Tobi Maier: Beginning with the title, João, in French [Ni le soleil ni la mort], can you tell us a little about how you arrived at this ‘conclusion’ or ‘title?
João Louro […] Before answering this question, I’d like to digress for a moment, because this is also a good opportunity for us to talk about this, and certainly we all do (we’ve all been to museums, we all know artists): what does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to make art? This is probably the first thing that must be considered in order to provide a reasonable answer to your question.
I think it’s important right now to look at this because, if we really think about it, artists have been with us on this planet since the beginning. […] People speak of the oldest profession in the world – but there’s an even older one, which is that of an artist. It could be the theme of a whole history in itself, not to mention philosophy, or anthropology, or politics – you could make an entire history solely from these representations that artists have created over time. Thus, the artist is, basically, a scribe. They recount things, they map time; they make maps. And if we put all artists together – at least those who interest me (and I hope I’m also among them, because of the question of pertinence) – we have a map of our presence in this place from the beginning. Thus, the artist performs a kind of mapping of time. Of course this is always done subjectively, because it is always, ultimately, filtered by their observation of certain phenomena. However, it is possible for an artist in this contemporary moment to say that they are more important than Andy Warhol – without being at all presumptuous. Especially because the art that’s currently being made, which can deal with subjects that some artists can no longer deal with because they’re not here, makes the artists of today more important. There’s a human fear which is that of losing one’s memory. We can’t imagine a life without memory; we can’t imagine an ‘Alzheimer’s planet’, that is, a planet that has no past or future, an entity that only exists in the present. So I think this role, that of memory, of witness, which is the role the artist plays, is absolutely fundamental.
I just mention this so I can provide you with a reasonable answer. The artist creates memory. This creation of memory is fundamental and this is basically what they do, mapping time, so to speak.
With regard to your question: ‘Ni le soleil ni la mort’ is the title of a book by the writer Peter Sloterdijk, which I like a lot, and which I think would be the most appropriate way to refer to a phenomenon that’s special. I would really like to connect the phenomenon of the First World War with the avant-gardes. I think this is essential, to create this connection. It seems it’s not been well established; it’s still tenuous, and so it’s important to bring several elements, several authors into this conversation, and I think Blanchot is fundamental to begin the conversation and the exhibition.
TM: Yes, in your work, you frequently deal with the avant-gardes of the 20th century. Now, the Battle of Verdun, which took place in 1916, has been important in your research for this exhibition – one of the main battles of the First World War. I’d like to understand a little about why you decided to undertake this research which, as we can see from the images, is also rather cruel, is it not?
JL: I became interested in the relationship between the First World War and the avant-gardes a while ago. The First World War began in 1914, so, perhaps, in 2014 this must have had some influence on me, I have no idea (I had already been thinking about this for some time). But so that you can imagine, so that you have an idea of what we’re talking about, the Battle of Verdun lasted ten months, during which time approximately 900,000 to 1,000,000 people died (we’re talking about a full football stadium dying every month – it’s staggering). And it happens that the beginning of this battle coincided with a series of important phenomena related to the avant-garde: the emergence of Cabaret Voltaire (the battle began in February [21 February 1916] and Cabaret Voltaire opened in Zurich also in February [5 February 1916], with very little time in between the two events); the first Dada manifesto was also written around this time [16 July 1916]. Everything was happening simultaneously – the flight of artists, the death and mutilation of other artists who had joined the ranks, everything was converging. These characters were either in combat or fleeing to Zurich, because [Switzerland] was always a neutral state and was taking in all the people who were deeply opposed to the way the situation was unfolding.
So, it was important to develop this very close relationship between a battle, which lasted approximately ten months, and the emergence of a series of phenomena related to the beginning of the avant-gardes. It is important to understand what our ancestors in the art world did, in order for us to get where we are today. In other words, if we’re aware of these phenomena from the beginning of the 20th century, we’ll have a much better understanding of art in the broad sense and contemporary art in particular.
