João Pedro Vale +
Nuno Alexandre Ferreira
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What distinguishes one object from another, what makes it unique? What makes it so extraordinary, what triggers the urge of possession? Perhaps the artisan’s seasoned hand is connected by a thin line to the artist’s boundless mind; he who recognizes and commands the “melting pot”, he who transforms objects from nature into singular constructs in a universe distended between the axes of the marvelous, the unexpected, the unknown and the exotic. But what chooses him?

One encounters a thick bed, molded by meanings reaped from popular, pagan imagination, rich in qualitative attributions, features of certain substances and the aesthetic dimension to the metaphorical and allegorical signification of each finished piece here. This diverse, multifarious typology of objects demonstrates the diversity of our world, which appears to us in strange forms and effects that unearth curiosity, metaphysics and knowledge. This varied world is comprehended within the consecration of a divine, absolute creation where nature is not only the central stage to all human acts, but the place and the tabula of cosmologic and earthly order. How wonderful it would be to possess something with the potency of a rhinoceros horn (unknown to Europe before the end of the Middle Ages), with wide-ranging healing properties, gathered with the virtuosity of the wisest goldsmith and nimbleness of gem setters.

On the threshold of the humanist Renaissance, the Middle Ages watchfully illuminated the horizon, choosing between metaphysics and pagan beliefs to make out its path, fighting between these two world-visions. One, subjugated by nature’s creation as one of Divinity’s greatest prodigies, disposed of everything under the promise of a heavenly future; the other presented the world with abounding riches and the sheen of fantastic beliefs. Less compliant with a subservient condition of human creation, it promised a magic and earthly outcome. These infinite parallel paths of science and creed guided man’s first seafaring voyages and served him to gather specimen, which after attentive observation, proved strange. Maybe even exotic. Their provenance was ignored until then. The new world, open to Africa, provided novelty and exoticism by the hands of gifted artists and artifices. Mediated by enlightened interests and taste, curiosity chambers gained form with unprecedented works of human creation, as well as purely decorative or even picturesque objects. In these chambers (of curiosity), all disenfranchised knowledge was admitted as a part of the world to be studied. Somehow linked to a boundless universe (isn’t this one of science’s most distant borders?), these objects needed to be gathered and kept as orbs weaved with strings of the world. Creed and the scientific belief of humanist interests crisscross the most hidden corridors of the human geist and persist in our imaginations and collected ideas as mysteries and promised wonders. Father Manuel Palacios1, exiled in Patagonia, is an example of the pursuit of the Unicorn. His duty provided him with the determination to pursue research that lacked scientific grounds and evidence. But the alicorn (a part of João Pedro Vale’s imagination as a symbol and token of rareness), despite all efforts, did not reach the hands of connoisseurs and artists as a trophy to be exhibited. It figures as a legend that symbolically transfers its powers to the rhino horn, bezoars, elephant feet and other samples of nature with symbolic and magical (magnetic?) powers. These elements rapidly became matter of sufficient interest for the first collectors. In this sense, the first ways of cataloguing the unknown world and establishing hierarchies between samples began according to a rational logic of organization. These chambers were chartered with rare samples like maps of an immense, distant universe. But the rarity and provenance of each sample proved to be insufficient. The rarer the natural object, the better; a truly rare object is unlikely to be found, its signs or features being augmented. The features whereby a rare object is recognized within an empirical, magical sphere of association and its link to forms and rites of purification of the body and soul, its projection within talented craftsmen’s workshops, were ideal for presentation in collector cabinets. Rarity was means of accruing power, quanta rariora tanta meliora2. The greatest example, without a doubt, was D. Catarina of Austria, Queen of Portugal, wife of D. João III. D. Catarina, who is recollected as one of the most passionate (compulsive?) holders of one of the most prominent collections in exotic objects. She took an interest in rare, luxurious objects of appreciable value and helped to disseminate and promote this unheard of activity, bringing natural and artistic objects from all four corner of the globe, especially the so-called Portuguese Orient, to developed Europe. There is a fusion between curiosity, science, knowledge and taste in beauty and the exotic, which belonged to the extensive universe of naturalia, whose provenance was that of assaults on distant lands, and artificialia, superbly and daringly practised by European artists. Rudolf Distelberger claims:

