João Pedro Vale +
Nuno Alexandre Ferreira
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Alexandre Melo


I’m happy to report that the creators of the film and exhibition I’ve been asked to present felt free to ignore the pathetic pseudo-romantic narrative of young Goethe’s famous book, as well as its irritating protagonist. What I found most memorable about this film project, are the opening scene and the depiction of madness and fantasy as ways and means to overcome one’s social reality.

Two quotations from the book permit an irrationalist interpretation. ““I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.” (p. 18/19).“…and is this the destiny of man? Is he only happy before he has acquired his reason, or after he has lost it? Unfortunate being! And yet I envy your fate: I envy the delusion to which you are a victim.” (p. 142/143).

As for the opening scene recreating Werther’s suicide, it above all has an aesthetic, formal power (take for example the colour scheme of the clothes he wears/they wear), which announces the aesthetic path of the film to come. Especially pertinent are the Nike sneakers, a sly reference to the Nike Decade (1993) shoes used by the 39 members of the “Heaven's Gate” sect, who committed mass suicide in March 1997.

From the get-go the title is less a reference to the character of Werther himself than to the “Werther effect”, a concept suggested by David Phillips in 1974 to give a name to the outbreak of suicides which apparently occur after the suicide of a famous person. David Phillips gave the phenomena this name in direct reference to the wave of copycat suicides which happened following the publication of Goethe’s novella, seeming to be inspired by the death of its main character.

For me, the key to understanding these works is through the idea of “utopia”.

Just to be contrary one could say “impossible utopia”: the concept of utopia, by definition, is something not physically possible (if it were so, it would no longer be a utopia, but a plan of action). But I prefer to say it is rather the actual conceptual definition of the notion of utopia which has become impossible.

To give credence to this assertion, let’s look into some of the more extreme ways to experience the limits of possibility of the call to utopia, in its notional form, by discussing three: the Revolutionary, the Mad and the Artist(ic).

The behaviour of the 4 protagonists of the “Werther Effect” narrative can initially be interpreted as vessels for radical subversion and the overcoming of the limits of social conventions imposed by the so-called “system”. Here the revolutionary dimension is above all affirmed in the exaltation of the sexual act, namely after the ingestion of an array of mild-altering substances which hammer home its programmatic significance as well as its physical and mental intensity. Sex as a means to achieve liberation and revolution, somewhat in the style of Wilhelm Reich. The group’s absent leader goes by the name of Guilherme (Wilhelm), just like the fellow who was the recipient of Werther’s letters. It is hardly necessary to go into the limitations of this type of revolutionary act (Álvaro Cunhal might a tad ludicrously have hit the nail on the head when he back in the day called it “petit bourgeois radicalism of a Socialist bent”).

Which may recall another triple threat, “Drugs Madness Death” from the first official Portuguese campaign (while still in the throes of dictatorship, with Marcelo Caetano) warning against the hazards of drug abuse. If anything, the suggestive publicity was at the time more successful as an incentive to find out what all the fuss was about.

It is worth pointing out – the way in which the breakdown of the revolutionary dynamic of the group is portrayed is as a direct result of the disappearance of their charismatic leader and the ideological, emotional and sexual drift they then suffer. Without their beguiling figurehead to give them something to latch onto and the resulting gratification the world makes little sense and has even less to offer. It may not be a coincidence that (almost) all revolutionary experiments have been the direct result of a cult of charismatic dictator sustained by ever more degrading forms of corruption and mass repression. This is why the problem of finding a suitable successor for a dictator (almost) always leads to a tragic denouement.

In “Werther Effect”, the Revolutionary impulse mutates into Madness, as they hope to be picked up by aliens or, if this fails, contemplate Suicide.

But there is yet another utopian dynamic susceptible to assuming a revolutionary bent. And that is the Artist.

And here is the most important component of the film and its corresponding exhibition. The references to Goethe’s colour theory as well as the work of Oskar Schlemmer, with the Bauhaus and Weimar as a backdrop, make up an admirable body of sculptural work, choreographic composition, set design, lighting and (in the exhibition) painting (either painted, or embroidered work).

The paintings – which do not appear in the film but can be seen in the exhibition – are inspired by Herbert Bayer’s posters for the Bauhaus Weimar exhibition of 1923 or, in the case of “Urplanze”, 2013/16, in the packaging for synthetic drugs which could be bought cheaply in smartshops, as “plant food”.

The great majority of the objects we see are inseparable from the choreography. They consist of sculptural objects to be worn and incorporated into the movement which, from a purely aesthetic plastic perspective we might rather call performance. It is also important to note, these are objects built with the purpose of having a direct, instrumental relationship with the human body.

In the course of the choreography (see Schlemmer and the Bauhaus) we seem to be in the presence of a contradiction between the libertarian delirium of the group discourse and, let’s call it, the systematic, geometric vocation of the movement. The paradox is real and is reminiscent of the quaintness of some strands of modernism from the first half of the 20th century, according to which (and I am simplifying somewhat) geometry (point-line-plane) was believed could save the world, to a greater or lesser extent à la mode of Kandinsky.

Some objects which do not seem to bear a direct relation to the choreography serve as elements of the set design and reference the “Wassily Chair” of Marcel Breuer and a table by Eileen Grey.

Of particular note is the backdrop, a “canvas” for intense displays of chromatic light direction (using actual theatre lights and not digital post-production) which play a decisive role in the establishment of the general mood of the film and above all “throw light” on the successive discourses, varying the colour palette according to the tone of each proclamation.

What most impresses in the work of these artists – also visible in this film and exhibition – is their capacity to create “utopian environments” which unfold in multiple waves of stimulation and productive ingenuity: creating permutations of conceptual imagination, of objects, spaces, sets, sounds, speech, movement. It is not form which frees the self, neither is it the light show nor the ideas presented. What frees the powers of creative imagination (which then sets freedom free in all its glory, once its inevitable redundancy has been overcome) is the nurturing of a creative atmosphere which feeds, and refreshes, and expands the potential for producing something: or more precisely, whatever you desire.

“There is still a lot of shit to be done “ - “A lot of shit” in Portuguese theatrical parlance also being how we wish someone luck as the lights go up on the stage.

This could as much be a description of the work dynamic of João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, a collaborative relationship which prizes a sense of community in their studio work, or in this case, the filming process: the protagonists are also actors (moreover, going by their own names) who are also responding to the challenge in their capacity as actors.

No longer just the Artist, but in this case, the Artists.

It is tempting to also regard the sense of community inherent in this type of artistic practice as a distant echo of the call to arms of the working classes, which once upon a time served as inspiration for the most noble aspirations or intentions of revolutionary thought.