The exhibition Cut Down The Middle at Galeria Avenida da India presents works by João Vasco Paiva, Heman Chong, Ramiro Guerreiro, Ko Sin Tung and Magdalen Wong. Conceived by curator Claudia Pestana in dialogue with João Vasco Paiva all artists came to this exhibition because they have shared work space, ideas and inspiration with Paiva, who himself recently returned from a decade-long stint in Hong Kong to Portugal.
The concept of the exhibition is based on the dichotomy of the public and the personal, on the idea of public space as a language of communication, a structure of behaviour or urban signage and infrastructure material and means of re-symbolising.
All works in the exhibition rethink the urban environment through the prism of poetic gesture. Cut Down The Middle uses as its starting point Paiva’s The Highways Department Colouring Book (2016), which also appears on the exhibition’s exterior advertising banner, revealing the artist’s intention to appropriate public announcement materials into art – which indeed is a leitmotif of the exhibition.
The first work in the exhibition, the titular Cut Down The Middle (2020) by Heman Chong, takes it name from words in Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart (1943), its title in turn chosen by her friend Lúcio Cardoso from James Joyce’s novel “The Portrait of the Artist a Young Man”. The idea of extracting elements from the whole, deconstructing narration in order to provide a possibility of reading the message in ones own way, is at the core of the work by Chong.
Questions arising from the exhibition are: how can we read public space with its particular cultural specificities, and what are the relationships between public and personal in the urban environment? These ideas are represented in Ramiro Guerreiro’s work Grelhagem sobre abertura pre-existene II (2021) – a large-scale curtain with an image of a perforated cement building block that covers the entrance of the exhibition space as well as the access to a black box at Galeria Av. da Índia, which is often used for moving image works presented at this gallery. The purpose of these blocks (also called cobogó) is to regulate the air, sunlight, or space of privacy, but the artist emphasizes their ornament as an independent symbolic structure and deconstructs their functionality. Two other works by Guerreiro, pessoa-pano-do-po, av. Marconi (2009) and entalados (2005) are presented as video and slide documentation and depict the artist inhabiting public space as if it was his personal private domain, thus questioning the notion of borders between the private and public.
The idea of alternative readings that oscillate from Heman Chong’s title of the exhibition resonates with the alternative reading of an object’s functionality. Thus, for example, Untitled water (2020) by Magdalen Wong is using “Realistic Water”, a resin material that is usually being exploited for urban design modelling to create artificial water puddles. Wong puddles are placed throughout the space. Instead of orchestrating a design harmony, Wong produces domestic chaos and confuses the audience’s perception. In Power. Performance. Prestige (2012), a video also on view here, Wong extracts landscapes from luxury vehicle commercials, thus drawing our attention to the manifold techniques that marketing employs to commodify nature. Taking over the sound sphere of the exhibition space, the third work by Wong is the audio Dying robots’ last words (2017-ongoing) which features different robots’ last words from blockbuster movies. Inverting the idea of organic and mechanic, the artist endows robots with the possibility to experience death and proves the existence of a “ghost in the shell” as well as the robot’s souls.
Another inversion takes place in Heman Chong’s work MAKE YOUR OWN PUBLIC LIBRARY (2020). The poster covers a wall, featuring the eponymous sentence, which connects the exterior to interior, the gallery to the virtual space. This connection is further amplified because Chong’s poster is made available for download from Galerias Municipais’ website. The message on the poster refers to a challenge to create something personal and public at the same time. It reads almost like Che Guevara’s slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”
A further work by Chong presented at three occasions during the run of the show is the performance “Everything (Wikipedia)” (2019) for which a performer reads Wikipedia pages starting from the featured article of the day and going through the hyperlinks like Odysseus in his journey through virtual knowledge. On the day I visited the performance, the featured article was about “The São Paulo” – a dreadnought-type battleship operated by the Brazilian Navy between 1910 and 1947. The hyperlink in this article brought the performer to the page dedicated to a ceremony of keel tapping that aimed to scare away the evil spirits of a ship. This tradition according to the article came from either Ancient Greece or Rome. From here the performer shifted to the next hyperlink about the history of Ancient Rome and its language, at a time when vulgar Latin became a spoken language throughout Europe. And so on, and so on, the performer continued traveling through the file structure of Wikipedia that reflects the complex, the changing, and the indeterminate post-Internet world. There are particular rules on how to live in this world but there are a variety of ways how to read this world, it seems.
The understanding of the public space in a personal way is the main motif of the works by João Vasco Paiva. Being an outsider in Hong Kong, where he was based until 2018 and which frames his artistic vision, Paiva abstracts urban artefacts and fills them with symbolic value. Untitled_ Sunday IV (2017) is a resin reproduction of flattened cardboard boxes used by domestic workers to sit on in public spaces on their day off. This scrupulous-made copy reflects the study of the human artefact; the copy maintains the aura of the original work that gives the artist the possibility to transform the mundane object into a piece of art.
Similarly, Untitled (Containers)_barricade remake I and II consists of water cooler bottles recreated in cement. These water containers, which are placed on the streets of Hong Kong during their distribution to offices, resemble urban sculptures as well as barriers for public movement.
Another example of Paiva’s appropriation are the watercolours presented at Galerias Municipais, which are based on the Hong Kong Highways Department’s “standard drawings” of the public road barriers. These “standard drawings” are available online. There is a dry humour in openly sharing prototypes of constructions whose aim is to control the public, distinctively visible during recent Hong Kong protests. In his watercolours Paiva extracts the shapes of the barriers from their functional context, erases their violent aura, and presents them as independent visual images.
Public space triggers different relationships with objects, for example by skateboarders, who appropriate the urban landscape for their own uses. The sculptures Paisagem/Objeto LB/MRC, ICL, IR, TM (2016) are wooden objects, shaped like benches, ramps or ledgers, which are often appropriated by skateboarders in their tricks. The objects were covered by photographic prints of satellite images and subsequently made available for skateboarders use. Bearing the traces of the skateboarders’ tricks performed on the benches, the sculptures reveal the experience of time and movement.
The works by Ko Sin Tung provide yet another example of the re-examination of the urban landscape. The double-channel video The world of yesterday (2017) focuses on the idea of the city as “the new world” that exists in a present-future continuum. During every second the well-known city can transform into a new one. In the video P-E-R-M-A-N-E-N-T (2014), close-ups of city light banners disorient our perception of space. And in the inkjet print Sunflower and safety helmet (2017), the artist uses a zoomed image of a sunflower she took from a city banner. Ko Sin Tung proposes to think about our relationship with nature in city life and questions if nature could provide a sense of safety in the urban jungles.
The exhibition Cut Down The Middle rethinks the urban environment as space of representations for objects or ideas, as dialectics between form and experience. The public space is a site for languages that can be obvious and intricate, languages that we learn every day anew. How often do we pay attention to the public space and its particular elements? Could we enjoy the public landscape as we enjoy nature, or can we have a unique experience by being in a mundane environment every day? Cut Down The Middle gives us an alternative vision of the world, which is full of poetry but becomes almost unperceivable within routine daily life. There is no freedom without poetry and everything can be poetry if we could change our optics of perception.