João Pedro Vale +
Nuno Alexandre Ferreira
Skip Navigation Links.
Magical Land

I warn the reader that I won’t fictionalise a big story, romanced from the analysis of the work and trajectory of João Pedro Vale. Perhaps because normally we already associate the fictionalised tone to the work of the critic and the art historian, often, even, because of the lack of precision and objectivity of his analysis. We suggest another point-of-view, but not even the accomplishment of a summarising perspective or a documentary analysis of his work. Therefore, in this essay, we will try to articulate this approach according to the perspective that the artist himself has of the creative process, of his attitude before the spectator, of the way he understands the work and the different levels of meaning inherent to it. As any artist, João Pedro Vale probably wishes that his work can be found and recreated, in a mutual relationship with the different experiences of the spectator. The interpretation made here won’t avoid following a specific line. As an understanding that doesn’t try to be unique, it doesn’t refuse other possibilities, nor other approaches and others contexts.

Fiction has great importance in the imaginary universe of João Pedro Vale. In a general point of view, a great number of his more recent sculpture installations seem to be connected to the idea of fiction. Many of his works make references to well-known characters of children’s literature and narratives or films that have been present in his memory since his childhood. Because they have been read or seen by everyone, they can be shared by the spectator, although he/she, however, can’t recognize or identify the moral values usually attributed to them, as well as the behaviour models that shaped their didactic function. The sculpture installations of João Pedro Vale don’t work as illustrations to these elements; he uses the stories and figures as a starting point to develop a fictional extension. In his work, the author modifies the meaning of the characters’ actions, of narrated events; he appropriates himself of their images and moves them into another area of interests, raising issues he’s mobilized by.

It is also highly important the dimension of visuality and the plastic attraction that the images of these kingdoms of fantasy exert over João Pedro Vale. The scenery, the architecture, the decorations, the clothing and the materials, with their fabrics, textures and colours, are some of the elements that remain in his memory and can be pointed out as basic parts of the image of wealth and fascination they hold.

The entrance in another world

“They were so high, that they gave the impression of reaching the clouds. John, who liked adventures, decided to climb the tree that had grown, until he reached the top. After taking some hours going up, he arrived at a strange country.”

Beanstalk (2004), for example, is an installation the artist made in the Claustrillo Mudéjar of the Monasterio de la Cartuja de Santa María de las Cuevas, during the First Biennial of Contemporary Art of Seville, organised under the heading and motto La alegría de mis sueños. Jack and the Beanstalk was the story that served as a starting point for João Pedro Vale in the creation of the installation which transformed that cloister in a space temporarily inhabited by a great tree, whose largeness transmitted its domain over the space: the trunk and the branches were entangled and expanded upwards and sideways, growing in multiple directions from the fountain that occupies the centre of this garden. With shapes that were structured in wire and coated with stockings of many tones of green that reproduce and reinvent the shapes of the botanical world, João Pedro established a direct reference to the climbing tree of the story and its illustrations, but also to the Secret Garden, and to a universe detached from nature. With the link the author established to dreaming and fantasy, he conceived an “un-natural” world, evidencing an ascension movement, a passage to another dimension, that gave access to one another scenery, which is contiguous to reality, the dreamed paradise. However, as the tree, especially the climbing tree, is an image that we can symbolically unite with growth, when unclasping, we should remember that it can equally be associated to the idea of growing roots and the impossibility to move its own place.

Likewise, in the work It’s not My Fault, created in 2003, an installation presented for the first time at the Gallery Módulo – Centro Difusor de Arte, João Pedro Vale had already adopted the image of the tree so as to exploit the symbolic content and the imaginary substance which are frequent in myths, tales and religions of all peoples. And, in them, trees, such as human behaviours, can be – and are – regarded as “bad” or “good”.

In this work, from a wire structure coated and tied with different types of ropes and crochet, João Pedro Vale presents a sculptured trunk with big dimensions which reproduces the shape and structure of a specific tree species, the “Moraceae Ficus Aurea”, known as “strangling fig tree”, which, regarded as a parasite, reminds us of the dependence condition and the feelings of asphyxia caused by the fact that this species grows around an existing tree, ending up killing it. Consequently, it may be associated to the idea of death, an image which is emphasised by its strong roots, that are uncovered and have the peculiarity of existing in the two ends of its trunk. On the other hand, this queerness related with the fact that its form doesn’t present the top part with branches, the crown, still makes us consider the concepts of symmetry, similarity and undifferentiation as strong images of this work. In the associations now indicated, that fact can make us consider several aspects and dimensions of the existence: identity, the relationship with the other, love, sexuality. Another important thing is the presence of the iron plate where the expression “mea culpa non est” is inscribed, therefore suggesting a position of naturalness concerning any possible feeling of guilt.

