In this exposition I deal with some of the most abiding aspects of my research as an artist, choosing series of paintings, videos and songs that I make with the musician João Taborda, where the relationship between art and self-awareness is more evident and plays a central role in the conceptual process and scope of the works.
My ideas flow between videos, songs and paintings, and the song’s lyrics often happen to start being made whenever I’m thinking about what I’m doing, as a kind of reasoning that is produced by someone who find this the best and most thorough means of expressing his thoughts, a kind of weird surrogate for philosophy that, while bearing no outward resemblance to philosophy, I believe to have equivalent enlightening qualities.
In this exposition, the relationship with Duchamp’s work is mostly drawn upon as a way of creating a space for conceptual relations. My own work is obviously what I have to share, while Duchamp’s work belongs to everyone, for many years and many years to come. Duchamp isn’t the main subject here, and neither is my own work as an artist: both my work and that of Duchamp are parts of a game that is played in an ambiguous territory.
It is ambiguous, just like Duchamp’s titles, whose conceptual range is as wide as their apparent lightness. “Tongue in cheek”, serious humour, opens a wider range of possibilities than if it were otherwise.
“Besides, it’s always the others that die”: this was the epitaph that Duchamp chose for his tombstone.
This posthumous statement by an artist who declared that, more than being an artist, he enjoyed the experience of being an individual, eloquently expresses what being an individual meant to him.
Still, through this existential condition of being an artist, he was probably defining what an artist is. One possible interpretation of Duchamp’s position is that to be an artist is to exercise the fact of being an individual. Of course, this is a task performed by everyone, but perhaps artists are those who turn it into a professional activity, as their task is to make things that reflect the complexity inherent in the awareness of being an individual.
“Besides, it’s always the others that die”: it’s not Duchamp who dies, when he dies; it’s everyone else that dies. By opting for this colloquial statement as his epitaph, Duchamp may well have found a way of contradicting the ostensible fact that our own death is not an experience that we can have and also talk about. At the same time, he adds emphasis to the fact that he can only witness the death of others. But, due to this conversational tone, we are led to imagine Duchamp experiencing his own death and informing us how it was. In the ambiguity of his statement, by telling us that it is the others who die, we may discern a way of defining him as a person and also as an artist. By saying that it’s others who die, when it’s him who actually dies, he may be saying that, for him, those who die are everyone else, or even that it is everything around him that dies – at the least, the people or the things to whom he is related, and perhaps beyond that. And, at the same time, he’s probably telling us that he is made of everyone else, that his identity is defined by everyone else’s. He is everyone, or, at least, he is everything that he is related to. And, as everyone is related to other people and other things, this may lead us to assume that he means everything that might exist or can be imagined.
Admitting that, when you die, it’s everyone else that dies, you may wonder: what if, instead of me, I were someone else, anyone else but me? Who would I be? Or, who could I be? Who would I be able to be? As such, rather than being someone else, I become someone whom I had the potential to be instead of me. That is to say, to be someone else that might already be in me, waiting for the possibility to reveal himself. Or anyone else who I might be able to imagine. My speculations on who I could be instead of me only extend to the range of what I can imagine. Therefore, whoever I can imagine to be, instead of me, is always familiar to me in a certain way. Beings that I can experience to be at least in my imagination, entities that may live in my mind waiting for my imagination to awake them from their quiet existence.
The video/song If I Wasn’t an Artist (2001), besides showing me as a head inside my head, reveals, by its lyrics, that by enumerating a series of things that one might be instead of being an artist, I might well be defining what an artist is – that is, being anything else, as the artist as the furthest thing from specialisation.
Here, the artist is defined by anything else (when one dies, “It’s always the others that die”).
When Duchamp created the character Rrose Sélavy he was looking for something that would be as far removed from him as possible. But in the world of art, where it’s often made clear that, in reality, there aren’t such things as opposites, if we are looking for the reverse of ourselves, we might expect to see our own face in the mirror. Or, instead, we might finally realise that we’re a kind of concentrated but incomplete reflection of everything else, the personification of things that have no boundaries, reality acting like the gas that flows within Duchamp’s Large Glass, looking for a vessel that might give it a shape, a body with which we can identify and relate.
Rrose Sélavy: “rose c’est la vie”, life that is a colour, and a colour that is a thing because it is a rose. When roses are rose, when the name of the colour coincides with the name of its object, when we reach such a coherence, it is like finding ourselves much nearer to the essence of things, in a time when things were much simpler, but also when concepts were at their highest degree of concentration, with their highest potential for complexity, like the universe just before the Big Bang.