TM: At the opening of the exhibition, there was a performance featuring Dadaist poems, namely Karawane and Totenklage, by Hugo Ball, and Ursonate, by Kurt Schwitters, which were read by Hibou de Gris. Also, at the finissage of another exhibition we organised this year, by Stefano Serafim, at Galeria Avenida da Índia in May (Serafin portrayed the destruction of António Canova’s sculptures during the First World War), we organised a concert of Futurist music for the occasion. This week, I was translating the press release for an exhibition that we’re going to open soon, with Adriana Proganó, and the text also mentioned the Dada Manifesto. So, I wanted to perhaps understand, on your part, as an artist, how you explain the interest of visual artists […] in this moment, and in the First World War? […]
JL: I’m actually pleased. It’s a shame that artists are only just starting to take an interest and that there are so few of them. But I’m pleased that all these artists are beginning to look back, to their ancestors in the art world, as I was saying, to our great-grandparents. In order for us to understand the contemporary art world we really have to go back there and look at them. So, I’m very pleased that there are artists interested in trying to find them and bring them to the surface again and reinterpret them in the present day, or rather, to bring them to the surface again and think about them. Because I believe that the origin of contemporary art (of modern art and then contemporary art) lies in these avant-garde artists of the beginning of the 20th century. Understanding this origin, we understand our time much better. It’s not about nostalgia nor is it about escaping to the past – no: it’s a kind of recovery of important references to understand the present. I have no doubt about it.
TM: And the question of music and of sound as an intervention? Is it another moment of interruption, or another ‘soundtrack’ to your work, music and sound or performance…? These poems, played aloud in the exhibition space and read live at the performance, are also referenced in works of yours that we have here in the other room – the periodic tables, right?
JL: The Tabelas Periódicas [Periodic Tables] reference several previous works. What these artists at the beginning of the century did was destroy, so to speak, the existing platform of communication, which was decadent and dying. So they demolished this platform and started again more or less from scratch. Hence, all their ‘incursions’ into African art, all of this, all these references that also exist in this exhibition – the search for primitivism, the search for origins, the search for those ritual dances, the calling of the ‘beat of the jungle’… they tried to recover all these phenomena. With regard to the Tabelas Periódicas, it’s precisely this, or rather: a periodic table represents the constituent elements of the universe, so to speak, the basic elements. Only that here they are transformed by the words of the poems by Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters. And, so, if I manage this substitution, this shift, we are confronted with a kind of new universe, a new language, a new form of communication, everything these artists were also looking for – new forms, new lines of communication. And these works are precisely this, they’re a way of looking at a kind of constitution of the world, a new constitution of the world, an origin, without morality, without positive or negative, there’s no dialectics there, it’s raw. And this construction of the world has a kind of bedrock that, in this case, would be made up of the sounds of these Dada poems (because these poems had no meaning, no content). So, it’s a kind of origin of the world, if you like.
TM: But Hibou de Gris’s performance wasn’t in front of the tables…
JL: No… it doesn’t have to be so obvious; we didn’t have to embellish… Because they’re poems that on their own are rather difficult and anyone a little outside the world of the avant-gardes might even think there’s a kind of gratuitousness, but there isn’t. It’s precisely this: the creation of a new platform of communication. We’re dealing there with the origin of something, from square one.
TM: Perhaps something else that has to do with the issue of assembly, here in the exhibition and this is perhaps a comment directed rather towards Nuno: when I visited the José de Guimarães International Arts Centre, a few years ago (I was still living in Brazil), I encountered the African sculptures on the glass easels which I knew from Lina Bo Bardi’s display design for the MASP in São Paulo. You used the instrument of display, the glass easels, for a really moving installation in Guimarães. So, i’d like to understand, from a conceptual point of view, but also a curatorial one, the gesture of creating these analogies between the masks and the faces of victims of the First World War which are displayed on the opposite wall here at Pavilhão Branco.
