides healthy forests, or the staccato rhythm that is established in the subtle differences between Cramer's photographs.
The result is a show of coincidence and chance, lightness and diaphanous beauty that will either infuriate visitors or leave them utterly mesmerised and enchanted. Don't presume. The only way to know which sort you are is to go.
Sand, Saturdays to Thursdays until October 28, 11am to 7pm, Grey Noise, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, Dubai, 04 379 0764, www.greynoise.org