João Pedro Vale +
Nuno Alexandre Ferreira
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It is the truth that hides the fact that there is no truth1

The Irish writer Oscar Wilde, the supreme pontiff of irony, when being asked what was good enough for him, stated that it was very little, “just the best, dear sir”, he replied. The importance of irony in Wilde’s work became his epithet. Sharp, intense, savage and refined, were some of the terms used by friends and enemies to refer to Wilde, who after all chose his friends due to their beauty and his enemies due to their intelligence. Intelligence and irony became synonyms in the mind of great aesthetes, such as Shakespeare, Molière, Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello and Nelson Rodrigues. When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia takes on all of its meaning for the resentful, or irony for the intelligent. Pure parody, voilà! The debut of irony in western society is with the diatribes by the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope when facing Socratic logic with the smile of Cynical logic. For Diogenes the absurdity of life, made up of small sophisms, should be faced with a smile. In the famous painting by Raphael (The School of Athens) the philosopher is shown reclining on the academy steps, where he is absorbed in reading, while the possessors of the truth are engaged in dispute in the arena of aphorisms.

Just like philosophy, the theatre seems to be the ideal vehicle for irony to ride on the saddles of truth, because as such it is a simulacrum of life, frozen in a space-time, thus the “importance of being honest” and laughing at the “comedy of errors” of life, after all, when there is “nothing to be done”. If the theatre needs the word and the statement in order to make sense then the fine arts resort to images as an indication of the unsaid yet understood. The history of customs, i.e. the history of western visuality, has been constructed as a hybrid animal – a centaur, a gryphon, a Minotaur – half word and half image, to paraphrase Harold Rosemberg. Half of western visuality comes from narratives. In Greece artists used epic descriptions; the Christian era, Biblical parables; the Renaissance, both; in the modern era, particularly in Illuminism, scientific discoveries, travel accounts and social games formed the narrative bases for the construction of visuality. It was in modernity that there was an attempt to construct a Utopian visuality derived from ideas. In the current, post-modern era the paradigm is the simulacrum; the new world order, in terms of representation, is that of the parody or allegorical copy of the myths of the past.

Following the Baudrillardian logic that “the simulacrum is not that which hides the truth. It is the truth that hides what is not true. The simulacrum is real”. Thinking on this logic, the statement that today’s art has become not only an arena for narrative but also ironic self-phagocytizing when it quotes the past, the habits and also art itself as a representation of itself through the simulacrum. In American art Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney are examples of artists who have best understood the issue of the simulacrum. The genius loci in Koons and Barney appears in the appropriations of the grand guignol that is US civilization. Sport and the glamour of the cinema are the symbol imagery of Americanization, or that which is touted as such. Both struggle for the ideal place using pastiche and irony as reflection. However, the humour of the works made by these artists is that which we call camp, a term dissected by Susan Sontag. Camp is the bastard child of European kitsch, and, as such, the latter are explained. In the American context the simulacrum is a powerful weapon for granting value to the local culture.

Preliminary digressions on irony, the uselessness of art or kitsch versus camp, lead us to the work of João Pedro Vale. Like some other artists from his generation, his option for the simulacrum is the manner of culturally taking a stance, pointing out indications of over-valuing of historical aspects which in his view are too amusing or laughable. The irony expressed in his works, which are generally simulacra of Portuguese culture, works as a way of exchange. JPV seems to tell us that laughing at oneself is the best way of understanding the culture in which one is set. As determined by the belief that “the more local it is, the more universal it will be”, João Pedro Vale appropriates local icons as folk traditions, popular sayings and norms, as well as works symbolising a winning colonisation, among other local values, which are recreated in a context of the purest irony. Just like a good Pop song, i.e., being short, biting, no frills and straight to the point, João Pedro Vale’s works contain the most subtle irony.

