CCA Wattis, San Francisco

Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts / 360 Kansas Street
CA 94103-5130 San Francisco

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press release

The Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva are coauthors of numerous works, most notably several films. Their highly unique oeuvre does not so much participate in a lineage of visual art than enact existentialist philosophies. The surreal casts of characters and short, seemingly illogical narratives recall silent movies of the 1920s, in particular the comical, nonsensical elements of those early films. Gusmão and Paiva's works also hark back to the early films of Bas Jan Ader, which in turn channeled the tragicomic, existentialist writings of Samuel Beckett. One can also detect traces of absurd theater à la Eugène Ionesco, fragments of what Sigmund Freud described as the uncanny, the eerie atmosphere of Grimm's fairy tales, and the work and symbolism of other literary existentialists such as Franz Kafka or even Fyodor Dostoevsky, all finally combined with a postmodern reading of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The films are visually minimal and simply produced. They are characterized by a precise selection of characters and locations, and usually set in the rural countryside or in semi-desert or prairie-like landscapes. It is hard to place the time and location; the artists carefully avoid showing houses or cars which might identify the setting.

Aesthetics of Existence by Jens Hoffmann

The two Lisbon based artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva once described their work as "poetic philosophical fiction". In summarizing the artists' particular relationship to the field of philosophy, this phrase draws inspiration from the work of the Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa who similarly viewed the creation of art as an intellectual yet poetical pursuit that is focused on exploring the nature of being.

Gusmão and Paiva are best known for a number of short, silent 16mm films that they have developed since 2004, which reveal the artists' curiosity for both classic existential philosophy and seemingly absurd plots. On first glance many of their works appear rather obscure, involving a surreal and often humorous cast of characters who wander through seemingly illogical narratives and unidentifiable landscapes, creating an uncanny and mysterious atmosphere. Yet Gusmão and Paiva's films are far from being purely comical or simply peculiar; they are rather concerned with questions of subjectivity, choice, freedom, and the nature of existence itself. In short, they examine the position of the individual in the center of an inexplicable and enigmatic world.

Their first series of films, titled Magnetic Effluvium (2004-6), which consists of 22 individual works, takes as its starting point an episode in Victor Hugo's novel The Man Who Laughs (1869). The event concerns a rare meteorological incident best described as a heavy snowstorm at high sea that causes a complete loss of orientation. The artists use Hugo's short fictional telling to elaborate upon a wide range of philosophical questions through the medium of film.

The five films presented in the group show Passengers, all part of the Magnetic Effluvium series, revolve around a playful investigation of supernatural occurrences—specifically, the phenomenon of magnetism. One of the films, Cinematics (The Log Hypnotizer) (2006) features a man who is capable of hypnotizing tree logs, making them move through the air so that they stand on top of each other to form a tall and thin tower in the middle of a desolate landscape. Colombo's Column (2006) in which a man attempts to create a column out of several eggs (which he succeeds at doing after several attempts) refers to the myth that Christopher Columbus was the first person to make an egg stand up straight by simply tapping one of its ends carefully on a table. Reducing the representation of an individual to the most minimal, The Impaticulate Man (2004) shows an unidentifiable and hardly noticeable black figure filmed from a distance as it moves aimlessly over a large granite field.

The solo presentation of Gusmão and Paiva in the Passengers exhibition features a selection of films that are part of a new series titled Abissology: for a transitory science of the indiscernible, begun by the artists in 2006 during a residency in Angola. Around the central film The big drinking bout (2007) is grouped a selection of other short films, all of which are concerned with what the artists describe as the "process of truth formation." The main film depicts a ritual conducted by a group of men in the midst of a tropical forest. The men get together around a large clay pot full of liquid, and start to paint their faces black with charcoal. As they pass the pot around, drinking the fluid, they slowly move into a state of trance that eventually turns all of them blind.

Through the use of film, Gusmão and Paiva perhaps point toward the ambiguous construction of reality and truth themselves. The artists mistrust the idea of a universal narrative, instead emphasizing the irrational to highlight the unique status of the individual. They typically work with amateur actors, and most of the absurd acts in their films are created through the help of low-tech special effects clearly visible to the viewer (i.e., cranes and ropes lifting the logs in Cinematics (The Log Hypnotizer), or wires holding the eggs in Colombo's Column). Gusmão and Paiva essentially focus on basic questions related to ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and logic that embrace ideas of existentialism and reject a fully rational understanding of the world.

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Joao Maria Gusmao & Pedro Paiva