ESSAYS Mousse 15
Scaling Mount Analogue: João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva
by Chiara Leoni
In the era of the ancient Greeks, there was Olympus; then ever more daunting peaks separated earth and sky, and were conquered one by one. When the boundary moved up, there was always a new summit offering refuge to the gods: the summit of mount analogue. That’s the one João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva have set out to reach. But how? An explanation can be found in the theories presented by their work, which is a fascinating philosophical chimera.
In June 1893, Daniel Paul Schreber, a highly respected judge who had reached middle age, received a prestigious appointment to become chief justice of the Dresden court of appeals, and would have taken office in October, had a seemingly negligible event not given a drastic twist to his destiny. Judge Schreber, still half asleep one morning, just a few days before the start of his important new job—perhaps as the result of stress—woke up with the thought that it must be very pleasant to be a woman succumbing to sexual intercourse (Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, 1903). From that moment on, his mind was hurled into a giddy vortex of gods, stars, demiurges, plots, cosmic catastrophes, and political upheaval. At the center of it all was the conviction that he was undergoing a physical metamorphosis, caused by God Himself, who was sending down rays (a sort of neural connective system) to turn him into a woman. Dismayed, Schreber sought some defense in his surprising memoirs, which map out the incredible architecture of interconnections that structured his delirium, written in such an authoritative way that he regained a place in society (at least for a short time). Schreber’s text is one of the numerous sources literary, philosophical, scientific, and parascientific drawn on by the amazing poetic/philosophical constructions (their own definition) of Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, who have been working together since 2001. Many different concepts play a role in the articulation of their spiny theoretical construction, and one of these is truth: the truth that forms the inner coherence of Schreber’s delirium is the basis of a doubt tenaciously pursued by the two artists, an uncertainty about the logos of Western philosophy, about the value of the order and stability of a situation(Gusmão + Paiva, “Entropic Vision and Meteorism”, in Abissology: Horizon of Events, catalogue, 2008). The artists observe that everything always exists through certain—indiscernible—aspects, and thus that all things, even the most commonplace, are actually quite mysterious. This is an idea that embraces Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, in which any event that occurs in the universe becomes exceptional. The classic example offered by Jarry is the one of a coin, which thrown a second time, has only an infinitesimal probability of falling in exactly the way it did the first, making every throw, in its utter singularity, a unique, extraordinary event.
Gusmão and Paiva’s catalogues are impressive repertoires of reflections and scientific and philosophical citations—from the pre-Socratic Atomists to Nietzsche; from Allan Kardec’s Spiritism wedded to Christianity, to David Brewster’s studies of refraction—woven into a spiderweb of observations that ends up ensnaring the reader in a consistent intellectual construct built around the idea of indiscernibility that lies at the heart of abissology, a neologism found in René Daumal’s A Night of Serious Drinking, and a fascinating pseudoscience explored by the artistic duo. Abissology studies the abyss, the negative space that offers a chance to escape the presumed natural order of things. Their first major collaborative project, Magnetic Effluvium, was created in two parts, in 2004 and 2006—a series of twenty-two pieces inspired by an episode of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs while Abissology: for a Transitory Science of the Indiscernible—twenty-two films and glass, bone, and bronze sculptures begun in 2006, was developed over the course of five international residencies in Angola, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Morocco. The installation at Manifesta 7, one of their most recent, included new work and various pieces from both series. An entire room was plunged into shadows, and at the center of the corridor, their Heraclitus Head (2008), made from opalescent glass, seemed like the phantasmagorical apparition of a tribal mask, conceptually linked to the settings in some of the 16mm film shorts projected on screens set at different angles, particularly The Big Drinking Bout (2007).