Another key-work in the trajectory of the artist is I Have a Dream (2002), an installation in which magic and the introduction of the spectator to an imagined universe are important aspects of an artistic action that operates in broad meaning dimensions. The installation is composed by a hot-air balloon, made in pink fabric, whose idea and form are based on the construction of the palace in the story of Sleeping Beauty, with its towers fortified, as in Walt Disney’s version. It’s the castle where the enchanted princess sleeps, but which is here presented – despite the hundreds of small balloons that fill it up – as a sleeping body, not floating, that contrasts with the image of the castle in the air and with the manorial image of the palace in the story. This installation – which was developed for the exhibitions hall of Lugar Comum (Common Place), at Fábrica da Pólvora de Barcarena, in Oeiras – stems also from other references, such as the children’s book Anita no Balão (Anita in the Balloon), the civic action of Martin Luther King in the defence of minorities and, in particular, the work Before Night Falls (1991), by the Cuban homosexual writer Reinaldo Arenas (a book adapted to the cinema by Julian Schnabel, in 2000), with the fictionalised moment of the writer and political opponent’s biography showing its imaginary attempt to flee Cuba on a hot-air balloon. This work was also installed in the following year in the building Artes em Partes, in Oporto, as a part of project IN.TRANSIT, having integrated the exhibition Sweet Dreams; it was installed by the artist next to a map that showed – through areas embroidered in some pink tones – the countries where there are still laws that punish homosexuality. That way, João Pedro Vale emphasised aspects that were already outstanding, by crossing the references and meanings which were underlined in the interpretation of the work piece: the great fiction that can express children’s imagination, the power to believe in fairies and princesses, the dream, the desire to travel, the fight for liberty of speech, the possibility of carrying through the escape. And furthermore, the chance to strengthen the feeling of hope and the magical, playful but also political dimensions of the artistic intervention. As the artist himself pointed out, about the fact that a part of the balloon was on the window-sill, it’s magic that matters the most: “the balloon will never be able to leave the building, but the open windows, together with the map, can make the public imagine that object going up into the sky.” 1

Fiction and Falseness

“Geppeto was a carpenter who lived alone and dreamed to have a son. One day, he decided to make a wooden doll, which gained life thanks to his desire.
– You will be the son I never had and I’m going to call you Pinocchio.
That same night, a Fairy Godmother visited the workshop of Geppeto and, when touching Pinocchio with a magic wand, said:
– I’m going to give you life, doll. But, you must always be good and honest!”

Essential in the work of João Pedro Vale is the imaginative aptitude to detach from its context the plot of children’s tales and to produce, in his loose adaptations, alternative interpretations to the safe and universally known scenery settings of these stories. He never focuses on the didactic values attributed to the stories that we all know, to the moral example they contain and spread, in fact he gives expression to a thought that allows to extend the conceptual horizon and the understanding of children’s literature.

This aspect is very clear in a work of 2001, When You Wish upon a Star, which the author installed in the old carpentry of the Museum of Electricity, during the exhibition Presentation. The work deals with the classic story of a wooden doll, Pinocchio, but for the artist this narrative can, among others understandings, focus our attention on the fact that Geppeto is a man, lives alone and dreams to have a son to keep him company.

This work also allows to point out a characteristic of the author’s work. João Pedro Vale has evoked in his universe precise metaphoric associations, considering the attention given to materials, to particular formal signals and to the articulation of certain literary references. In this installation, Pinocchio is made out of blue satin fabric, by reference to the Blue Fairy, and presents a big satin nose, 300 meters long, which is placed between the carpentry’s bencheses and in which the inscription When You Wish upon a Star, that names the work, is embroidered.

João Pedro Vale continues the creation of works based on aspects and narrative notes of films, in two works in which he approaches the issues of gender, identity and sexual difference, using references which are shared by activism and the homosexual community. It is the case of the work Dorothy (2001) in which the dress of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz is recreated, associating it to the legs of a masculine dummy; it is also the case of Scarlett, (2002) in which he conceives a dress based on the one used by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.

The social, psychic and sexual realities of homosexual experience are also subject of other works by João Pedro Vale which are not directly linked to film narratives. For example, in Silent Pole (2001) he continues the functional decontextualisation of the elements that configure his sculpture. From the presentation of nine meters long mast, made in a flexible structure (in canvas of military camouflage), which is disposed horizontally – making it impossible to hoist any flag – and also from the position of a mute speaker, the artist refers to the end of ideologies and the law of silence. That subject had already been treated in Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue (2000), when this imposition was made to the gay community in the United States’ Armed Forces, and confronted the spectator with that reality.

