Ricardo Valentim

Since the beginning of his career, at the start of this decade, New York–based Portuguese artist Ricardo Valentim has explored representations of the “other.” A former student of anthropology, Valentim examines the artifacts through which collective identity manifests itself, calling attention to their symbolic character. For example, Pocket Watch, 2006—which consists of the title object displayed against a piece of wood—alludes to a story well known among anthropologists: A native of the Amazon, given a pocket watch as a gift by an anthropologist, hung it on the wall of his hut; when the anthropologist asked why, he responded that this was what the anthropologist had done with the bow and arrow the Indian had given him. In recent years, Valentim has created photographs, films, and sculptures and has organized lectures, screenings, and other events through which he presents the economy of symbols that define contemporary visuality. For instance, in this recent exhibition, he showed a selection of Jacques Cousteau’s films from the series “The Undersea World,” along with the artist’s own film, O outro lado do uso (The Other Side of Use), 2005, which captures customers leaving a New York City Starbucks coffee shop holding paper cups.

One of Valentim’s best-known projects is Film Festival, 2006–2007, which was not included in this show. It’s a screening of educational films commissioned by the United Nations and the US Department of Education, among other agencies, for presentation in public schools. Valentim bought the reels on eBay, documentaries about indigenous African peoples, historical figures, and natural phenomena that exemplify Western visions of the world from the postwar period until the ’80s, demonstrating how the ideological apparatus of the state builds a biased image of reality. The twelve color photographs in “Start Series,” 2007, on display at Galeria Pedro Cera, show the leaders from those films—the blank segments used to thread the film into the reel, which often have titles or other information written on them—cut, aligned, scanned, and blown up to a large scale. The sequence of film titles and the years they were made—which in turn provide the titles for each of the works, such as Start Series (Five Presidents on the Presidency, 1973; Joseph Stalin—Biography, n/d; Portraits of Power: De Gaulle—Force of Character, 1978; Focus on the United Nations: A Successor for U Thant), 1966—thus generates a sort of new, fictional screening program, metaphorically multiplying the original Film Festival.

One ongoing project that Valentim began for this exhibition is Models of Democracy, 2008–. In the gallery stand five out of the thirty sculptures that make up this group so far: small rectangular blocks of wood, roughly painted black or white, two with an x drawn on them, lean against the wall. To the artist, these pieces constitute the setting for future public debates about democracy. While a conference did take place as part of the exhibition, it was a different one: In Growth and Culture, 2008, a doctoral student in anthropology introduced the audience to the theoretical legacy of Margaret Mead and Frances Cooke Macgregor, authors of the study by the same name dedicated to childhood in Bali. Afterward, the artist showed a series of slides that replicated the visual layout of the pages of Mead and Macgregor’s book; captions to the slides were included in a handout distributed to the audience—for example, “Knowledge—Kassel” and “Light—Cologne and Lisbon.” Inspired by an ethnographic perspective, Valentim investigates the material culture of our time, showing how personal experience is affected by the collective imagination.

Miguel Amado