Nuno Faria: […] There was something João said (just to make an observation, before I attempt to answer this question): João said something very interesting in response to your question, which is that artists map…
NF: … time, yes, memory. And I noted down some things on the train today to prepare for this conversation. Looking back…, I think it’s very interesting that we have these conversations after an exhibition’s assembly because, during the preparation and assembly, and after the opening, there’s no taking a step back, as a spectator, to consider the substance and choreography of gestures that come together to make an exhibition. And so I took some notes, a posteriori, and one of them was this (not exactly this, but there’s an interesting connection): I don’t think this project talks to us about the past; it’s a project that talks to us about the future. In the best-case scenario, it talks of the immediate future that we anticipate today. And I began to think that perhaps there’s a line that’s common to many artists, a time line, which is mediated by their career, or path, or whatever: perhaps artists are interested, in the earlier stages of their work, in space, and progressively, when they get older, they become more interested in time. Looking at various artists, this is an interesting focal point. Not just space understood as something physical, but also as an element of representation. And in João’s case this is very obvious here. This is an exhibition that’s clearly about time, about a certain anxiety; a time, perhaps, that has to do with the idea of an end, a certain idea of an end, the idea that something is ending and (as someone once said about changes) we don’t see any hope. We don’t see what could come next except the end, really the end. And this exhibition has a very important characteristic, I think, which is […] [it being] the reason for a very long investigative process. Indeed, I was very surprised when João invited me and when I began to realise the extent of this project – what had gone into it and what was still to come (it’s worth mentioning that we began working on it far in advance). In parallel with the project presented in this exhibition, João has begun working on another, which is a project about the figure of poison. Poison as the metaphor of a kind of clash between two ways of living, of conceiving the world and exploring the world. A form, basically, that has to do with ways of life that are attuned to nature’s cycles, right? The indigenous communities of the Amazon, for example, we see what’s happening to them… Bolsonaro, buffoon that he is, came out with the nonsense (it’s diabolical, it’s as diabolical as the images we’re seeing, of the war) that: ‘Indians must be given land ownership’… and there you have it, I’m not going say anything else, but it’s just terrible. Indians absolutely refuse to acknowledge ownership of the land; ownership is a foreign concept to them. And everything this leads to… It’s diabolical. And he adds: ‘Indians also have the right to progress’. This project that João is working on uses poison as a very powerful metaphor, on the one hand for evil, on the other for antidote, and there’s something that combines these two forms of life or conception of the world.
So, I must say that these two investigations really surprised me. I think they have to do with this idea, which is not even an idea of an end like the Dadaists or the German romantics, in very different ways, proclaimed, or sang, or shouted, it’s more an idea of something that’s really going to end – it’s inevitable that it will end.
There’s something in the mediation photography invokes which is troubled. We’re not really there, we’re in some membrane, which is mimetic on the one hand but which, on the other hand, is also a sort of staging and representation. And so, photography is really a strange language in this sense, because it convokes us but at the same time deceives us.
There’s always an uneasiness when we look at these images, and I think what João is doing, like many other artists nowadays, is repudiating a series of ills that we know are coming and telling us that history doesn’t, in fact, teach us anything. You spoke of memory and the construction of memory, but it’s a fallacy. There’s no construction of memory, actually, when we know that memory teaches us very little or, when it does teach us, in spite of everything, it doesn’t stop us from making the same mistakes or even worse ones, even when this means a loss, or indeed leads to our extinction as individuals and as a species.
But all this is to say that yes, that it’s a project, I think, about time. And it’s interesting that you said that artists are gatherers of time or builders of time.
To answer your question, Tobi, I think that this is one of the most mysterious works in the exhibition. The approximation between the deformed faces, which give us a measure of the butchery of the conflict, and the Pende masks recalls the history of the face…
JL: And on the other hand it’s called O Nascimento do Moderno [The Birth of the Modern]. It’s as if the modern were based on these scars, were based on this rupture, isn’t it?
NF: Yes. But the face is, in fact, the maximum point of recognition of ourselves in the other and, at the same time, a kind of boundary that, as a result, because of this recognition, cannot be overcome, so to speak: ‘We do not harm our neighbour’, ‘we do not self-mutilate’, in this regard. Levinas spoke a lot about this during the trauma of the Second World War, didn’t he?
This is one of the most mysterious works and also one of the several points of contact that João mapped and drew. But there’s something else worth mentioning here: João’s work, like that of many artists, isn’t a work of academic research, in the strict or disciplinary sense of the term; rather, it’s a work of intuitive research, free from the burden of proof or evidence, based on the study of images and the texts that go with them, which goes beyond the detective work carried out by a researcher looking for a document. Images as documents are different to texts as documents. And, to resume and to conclude, the representation of the mutilated face and the approximation to the mask, that is, the face as a mask, is one of the topoi that symbolise the madness, the insanity of the First World War. Of course, this has antecedents. This search for the mask and, specifically (but not exclusively) for the African mask, as a kind of interface, essentially invokes the question of alterity as a unique point of contact between the two realities, right? The other; the invocation of the other, but also of ourselves.