Images, fallacies and mistakes

Similarly, following this strategy of confrontation, João Pedro Vale presented some works in which he focused on stories and images that help to group traditions of a specific culture and which contribute for the fictional construction of a national identity.

For instance, in Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies (2000/01), João Pedro Vale comments on the desire of “speaking about [how much] traditions in general can be fallacious”. What is Arraiolos tapestry? Why is it that Arraiolos tapestry is considered a Portuguese tradition?”2

In the work Português Suave3 (2002), the author constructs to a scale model the Palace of Pena4 using cardboard and coloured photocopies of the cigarette packs of that brand, with the aim of promoting, with this displacement of materials, certain intersections that allow to link fiction and references to Portuguese history and culture, both erudite and popular: the Portuguese romanticism, the revivalist imaginary, the features of national identity according to nineteenth century’s vision, the Politics of the Spirit promoted by the dictatorship of Salazar, and the image that this dictatorship created of itself and the Portuguese people.

This idea of inquiring certain aspects of the national identity and of the Portuguese cultural context is also present in two works of 2004. That happens in Bonfim and Black Boat (Miracle), two installations that resulted of a research, about the recovery of shipwrecked boats, that the artist developed.

For the installation Bonfim (2004), João Pedro Vale researches the cult of Lord Jesus of Bonfim and the phenomenon of Brazilian popular culture known as the wrist ribbons of Bonfim, in Bahia. It came to the author’s knowledge that this tradition was originally Portuguese, specifically from the city of Setúbal, and was related to the story of a shipwrecked sailor who attributed his salvation to the action of the Saint, and dedicated Him his devotion. Therefore, based in this sea and travel story, as well as in the cultural influences between Portugal and Brazil, the artist creates an installation formed by a rebuilt boat, lined with numerous white taffeta ribbons with the inscription “There’s no end to the way”. The expression was taken from Neville Jackson’s novel, No End to the Way5, published in 1965, which tells a universal story between two men and which can here constitute an allusion to the endless system of meetings and absences, of approaches and ruptures, in which cultures and lives are forged.

In another well-known work, using the imaginary of the Portuguese popular culture and religion, the reference to miracles, beliefs and to religious ceremonies, be it popular or catholic, the author creates Black Boat (2004). In it he rebuilds a boat and takes hold of different objects of plastic and other materials, to create a boat full of symbolism. These objects are bread, flowers, candles, images of saints sculptured in candle wax, satin ribbons, parts of the rituals of many communities, that are, here, a testimony of the obsessive presence of the sacred and the traditions followed by members of those communities in order to reach a practical result, the magical and real effectiveness. In fact, this is also the image of a private fiction, told by João Pedro Vale: “the boat stages a sort of narrative: the shipwrecked sailor, when trying to prevent his fatal destination, was abdicating of everything he had as his own to cover the cracks that had been opening in the boat”.

National identity is still the subject of the work Heróis do Mar6 (2004), which presents a lighthouse based in illustrative representations in mailing stamps. However, if these constructions are normally built in masonry, along the coast, as control points useful to navigators, in this case the preference goes for a fragile construction, in sand, whose title evokes “the Portuguese”, the musical composition that symbolizes the nation and the mutual feeling of being Portuguese.

Out of context

Together with the gathering and intersection of references, overlapping and accumulation constitute a basic aspect and a frequent operation in the work of João Pedro Vale. They are visible in the junction of materials and in the exercises of covering and camouflaging, in the disposal of covers and layers involving objects. It’s a resource which is clearly evident in the works that were part of the author’s first exhibition, at gallery Módulo, in Lisbon, in April 2000.

It consisted of a set of works – amongst which we could find Can I Wash You? (1999), ninety bars of blue and white soap, placed so as to create the a sentence in high relief; Please Don’t Go! (1999); another work was formed by 3500 chewing gums with strawberry aroma; Body Sculpture (2000); Beefcake (2000) constituted by a bar bell in PVC and paraffin coated in red lipstick; Lick My Balls (2000), two paraffin balls with tangerine aroma and colour, placed in a basketball basket – in which João Pedro Vale took away the object’s pureness and neutral state, applying to it scented materials and exploring its smell effect. By including smell, a volatile dimension, in the artistic experience, João Pedro Vale expands the sensorial experience of the work and plays with the appeal of seduction, flavour and colour. On the other hand, he also creates a dynamism in the exhibition which is different from the one we’re accustomed to, based on the purely visual experience, and which is presented to the spectator in the neutral domain of the spaces of the museum and the gallery.

