João Penalva

According to a wall text prefacing Portuguese-born, London-based installation- and video-maker João Penalva’s ten-year survey exhibition, his work reflects on “the way culture is. . . mediated.” It’s an odd formulation, since in Penalva’s work mediation itself is posited as the site of culture. Yet nothing could be further from rote deconstructionist variations on “the play of signifiers” or “the copy without an original.” Mutating narratives pervade Penalva’s works but they’re taken as a given, not a cause for amazement, and manipulated to elegant and often very moving effect.

That noted, Penalva’s tales are quite often sanctioned by the device of the fascinated quest for the nonexistent true form of a fable or recollection. Take, for instance, 336 PEK (336 Rivers), 1999. This consists of a single, hour-long video shot of a park with trees, grassy lawns, and paths crisscrossed by walkers and joggers, accompanied by English subtitles translating the sound track: a muted, growly male bass speaking in Russian. The voice recounts a variety of tales, all of which are subject to revision as previously unrevealed facts, or doubts, are brought to bear on their contents.

One bittersweet story concerns a reclusive old Roman couple who live in an apartment crammed with their hoard of other people’s decaying refuse. Haunted by the tale, the narrator visits Rome and comes to an understanding that its truth is probably emotional rather than literal. In like fashion, the history of a railway built across the frozen surface of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, and of a train that crashes through, leaving a twenty-mile gash in the ice, is recounted, then undermined. A fable of a man who captures a magical swan-woman for a wife by stealing her feathers is given two equally poignant endings.

The story behind the work’s title undergoes the same treatment. Lake Baikal, we’re told, is fed by 336 rivers, whose “soothing” names are “like their own murmur.” The voice then recites those names, every one. The work’s inner logic demands this, and by having the courage of his creative convictions, Penalva pulls off a wonderful coup. The litany ought to be stupefying, but it proves compelling, even voluptuous. The viewer-listener is invited into that state of simultaneous relaxation and enhanced awareness that allows creative ideas to surface. The twist comes afterward, when we learn that we’ve been cheated of fifty-nine gravelly Russian polysyllables; in reality, 336 rivers feed the lake, but only 277 have names—or so the narrator says.

With each revision, has the viewer-listener experientially gained or lost? Has the initial apperception been enriched or spoiled? The question is tested at the visual level in The White Nightingale, 2005. Again exploring the dynamics of slowness and attenuation, the thirty-nine minutes of footage include a twelve-minute trawl along the muddy bank of the Avon River at Clifton, Bristol. Screened in negative, the abstracted screen image begets hallucinations: Arid mountain landscapes appear; peculiar faces leer at the viewer. Later, the sequence is repeated in reverse. The question is necessarily rhetorical and the comparison impossible: Experience can’t be undone.

With installations composed of wall-based works, including photography, drawings, and text, plus videos and graphic works relating to the artist’s physical performances (such as Wallenda, 1997–98, for which he memorized and performed a whistled version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), this exhibition shows that Penalva has had a prolific decade. And a highly discriminating one: He draws on a multitude of familiar narrative idioms, yet he seems incapable of cliché. His work’s creative criticality engages not so much through fascination as through attunement, a relation that’s intimate yet respectful of the viewer’s own criticality.

—Rachel Withers