TM: Now, the masks, for me, on a first encounter, remained quite distant from the mutilated faces of the First World War. However, they also form a dialogue with another materialisation of an observation by João, which is the scene of the sculpture of Christ  with the house-sculpture  beside it. I wonder: are these artistic or even curatorial epiphanies on his part, or even a collaborative gesture?
JL: To answer your question, I want to pick up on something that was mentioned a little while ago, something Nuno was saying about history and artists’ work processes and, in this case, my work process. In my view, the question of historicity has to be put to one side. In the art world, I’m not interested in the chronological sequence of events. I’m much more interested in the history of those who lost, of the defeated; I’m much more interested in the labyrinths of history, the shifting sands, that which is not really understood. That is to say, history can’t be read as a textbook. This is why research is very interesting, because it can lead you down strange, unexpected paths. Just to give you a small example of research related to this theme, I ended up finding out about a general who was part of an exclusive group that was close to the Kaiser – so, he belonged to the general staff – whose name was Erich Ludendorff. This is something that history books don’t tell you: it was him who got Lenin into Russia and he did so because it was in his interest to sabotage the country from within. He knew of the existence of Lenin, who lived, by coincidence (yet another coincidence of history), opposite Cabaret Voltaire. There’s a photograph that’s thought to feature Lenin, but it was known that he lived opposite Cabaret Voltaire (he disguised himself and used wigs, because he was persecuted and was already bald at the time). But this general convinced the Kaiser to get Lenin into Moscow and so he was protected by the Germans. He entered the city with a degree of anonymity and we know that, in 1917, the Russian Revolution took place. So, if we’re talking about Lenin walking past Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, we’re talking about a matter of a year! Of course Cabaret Voltaire was already very tumultuous, that is, the end in Zurich seemed inevitable, but it’s still curious (it’s not the story that we know, that we’re told) that a German general got a Bolshevik into Russia. Perhaps, taking Walter Benjamin and the Arcades,  in which the story is told with small details, right? Small things: the postcard; the canary in the shop of ‘Mr whatshisname’… The story told with small phenomena, not in the chronological sequence that historicity always wants to propose to us. This is very curious, these small details that history brings us. And that’s why artists essentially do this, that is, they excavate the future.
This is something difficult to prove (if we don’t go into the world of mysticism), but we can see that there’s one thing that’s common to artists which is a kind of sense about things of the future, about what could happen, this kind of premonition (without wanting to be mystical), this keen sense that artists have and that allows them to read certain elements together. It often involves this subjectivity of approach – because it’s not something scientific, and just as well! It involves this approach, this reading of phenomena that are imminent. It’s that thing everyone talks about, the zeitgeist, isn’t it? That sense of time they have a perception of. There’s a perception about this sense of time that artists have, at least the ones who interest me.
TM: Yes. And this French or German writing also materialises in many of the works that we see here on the wall or in the vitrines. The figures you researched, Hans Richter, Franz Marc, Gropius and of course, in the work of Otto Dix the trauma of the war is perhaps more apparent. What did you find out about the participation of these avant-garde artists as ‘actors’ in the war?
