João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva

Galeria Do Torreão Nascente Da Cordoaria Nacional

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s practice has gained considerable attention on the Portuguese art scene in recent years, thanks in part to its unusual subject matter. Their projects explore intellectual references such as the existential philosophical tradition and twentieth-century metaphysical literature, as well as parascientific practices like occultism and artistic movements such as the Theater of the Absurd and Surrealism. For example, Magnetic Effluvium, 2003–2006, their best-known work to date, was inspired by a rare climatic anomaly, a dark snowstorm, described in Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel The Man Who Laughs, and evoked topics such as Nietzsche’s inversion of nihilism, Jarry’s pataphysics, and Bergson’s intuitive methodology. Supported by Lisbon-based Zé dos Bois Gallery, their most recent project, “Para uma ciência transitória do indiscernível: a Abissologia” (Toward a Transitory Science of the Indiscernible: Abyssology), 2006–2008, takes as its starting point René Daumal’s 1938 novel A Night of Serious Drinking and, in particular, a peculiar term found in the book: abyssology, the study of the abyss. But that’s not all; among other sources, the work also draws on the philosophy of Epicurus and on one of the heteronymous poems of Fernando Pessoa.

In earlier exhibitions, Gusmão and Paiva presented 16-mm silent films and photographs set in arid landscapes and featuring unusual actions. In Cinemática (O hipnotizador de troncos) (Cinematics [The Log Hypnotizer]), 2006, a man reveals the special effect that allows him to appear to be piling up tree trunks using only the power of his mind, and in A coluna de Colombo (The Columbus Column), 2006, a man stacks eggs, an allusion to the popular term “egg of Columbus,” meaning something that is obvious once it has been demonstrated.

In this exhibition, a fascination with illusion could still be seen, as in As pedras rolantes (The Rolling Stones), 2007, which shows a mysterious displacement of rocks in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the highest plateau on earth. Other works, while maintaining the atmosphere of wonderment, use fiction to evoke an ethnographic perspective. For example, in Oroboro (Ouroboros), 2007, and Hélice (Helix), 2007, respectively, the artists filmed men charming snakes and casting a boat’s propeller in bronze. A grande bebedeira (The Big Binge), 2007, constitutes the best example of this new anthropological approach. In a forest, a group of men are engaged in a ritual with a mystical quality. After walking a bit, looking for the ideal spot, they gather around a large earthen pot, paint their faces black with charcoal, and drink a potion that leads them into a trance and ultimately to visions.

The problem of vision and its relation to knowledge emerged as the organizing principle of the exhibition. For example, Eclipse ocular (Ocular Eclipse), 2007, consists of a play of light and shadow that evokes the tension between the visible and the invisible. The installations Horizonte de acontecimentos (Event Horizon), 2007–2008, and Projector de sólidos (O sonho de uma pedra) (Solids Projector [Dream of a Rock]), 2008, anchored in pre-cinematographic optical devices like the camera obscura and the zoetrope, manipulate retinal perception. Gusmão and Paiva’s project can be described as a phenomenological inquiry into the enigmatic.

Miguel Amado

Translated from Portuguese by Clifford E. Landers