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Pedro Paiva & João Maria Gusmão

Cordoaria, Lisbon, Portugal

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Pedro Paiva & João Maria Gusmão, The Occult (2007)

If the work of Portuguese duo Pedro Paiva and João Maria Gusmão could misquote any classic film, it would be the The Wizard of Oz (1939). ‘Please,’ it might say, ‘pay attention to the man behind the curtain.’ Entitled ‘Abissology: For a Transitory Science of the Indiscernible’, this quirky, quack-scientific exhibition is one part démodé philosophy, one part magical realism, one part Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881), and the rest a debunking of said man behind curtain.

Twenty films and sculptures, as well as an installation and a photograph, are presented in almost total darkness across two floors of Lisbon’s Cordoaria. Most of the 11 projectors present silent short-films which take place in rural settings, varying in content and approach from the anthropological to the educational and experimental (in the way that a science experiment is), to the ‘artistic’. They depict a strange and subtly fabulous universe.

The term ‘abissology,’ a non-existent science, hails from René Daumal’s satirical novel La Grande Beuverie (1938), and was adopted by Paiva and Gusmão as a fictional science whose particularity is the study of the abyss. The abyss is here conceived as the indiscernible, the negative existence of which affirms the perceivable world. Perhaps the best illustration for this is the three-minute film Ocular Eclipse (2007), which consists of a slowly rotating ostrich egg (a stand-in for the moon) whose form is only discernible through the shadow that eclipses it. The project asks how the indiscernible, upon which so much apparently depends, can be depicted.

In The Torch Man (2007), a mysteriously beautiful film, the viewer is guided through a cave by a man who somehow bears a flame in his cupped hand, which he then extinguishes on a wall. This film, like the man who dines on a plate of stones in Hydraulics of solids (or the man that eats stone) (2007), seems to interrogate a possibly misconstrued relationship with nature. In Attempt at Liquid Sculpture (2007), a veil of water is thrown across two perfectly useless armatures in extremely slow motion; this pseudo-naïve failure to sculpt water in the most unintuitive manner speaks to the artists’ penchant for the absurd.

The Occult (2007), an anthropocentric exercise in relativity, depicts an aquiline rock formation in a desert scene. After a moment, what one initially takes to be a small animal can be descried skirting along the interior of its shadow. But when what emerges from the top of the shadow turns out to be a man, the rock formation suddenly takes on an awesome stature. Abissological study (2006-07) consists of two projectors alternately projecting images of iconic 19th-century diving helmets, as if, like the cabinet d’amateur whalebone also exhibited, these objects not only metonymically held within them the indiscernible depths of the ocean, but also testified to the existence of these same depths.

The work of Paiva and Gusmão seems to enjoin us to see the world as we once saw it, asking us to reconsider the epistemological systems by which we used to negotiate it – all of them now supposedly bereft of the power to make the world intelligible and yet no less magical or powerful.

Chris Sharp


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About this review

Published on 30/03/08
by Chris Sharp


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