JL: Many of them enlisted as soldiers; others weren’t able to, like Hugo Ball for example. We need to understand – and for this we have to read Karl Kraus – that journalism at the time was considered by Kraus as being the biggest catastrophe, or rather, the great ally of the carnage. Because it was journalism that got people excited about enlisting, it wasn’t the barracks themselves. The barracks were just waiting for them to arrive there. So, there was a kind of excitement of the nation, nationalism was effervescent, and journalism carried out this function very well – it’s what led, he would say, the innocent to the slaughter. Hugo Ball, who ended up being the founder of Cabaret Voltaire, curisouly tried to enlist several times, but he was physically weak. He tried to be a soldier! So, if even Hugo Ball tried to enlist, he who was the mentor of an avant-garde movement strongly opposed to the whole war and that whole situation, we imagine that it was very easy to fall into this trap, this nationalist excitement that the newspapers were creating. They all in some way went singing and smiling to war, this is basically what happened. Few had an idea of what lay in store for them. Some died; others were traumatised. Apollinaire would die of a war injury (not in the war, but of a wound inflicted by a piece of shrapnel during combat). There were mutilations; there was a series of artists who went through this, and there were some who witnessed the war and ended up talking about it afterwards… there are several. Erich Maria Remarque wrote an absolutely fundamental book, if you want to read a story, and indeed there’s a silent film by Lewis Milestone, from 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front – it’s an absolutely brilliant film. Or Ernst Jünger who wrote perhaps the richest and most vivid book about the First World War, Storm of Steel . And so, there were artists who participated in this carnage; many came back with psychological and physical scars, and some joined the avant-garde movements afterwards, later on: Dada in 1916, then Bauhaus (Gropius was a soldier in the First World War, for example). There’s a series of ex-combatants who eventually formed academies, wrote texts, produced work; there’s an immense range of material available and you can see this: they went singing and smiling but came back completely crippled.
TM: Yes, this process of selection of documents also interests me. We have the vitrines, here, and you sourced these materials from various places, I imagine. And then in the exhibition we present this rendering, this materialisation of Christ that we brought from Caramulo, a Christ from the 14th century. Did you observe these sculptural moments, or moments of tragedy, in the photographs and then this led to what you wanted to see in the exhibition, like a column that holds up the whole discourse that surrounds it?
JL: There’s a combination of elements. There’s a very important story about the Portuguese contingent in La Lys, where the biggest Portuguese contingent was in the First World War. In one of the battles they were involved in, there was a church that was bombed and destroyed, and the Portuguese recovered a Christ that was completely mutilated. They recovered it and protected it. There’s a rather strange image, because it looks like a martyr nailed into the ground, without an arm, a kind of martyr that is there but, somehow, also protected by the Portuguese contingent. They’re very powerful images. After all these episodes, the French state finally recognised, in the 1950s, the deeds of the Portuguese contingent and this heroic act in protection of the Christ, and it was given to the Portuguese state. Nowadays, this Christ is housed in the Monastery of Batalha in tribute to the Unknown Soldier. It’s the Christ of La Lys that’s there, mutilated – it’s an absolutely incredible piece. And here in the exhibition, there’s this juxtapositional relationship: on the lower floor we have a Christ and beside it a latrine, something that seems almost a heresy. But for those people, who were abandoned to their fate, anywhere served as a place of worship. I think it was important to connect these elements and, consequently, it doesn’t function in the exhibition as a kind of heresy, that’s not the case; it functions as an expression that belief is still there, that faith is still there, that it was the last refuge of people who were abandoned to their fate.
TM: Do you practise? Are you a practising Catholic?
JL: No, no… I’m not.
TM: But did you have a strict religious upbringing?
JL: No. My mother was a biologist, so she didn’t even believe in God… [laughter] It wasn’t possible, because she believed in Darwin. [laughter] Now – if we distance ourselves from religions – I do believe there’s a component of religiosity that we all have in us. Things that can’t be explained… at least not by science.
Participant 1: Spirituality…
JL: Spirituality. Not associated with anything in particular.
TM: Any comments, questions?