“If I wasn’t an artist what could I be? A house or a home or a whole family.” House, home, whole family. Three different things, denoted by different words, but only aspiring to the diversity that you might attain if you were to shut yourself away indoors.
“Wing of a bird, wing of a bee”: different wings, but both wings nonetheless. And what could you do if you were just one wing? It takes two to actually fly. But the idea of a wing and, consequently, the idea of flight, takes only one.
“The ugliest flower, prettiest flea”: this is less about the relativity of things than it is about the absurdity of taste.
“Hat of a stranger, strangest me”: a hat fits a head, almost as a mould for the place where we believe thoughts to happen. “Strangest me” is the most familiar stranger and also the strangest self. Feeling like the hat of a stranger is perhaps another clue to understanding the process of socialisation. By looking at you but knowing nothing about you, I may feel like a hat that simply sits on a head, knowing nothing of what happens inside, not even guessing … A hat that knows its place, that stays where it is and doesn’t dare to go beyond the surface. And, here, the hat as a metaphor might tell us that it is the stranger himself who is the “strangest me”, as everyone other than me might be seen as obscure variations of myself.
“A fish in the ocean, a shoe in the sea”: the shoe is the goofiest avatar for a fish (especially when it comes to fishermen pulling them up). Things can be avatars of other things, words can be avatars of other words. The word ocean and the word sea can be used in the same sense, but though all oceans are seas, not every sea is an ocean.
Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920) probably shouldn’t be seen as less of a sculpture than it is a readymade. Having been given a base like a sculpture, the window is turned into an object that looks more material than a window; we can walk around it and view it from every angle. While it is indeed a window, its displacement turns it into an image of a window, but an image that is paradoxically more material than the object that it represents.
A “French window” is misspelled to become a “fresh widow”. This window is a person, its windowpanes covered with black leather, its sensuality emphasising the fact that we are actually looking at a person, not a window anymore. In those black-leathered windowpanes is the whole interior of a home, as though a subjectivity could be compressed into a plane, becoming a two-dimensional being, and as though subjectivity could be synthesised into a surface (a quality that we find in painting).
But every window has two sides, interior and exterior. And the home of that widow, in the sensuality of the leathered windowpanes, seems to invite us in. Ultimately, it could potentially invite anyone. No one has been invited in yet, so anyone can aspire to enter. Meanwhile, the place is filled with the infinite possibilities of who might come in and make it his or her home. Thus this home becomes an abstraction of a home, anyone’s home, the domain of anyone who succeeds in getting inside and sharing it with that mysterious widow – a person as a home – while also barring the possibility of it becoming anyone’s home. But it is a home to each person taken on their own terms, not to people as a crowd.
The title of the exhibition My Home is a Logo (Círculo de Artes Plásticas, Coimbra, 1998), is a phrase apparently as lightheaded as slogans in commercials, with those eager faces, happy to acknowledge how their home and, consequently, their individualities, may be reduced to a brand … The option of taking it literally allows us to see the possibility that a home might be as absolute as a logo. Logos synthesise many things into an image, and even into a brand. “My home is a logo”: a home that is a logo of a home. Does it represent every home? Or does this mean turning a home (that cosy place for each individual, that comfortable place, moulded by our subjectivity and moulding our subjectivity), into an abstraction and a mere symbol?
The series of paintings, drawings and videos in this exhibition reflect the idea of the self as being split into many other selves; self as something multiple. As the word “logo”, in its Greek origin, meant both “knowledge” and “word” (when the word “word” also meant “knowledge”), the idea of “logo” may also have the quality of reminding us of the time when things were apparently simpler and we required fewer words in order to convey a broader meaning. At the same time, it’s important to note that we may find it strange that we once only had one word for both meanings. Words are often seen as being quite deceitful.
Most of the paintings in My Home is a Logo represent students of Architecture sitting in the same position, emphasising the morphological differences between people. These differences are amplified by the fact their bodies are pretexts for formal exercises, exploring the expectations of art being a creative thing. The statement “My home is a logo”, written on each canvas, may be seen as a statement made by each of those people, as a strong affirmation of individuality to the point of aiming to be absolute.
Yet at the same time, even as they present themselves as organic constructions, these bodies may be seen as homes themselves: each person as a home; each person as his or her own home.
