João Tabarra

Galeria Graça Brandão/Galeria Zé dos Bois

For “G,” João Tabarra’s most ambitious solo show to date, the artist’s dealer, Graça Brandão, joined forces with a well-known Lisbon independent space. The exhibition comprised nineteen new works—fourteen videos, a two-channel slide projection, and four photographs—that constitute a panorama of Tabarra’s present practice. The exhibition’s title refers to the gravitational constant, one of the most difficult values in physics to measure; although it appears in both Newton’s law of gravitation and Einstein’s theory of relativity, it remains imprecise to this day. Calling attention to this unresolved confusion at the heart of science, Tabarra is not debunking physics as such; rather, he analyzes contemporary mythologies in general and the society of the spectacle in particular, using allegory to question prevailing ideologies, whether political, economic, or cultural.

But like a lone soldier, Tabarra creates his modus vivendi with the bitterness of someone conscious that he is fighting a war he can never win. This is demonstrated in the phrase that served as an epigraph for the project, a quotation from Pardot Kynes, a character in Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s science-fiction novel Dune: House Atreides (1999): “The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.” This sums up the antihero posture Tabarra often adopts, for instance in the videos O encantador de serpentes (The Snake Charmer; all works 2007), and Linha de costa (Coastline): In the former, a man attempts to tame a constantly moving high-pressure fire hose; in the latter, an idyllic image of a body of water (projected onto the gallery’s ceiling) is interrupted as a person enters the frame, desperately trying to avoid drowning as his head is forcibly plunged underwater.

In these and many other photographs and videos, Tabarra himself is the protagonist. In the photograph A segunda morte de Rocinante (The Second Death of Rocinante), the artist plays the role of a criminal investigator preparing to examine a body buried in an empty lot; he is surrounded by five men, one of whom is a police officer, and an elderly woman. In the video Roda (Circle), he appears as one of a group of people, some of whom warm their hands by a fire in the middle of a forest. The first work alludes to a type of scene familiar from news media, whereas the second evokes a collective ritual that reminds us of primitive or utopian communities.

Images of the subjection of the body to extreme physical duress, as a metaphor for symbolic violence, perhaps constitute Tabarra’s most highly developed conceptual strategy, and in Êxodo (Exodus), he reaches his technical and aesthetic apex. With the noise of a helicopter engine as an aural background, a bird’s-eye shot from a shaky camcorder captures the artist being rescued, first at sea and then from a swimming pool, over and over again. Bringing to mind the metaphor of shipwreck, so frequent in existentialist literature and cinema, Tabarra reflects his jaundiced view of the human condition: The man’s rescuers are the same people who keep abandoning him.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers.