Gusmão and Paiva’s Slow Revolution

Published June 18, 2014

In putting together the newest exhibition at Milan’s expansive Hangar Bicocca space, artistic advisor Vicente Todolí had some parameters in mind for João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, who have functioned as artistic partners since 2001. “I’m kind of a babysitter curator,” Todolí, who was director of the Tate Modern for seven years, laughs. “I always come up with content first—I am old-fashioned.”

For Gusmão and Paiva, that meant sticking to what the Portuguese artists are best-known for—their short, silent, slow-motion films, as well as three camera obscura installations—and taking an expansive view of their careers to date. “I came up with the idea that it had to concentrate with films and camera obscuras, and it had to be an overview, a kind of retrospective—which young artists are always scared of,” Todolí says. “‘Ah, the retrospective!’ What’s wrong with a retrospective? It’s fantastic. It’s like a portrait of you at this point. It’s perfect. People can see your different interests.”

Gusmão and Paiva’s interests are widely varied, as is evident in the diversity of subjects they film. The exhibition is titled “Papagaio,” the Portuguese word for “parrot,” and the first video the viewer encounters upon entering the massive, darkened exhibition space depicts a slow-motion parrot flapping its wings. Like this one, Gusmão and Paiva’s films are often deceptively simple: a tortoise moves its head; two men watch a game of ping-pong; a baker kneads and tosses a piece of dough; a fly lands on the end of a balanced seesaw and eventually tips it over; a logger cuts into a tree with a chainsaw. Each of these takes place over only a few seconds of action, but the artists shoot their subjects at 3,000 frames per second and then slow the footage down to the normal 24, resulting in a slow-motion film several minutes in length that is at once crisper and more uncanny than the more common method of simply slowing down footage recorded at the usual rate. The pieces are mysterious and haunting; though Gusmão and Paiva are open about their influences (French playwright Alfred Jarry, Nietzsche, the poet Fernando Pessoa’s “recreational metaphysics,” the scientific study of the phenomenon known as paramnesia or déjà vu), they are reluctant to provide much explanation about any individual piece.

The still-nascent Hangar, a vast reconstituted industrial space formerly occupied by a rail-vehicle company and revived by the Pirelli company in 2012 for the purpose of developing and exhibiting contemporary art, is a fitting context in which to view Gusmão and Paiva’s work. Just as the artists demand that the viewer reexamine the mechanisms underlying small, daily movements and actions, the raw, exposed space of the gallery exposes the production of the exhibition itself. Gusmão and Paiva play this up: the films’ projectors are prominently placed, in full view, and their quiet clatter provides a kind of soundtrack as the viewer moves from pocket to pocket within the space. “The challenge is how to turn the installation into an exhibit in itself, almost into one piece,” Todolí explains. “We want that empty space in between to really be the invisible glue. This way, it is a kind of organic dialogue, and sometimes you build an installation, and sometimes, like in this case, you build a structure. They already had this system with bleachers and projections at different heights, but this is by far the most complex [iteration].”

Meanwhile, the three camera obscuras—featuring an window scene, the upside-down retinal transfer of a train car, and a series of spinning bicycle wheels—exist in their own small enclaves, but are likewise open to deconstruction by the viewer. It’s possible to view, through small windows in the installation, the raw materials, lights, and lenses that come together to form the camera obscura. A final film in the installation represents a departure for the artists: it is 43 minutes long, a fly-on-the-wall recording of an animist ritual the artists shot in São Tomé and Príncipe.

The exhibition is designed to encourage fluid movement between the 35 short films, longer film, and three camera obscuras, rather than a disjointed experience of one piece at a time. One large enclosure in the center features six projectors, each of which loops two films at different lengths—meaning, based on the particular confluence present at any given time, each experience of that room is unique. “It has to be a dialogue with the architecture, a symbiotic dialogue, so the result is a unique exhibition that you cannot see anywhere else but here,” Todolí says.

Todolí first came across the work of Gusmão and Paiva when he was the director of the Museu Serralves in Lisbon: “It was just a bunch of small films at the beginning. I said, ‘Oh, strange. Who are these guys?'” They’ve come a long way since then. In composing “Papagaio,” he was acutely aware of the challenges the Internet age presents to curators who wish to highlight video art. “Why stay and experience this if I can sit at home?” he laughs. “Rooms, there are many in the whole world. Places like this, there are very few.”