NF: A while ago, Tobi, you were talking about how to get from the research, from the archive and the gathering, to this apparatus of new images which stem from others and which are here, right? There’s something in this exhibition that piques my interest which is that it doesn’t look like one of João’s exhibitions; it doesn’t look, at least at first glance, like anything he has done before; it doesn’t conform, shall we say, to what we might call the ‘authorial mark’ of the artist. The various reactions of other people who’ve seen the exhibition confirm this surprise of non-recognition. And this says a lot, both about the exhibition, and about the expectations the art world creates about artists, as if chaining them to an image, which is not really an identity, but an exterior image. As far as I’m concerned this is a quality and a characteristic that I highly value in artists’ work. Artistic work has this ability to overcome form, and this exhibition is really interesting in this sense. One of the most remarkable stories is the one right behind you, which is a series of charcoal drawings, which are atmospheric drawings. I’m convinced that if this series was displayed without knowing who the artist was no one would guess that it was João who did it, and I think this has much more to do with the arcana of research, of the process, than, as perhaps some art professionals might think, with the collection of influences strictly speaking. Because the arcana of research, these labyrinths João speaks of, lead to states of awareness, not just mental but also physical, which predispose us to ‘deviations of doing’. Essentially what João does – and I remember now, incidentally, the Concerto for the Left Hand, by Maurice Ravel, written for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War – using the left hand, is a kind of ‘deconditioning’ of the authorial mark. In relation to the superficial or facial recognition of authorship there’s then a group of people who get here and say ‘oh this looks like so and so’… If we see exactly what’s happening here, if we consider the systematic deconstruction of the image carried out by the artist, we realise that they’re not skies similar to those of [Michael] Biberstein, for example, who recalled the skies of the Romantics, or of the German idealists, but they are images led by reading, by the environments invoked by the set of stories, more romanticised stories or stories experienced as testimonies to that place, etc. So, this is an exhibition of explosions, with regard to the image, but also the explosion of an authorial identity, of an authorial mark, and I find this very interesting; the exhibition is very surprising in this sense. Then, the processes of assembly: we worked very much based on these four rooms, that is, an exhibition isn’t created in isolation from the space it’s held in. We have the memory of this space. The Pavilhão Branco is a remarkable space. We’ve seen dozens and dozens of exhibitions here, so to do an exhibition here is always to do an exhibition with a memory of various things that we’ve seen here. I remembered in particular, when we were doing the assembly, a wonderful exhibition that Fernando Calhau did here with Rui Chafes [Um passo no escuro (A step in the dark), 2002], in dialogue, that had a lot to do with this conversation about black with black. In the case of João’s exhibition, the installation of the various galleries is very particular; it’s almost as if we had three different exhibitions, three different densities. Here [on the upper level] more atmospheric, and downstairs more earthly.
JL: But there’s something I’d like to add, which is important, and therein lies the praise, because the work of curating is precisely this: a line of communication between various parts in the space one has, because the space can’t be invented, the space is what exists. So your work was a work of precision and intelligence. But also to say that this is one part of everything that was produced during those years that I began working on this theme. There are many more works; there are large works which did not fit. The question of space is also important, to not make it too dense, to leave room to breathe. This is an important curatorial work, it allows for these readings, these connections. So there’s much more, there’s other material that wasn’t shown and that one day probably will be, when we have a broader project and can take all of this and display it. This is one part of the work, so to speak.
TM: And do you see this body of work, then, as a new stage in your artistic practice, or another ‘extension?
JL: Yes, I have several themes that are important in my work, and most of them can be revisited, as long as important things happen in order for me to pick them up again and amplify and improve them. And this is a theme that I’m not done with; it will be revisited, as long as things happen and elements appear that make sense and can be incorporated into this group.
TM: Yes, it’s more the question Nuno raised, about the form of the works, that visceral sensation that’s less connected to the readymade, perhaps.
JL: My production isn’t related to the readymade. That is, obviously Duchamp is important; all artists have to reference him in one way or another. I have two main lines of work that are important, and I continue to revisit them. One of these is the Blind Images, which are increasingly important, and we increasingly hear artists and thinkers talking about the question of the image, about the question of the disappearance of the image and about the question of the sedimentation and constant and infinite production of images. Every day there are millions of images… we can no longer read images. So, the work of the Blind Images is extremely important. In fact, I could make Blind Images for the rest of my life, if I was another type of artist. But I’m restless and prefer to have various lines of work. It’s a way of working. I couldn’t be a Rothko, for example. This instability is part of my process, despite the fact I’m always talking about the same things, only with different visual expressions. But the themes are more or less the same. This restlessness is what stops me from fixating on things. It was Alberto Carneiro who talked about having a ‘knack’. There was a student of his who, in a sculpture class where they were doing some exercises, always worked with the ‘hand of an angel’, and this ‘hand of an angel’ is the ‘knack’ that artists pick up, and they know how to do it very well, and they do it their whole life. And often you need to seek a certain discomfort: use the other hand, try doing it with your eyes closed, whatever, it doesn’t matter. We need to create discomfort in order to lose this vice of the ‘knack’. And the ‘knack’ is an important technical question, but… I think being restless is part of my process and it’s more important for me.
NF: I don’t know if anyone has any questions? We’ll have a short break so you can prepare for questions.