This film depicts an indecipherable ritual of mask-wearing and collective libation that sends participants into a blind trance state in the middle of the tropical forest; one can perhaps catch a reference to the hallucinatory journey, through the metaphor of eating and drinking, in A Night of Serious Drinking. The films, including the significant sample presented at Manifesta, are inconclusive narratives that often stylistically resemble educational clips shown in science lab: in Colombo’s Column, a man is busily trying to stack eggs on top of each other, using the technique attributed to Columbus in the well-known anecdote; the meaning of the test, in this case, is inscrutable, the failures ambiguously comic; in The Unbreakable Stone (2004), three men make an absurd attempt to break a huge boulder by prying at its cracks. Stones, and their shadows, play an important role in the poetics of these artists, who as an example of indiscernibility, offer the emblematic case of an eye lingering over the texture of a rock, while in its shadow itself, it may not exist and in the shadow there is no organization of what is visible (Gusmão + Paiva, op. cit.). Shadow is a space where reality is negated. In the 16 mm film The Occult (2007), a menhir casts a long shadow that marks the passage of time, until the viewer’s eye catches a movement within it, and at the end, sees a human shadow emerge from its apex, suddenly giving a sense of the megalith’s true proportions. Other rocks may be meteors, a favorite subject in many pieces by the two artists—entities that come out of infinity, that gain an existence and a finite nature when they come in contact with the earth’s crust, and that can play havoc with the perfection of the philosophical edifice. Aristotle, for example, had to think of them as atmospheric phenomena linked to the condensation of dust, in order to dismiss the possibility that they could be wandering fragments in an imperfect universe. Rolling Stones (2007) explores the migration of a group of stones in the desert, culminating in their prodigious juxtaposition. In the film Hydraulics of Solids (or the Man that Eats Stone) (2007), we see an impassive character consuming an indigestible lapidary meal. The concept of fakirism, to Gusmão and Paiva, is once again synonymous with the impossibility of separating the rational and irrational worlds. The fakir performs miracles through an excess of will, but his performance cannot be inscribed within the laws of physics. The stylistic choice of using 16mm film is equally exemplary; the analogous imagery is of scientific experimentation; the image produced by the camera obscura is, unless chemically tampered with, truthful.
We are struck by the scrupulous elision of any temporal connotation, and the indeterminate nature of the locations portrayed: interiors devoid of any knickknacks, the countryside, the desert. The desert is the quintessential negative space, but what’s more, it is the space of revelation. Mirages demonstrate the gap between subject and object; the ocular image is, state the artists.
Optical studies are another fundamental piece in their puzzle. The young Newton spent so much time in a dark chamber, looking at the sun’s reflection in a mirror, that its image became permanently imprinted on his retina. After many years, even in a dark place, he was still able to see the sun; by that point its image was there, inside his eye. Other notes by the scientist report his experiments with entropic vision—inside the eye, that is—through pressure and manipulation of his eyeballs. To Gusmão and Paiva, studying entropic vision, seeing the eye, therefore means exploring the indiscernible, in utter darkness.
The Solids Projector (or the Dream of a Rock) (2008), which they also presented at Manifesta, is a paradigmatic device in their complex speculative scheme, a camera obscura in reverse, a sort of divine machine that by producing a projected image of what is inside does not compose reality, but a reality divorced from reality, a hypothetical reality—a dream—that suggests, on the other hand, the validity of indiscernible, yet reliable, entropic vision. Though it may seem like a paradox, mystery is what sheds light on reality, what does not let itself be led astray by the seemingly obvious.
From the ideas of Gilbert-Lecomte and René Daumal’s Le Grand Jeu, and the writings of the latter (the patron saint of the duo, with his attempt to establish a vision that rejects anything aprioristic or conventional, investigating the unknown and embodying, at the same time, an impressive rebellion against Western civilization), Gusmão and Paiva have developed an intriguing speculative mechanism, where the work is never a didactic transposition, but rather an investigation, a hypothesis that the viewer is invited to identify; or, if we prefer, it may be the aesthetic spell of a world populated by characters performing tests out of a slapstick comedy, trapped in the endless demonstration of arcane theories.
Originally published on Mousse 15 (October-November 2008)