The Theatrics of Self-Improvement
Running through the DNA of Vasco Araújo's latest exhibition, Rehearsals, is the spirit of existential liberation. This works-abundant show talks of liberating yourself from everything, psychologically and physically. Via a series of works in sculpture, photography, installation, and writings, this process of breaking free expresses itself through past aesthetics and repetition. The visual language of the exhibition borrows from a time when handwriting was taught as penmanship, before photography went digital, and when the most advanced sound devices crafted by the military would seem rudimentary today, not to mention big as furniture.
A series of sound sculptures or Listening Machines (all works 2021) come in two different models. Some look like film projectors or radio devices with speakers in light colours. They broadcast a singular voice (either male or female) asking a series of questions such as are you happy? Are you free to be happy? Are you positive enough to change your life? Endlessly on repeat and designed to provoke an automatic interior answer in the listeners. Araújo based these sound sculptures on the design of listening devices made during WWI, which worked like amplified speakers directed to the skies and meant to catch the sound of approaching German planes. Retro-charming alert-machine of sorts, they tell us in no subtle way that, to be a good listener, you have to be in a receptive and vigilant mode.
The other type of listening machines are soft boxes covered with uninterrupted, seemingly handwritten texts. For instance, lines and lines of “… like me or like me not or like me or like me not or…” or “… do what you want, don’t do what I do, do what you want, don’t do what I do…” Repetitions, the way an actor repeats a text to make a role their own or the way one would repeat a mantra or prayer, hold the exhibition together in many sonic and visual loops. But unlike a prayer they are slightly tense. As if cracking under the weight of unresolved issues, they let escape a little defensiveness, or, in the case of the questions, their rapid rhythm tends to catch you off-guard by relentlessly hammering their existential interrogatory. Growth is a process.
The show also draws from the world of photography, theatre, and dance, especially for what they represent for someone’s self-growth, at the intersection with psychoanalysis and self-development. The series Mise en image, Studium, and Punctum—a series of digital photographs and mixed media sculptures—are titled after Barthes’s work La Chambre claire. They allude to the ability of photographs to convey a variety of different registers and messages, presenting narratives that draw their strength from a whole context or/and a minute detail. Through these series, like playing scales, Araújo, who is also a theatre actor and an opera singer, exercises the technical ability of photographic images to deliver significations and stories. Photography speaks to our intellect but also our emotions, it can navigate a range between facts and speculation, between what we recognise consciously and what bypasses it and reaches directly to our subconscious. It can speak to the collective or to the personal story of the viewer. For instance, in Studium #1, a digital print of a contact sheet, the type used by a photographer to see all the negative images of one roll of film, we see images of a group of dancers during rehearsal. They move, they have expressive facial features showing their efforts, they work toward a common goal. They also evoke the experience of group dynamics and the importance of the body in communication. Liberation, the act of setting free from restraint or confinement, has to happen also via the body.
Nearby, in Punctum #2, a single black and white image of a kiss on the cheek between two men is closely framed by a wooden photo camera chassis; in those sculpted Punctum series, more intimate and zoomed-in on a singular detail, the viewer’s gaze becomes nearly voyeuristic. As a whole, these three series across the double space of the gallery offer fragmented but personal visual narratives. Portraits of single characters, couples, groups—all seem to build up into an archive of personal memories, explicit only for those involved. Yet potentially they are relatable for the intimacy they portray and their quaint rendition, suggestive of a bygone time.
Also in the show, a series of holding hands or entangled feet in resin—remnants of affectionate moments, with evocative titles such as When what you see reminds you of your love; and wall writings where Araújo engages with the writing of Félix González-Torres, in From Felix to Phoenix, and speaks of the necessary abundance of love, the universal kind that encompasses all the others. Rehearsals speaks of connections and relationships, from the one you have with yourself, to the ones you have with your loved ones, your lover, a group, a vocation. It evokes perceptions and emotions stored within, and how our complex bodies evolve around each other. To really listen to someone, including yourself, you have to connect, and that connection changes you.
Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva is an art critic, curator and writer. She is a regular international contributor to art publications such as Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic, and other publications including the South China Morning Post. She was the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based independent art magazine Pipeline that ran print editions form 2011 to 2016 where she curated thematic issues with artists, curators and other art contributors. She has a Masters degree in International Prospective from Paris V University. She is the editor-in-chief of Curtain Magazine.
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro.
Vasco Araújo: Ensaios/Rehearsals. Exhibition views at Francisco Fino Gallery. Photos: Photodocumenta. Courtesy of the artist and Francisco Fino Gallery.