Participant 1: You can do Blind Images for the rest of your life, or not, it’s not important; you can do them again. The Blind Image isn’t just a materialised awareness of the problem of the image, but the permanence of the word seems to be here to stay, doesn’t it?
JL: The word? The Blind Images are not complete if they don’t have the word. As a matter of fact, the research about the Blind Images is very easy to explain: I realised that, by having a caption or a text, and by erasing an image – because, essentially, in the beginning I erased images from newspapers and magazines – I realised that I had created a trouvaille; I had discovered something important. The human brain has a very curious characteristic, several, actually, but one of them is the fear of empty space. It doesn’t like empty space and it fills empty space. Monochrome, when it’s associated with a caption – that question of the word – the spectator will dwell on what’s there. In fact, sometimes they even ask if the image is there or not, but the spectator will dwell on what they’re reading.
Participant 1: There’s a sense and a meaning in that word. One thing is to say ‘prison’, another is to say ‘Auschwitz’. Even though this image, this monochrome which is an image, I also don’t know if it’s empty – whether black or white, or painted as was the case in one or other of the paintings [of the series] in question.
JL: Yes, we’re talking about monochromes. This would lead to a lengthier conversation but it’s basically something that has concerned me from the beginning, the question of the spectator. There’s no way of breaking the Romantic paradigm if the spectator doesn’t participate. We’re still in the Romantic paradigm. There’s no way around it; a lot has happened, the conceptual and minimalist movements, but our judgement is still based on the Romantic paradigm, and it’s very difficult to break it. And the only way, in my view, that we can break the Romantic paradigm, is by giving the spectator a role to play. In other words, the work is never complete, the work is never finished, and it’s the spectator who will finish it. And this is one of the great advantages that the Blind Images give me. It doesn’t involve anything like putting a headset on, no: the spectator becomes an active part in the construction of the work.
Participant 1: Not just because they are reflected but because they read.
JL: Because they read. That is, they become, they participate in, they finish the work. And it’s the only possible way of breaking the Romantic paradigm – at least as far as I can see, because it’s so difficult to break it – just based on this assumption. But anyway, this is more…
TM: I think we’re moving away from the exhibition somewhat, because I think you’d have to explain or show us some of these Blind Images, which I’m not familiar with, I have to confess. Perhaps there are other people here who are in the same position.
JL: Yes, it’s a real shame they’re not here, but they’re part of my work.
NF: But you touch on a very interesting point here which is: with this exhibition, inevitably with all the images brought together in this exhibition – whether archive images, so taken directly, or images that are based on others, or that have words as their starting point, or which have image-captions, image-words – we’re very close, without being from a mimetic point of view, to this question of the non-image, or of the image that we can’t see, of the image that it’s no longer possible to see, from which we’re no longer seeing, or that we refuse to see. And so I think that there’s a connection there.
JL: It’s what I was saying a little while ago. Despite the fact the work looks different, the themes don’t change much, that is, really, it’s their appearance that changes.
NF: Yes, these are the questions you’re working with – what’s seen, what isn’t seen, what can be seen, what can’t be seen. It has to do with the limit of the image.
JL: I don’t know if I told you… You know Paulo Herkenhoff, who I’m going to do a project with this year, and who I’ve already done various projects with and who I like very much, especially because his thinking is very refined, very sharp, very special. One day I was in my studio, and I was looking at a Blind Image, and I was explaining to him the question of the person being part of the work, because the person, as they are reflected, appears reflected in the work. And he said: ‘No, João. This work swallows everything.’ So, he saw it differently. He said that the work was a kind of vortex that swallowed everything around it: the room, the place, the people. It swallowed everything. It’s another way of looking at the Blind Images that awakened me to a new approach. Those works could be a kind of black hole, something that sucks in all images. It’s another way of looking at the Blind Images. But anyway, these are small details and other curiosities…
NF: Of an image maker. Curiosities of an image maker… [laughter]
JL: Curiously, I collect images. First I collect them and then I erase them.
TM: To conclude, it might be interesting if you share with us the current state of the research you’re working on now. It could be interesting to hear whether the research presented here is ongoing or if you’ve embarked on other ‘immersions’.