In drawings representing faces, each one adds calligraphic variations to the morphological variations that we can find in each face and, consequently, also adds compositional variations created by the awareness of the effect that each gesture has in relationship with every other gesture and its position within the drawing. The statement “My home is a logo”, which appears written over each mouth, relates not only to those faces but also to the way in which they are drawn. This way in which they are drawn forms part of their identity as people who are also artefacts.
In the My home is a logo video we see a big old house, a family home for many generations, and we hear a song in which the lyrics tell the story of the first architect to build his own home. It is a fictional story, of course; a metaphor for the possibility of a closer connection between self and space, as immaterial as a house made of straw might be, especially when the wind blows and it becomes nothing more than a memory.
This first architect to build his own home is given the commonplace name of Paul and can even be seen as a kind of biblical character. His feat takes us back to a time when the proximity between self and space was much clearer. Indeed, it may take us back to a time when people started to extend the boundaries of their bodies by constructing places to live in. The song in this video, like many such songs and their videos, aims to elicit some kind of empathy from those who hear or see it. The story that is told may lead us to an ancestral being – the first man to build a home, his own home – and, eventually, a feeling of nostalgia may invade us as we put ourselves in his place, as we often live other people’s lives when fictional characters temporarily take the place of our own lives.
I know that no one lives in that house, which lasted for centuries, full of life, any more, and maybe no one never will. The photos we see in the video were taken after an old aunt of mine died, the last of my grandfather’s sisters, the last of seven children and the one who never left the house where she was born. She and her house were like one. Most of the rooms had been vacant for many, many years, and she wandered in that vacant house like a living ghost, someone whose present consisted of a perpetuation of a past, a timeless creature whose mind no longer distinguished between what happened yesterday and what happened 50 years ago, and didn’t even care to do so. When she died, the house seemed to have died with her. This story was obviously a personal motivation behind these videos, but I believe that images of a very old house that is clearly uninhabited have enough metaphorical potential to suggest multiple possibilities that are universally experienced due to people’s relationships with places like that.
In Duchamp’s painting Sad Young Man in a Train (1911–12), the presence of the young man can only be guessed due to the effect of movement. The figure becomes a cloud of movement traces. Here, too, we might also notice the possible presence of a landscape. The figure and landscape are blurred into one by movement, or the figure becomes landscape. Where is the train going? How can we guess? We can’t see the train in the painting; we’re only told the young man is in it, but that doesn’t make the train any less important, being the main catalyst, the main cause and the component that, by its movement, makes that image possible.
That young man is heading somewhere, as he is in a train. No one goes on a train without desiring to go somewhere. But in this painting we only see this ghostly image of someone – we are told it’s a young man (indeed, Duchamp revealed that it was himself – and we do not have a clue where he’s heading. Even if we try to guess the direction in which his body is facing, there is always admit the possibility that the train is going in the opposite direction.
In the series of paintings and video that make up the exhibition Heading West (Appleton Square gallery, Lisbon, 2015) I dealt with the possibility of being both here and somewhere else, or at least aiming to be somewhere else.
The paintings, which depict young people (again architecture students), leave their heads out of frame. Not showing their heads, they might be looking anywhere, and, consequently, they might be heading anywhere. At the same time, the canvases can be hung on any wall; it does not matter whether they face west, east, north or south …
The name of the gallery, Appleton Square, suggests that we are in an urban space. And it is in that empty square that those ten figures in the canvases stand, waiting for the presence of visitors to add more people to those in the paintings. They are presented as people who are also sculptures, standing on those abstract stands painted according to the position of their feet and bodies, almost like reflections of their bodies, which morphed into something else as soon as they were aware that they could become sculptures. Or abstract exercises in architecture performed by those very student, whereby the forms may be projections of the will of those young people to be able to one day build and add something new to the world.
In the video, shown in the gallery basement, my head alone can be seen in close-up. It appears in a basement, beneath the room with the paintings depicting the architecture students, and might be seen as taking the place of their missing heads while, at the same time, their bodies take the place of my body. But the head is under their bodies, not above them. And the song I sing (or the song my head sings) tells you to look outside, through the window – not at me. Through that window you will see a hill where there’s a house, and in that house there’s a guy – that’s me.
In the video the close-up shows my head alone, leaving no space for any background. This is a way of making figure and background, portrait and landscape coincide.
Duchamp’s To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour (1918), is a work of art whose title sounds like a line from an instruction manual, a title that tells you how to look at that object. Here the viewer is the one who sees and the one who is seen, an impossible task to perform, but quite an efficient metaphor for the place of the viewer in a work of art – the viewer as a ubiquitous being. And here we realise that the work of art can act as a catalyst for the awareness of self. It is as though each self belongs to everything else, shapeless and vague; bodies that belong to the landscape, landscapes that are absorbed by each body.