In mixing high and low culture – to the despair of hard-line Adornian purists – João Pedro Vale appropriates local icons in order to comment on the condition of society, on the values held as true or the symbolic aspects that accompany its existence. In his work religion, education, sport, sexuality and the traditions (and contradictions) of his society are the most obvious discourses. However, this is false attention to a golden surface. As the popular saying states, “not all that glitters is gold”... A glance over his course will show us works referring both to historical reality and to the universe of the cinema – full of heroines, illustrious figures, myths and film stars – or of children’s tales. João Pedro Vale appropriates these characters, sexualises them, unmasks them and empowers their virtues and defects, always through intelligent irony.

Irony was the weapon for him to fight against latent mediocrity. It is already present in his academic production. In the work S/Título, João Pedro Vale presents a video projection on sheets of paper in which viewer participation is the most substantial aspect. He exhibits two rectangles with the same size; one of them receives a video projection and the other one a set of blank sheets of paper. In the projected image a hand writes the following instructions on the face-on torso (the artist himself): 1. Place the sheet of paper / 2. Join the dots / 3. Paint / 4. Sell. In this work the artist is alluding to the issue of the sale of throwaway products in the consumer society. And art, as a cultural product of this society, is as useless as the body that fabricates it. In this work João Pedro Vale evokes both the despair of Walter Benjamin and the irony of Oscar Wilde.

For Walter Benjamin XX century art lost its aura and became useful only as a consumer item. “It was early – in the middle of the XIX century – that culture started to oppose that rationalism of objectives. During the period of Symbolism and Art Nouveau, awareness of the fact came to the surface in artists like Oscar Wilde who, in a provocative gesture, called art unnecessary. But in bourgeois society – and to be honest this is not a recent phenomenon – relations between the useful and the useless occupy the place that profit could not distort. “A great deal of that which has been classified as useful goes beyond the immediate biological reproduction of life,” complained Benjamin. But I doubt that Oscar Wilde may have thought in this manner; I even think that Wilde presented the uselessness of art because it was the major triumph of the aristocrats, who despised him for not being one of them. Just like art, the artist was useless, but even the aristocracy him.

Laughter is still the panacea when faced with the inevitable or irreversible. For João Pedro Vale irony is the best of solutions. Can I wash you? Is a formal exercise about how one may twist the serious character of Minimalism. In this work he draws up the phrase that will give him the title for ninety bars of blue and white soap cut out in order to produce an advertising statement. The relationship with Washing hands by Bruce Nauman becomes less evident for those who do not know it. João Pedro Vale superimposes Pop fun over minimalist beauty. Also in Please, Don´t Go!, he writes a sentence on a rug made of 3,500 strawberry-flavoured pieces of bubble gum. The song that lends its title to the work is a pearl of the Pop music field, and as such grates on the ears just like a chewed piece of chewing gum. Don’t leave me this way, used by Vale in the work BLANKET (don’t leave me this way), is a phrase taken from the song with the same name by the gay icon Jimmy Somerville. It alludes to the latent desire in love relationships, whether they are homo- or heterosexual one. The work is made with a cotton, Vaseline and silicon blanket, materials used in sexual activities, as Vaseline forms most lubricants and silicon is used for implants and sex toys. Against the monotony of conceptual art, exhibitionist irony and Pop fetish.

Vale has used titles of Pop songs in order to grant a body to his creations, given that nowadays songs are the ideal vehicle for mass communication. Where the streets have no name is an intervention in Blarney Street, in Cork, during a stay in Ireland. Vale installed plaques along this street that were the same as those that usually indicate the names of the houses, containing a part of the lyrics of the song of the same name by U2. In this street there is a pub called The Joshua Tree, the title of an album by the band that turned them into a mega-band and conquer the USA. Too much love will kill you is a pearl of irony when Vale creates a work made up of sticking plasters on paper, using a phrase from a song by the group Queen. Love may be salvation, but also damnation. Can you hear me?, plays with images of cotton buds, with the phrase “can you hear me?” standing out. Can you hear me is the phrase most often used by pop vocalist at their outdoor concerts, and can be heard in records from Pink Floyd to today’s boy bands.

