Gusmão + Paiva
From Magic to Reality

“Imagine Reality”—this is the title of the main exhibition of the “RAY Photography Projects 2015.” As part of the show at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, a new film and photo installation by Gusmão + Paiva is on view, the production of which was made possible by Deutsche Bank. Incidentally, a series of photographs from this group of works was acquired for the corporate collection. Ingo Arend on imagined realities, optical illusions, and ecstatic voodoo dancers in the work of the Portuguese artist duo.
Green and pink stripes and a light blue cross on a black backgroundSimple violet cross patternWeak apricot stripes and blue bands on black. The titles of the latest works by Gusmão + Paiva are so deliberately functional that they seem designed to defy any semblance of meaning. The pastel-colored layers superimposed upon one another come across as experiments in color, form, and proportion and resemble kitchen towels or fabric samples for Scottish tartan patterns.

A closer look at the mesh of verticals and horizontals of varying length has a confusing effect: the lines no longer seem straight, their contours start to dance before the eyes, the intersections of the lines grow darker and denser and no longer mix according to the rules of color theory. “How gentle is deception”—the political method the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli once praised is also one of art’s secrets to success.

João Maria Gusmão (born 1979) and Pedro Paiva (born 1977) became well know through their mysterious films. Shot on 16-mm celluloid film material, the aesthetics and choreography of these works combine references to silent movies with aspects borrowed from scientific films made for schools during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the 16 sober photographs now presented in the context of the RAY Photography Projects 2015 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt (MMK) only seem to contrast with the previous oeuvre of the Portuguese artist duo, who studied painting in Lisbon.  

In the final analysis, all of their works entail an “imagined reality.” The manner in which the geometrical stripes in their photographs seem to move is part of the artists’ plan: to allow a new, different reality to develop unnoticed out of an unspectacular, non-fictional reality. It’s not by accident that they titled one of their books Teoria Extraterrestre (Mousse Publishing, Milan, 2014/15). At the heart of this lies the conjecture that there are things that “stand outside every order.”

With their latest works, Gusmão + Paiva return to their original genre, this time with the help of photography. The photographic process enables them to create the deception they can’t produce with painting. Gusmão + Paiva photographed various different colored surfaces and exposed the negatives multiple times until they attained the desired effect. In the process, they’ve produced variations on a popular motif of contemporary art extending from the Minimalist grids of the American painter Agnes Martin to the psychedelic stripe paintings of the British Op Art painter Bridget Riley. Gusmão + Paiva’s works generate a feeling of visual instability.

The inner connection between their photographs and films can be examined in the ten videos flanking the new photographs in their installation at the MMK, the making of which was made possible by Deutsche Bank. The ghostly effect permeating their work is the result of a method that works counter to itself; the artists film their subjects at a rate of 3,000 frames per second and then slow down the projection speed during the screening to the usual 24 frames per second.

The motifs of these short films are unspectacular and isolated from all social context: an endlessly rotating water mill (Water Mill, 2012); a turkey pecking at seeds in front of a landscape picture (Cassowary, 2010). Apart from creating poetry out of the everyday, however, they always address questions concerning nature and science. In Fried Egg (2008), one of Gusmão + Paiva’s most famous videos, one sees an egg slowly cooking in the slow motion typical for their work. The film from the series On Meteorics functions as a quasi-scientific demonstration of the philosophy of the ancient atomists and their teachings. In the 4th century BCE, Democritus wrote: “Only seemingly does a thing have color, only seemingly is it sweet or bitter; in reality, we are dealing only with atoms and empty space.”

The work of the artists is always imbedded in a rich system of references ranging from Plato to PopperExperiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, the title of the installation comprised of 35 short films and 3 camera obscuras—the work with which Gusmão + Paiva represented Portugal at the 53rd Venice Biennale of 2009—framed a reference to the work of the same name by the 18th-century American philosopher and physicist Joseph Priestley, who described the appearance and effects of oxygen for the first time. In the film The Soup (2009), a family of apes tries to fish potatoes out of a pot of boiling water. The living fish lying on a plate, gasping for air and flailing about with its fins in the video Cowfish (2011), feels like proof that too much oxygen can lead to death. At the same time, it looks as though the fish might at any moment succeed in doing the impossible: rising up and flying away.

As much as Gusmão + Paiva’s works oscillate between myth and science, they always pose questions concerning the paradoxes of reality, nature and the contingencies of perception, the genesis and objectivity of visions and apparitions. At times, their films recall the studies in motion of early scientific photography. In the three-minute video Getting into Bed (2011), a remake of an Edward Muybridge work of 1887 titled Woman getting into bed, a nude woman slowly approaches a bed, lies down, and covers herself: a ghost film and scientific film in one. The yellow yolk in the video Fried Egg is both an allusion to the human eye as an organ of perception and to the heavenly body of the sun. It always depends on the perspective you take when you look at things.

Gusmão + Paiva’s works form a remarkable counterpoint to the current trend in the fine arts of adapting scientific research through artistic means. Whereas the “scientific arts” can live out their tendency toward objectivity to the full, the artist duo aims for “parascience” and plays with the opaque and mysterious. The title of their book Abissology: Theory of the Indiscernible, published in 2012, should be read programmatically. This “science” does not intend to proclaim any definitive truth; instead, it highlights the instability of all appearances and brings the unconscious to the foreground. The International Society of Abissology the artists founded in 2009 as a “main platform for production, edition and promotion of Abissological research and associates” even maintains its own Facebook page.

This “Abissology” does not mark a retrograde movement back to myth, esoterics, or occultism—even if the voodoo cult of the Jambi in São Tomé in New Guinea is the subject of their most recent film Papagaio (2014), an exception due to its length of 43 minutes. With the help of alcohol, cigarettes, and the presence of the dead, the dancers in the dark work themselves up into a frenzy of ecstasy and rapture. It’s precisely this experience with the unreal that links Papagaio with Gusmão + Paiva’s new photographs. And, as though to demonstrate that, even in times of post-Internet art, a digital superweapon is not needed to open a window to the world behind the world, they produced these works manually, using analogue means.

RAY Fotografieprojekte
Imagine Reality

20.06. – 20.09. 2015
Fotografie Forum Frankfurt
Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt
MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt

Find out more about RAY here.