In a new series of drawings I represent the faces of architecture students, perhaps the very heads that were missing in the Heading West paintings. These drawings deal with the idea of portrait as a starting point for both calligraphic and compositional purposes. As such, this interplay between representation and abstraction becomes another way of dealing with the relationship between self and everything else. Having those faces as starting points, I deal with the tensions between the many factors involved in drawing. Those drawings are not meant to be portraits, but they are haunted by the possibility of being portraits. Each line is at once calligraphic, the trace of a gesture, as an element in a developing composition, and also, simultaneously, a drawing that is looking to be accomplished, as a drawing and a composition, in both its abstract and its evocative qualities. The drawings consist of traces that are simultaneously aware of the possibility of being autonomous and of the possibility of ignoring gestalt, while at the same time constituting pieces in an ambiguous puzzle that cannot completely decide which route to take in order to find accomplishment in the drawing of those faces or within a much broader field that ultimately has no boundaries at all.
The title of this series, Young People Thinking About Each Other, Heads in Transit, emphasises the fact that I am excluded from this scene. At the same time, the thoughts between those heads create a space that goes further, filling the gaps between the people and unifying them at the same time, like a kind of ether, permeating the
matter of which all things are made.
In the painting The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), the relationship between the piece’s title and what we see makes us realise how the figures of a king and a queen, probably chess pieces, are disturbed by the movement of the swift nudes. Nevertheless, they are far from mere pawns in a chess game; these nudes may be naked but they move quite freely and rapidly. At the same time, the remaining vertical presence of the king and queen, yet to be completely disturbed, emphasises the vitality of the nudes’ movement. We always need a static reference to be aware of movement, and the king and queen have that quality, like any other king or queen, both visually and conceptually.
This painting was executed on the back of another painting by Duchamp: Adam and Eve in the Paradise (1910–11). In the time of Adam and Eve, monarchs and subjects were the same, with every man and woman their own king and queen, as there was only one man and only one woman on Earth, naked like the swift nudes, having no need for clothes or symbols to assert their power.
The king and queen and the nudes may represent two extremes of the complexities of social organisation, from which we may infer all of the shades of hierarchies present in today’s societies.
And the possibility of a contemporary version of Adam and Eve, even if only in paintings like this, may make us believe (or remind us?) of the possibility of being at the same time man or woman and also represent (or actually be) all men and all women.
My Own Moon is a video I made in the “Private exam room”, a 16th-century room in Coimbra’s university, which dates back 725 years. Its walls are literally covered with full-body portraits of deans. Its walls are thus made of people, of portraits of people, leaving no room for anything else. In My Own Moon I sing, dressed in my academic robes, a costume that has evolved from those that the professors in the portraits wore but still looks ancient by virtue of the slow pace at which protocols develop in universities like Coimbra’s. I sing, “I have got my own satellite,” as though each self is a planet that is able to translate the movement of other planets. In this performance/video I attempted to examine the idea of university and the act of introspection, seeing the university as a body made of bodies, a mind made of minds.
“There’s a moon floating around my head”
Saying that the moon is floating around my head is almost the same as saying “floating around me”, as often heads take the place of the whole body; portraits are an example of this.
“There’s a moon floating around my skull (...) around my scalp (...) around my brain.”
A moon that, not satisfied with floating around on the surface, is determined to go deeper.
“There’s a moon floating around my feet.”
It is as though my feet were autonomous entities, reclaiming their own right to become planets. As often happens in art, as in many things, here we see a part taking the place of the whole. And, at the same time, that moon around my feet might disturb my steps, as though I might stumble through the universe that each part of me might create for itself, the universe generated around my feet, or even around each of my feet, around my hands, my head, my ears, my nose, my mouth …
“There’s a moon floating over my shit”
Ultimately, the possibility of body parts becoming planets is extended to bodily waste. Here, however, bodily wastes, as low as they are, don’t admit satellites, and this moon can do nothing more than float over it, as there is no space between shit and the ground.
“There’s a moon shadow in my shadow”
If my shadow bears the shadow of this moon, so that the shadow is shared, there’s something of me in this moon and there’s likely to be something of this moon in me …
“There’s a moon, rolling on the ground”
This small moon gives in to gravity, gives up being a moon, and probably becomes nothing more than a rolling stone. Like a rolling stone…
When it was first created in the 16th century, this room was also used by the king as a place to spend the night, probably with the queen, not surrounded by swift nudes like in Duchamp’s painting, at least until I made this performance piece there.