The game of love appears in many of Vale’s works. Whether this is in objects, sculptures and in videos, like Help, which is a video-projection containing an animated section over a double bed. On coming close to the bed, the observer starts to realize that there is movement on it. The projected white image is fused with the sheets, and at a certain moment an animated sequence begins, revealing a sort of calligraphy drawn on a pattern on the sheets, as if it were embroidery. However, a closer glance shows that this is indeed an obsessive writing of the word “Help”, which is repeated until it covers the whole of the projection area. At that moment the texture starts to disappear until the image becomes totally white again, and the process of the same writing starts again. Once again Vale works with memory as a way of dealing with the disappearing of love. João Pedro Vale brings together Robert Rauschenberg and John Lennon in the same space of quotation.

From the same period there is Are You Safe When You Are Dreaming? another work full of caustic irony. The work is made up of three elements, a buoy made of blue and white soap, rubber and sailing cord, with the phrase that grants the title to the work being written in relief; 15 flags in red, blue and yellow, which are the colours of the nautical alphabet; and a text on vinyl stickers. Vale embroidered the flags with drawings of different techniques for reviving victims of drowning used by lifesavers in colours slightly stronger than the background colour. The illustrations, taken out of the context that they originally illustrated, are seen as situations of physical contact, a game of love. Even though there is no direct relationship between the illustrations and the text, they were both taken from the same manual, a publication by the Portuguese Instituto de Socorros a Náufragos (Life Saving Institute). That is, what one sees is not always what one reads, and it is in this contradiction that the work dives in order to point out the error of interpretations.

Just like in the works of Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney, the spectacular aspect of sport and gymnasiums appear in a systematic manner in João Pedro Vale. In 2000 he held an exhibition that brought together a set of works referring to sport. Touch and go! Is a flag made up of a towel with the flannel inscription; We all feel better in the dark is a hammock made of cloth taken from evening gowns, with the inscription We all feel better in the dark, embroidered in sequins, taken from a song by the Pet Shop Boys; BEEFCAKE is a set of dumbbells made in polystyrene and paraffin, covered in red lipstick, with the inscription written on them. The expression ”Beefcake” refers to the controversial body-building magazine published in the fifties. Beefcake was an educational Bible for the gay sexuality in the repressive USA war years and is often quoted by Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom of Finland and almost all the artists who use the gay imaginary; Lick My Balls is a metallic structure with a basket, with a plaster base on which one can read “lick my balls”, with the balls being made of paraffin and ornamented with colouring and given the aroma of tangerine; João Pedro Vale’s balls, unlike those of Jeff Koons, are more than sports objects; they are sexual attributes. Body Sculpture is a body-building machine, covered in chewing gum, spearmint flavour, containing the title of the work in relief; and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue is a set of dumbbells, with disks coated in camouflage and each one of them containing that inscription, completing the installation; Too much love will kill you (FLAG), a flag made of toweling cloth, with the phrase by Queen applied in shiny satin and wool, made for an exhibition entitled Try To Be More Accommodating (We Love Our Audience), presented at the WC Container project. In these works the homo-erotic universe of body-building magazines, of military academies and sports clubs is evoked by the artist in work which exhort male exhibitionism but which denote the fact that they are an ambiguous construction in their origin.

In the same year Vale carries out another installation, with sport as its theme. Goalball is a major provocation as to the spectacularisation of sports and their degree of inaccessibility for people with handicaps. The installation consists of a goalball goal, a piece of equipment used in the practicising of the sport. A wall support with a TV screen shows a video recording of a guided tour to a group of blind people; a descriptive text on black vinyl completes the exhibition, with a letter case of over 30, so that it may be read by those with sight defects, and tables for the marking out of results and times used in official games, with a translation of the vinyl text in Braille in a room that had previously been painted yellow. Goalball is a competitive sport practised by athletes with sight deficiencies, and is separated into male and female categories. In this work Vale evokes the whole range of signs existing in the sport as a paradigm of participation. A bitter irony.

