João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: “Papagaio”
Aeschylus, Archimedes, Aristophanes, Barthes, Baudelaire, Benjamin, Cicero, Copernicus, Darwin, Descartes, Euclid, Hume, Jarry, Jung, Kant, Kepler, Locke, Lucretius, Molière, Newton, Nietzsche, Parmenides, Pessoa, Plutarch, Plato, Popper, Pythagoras, Shakespeare, Wells, Wittgenstein, and Zeno are just some of the philosophers, writers, poets and men of science quoted by Portuguese duo João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva as points of reference, sources of inspiration and starting points for their work. Over the last two weeks, I’ve also read (for the sake of this brief piece) a couple of dozen reviews and essays from various magazines and catalogues discussing their practice. So now I can add to the above list the names of Bataille, Conrad, Deleuze, Dick, Heraclitus, Levi-strauss, Marquez, Marx, Pliny, Tolkien and Wilde, to name but a few of those cited by critics engaging with Gusmão and Paiva’s works (I’m sure that someone somewhere MUST have quoted Ovid, Milton, or Ranciere as well. Maybe even JG Ballard). No wonder that Massimiliano Gioni chose the duo for his “Encyclopedic Palace” at last year’s Venice Biennale. And no wonder either that, on the cover of Gusmão and Paiva’s new and forthcoming catalogue, “Teoria Extraterrestre”, a quote by Monsieur Encyclopedie himself – Denis Diderot – is inscribed.
In general, that something should we written about art is considered self-evident. A little less self-evident, but nonetheless quite commonly accepted practice, is to quote other people (guilty!). Let’s add some more to the pile: in one of his memorable lectures, Tirdad Zolghadr taught me (in turn quoting Boris Groys) that when works of art aren’t provided with a text, they seem to have been delivered into the world unprotected, lost and unclad: “Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space”. At the very least they need a wall label, some sort of textual bikini. Critical art texts are not necessarily meant purely for the reader; rather, they are primarily there to avoid the embarrassment of discursive nudity. In the case of Gusmão and Paiva, the work is often dressed heavily enough with text to survive a trip to Antarctica. Moving forward, the list of names above reminded me of an intriguing lexical analysis of restaurant menus, featured recently in a literary magazine. One of the menus read: “Tender day boat scallops, lightly cajuned, pan seared with pancetta, caramelized leeks, sweet roasted red peppers, mint and pickled lentil medley, drizzled with a fava bean puree and organic pea shoots.”
That’s thirteen different components; at least seven ingredients, not counting seasonings, are being used, and some ten different techniques employed. The mishmash of buzzwords and techniques, things trying so hard to be sophisticated, makes what is probably a delicious dish sound completely unappetizing, as if thrown together at random. And yet, as in a perfectly crafted poem, the string of words somehow manages to illuminate the human condition and ambition – the desire to reach for the stars – in a few deft strokes. Brilliant. Gusmão and Paiva’s shows are a little bit like that: the major exhibition that opened in June at Hangar Bicocca in Milan is a substantial proof. The show, title “Papagaio” and curated by Vicente Todolí, presents an impressive number of works made by the two artists over the last ten years. Most are silent 16 mm films less than three minutes long, but there’s also three Camera Obscura installations and even a small cinema. It’s an overdose of (grainy) moving images and an orgy of film projectors, with all their whirring and clicking. Of course, a 260-page catalogue accompanies the show (I have to say that it is an utterly beautiful and truly inspiring book. And I shouldn’t say that, because it’s published by the same company that publishes this magazine. But that’s the way it is).
The video works in the show are often as simple (and weirdly mesmerizing) as a two minute long piece of footage of three frying eggs (superimposed in triple exposure). That is, as simple as the tender day boat scallops of the wordy menu “au naturel”. But in the catalogue (where each work made by the Portuguese duo is commented upon, interpreted or simply accompanied by the words of the artists themselves and of a solid number of critics and curators), the eggs in the video are “lightly cajuned” by the evocation of Pyrrho of Elis and Victor Hugo. It drives us to ask ourselves: is textual clothing fundamental to art? Or rather should we all walk around proudly and beautifully naked (like the protagonist of Gusmão and Paiva’s “Getting into bed”)? Of course, this is one of the many dilemmas of contemporary art, which places in front of us two contradictory and equally dissatisfactory alternatives: Gusmão and Paiva know this (they are so devoted to the concept of dilemmas that in 2012 they developed a whole exhibition around the concept of “trilemma”, introducing a third, phantom proposition to the visitor’s mind). Therefore, it is not by chance that one of the most persuasive arguments in favor of wordlessness comes from their latest (and extremely wordy) catalogue.
Let me explain: one of the pair’s most iconic videos (and one of their most powerful and entrancing works) depicts a blind man in slow-motion biting a papaya with its skin (the textual bikini here is pretty essential: “Solar the Blindman Eating a Papaya”). In its simplicity, a beautiful piece indeed, and almost painful to watch. In the catalogue though, the work is accompanied by a fictional dialogue between a wine taster and a blind man. Their conversation ends with the first saying: “Some wines possess floral bouquets, others have fruity bouquets which remind me of pineapple or quince, others of toast and honey. Sometimes you find complex flavors that can range from vanilla and caramel to coconut, walnut, tobacco and truffles. And depending on the acidity and body of the wine, they can also be light as spring or broader, rich, strong and generous.” To which the blind man replies: “But this is just stupid! How can you see so many meanings concealed in the composition of the wine when you drink it? Things are what they are, things just exist. Wine that might be toast would not be wine. Thank God wine is just wine, a stone is just a stone, and a papaya nothing but a papaya.” Enough said?