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'Chave' (Key), 2006-2007, 16mm, 4min 3sec

This year the chatter that generally keeps the international art world busy throughout the opening days of the Venice Biennale saw few moments of general consensus. But there seemed to be universal affirmation of the Portuguese Pavilion showing which displayed works by the duo João Maria Gusmão, born 1979, and Pedro Paiva, born 1977.

From their appearance at Manifesta 7 in the exhibition curated by Adam Budak in the mountain town of Rovereto, the Lisbon-based artists have been destined to receive a steady crescendo of approval (particularly of a critical nature), that was confirmed in Venice by Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, an installation of 16 and 35mm films using the moving image in an almost architectonic manner. The title of the project cites the 1774 collection of works in which the English chemist and philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) presents the results of experiments with gases.

The Venetian installation immerses the viewer in a series of film projections (all made between 2006 and 2009) organised in a spiral that reveals itself only when the viewer has finished watching all the short films. As so often with Gusmão and Paiva’s pieces, the separate films work together to produce a coherent body of work, creating a kind of mosaic, although it is difficult to grasp any final image. Many of the works appear to be ambiguous recordings of arcane experiments, the results of which are not easy to interpret, and in which materials and elements such as glass or water are captured in a transitional or transformational stage: water spurts forth from an urn alongside a displaced statue: what appears to be a blob of molten glass is worked at high temperatures inside a furnace: a mirror of silvery water is shattered by a pair of hands, revealing the illusory nature of the image that until then had occupied the entire projection wall.

Other works on film, meanwhile, appear to document obscure rites that are curiously fake: two men in an ‘African’ village attempt to charm a rope that, moved by a not-so-invisible thread, behaves like an attacking snake: the stiff body of a man is hoisted between two chairs and when one is removed, the man collapses to the ground as if he were a wood board. In a sense the entire project—like most of Gusmão and Paiva’s artistic production—attempts to institute a kind of archaeological parody of the use of film images as document and proof, meaning as a testimonial to truth within scientific and human disciplines. It is not by chance that the artists work with film. Until the advent of digital imagery and its extreme, innate modifiability, it was precisely the tangibility of film, the possibility of analysing it frame by frame as a sequence of physical elements, that offered the comfort of the veracity of what was being filmed. This tangible truth shifts the ‘elsewhere’ quality of the image—taken in another place and another time—to the continuous ‘here and now’ of its restatement, thus making it an instrument of verification well adapted to the scientific paradigm of the experiment, the results of which must be able, by definition, always to be verifiable.

'O Oculto' (The Ocult), 2007, 16mm, 1min 11sec
'O Oculto' (The Ocult), 2007, 16mm, 1min 11sec

Gusmão and Paiva look back to the early days of the image on film, when it was synonymous with exploration and knowledge in anthropology and science. In doing so they recreate a kind of physical proximity, a tactile intimacy with the mechanism of projection. In their installations, they often use the moving image as concretely as sculpture and installation, drawing the work close to the perceptive density of Steve McQueen’s films or, to give an example that is generationally closer to the Portuguese artists, to the 16mm films and photographic images by Israeli born, Los Angeles-based artist Elad Lassry.

Another level also exists—if for no other purpose than iconographical—that confirms this interest in film as a support caught in its materiality: it is the artists’ frequent insistence on portraying slices of natural landscape that reveal a stratification of geological successions, a recurrence of images of rocks, crystals or human and animal skeletons, fossils, wall inscriptions that appear to be trapped in limbo between the explanatory diagram and archeological, rupestrine representation. The same people who make eccentric appearances in the artists’ work seem to be involved in actions that are not clearly pertinent to geology or divining or archaeology, but nonetheless appear to be caught up in a constant confrontation with the environment as ‘ground’ or ‘earth’ that has always constituted a surface to be penetrated for the exploitation of resources, or that offers a space on which to inscribe memories which are then deciphered like an ancient code.

However, irony is foreign neither to the silent cosmology that Gusmão and Paiva have been building over the years, nor to the world, made up of stony glimpses and men thoughtfully intent upon the measurement of things that they create. Here, I am referring not only to the failure that is the fate of most of the undertakings of their protagonists, or to the nonsense that is nonchalantly exhibited, but also to the way certain tricks used in the construction of images are obvious—for example, the way large numbers of rocks roll as if they were magnetically attracted to the largest rock but are clearly pulled by twine. On this level, the irony of the iconography lies in the feeling of skepticism that the artists’ work constantly evokes.

'3 Sis' (3 Suns), 2009, 16mm, 50sec
'3 Sóis' (3 Suns), 2009, 16mm, 50sec

In terms of construction, with respect to the relationship between single works, the Venetian installation seems interwoven with visual analogies of a dry, restrained lyricism. While the solar orbits that multiply in ‘3 Suns’, 2009, like a psychedelic sunset, are a formal analogy of the incandescent sphere of glass paste that appears in ‘Meteoritic’, 2008, what happens when the ‘round’ form returns in a more prosaic manner with the image of the frying egg in ‘Fried Egg’, 2008, where once again the orange orb, this time an egg, is tripled and made to float in the vast black space of the frying pan? Here, there is not just a constant oscillation between the heavens and the earthly, the arcane and the obvious, but also an idea of secret correspondences between the forms of the universe, corrupted by the artists through frequent use of the restricted framework that causes objects to lose spatial references useful to sizing them up. In the end they look like something else altogether. In this way a commonplace object may be translated into a kind of cosmological representation, but the end result—the stars in the films by Georges Méliès, 1861–1938—is that the entire universe ends up looking like a papier-mâché backdrop.

'Ovo Estrelado', 2008, 16mm, 2min 37sec
'Ovo Estrelado', 2008, 16mm, 2min 37sec

There is more. Because within this kind of tragicomic surrealism and scabrous symbolism, in which it looks as if Don Quixote might appear in shabby posture at any given moment, there is room for a citation within the history of contemporary art that puts the themes that dominated the history of sculpture in the last century back into an aesthetic and theoretical bricolage. More than one work within Experiments and Observations. .. makes gravitational movement the focal point: the hands in ‘Horizon of Events’, 2008, are caught in a movement that is excruciatingly slow, as they attempt to catch a liquid that—in the dilation of recuperation time—is dense like resin. While ‘Horizon of Events’ seems to invert the speed with which the hands that appear in Richard Serra’s ‘Hand Catching Lead’, 1968, try to grab pieces of lead that fall from above, the man suspended between the two chairs in ‘The Human Board’, 2009, cannot avoid looking like a Buster Keaton remake of Bruce Nauman’s ‘Failing to Levitate in the Studio’, 1966.

In a work from 2006 called ‘The Columbus Column’, a man stacks different eggs in an attempt to make them stand one on top of the other. While the title leads us towards a literal interpretation of the expression ‘Columbus’s egg’—as if referring to the paradoxical balance between the unknown and the obvious that governs many scientific discoveries—visually, we cannot avoid thinking of a re-construction, caught between surreal humour and a thoughtful estrangement of Constantin Brancusi’s ‘Infinite Column’, 1937, a work with no spatial and compositional centre that continually screws its end on to its beginning. In the work of Gusmão and Paiva the human condition appears strained with an awareness that oscillates between umbilical contemplation and external exploration, between a kind of aphasic wonder and an equally stupefying disenchantment. It has neither beginning, middle, nor end.

Alessandro Rabottini is chief curator at GAMeC, Bergamo Translated from Italian by Anne Ruzzante João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: Portuguese Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 7 June-22 November. IKON Gallery, Birmingham, On the Movement of the Fried Egg and Other Astronomical Bodies, 3 February–21 March 2010