Irony also in other sports (!), like the “Bull-Catch”, a Portuguese bullfight in which the animal is not killed but even so is used as an ornament for male ostentation. In Festa Brava (Monsanto), Joao Pedro Vale makes out a video and a set of photographs on this subject. The video consists of a recording of a performance held in Monsanto Park, Lisbon, in which a group of eight men are wearing what appear to be typical outfits worn by these bull-catchers. Yet closer observation reveals that the similarity is confined to the upper part of the outfit, given that the typical trousers and stockings have been replaced by ladies’ panty-hose and high-heeled shoes. The group thus does not imitate a traditional “bull catch”, but the movements normally associated to the prostitution that is usual in the Monsanto park. Thus there is an ironic look at the different connotations of the Portuguese word Pega, which is the word for the catching of the bull in Portuguese bullfighting and is also a slang term for prostitute. In Toro, a beautiful curtain made in fuchsia velvet, highlighted with the word “toro/roto” on yellow cloth, João Pedro Vale alludes to the appeal that bullfighting has on fashion, on design and on lifestyle magazines. Bullfighting, whether it is Spanish or Portuguese style, is a symbol of virility, and as such leads to an attraction for sexual fetish.

Like sport and Pop songs, the imaginary of the cinema is another element used in João Pedro Vale’s creations. Like the songs, they become titles for many of his works, either taken from the films themselves or from lines spoken by characters, and these works are outstanding in the artist’s memorabilia, deriving from his imagination on mass culture. When you wish upon a star is the recreation of the creation of the doll Pinocchio. Here Gepetto is in the form of a set of boards lined in blue satin, a colour which reminds one of the mantle worn by the fairy who grants life to the doll Pinocchio. They are transformed into an enormous tube of cloth on which it is possible to read the embroidered phrase. This tube, which sometimes seems to be an umbilical cord, leads the viewer to Pinocchio, and ends up turning out to be the doll’s enormous nose. The doll’s dysfunctional family is here evoked, just as another carpenter, Joseph, the symbol of Christian renunciation.

Dorothy is a mechanical work that appeals to the power of the dress worn by Judy Garland in the film The Wizard of Oz. The work is a headless doll on which one can only see legs wearing tights, stockings and men’s shoes. On the sole of shoes one can read There’s no place like home. A sewing basket accompanies the lone female figure. The phrase is also used in the work There’s no place like home, a pair of shoes made of newspaper and thread; but the supreme work of João Pedro Vale’s cinema evocations is the work Scarlett, another sculpture that recreates the curtained dress made by Vivien Leigh / Scarlett O’Hara, in the film Gone with the Wind. The doll’s legs are wearing tights and panty-hose with a printed text taken from the monologue by the heroine2. Beneath its dress there is a fan that makes it move in different directions, as if a real person were wearing it. Vale adds to his gallery of myths the rabid dolls of Tony Ousler, the erotic and gluttonous dolls of Paul McCarthy, the Cicciolinas of Jeff Koons and the Bunnies and ex-top models of Mattew Barney, which are, after all, all imaginary constructions.

The universe of the child also appears in the installations I Have a Dream and O Feijoeiro and in the video Do you want to be part of a world of sleeping people? In the first work Vale recreates the failed dream held by Martin Luther King, in a balloon that never manages to take flight, made in pink, and copying the shape of Sleeping Beauty’s palace. The form of the castle-balloon is taken from the Walt Disney films, which in turn took it from the Palace of Neuschwanstein, belonging to King Ludwig II of Bavaria. In João Pedro Vale’s work, the castle-balloon is flat, without any air, and Martin Luther King’s statement seems to be the leitmotiv of all spoken dreams. Do you want to be part of a world of sleeping people? is a video-performance which at first sight seems to be a repetition of the same movement, but which ends up showing us, given the change in the light, that it is a repetition of movements until nightfall. In this action João Pedro Vale makes us count sheep, just as we were told to do as children in order to go to sleep.

Just like divas, monsters are a part of the cinema imaginary. In A Culpa Não é Minha, Vale elaborated a tree made of iron and ropes. On the iron plate there is the inscription “mea culpa non est”. João Pedro Vale’s model of a tree is made from a tree that exists, known as the strangling fig-tree or vine, the scientific name of which is Moraceae Ficus Aurea, as it grows as a parasite on a host tree. The innocent tree ends up not only killing the tree around which it is wrapped but the surrounding trees, strangling them with its roots. Like carnivorous monsters, innocent trees terrorize children in innocent matinee movies.