JL: This work is ongoing. Now, I would really like to look in depth at the end of the French Revolution; it’s a subject that really interests me. I’m interested in this transition, because we talk about history but there were people who were there, who saw the end of the French Revolution. I would like to understand these people, the anonymous witnesses of the French Revolution. And it’s a theme that interests me a lot and that I’d really like to investigate. Not in the historicistic sense of a sequence of phenomena, which produces a timeline of the matter, but of finding out details: what did they eat, what did they say, how did they relate to one another, etc., etc. All these elements will give me information to better understand this important phenomenon, which was the beginning of the modern world.
TM: And the question of Portugal, the Portuguese question in the First World War? I feel this isn’t very present.
JL: I spoke about the Battle of La Lys, that very important Portuguese contingent; that Christ which is an absolutely fantastic story and which is part of this whole investigation and is included in this exhibition. Of course not all of the research is here; not all the works are here and this phenomenon is much more extensive. To give just one example, one detail, which is also something that could be interesting to introduce to the conversation, very quickly: Queen Victoria [of the United Kingdom] had several grandchildren, and Wilhelm II, the Kaiser; Nikolai II, the Tsar of Russia; and George V [King of the United Kingdom] were all cousins. I even brought a photograph of George V and Nikolai II, who were lookalikes, practically. So these were three cousins playing at war, among whom the Kaiser, with his desire to go and help his friend the (Austro-Hungarian) Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who ended up being assassinated in Sarajevo (which was later the stage of more bloody conflicts), triggered this war that, as you were saying, Nuno, had no clear or compelling motive behind it. It seems almost a family affair. In fact, Queen Victoria is there among the documents in the vitrine. And I had lost this photograph that I brought with me today to show you (of the cousins George V and Nikolai II) – there’s the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, George V and Nikolai II and there wasn’t this photograph of the two of them together.
TM: And do you buy these materials at second-hand bookshops, or are they reproductions?
JL: Archives are free to access after a hundred years and it’s easier to get hold of them and not have problems with copyrights. And lots of things turn up.
NF: Yes, but there’s an album, for example – whoever hasn’t seen it I’ll point it out – of a soldier, of a German official. It’s an album that João bought in an auction and it’s absolutely incredible. It’s a story…
JL: Yes, it’s brilliant, it has photos of everything from bombings to feeding the hens. That’s it, it’s from these stories that don’t have a chronological sequence, something that doesn’t interest me, but that have the mundane part, of life. There’s even a portrait of the dog, Teckel… – it’s remarkable to see a dog in a photograph that’s so old. These small stories.
Participant 2: It’s also a map, isn’t it?
JL: There’s a map too, from that time. Indeed, it’s marked with the Western Front. Yes, they’re things that I’ve collected over time.
 Editor’s note – ‘13-15. Tabela Periódica #01-#3 | Canvas and vinyl, 114 x 146 cm’, see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.
 Editor’s note – ‘Máscaras, Pende, Congo | 2. Wood and pigments, 30 x 17 x 14 cm | 3. Wood and kaolin, 25 x 15 x 9 cm | 4. Wood, kaolin, rope, cloth, hessian and fibres, 38 x 20 x 15 cm | 5. Wood, kaolin and rope, 27 x 19 x 9 cm | Col. José de Guimarães’, see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.
 Editor’s note – «27. O Nascimento do Moderno #1, 2019 | Acrylic on paper and photograph
printed on parchment paper, 49,5 x 64,5 cm»; «28. O Nascimento do Moderno #2, 2019 | Acrylic on paper and photograph printed on parchment paper, 52,5 x 67 cm», see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.
 Editor’s note – ‘6. Cristo na Cruz, 14th century | Iberian peninsula, polychrome wood, 244 x 149 x 33 cm | Col. Museu do Caramulo’, see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.
 Editor’s note – «7. Casa de Deus, 2019 | Wood and metal, 210 x 100 x 100 cm», see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.
 Editor’s note – Reference to a collection of writings by Walter Benjamin published in Portugal by Assírio & Alvim with the title As Passagens de Paris (translation by João Barrento).
 Editor’s note – ‘22-32. Ni le soleil ni la mort #1- #10, 2016, graphite on paper, 41 x 36.5 cm’, see Exhibition notes. Ni le Soleil ni la Mort.