In this set of works we could also find a group formed by Touch and Go! (2000) and We All Feel Better in the Dark (2000), which present in embroidered inscriptions, the titles, and, as all the others, make reference to songs and cite choruses that enhance the relationship with the spectator. It was also the case of Don’t Leave Me this Way (2000), or of other titles João Pedro Vale uses to dialogue with the spectator or make possible the relationship between him the latter and the work.

It is, therefore, possible to link these works with a later one, which was part of the second individual exhibition of João Pedro Vale: Are You Safe When You Are Dreaming? (2001), presented at the gallery Cookie Snoei, in Rotterdam, and later bought by the José de Azeredo Perdigão Modern Art Centre. It consists of a buoy in blue and white soap, along with a text that presents the general rules of a training guide for lifeguards, and fifteen flags embroidered with illustrative drawings of lifeguard techniques, which removed from their context, and separate from the text they illustrate, are basically pure situations of physical contact that make the spectator think about the process of codification implied in communication games.

The question...

Although tradition and linguistic codification are, obviously, dimensions in which the artist can analyse the weight of conventions, there are other spheres of normative construction that do not escape his interest for expanding meaning. In Goalball (2000), an installation presented in the context of the exhibition The Postman Only Rings Twice organised by the Maumaus - Escola de Artes Visuais, in the Museum of Communications in Lisbon, he developed an installation with site-specific characteristics, which takes as a starting point the paradigm of this sport (the goalball of the title) practised by athletes with visual handicap. In a topic which was close to the activities developed by the museum – namely the guided visits for blind visitors – João Pedro Vale found a chance to develop a work of questioning established habits, rules, and mechanisms of homogenisation. The installation, made with accessories of goalball – goal, ball, and sportswear – also presents, on a text, the norms of functioning and the rules of the game. On that text, the different categories that distinguish the athletes, be it the degree of handicap or gender (male/female) are referred; reference is also made to other conventions and normative practices that caught the artist’s attention: “In this case, it isn’t very understandable why a sport with teams of three players needs eight referees, why there are still male and female teams and, moreover, why they wear uniforms, with different colours. In fact, no matter how much we try to observe things and to understand the system we live in, sometimes it seems easier to continue a certain habit because it in was inculcated in us. But isn’t it more interesting to follow a way because we thought about the different options there were?”7

The reply...

It is by questioning certainties that the relation of the spectator with the work of João Pedro Vale is weaved. Finding answers in a fiction? Perhaps not.

The values that guide his artistic production are mainly those of capacity of displacement, flexibility, acceptance of risk and complexity, uncertainty, availability for permanent communication. His works don’t aim at representing a strategy of authenticity, or evidencing a meaning, hypothetically undisclosed, but to unveil further meanings. In his works, there isn’t the intention to describe precisely the most correct truth of the issues dealt with.

Likewise, the work pieces can be shown according to their original presentation, or they can be seen lacking some of the elements that were part of their initial configuration. About that, the artist states: “it isn’t a question of making a broader understanding of the work possible, but of making it possible for different types of understandings.”8

The magic remains. João Pedro Vale becomes attached to the fantasy of invented things, to the magic of a world that is not the world, in order to lead the spectator in different directions that can overlap in each work. As far as each work is concerned, there may be themes and meanings that are brought to light or that may remain secret. His work constitutes an immovable reality and therefore escapes the poor simplification that implies the articulation of a final reply.

Sandra Vieira Jurgens

1 Óscar Faria, O Mundo Cor-de-rosa de João Pedro Vale [The Pink World of João Pedro Vale”], Público, June 2002.
2 Sandra Vieira Jürgens, Gestos Indissociáveis da Arte Contemporânea [Inseparable Gestures of Contemporary Art], in Arq./a – Revista de Arquitectura e Arte, nr. 7, May/June 2001, p. 79.
3 [n.t.] A Portuguese brand of cigarettes, whose name can be translated as soft or light Portuguese.
4 [n.t.] A palace from the nineteenth century in Sintra, classified as world heritage.
5 Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, Não há caminho para o fim [No Way to the End], in Luzboa – A Arte da Luz em Lisboa [The Art of Light in Lisbon], Extramuros, Lisbon, 2004.
6 [n.t.] Heróis do Mar means Sea Heros; it’s the first phrase from the Portuguese national hymn, The Portuguese.
7 Sandra Vieira Jürgens in idem p. 81.
8 Catarina Campino, Reality Check sob vigilância [Reality Check under Surveillance], in Sob Vigilância [Under Surveillance], Câmara Municipal de Oeiras and Clube Português de Artes e Ideias, Oeiras, 2002, p. 68.