Heroes and myths are dealt with in an ironic manner, without being ridiculed by the artist. The third cycle of his works deals with local icons, stories and myths. Appropriation of historical goods, customs and habits, of popular sayings, of religious beliefs and of a longing for the days of colonialism are turned into allegorical works that provoke a smile and make one reflect at the same time. The Pena Palace, in Sintra, is a symbol of the “portugueseness” of the past, just as a pack of the cigarettes “Português Suave” is a common image nowadays, invading our retinas on display in cafés. João Pedro Vale brings together the two elements in works such as Português Suave, a recreating of the grand Sintra monument made in cigarette packets, just as in Portugal dos Pequeninos (an amusement park with copies of Portuguese monuments). Made in China contextualizes Portugal by setting it within the globalised (or “China-ised”) present where it would not be safe, rather shielded, to use the more mediatic expression in these cases.

In this context, let us also think of the cycle of works about the sea, derived from the maritime odes that have been such a part of Portuguese poetic glory and history. Bonfim is a wooden boat covered in and reconstructed with strips of white taffeta, with the text “there is no end for the path”; Barco Negro [Black Boat] is made of bread rolls, plastic fishes, plastic flowers, candles, wax statues of saints, strips of satin, ropes, rubber tubes, rubber snakes, false chickens, coins, mesh, buoys, balls, tyres, shirts, trousers, socks, shoes, shawls, hats and scarves, a sort of travel case that grants a body to the vehicle.

Foi bonita a festa, pá!, [The party was good, mate!] is a raft – a boat made out of tree trunks used by fishermen in the north-east of Brazil – which is ornamented with flowers and used to carry drinks in religious festivals. News in the newspapers on the following day indicate that someone always dies in these parties. The cause? Drunkenness. In this work João Pedro Vale evokes the religious festivals taken by the Portuguese to Brazil, the relationship with the sea and daily tragedies. His raft is covered with plastic carnations, Sagres beer bottle-tops and beer bottles. The title is taken from the fist line of the political song Tanto Mar [So much sea] (1975/1978), by Chico Buarque and Ruy Guerra, the Mozambican filmmaker and writer who participated in the invention of modern cinema in Brazil, the New Cinema. At the time the song was used to synthesise the feeling generated by the so-called Revolution of the Carnations in Portugal on the 25th of April 1974, the date that saw Portugal go from dictatorship to democracy while Brazil was still under a dictatorship. The brand name of the Portuguese beer, Sagres, the same name as the Portuguese teaching ship and of a part of the south of the country, an area more associated to the Portuguese discoveries, is the link with the past. Vale also evokes memory of his homeland in the dishes being presented, made from packets of cigarettes of the brand Português Suave, the name given to the Portuguese ornamental architecture build during the period of the military dictatorship. The pattern on the plates have their reference in the iconic XVIII century painted tiles, bearing with them words from popular poems in Brazilian literature, and one by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, taken from a book titled Quadras ao gosto popular [Verses in the Popular Style].

The motto “navegar é preciso” [sailing is necessary], the life-blood of the Portuguese colonial dream, finishes off the sea cycle, with some more works. The first, Heróis do Mar [Heroes of the Sea] is a sand, iron and iron-letter lighthouse; the second, Medusa, is an allegory to the mythological monster which takes the form of a sea anemone made out of high quality cloth such as silk and satin; Cruz [Cross] is an anchor made with tops from bottles of Luso water, a popular Portuguese mineral water; and Mar salgado [Salty Sea] is a polystyrene anchor covered in salt, in order to evoke how much “Oh!, salty sea, how much of your water is tears of Portugal.” Like the sea and sport, religion is the other national treasure, forming the trinity of Portuguese tradition. God and the Fatherland, the dream of Portugueseness since the time of King Dom Afonso Henrique, is the motive for João Pedro Vale to elaborate a series of works with religion as their theme. Miracle is a pair of wings made of iron, candles and satin strips, containing the inscription in English All I need is a miracle.

