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Gusmão & Paiva: Papagaio
The mental slides, transposed onto film, by the Portuguese duo are brought together by Vicente Todolì in a large retrospective that has turned the HangarBicocca in Milan into a sleepwalker’s paradise.
You can just picture João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva gazing at a landscape, a face, the contours of an object or the workings of an isolated movement. They then select a detail from the overall vision – say a fly circling in the air, a ray of light filtering through the leaves or a stone creating concentric circles in the water – and frame it with their hands. That distinction becomes the essence of the vision, capturing in a prismatic miniature the intimate mood of a sight too vast to be otherwise grasped, and embodying the secret.
Reflections of a reality imagined or remembered: this seems the most fitting description of the mental slides, transposed onto one or two reels of film, produced by the Portuguese duo Gusmão+Paiva over the past ten years and now brought together by Vicente Todolì in a large retrospective that has turned the HangarBicocca in Milan into a sleepwalker’s paradise. The exhibition is steeped in opaline darkness, like on the night of a full moon, which is breached by fleeting exotic apparitions – nocturnal eyes in nocturnal heads, hearts beating in the darkness – and punctuated only by the rattling sound of the projectors: no noises, voices or shouting, only the subdued hints of a wavering – which is the wavering of language.
Here the day does, indeed, last 24 hours, but it feels longer. Everything is influenced by eroded reflections, drained exhaustion and a chronic déjà vu that produces a sense of growing lethargy in several essential vertebra. Projected at a reduced speed, the images escape both spasm and epilogue, groping about in the dark like listless phosphorescent jellyfish at the bottom of the abyss. Eggs, chimpanzees, a fakir eating stones, a table-tennis ball: everything in Gusmão+Paiva’s work is elevated to metaphor status. Planets and peas roll idly on the walls passing, from fall to fall, along the same trajectories. Strings of lukewarm blonde wax are wound up like mushy spaghetti with cheese. A lethargic oversized tortoise emerges cautiously from its shell as if after a nuclear winter. The tears of a felled tree drop slowly like April snowflakes in the heart of a lush jungle. A Pacific fish twists limply on a serving dish, spreading its numbed pearly fins like the wings of a dragonfly. An almost tropically sluggish and imperturbable baker slowly rolls buttery dough into a croissant; meanwhile, a man with pupils dilated as big as the sky bites feebly into the green peel of a juicy papaya.
You feel that João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva are two of a kind: two adventurers of nervous intelligence and immaculate appearance, their introvert eyes, you could say, fixed on a wasteland that lies inside them, and with a mineral-like detachment. Their work benefits from the influence of a whole host of philosophers, writers, scientists and poets, including Fernando Pessoa and his “recreational metaphysics”, Alfred Jarry and his “science of imaginary solutions” (or Pataphysics); René Daumal and his “transitory science of the indiscernible” (or Abyssology) - but also Archimedes, Diderot, Heidegger, Plato, Wittgenstein, Newton, Darwin and Molière; the silent films of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. There is enough to impregnate the brain cells with notions that take you to the brink of fainting, as when you breathe strongly through your nose, and you are reduced to impotence by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Taken as a whole, the underlying theme of all Gusmão+Paiva’s production, as I see it, is mystery, poetry and the supreme magic that is concealed in the so-called natural order: in a solar eclipse and in a blade of grass; in the cup of a volcano and in the whispering wind. It is like saying that the thread of the infinite is tied to every foot or claw, to paraphrase Victor Hugo (another of their great mentors). Suffering from a sentimental squint like the two protagonists of their recent and enthralling film Cross Eyed Table Tennis (2014), Gusmão+Paiva do, indeed, see the moon in the sky but also at the bottom of a well. Their inebriating mental cinema takes them to wander beyond the gardens of reality and remove the froth, the adopted cover, and so explore the abyss of the unspeakable and the unknowable – the supernatural.
This occurs in Papagaio (2014), a film of equatorial sensitivity filmed on the archipelago of Sao Tomé and Principe, a former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea. For Gusmão+Paiva, it represents a new moon and gives its name to the exhibition at the HangarBicocca (parrot, in Portuguese). This hallucinatory documentary on an animist ceremony, complete with rites of possession and collective trances, could not escape the inevitable comparison with Jean Rouch’s The Mad Masters were the entire sequence not filmed in total darkness – save for candlelight. Here, the reduced rhythm is replaced by a breathless pace. The camera films sweeps freely over a group of men and women who are “rather overexcited”, as they say in horse-breeding circles, black as the angels of Africa and as imbued with delirium as a pickled fish. Their scarlet, green and lavender clothes are reminiscent of parrot feathers. A young man writhes on the ground like a trout caught on a hook, while a couple dance like a pair of castanets around the white smoke of a bonfire – until the spirits rocking their bodies decide to exit from their spines, leaving them exhausted and as floppy as an abandoned ventriloquist’s doll.
Fading out in black. Once again, the hands frame a chosen detail, a fragment of reality. A sealed figure, as mute as an angel, floats in a fantastic twilight, vividly illuminated by the first light of dawn. A voice arrives from the end of the world, but sounds empty. You feel that man is not far away. Seemingly frozen in the centre of a lacquered picture, a marvellous tamed parrot shakes its multicoloured feathers, as if freeing itself of a crystal mantle. An image that is like a living hallucination, the thrill of suspense, and resounding with all the sense of impasse that comes with Gusmão+Paiva’s art.A character from a dream that does not speak, unreal, elusive and, at the same time, shy, overly vulnerable and extremely human: the eyes liquid with vitality, incandescent plumage, a broken tongue and its beak contracted in the words: Good Mornin’