One thing will have become clear: curiosities made up a large proportion of the Kunstkammer. Specific materials were not used simply as raw materials, in the way that ivory, which is also exotic, always had been; curiosity itself became a show piece, also in its manipulated state. In the words of Vincenzo Borghini the object then belonged “neither wholly to nature nor wholly to art, rather both have an equal share in it”. Magic and myth of the unknown, together with the high value of specific exotic natural materials, particularly motivated goldsmiths and their humanistic advisors to create a new category of artifacts which presupposed the ars mechanica of their craft but simultaneously left it behind them. The bridge to the artificialia has long since been crossed.3

Beyond this bridge, abounding gardens and their species from newly discovered lands, different types of collections and their rare objects and systems of classification are best understood. Painting, engraving and drawing were also affected by this shift in how the Universe was portrayed and understood. In a way, they were profaned by the newfound riches that surfaced from the confines of the earth, which were adapted towards the display of prosperity that Europe had begun to experience.

João Pedro Vale has chosen to recover another category for this exhibition by using similar methods (with distinct provenances) to realize out of the ordinary artistic objects. The citationist practise, which is revealed at the onset in each piece, seeming rather obvious, succumbs almost immediately to a practise that he has willfully articulated throughout his course. The variety of materials Vale conjugates and gathers to create a body of work and, to this extent, new works, follows the wake of seventeenth-century artists. The rhinoceros horn, or the Nautilus’ provenance and aesthetic or magic qualities integrate a gallery where gold, silver or bronze, lids or pearls, bones and animal teeth, glue, bezoars, crystal rock, amber and mother-of-pearl, multifarious shapes molded in polyester or resin, glued paper, Lycra stockings, ostrich eggs, sapphires, ivory, exotic woods, crystal glass or wigs can be found, merging in his pieces. In presence or symbolic allegory. The main issue is that João Pedro Vale works within a hemicycle where, at times remote memories of identity vie with collective references of the everyday. But there is a definitive difference in their making; the materials employed in the works presented within this exhibition reclaim images that belong to history, images of reference, but they emerge through transmuted uses of technique and symbols that exceed and transgress their origins. A wig represents the bezoar4 - this is what makes the artist’s work so unique; formal representation is drawn into the sphere of his use of material. The wig we encounter as we draw close to the piece contains a reference to this calculous concretation by means of a demanding game of memory. The wig simultaneously occupies an equivocal place, projecting us into a field of gradual references connected to the body and this form with its propensity to perform personality. This mere detail enthralls us with its flamboyance, but its detail essentially serves to control the function that a specific material may have and the artist’s capacity to optimize that function within the work.

João Pedro Vale’s body of work reveals his capacity to articulate and combine human and iconographic practices. He employs diverse issues and objects in an inventive rapport. His piece, I have a Dream, was first presented as a two-part installation5: a balloon (basket, cords and accessories) and a map. An objective, precise political proposal, the installation also presented several sculpture-related issues. The scale of the work epitomizes monumentality; although it may seem enormous from afar, the installation has been constructed on a human scale. This immense balloon (whether ideal, real or dreamt) adheres to our factual and imaginary memory of the past, it transports us into a dream that is instantly decapitated by the three-dimensional vision of this mutilated, fallen aeronautical artifact. Could it have fallen from the skies to where we now stand? Vale reasserts that our lost (or betrayed) dreams can take on an earthly form. He confronts us unarmed with our lost, divested dreams, but frustrates their existence. In the metaphor to this work, disenchantment is not restricted to the fallacy of dream and freedom, the artist tweaks the construction and fabrication of the work. Vale puts our capacity to understand the work to the test. It is no more than a game. This dissimulated proposal can only be unraveled if we get close, if we perceive the difference between the proportion of the monumental and domesticized scale. The form is there, but our proximity decides if the detail that announces this difference should be revealed. This may seem like a child’s game. But it’s a very serious one. The map, on the other hand, anchors the piece, directing us to a path where we are exposed and confronted with our ethical position with regards to violence practised against homosexual individuals. The declaration, like the balloon, is the colour pink. Apparently inert, the balloon, almost empty, rests like a beast awaiting the death rattle. It contains the fictional inertia that flusters our intimate lake of fantasy and mystery and arrests us with references to Walt Disney’s world of magic and fantasy and sleeping beauty’s castle in state of latent death. Or Reinaldo Arenas’ attempt to be pulled by the wind in a hot-air balloon that would take him from Cuba on an imaginary flight to freedom.

