Creature-Film: João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva

Writer Hannah Gregory spent some time in Milan last summer and was struck by an exhibition of works in film by the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva at the HangarBicocca. The following short essay recalls the images and filmic spaces of the exhibition “Papagaio”.


João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Cowfish (2011), 16mm film, 2’25’’. Courtesy of the artists and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

A cowfish beached on a dinner plate, whose edge is Porto blue. Its fins flap, futile, atop a layer of water no thicker than a contact lens. Its movements are so small that they concentrate our attention; its tiny popping pout is comedy cute. The fish splashes a mist of water, and when it stops, I wonder if it is dead.

As I step behind the curtains of the darkened ex-warehouse of the HangarBicocca in Milan’s industrial outskirts, where a retrospective of Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva’s films is on display, I notice the slowing down of time. This is a reason to visit a gallery, after all – to put a halt to or to throw a spanner in the cogs of internal rhythms, to escape the external churn of the real world. Changing our speed takes a while.

The warehouse has been sectioned into several asymmetrically angled areas, where multiple films may be in visual range at once, though ­– given their silence – not distractingly so. It’s a disorienting, non-linear journey, guided by lit-up rectangles in the darkness.

Before the first projection I feel my brain impatient. A fixed frame, a garage-like building… nothing… then the rainbow wing of a parrot fluttering into view. Gradually he flies fully into shot, the exhibition’s eponymous “papagaio”, with a spectrum of colour and span of movement akin to the Lumière Brothers’ hand-painted dancer’s costume in The Serpentine Dance (Glossolalia (‘Good Morning’), 2014). This is work that needs to break the 17-second average time of looking at a painting, in order to give back anything.

falling trees

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, Falling Trees (2014), 16mm film, 8’55’’. Courtesy the artists and Fondazione HangarBicocca, Milan

But these are films not paintings; nor are they hand-painted, though their colours are rich like old money or the islands ravaged for it. The setting of the most recent works, São Tomé and Principe, is an ex-Portuguese colony, and there’s an exoticism to the representation of moonlight ritual (Papagaio, 2014), as much as a quiet observance of the dwindling pace of hot days. Maybe the parrot belongs to pirates who fought off those first navigators, or maybe it flew out of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. The subjects of these recent films, in a continuation of the pair’s past work, are humid and mundane, magical and realist; their images sidelined from elaborate narratives we are never told.

Some have written how Gusmão and Paiva emulate science or fictionalise philosophy, preoccupied with erudite figures or the discipline of pataphysics, as was the case with their “Abissology” series. More simply, the artists are interested in how the world’s phenomena are perceived, and how film presents another experimental filter to perception, one with fantastical possibilities. It’s a motive that comes out of and continues the ambition of the first cinéastes.

Within frequently still frames objects oscillate, turn, or stride back and forth, to the sole sound of the film reel rolling. The mechanics of movement are contained in the projectors, and represented on film ­– a machine with giant spaghetti-like strands, raised and lowered on an anchor hook; a donkey pacing across a sun-stricken pavement; a saw pulled through a felled tree, white splinters in the air like feather down. A tennis ball crosses a table, bouncing once on each opponent’s half to gain new spin, shown in slow-mo before the wide rolling eyes of a man half-blind (Cross Eyed Table Tennis, 2014). Large, spinning circles – the eyes, the ball, the sun, which in 3 Suns (2009) is refracted three times above a body of water to illuminate the mouth of a cave.


João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva, 3 Suns, 2009, 16mm film, 0’50’’. Courtesy of the artists and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

Wheels, too, abound – an upturned bike spun by a boy, the camera itself on a spoke, whirling at increasingly dizzying speed (Wheels, 2011); a collection of actual wheels in a camera obscura (Motion of Astronomical Bodies, 2010); and the turning cogs of the projectors themselves, whose clicks track the time of the slow images. This willful exposure of equipment, along with the naive projections of a trio of camera obscura installations, might over-emphasise the materiality and (pre-)histories of film, whose format is already evident from the grainy 16mm and 35mm images.

But the physical presence of the projectors does highlight the interplay between the magic and mechanics of the medium, which seems to fascinate Gusmão and Paiva. Film’s devices turn the banal into the phenomenal: a cracked egg, whites trailing and yolk orange against the black pan, is as much an element for wonder as was Méliès’s moon. The action of rolling a croissant could be a spiralling metaphor for the nature of the universe. And when I later learn the type of camera used to shoot the stringy egg proteins, one that takes 3,000 frames per second, the tricks of the magicians are again revealed. The aquatic creature with pearly skin, trapped in a circle with not enough water to live, has stayed with me all year.

– Hannah Gregory

Hannah Gregory is a writer and editor based in Europe. Her writing has appeared in frieze, The White Review, The Wire, and others.

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