The Fatherland and Religion have come together in the present in the work Fortuna, a sculpture made of gold coins, jewels and precious stones taken from the maritime journeys, given that the saying that set off the discoveries was the “glory to God in the Highest and gold to men of goodwill in order to cross the seas searching for precious metal”. The installation Misericórdia [Mercy] consists of a set of sculptures made from works from the Portuguese national treasures, the Monstrance of Belém, the Plaque and Insignia of the Three Orders, the Cross of Sancho, the Reliquary of Queen Dona Leonor, the Monstrance of Bemposta, the Lace of Emeralds, the Royal Crown, the Handle, Clover-shaped Earrings, the Plate of the Albuquerques and Jar. The original works are glorious jewels made with gold from overseas, cast with the blood of black people. João Pedro Vale’s bright, shining works are fake jewels made with chocolate bar silver paper and sweet wrappers; like a coquettish allegory, those baroque and rococo jewels are the most pure simulacrum.

For João Pedro Vale that monumental universe of the colonial cycle is an advantage, as he can take material for many works from it. In Quanta Rariora Tanta Meliora, the exotic, the strange, the wonderful and the transgressive are recreated in a set of thirteen sculptures, inspired by works brought from the scientific expeditions sponsored by the European courts. In search of the exotic, particularly the Austrians, the French, the English, the Dutch and the Germans sponsored major scientific expeditions in order to bring back curious objects. The fruits of these expeditions were shown as unusual, ranging from religious works to Indians, objects that went on to be a part of the royal collections. João Pedro Vale recreates this artistic-scientific universe not now with local, and therefore exotic, materials, but with materials from our daily lives. Resins, bottle-tops, wigs, tights, chewing gum, drawing pins, cigarette packets, coins or feathers, are laden with meaning and references used by the author, exalting the extravagant and fantastic character we hide in our imaginary.

In avoiding obvious quotation and simple contextual shifting, João Pedro Vale recovers the magic of the original works, always pursuing a transgressive practice of experimentation through a strategy in which he tests and works on the forms, references and characteristics of identity, using operations of addition, subtraction or conversion of one meaning into another. That luxurious recreation goes by the exotic names in our ears, Bezoar, Origo, Nautilus, Lotus, Salvatorium, Primus Inter Pares, Quo Vadis Domini?, Ecce Homo, Cobras e Lagartos, Unhas e Dentes, Narval, Equus Lusitanus, Ostrich; they become as strange as their forms. Also in the series of works Barometz, the past and the exotic are shown as signs of civilisation’s conquest over barbarity. With his allegorical and fake works, João Pedro Vale presents himself as a skilful juggler who in each work deconstructs our tranquil gaze over the world in each work.

The cycle of historical loves takes on a hilarious interpretation in the work Amores perfeitos [Lit. Perfect Loves/ Bot. Pansies]. The story of the impossible love between Lady Inês de Castro and Pedro, like that of King Dom Sebastião, gives rise to popular sayings and creates an inescapable mythology in the Portuguese imaginary. The work recreates the two characters in the form of a bovine couple, made out of iron, wire mesh and paper flowers, in which Vale alludes to the procession made by King Dom Pedro in order to present his dead fiancée to the court. The impossible loves are placed in other works like Não é amor, são só manchas nas minhas calças, [It isn’t love, it’s just stains on my trousers] a sort of flag made on stained denim alluding to sperm. Or I want your love, a bouquet of flowers made with dollar bills and plastic. And also Fado, a tattoo-photograph that gives us the tragic and suffering thematic dimension of musical style. João Pedro Vale’s work brings together history, art, culture, sexuality, myths and local rites in order to raise up the immortality that only a work of art can provide. Using his ironic and amusing works he makes us laugh at our own smallness, stressing that everything is illusory in this world of appearances and simulacra. If, as the philosopher of post-modernity states, it is the truth that hides that there is no truth, there is nothing better than to live only the fleeting brightness of the star that has already burned out.

Paulo Reis
Lisbon, March 2007.

1 Dedicated to the memory of Jean Baudrillard, who ascended into the spiritual, having left one of the most beautiful and most necessary works of our time.
2 “As God is my witness, as God is my witness, they're not going to lick me! I'm going to live through this, and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again - no, nor any of my folks! If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill! As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”