João Pedro Vale has given us works that enable viewers to reap the leaves of beanstalks, different keys to a profoundly human universe of fantasy. Just like the balloon, in Bonfim, a vessel (I would hardly feel comfortable with the term boat or ship) floats suspended by the dual hope of an endless path to freedom without a dock to be sighted at the end, the end having being cast into infinity as we read the strips Não há fim para o caminho6 (There is no end to the path). There is an evident, but at times equivocal opposition in the way the artist treats and appropriates material, yet Vale is wholly aware of the signification process, which opens like a never-ending river delta with menacing banks.

In Nautilus, João Pedro Vale constructs a strong example of referential manipulation. The Nautilus7, with its original bas-relief engraved surface, appears unchanged, save the surface, which has been glued with layered serge and ornamented with a frame of cents. Vale gives us a front view of the coins and their provenance. Since their verso contains information pertaining to their fiduciary value, this element is withdrawn from view. The cents have been minted in Portugal. Bezoar, like the tweak to Nautilus, presents a pedestal made of Sagres8 beer bottle lids instead of gold. The works presented in this exhibition are as exquisite as their exotic, rare seventeenth-century counterparts. Unlike these treasures from the sea or other bizarre places, Vale’s treasures come from the everyday.

In a way, his sculptures were never made to recover the form and exquisiteness of the original pieces but are a means of pursuing an exploratory and obsessively cumulative attempt to transgress our view of them. This strategy may seem witty at the beginning, but João Pedro Vale tests and develops forms, meanings and the features of identity by employing operations of addition, subtraction or conversion of one meaning into another. Language is a ductile material; it is the structural raw material of his work. What distinguishes these objects from others, what makes them unique? The manipulation that the artist makes of our fragile and unstable knowledge of things.

João Silvério

1 Cf. Bruce Chatwin, Na Patagónia, Lisbon, Quetzal, 2002, pp. 107-119.
2 João Pedro Vale’s exhibition owes its title to one of Emperor Maximilian’s mottos: “The rarer the better”. Cf. Rudolf Distelberger, “Quanta rariora tanta meliora”, The Fascination on the Foreign in Nature and Art, pp. 21-25, in AAVV, Exotica: the Portuguese Discoveries and the Renaissance Kunstkammer, Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2001.
3 Op. cit.
4 A calculous concretation found in the intestines of certain ruminant animals formerly regarded as a universal antidote for poison. The etymological origin of the word is believed to have come from the Persian term pâdzahr, which means “protection against poison”.
See image 49, p. 154, in AAVV, Exotica: the Portuguese Discoveries and the Renaissance Kunstkammer, Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2001.
5 In Transit, Edifício Artes em Partes, Oporto, Portugal, 2002.
6 João Pedro Vale confronts opposite beliefs with this work: Senhor do Bonfim bracelets function as amulets for salvation and Neville Jackson’s phrase No End to the Way (cf. Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, Não há caminho para o fim, in Luzboa – A Arte da Luz em Lisboa, Lisbon, Extramuros, 2004).
7 See image 110, p. 135, in AAVV, Exotica: the Portuguese Discoveries and the Renaissance Kunstkammer, Lisbon, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 2001.
8 Sagres is also the name of a coastal village located on the tip of South-East Portugal where Prince Henry the Navigator, the patron of the Portuguese Discoveries in the fifteenth century, founded his famous school of navigation and cartography, which included a dockyard and an observatory.