Actions speak louder than words

Nate Freeman on João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva present muted films in Milan


"Papagaio", Portuguese for parrot, is the title of the artist duo's show

When the Lisbon-based artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva were choosing a name for their beguiling and potent new retrospective at HangarBicocca in Milan, they found themselves intrigued by the word papagaio—Portuguese for parrot, the bird that repeats whatever it's told. The trick of false mimicry is easy, so to do the concept one better, Gusmão and Paiva have the parrot on screen totally silent, despite having familiar words—in this case "good morning"—said aloud for the bird to repeat dumbly.

Regardless of the fact that the language is muted, it's clear what's happening. The exhibition of the duo's 35mm films, which opened on 12 June (until 26 October), returns time and again to that theme of miscommunication, in our age and others, with videos that emphasise a rupture in a medium.

And to emphasise this further, “Papagaio's” 35 short films and one longer work all have their soundtracks wiped. The only noise in the exhibition is the whirring of projectors and the shuffling of feet, and perhaps snippets of conversation in various languages.

Though press materials insist that Gusmão and Pavia, who were born in Lisbon, where they're still based, harbour no political agenda in their work, there's no doubt these works are embedded with, if not wholly dedicated to, a simmering discontent with the centuries of transatlantic trade winds that inform the present Portuguese-speaking diaspora. Cross Eyed Table Tennis is a depiction, slowed down to the speed of oozing molasses, of two visually impaired men who struggle to follow a ping pong ball as it ricochets back and forth in an endless, futile loop. Another work, Rolling a Croissant, which shows a man flipping and twisting dough to make the pastry, also in super slo-mo, complements a piece across the room called Fried Egg in which the runny yolk and white coalesce into form. And then there's Papagaio, the 42-minute work that gives the retrospective its name, a jarringly gorgeous look at a voodoo ceremony in the former Portuguese colonies of São Tomé e Príncipe, in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea. In it, wild-looking men drink potions, flail on the ground, babble incoherently (and, again, to us, silently) dance over and through fire and wiggle their bodies spastically, all in an attempt to channel the spirits of the dead.

The high-profile show at HangarBicocca—the massive art initiative with a series of warehouse-sized gallery spaces funded by Pirelli, the Italian tire company—is a coup for the oft overlooked Portuguese art scene (Gusmão and Pavia represented their country at the Venice Biennale in 2009, when the artists were aged 30 and 32, respectively). This was of particular interest, as I had just one week earlier spent time in Lisbon, and experienced the vast, pervasive unemployment and general economic unrest that's plagued the city since the financial crash. Indeed, it seems that, relative to the lofty air of other European cities, Lisbon has a melancholy that's persisted, through disappointing markets and dismantled arms of empire, since the devastating earthquake of 1755.

Though it doesn't approach its medium of video art with a particularly innovative eye, nor does it announce itself in some bombastic spectacular way, “Papagaio” does an excellent job of bottling this Lisbon sensibility and shipping it to Milan, to Italy, to the country that stole Portugal's thunder during the Age of Exploration. And it foretells good things for these two young artists.

Though, it would have been nice to talk to them personally: when I approached the duo at a lunch following the press preview, I was informed that not only were they not doing interviews, but they have never done an interview. At least the radio silence sits nicely with the exhibition, and certainly “Papagaio” speaks for itself.

Published Thu, 17 Jul 2014 15:21:00 GMT

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