This video was probably one of the reasons why I received the commission to make a portrait of one of the deans of the University of Coimbra. I portrayed him as though he were almost out of sight, his body nearly out of the frame, the ephemeral human presence contrasting with the perennity of symbols. The portrait could also be seen as being about the act of making it. When making the dean’s portrait, I couldn’t help showing the uneasiness with which art often deals with portraits of this kind, mostly when institutions are concerned. We can always feel the trace of swift nudes passing by …
Duchamp’s malic moulds in Large Glass (1915–23) represent a priest, a delivery boy, a gendarme, a cavalryman, a policeman, an undertaker, a flunky (liveried servant), a busboy and a stationmaster. He felt no need to represent a university professor. But he might have done if he had decided to show more than nine moulds. In The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, these male moulds are hollow vessels, temporary places for the gas to fill. Is it the shape of the mould that gives them an identity? These bachelors can never reach the bride, but the gas can. Are the bachelors the mould that shapes them, or are they the gas inside?
In Duchamp’s Self-portrait in Profile (1957) he tore a hole in a piece of paper to form the profile of his head. The line that defines it is the frontier between paper and its absence, between matter and nothing. His portrait is not made of matter, although it needs real matter to be seen. In fact, what is really there is everything else, the matter around that perfectly drawn hole, defining and shaping its negative space.
In the video I’m Invisible (2005) I sing “I’m invisible, but I can see, I can see everyone else but me” as though subjectivity may essentially consist of everything else, everything else but oneself. Everything else is seen as the space that shapes you like a mould, physically and intellectually; everything else is what makes it possible for you to believe that you actually have an identity.
Everything else but you, or, to be more accurate, anywhere else but you.
“Anywhere” apparently refers to places rather than people, or implies that people are places. “Anywhere else but me”, in the sense of anyone instead of anywhere, implies that each of us is a place rather than an individuality. Instead of emphasising a unique subjectivity, we realise that an artist’s subjectivity might be a place – a place anywhere, a public space, potentially ubiquitous, something that might constitute both mind and images.
How much space does each of us occupy? How much space is generated by each one of us?
“Anywhere else but me” is a way of expressing the idea of “art and introspection”, and here we have to admit how flexible meanings and even grammar can be when it comes to poetics. And here we are, left in a place where the individual and the universal are merged.
Having “Art and introspection” and “Anywhere else but me” as titles suggests the relationship between both. We may even admit the possibility that both sentences might be different ways of saying the same thing. “Anywhere else but me” is a phrase that encompasses the idea of introspection as one of the metaphoric virtues of art.
Art research is not looking for answers – and we put a lot of effort into deliberately eschewing such an approach – simply because art is such a sophisticated thing that if it were really looking for answers it would immediately start to question what we mean by “answers”, if we admit that art has its own ways of seeking and constantly pursuing knowledge. It is aware of how universal details can be, and acknowledges how small and condensed the universe may now appear. By art research I mean art practice as a whole, art that may or may not be created within a research process (that is, in an academic context). And most art isn’t.
As a professor at the University of Coimbra and Director of the Colégio das Artes, I dealt with this struggle between art and art in an academic context. I no longer grapple with this because I soon found out how uninteresting it was to make this an issue. Before long I realised what a significant contribution art made towards the university and – through substantial work, of course – how art could broaden the university’s horizons, revealing how exciting the institution could be if we took it in its complexity. Moreover, I discovered how art could continue to have a privileged role at this university, which looks back on a 726-year history in which it has prized wisdom and demanded deference, never pausing to question its identity or raison d'être.
“Il n’y as pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”. Duchamp confessed he was very proud of this statement and we can’t help wondering why. It’s quite a witty statement that suggests that art adopts a more complex state of questioning than we expect from science. And to utter it in such a casual, almost offhand way is what makes this phrase so puzzling.
The subtitle for this exposition, Art and introspection, has rather an ambitious ring to it, and this is quite intentional, as it announces an attempt to address a much wider range of issues than we might expect from an artist, in dealing with his own work, on its own terms.
The subtitle of the exhibition expresses the possibility of art as a form of introspection, a kind of conceptual research that happens within the practice of art, a place where we are aware that “Il n’y as pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”, not only admitting this but also turning this awareness into a profession and, ultimately, into a way of life.