Interview with João Louro
Helena Mendes Pereira: Do you consider that the image and the exposed social construction of women are different today than it was in the 1950s/60s/70s? In what way does that vision of yours have an expression in your work?
João Louro: I have no doubt about it. There have been steps, small steps, since Carolina Beatriz Ângelo, who in the last quarter of the 19th century was the first Portuguese woman to vote; or in England, 1897, with the founding of National Union for Women’s Suffrage (and let me sigh, because it is something so recent …). However, these small steps, these rights have changed very little in what is the vision or social construction of women. And, to meet the dates you indicated, the 50s/60s were the apotheosis of fetishization, associated with the glamour of the great movie actresses, this world created by Hollywood and replicated by everyone in what is considered “western culture”. But I also think that Hollywood does not invent this… there is something deeper that emerges everywhere and defines this so-called modern Western culture.
I believe that we live in different times, which means that a new type of conservatism also emerges. Each era, when raising new questions creates opportunities for evolution, correcting practices and thinking that have their days numbered. Particularly, in my case, I always remember Father António Vieira’s quote: “ I just miss the future”.
HMP: How does it all start, that is, how do you discover that Art is your path?
JL: I discovered early that “art” was synonymous of “freedom”. As I was a very rebellious child and I always got into trouble wherever I went, at first, in the neighbourhood, then with the sources of power, especially family and school, then the army, which makes me think that this rebellion would perhaps be my first cry for freedom: I wanted to be free! When I was asked what I wanted to be when I was little, I always said: “I want to be surrealist”. I already knew who the “surrealists” were because there were reading sessions at home and I was always fascinated by the madness, which was a childish madness, of the surrealist “soirées”, meetings and parties. I thought it was a “non-adult” way of existing, that had no limits or limitations, nor embarrassments and that they took freedom very seriously.
HMP: What does it mean to you to be contemporary, to be an artist of the contemporary? Are there assumptions that define what is or not part of a so-called contemporary production?
JL: From a very early age, I interpreted “being contemporary” with a practice that has to do with the time in which the artist lives, which starts from there, in the strict observation of that time. And this is called having a sense of time or, in this practice, the work being pertinent. The artist, any artist, at least those that interest me, have this perception of the time they live in… and what we so often hear: is “zeitgeist”! This is the only way to be contemporary. This also means that artists (and I exclude entertainers and nostalgists) have a keen sense of smell for that thin fringe of what is lived and a perception of what “will come”! In conclusion, the contemporary artist reads the past (which he does not forget), records the present (his present) and perceives the future (whatever it may be), always under his eyes, which is private, and which makes him unprecedented.
HMP: Tell me your story about the History of Crime? Is there a challenge in the word’s semiotics that attracts you?
JL: The invention of the word is the mechanism that I consider most sophisticated in human creation. When I say “dog”, there is a dog that is formed in the mind of the listener; or when I cay “Enlightenment”, a whole concept is formed. This invention of the communicational being that we are has no comparison with any other invention, no matter how sophisticated and elaborate it may be. For me the word is the origin of the world, interestingly, “And in the beginning, it was the verb”, is written in the first chapter of Genesis.
This project, “A História do Crime” (The History of Crime), part of an issue that I asked myself a long time ago (the project is from 1995!) And where I started to consider that there was an inconsistency between meaning and signifier. I was convinced that the world had abused words and disqualified them. It was a revolutionary project against the decline of the world and that is why it was called “A História do Crime” (The History of Crime), which was the testimony of that same crime.
The word had become an accomplice to that decay and had prostituted itself, had lost its content, was worn out or even had falsified content. And it started from there, from this failed correspondence, from this decay.
But as it was a very ambitious project, I thought for a long time that it would be impossible. Not because of the idea, which seemed fundamental to me and was defined, but mainly because of its production. Then it came Priberam that really liked the project and helped me to solve the practical issues. I owe them a lot; above all, they have simplified something very somplex to achieve.
HMP: Do you expect an emancipated spectator for your work, in Jacques Rancière’s perspective, or do you understand that it needs mediation mechanisms to be penetrated?
JL: There are two major groups of artists. Those for whom it is necessary to know the access codes to your work, e.g. Joseph Beuys, or those who don’t need that initial decoding. I belong to this second group. My work must be perceived by the viewer, be viewed, read, from something that is recognized… and I give an example: the mechanism of “Dead Ends”, one of the great groups of my work, which are the highway signs, assumes that principle. We all recognize the signage of the city and the highways. These are immediately decipherable signs. There is no obstacle to its recognition… it is a work that looks like something we already know, it is identifiable, and we have crossed paths with something similar.
However, there is a moment when the content, after it has been perceived, reveals itself involved in some strangeness. Some elements were not supposed to be there. And it is at that moment, at the moment of strangeness, that the artwork begins its process. So far, the viewer’s attention has been captured unhindered, without the need to be deciphered, but the content begins to produce a retardant effect. There is something unexpected about this content. At that moment the artwork breaks out.
That is why my work (without guarantees that this always happens) does not need mediation. It gives itself to the viewer. And when that happens, I guarantee an important step, which is that the viewer can finish my work.
HMP: In addition to the Surrealists or among the Surrealists, is there an artist for whom you have special admiration?
JL: Surrealism was an anachronism in my life. That’s how I see it. My first anachronism. It was just a teenage crush. What interested me and still interests me is the vanguard. It’s the avant-garde movements that preceded Surrealism, especially Dadaism. This is the centre of my interest. Of course, all the others that are born afterwards, a consequence or not of DaDa, as of Stijl or Bauhaus, or of a spontaneous outbreak, as in the Russian avant-garde, constructivism, for example, also interest me.
But when I speak of the avant-garde, there are at least 3 or 4 figures that come to mind and that I consider them to be avant-la-lettre or shooting stars of their time that precede the avant-garde. I refer to Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Baudelaire and Arthur Cravan. They read with greater intensity and distance the times ahead. They inaugurated modernity.
HMP: Cinema, literature, music, your work has a rich referential lexicon, as if you were living mentally populated by a large toy library. Does your creative process start from that empathic relationship that you establish with the works of others?
JL: My creative process always starts from time, from my time, from the time I live! It solves and fills everything. And what does time ask for? That is the question that is always asked without asking. It is available to all artists, without exception. That is why I never leave others to elaborate a work. However, I am zealous of my library (always incomplete), I review the cinema classics (and not only!). I am judicious and run away from entertainment. I avoid noise. I visit museums. I hear music. I read poetry. All of this is the basis for thinking, for seeing further and when sedimenting, you can reach deeper, more distant and have more refined senses. Culture always puts us to the test and often punishes us, other times it returns in reward. That’s what this sedimentation is made of. The work of the other authors are external eyes that have seen and thought their time. They are the family I was able to choose. But my gaze is always on my time and what that time calls for.
HMP: What is the starting point of the work “A morte do Homem” (The death of man)?
JL: This work is part of a broad group of works that reflect on a crucial issue for me. When is the vanguard born and why? And all the work I did around this subject has borne fruit. My thesis is that the avant-garde (and DaDa in particular) is born from the consequences of the 1st World War. Vanguards are born out of traumatic situations. Would it have been born at another time if the war had not broken out? Yes, it would have arisen. The vanguard is always born when summoned. It is anti-matter. The events in the world are a pyramid of cards, with precarious balance, often also more resistant than we could imagine. And then there is the rupture of the system, the fall of that pyramid and we witness the fall of the empire, whether Aztec, Greek or Roman. There were always people who watched and lived those moments… there was always someone, some, many anonymous people, who watched the fall of the Bastille.
This work you are referring to is not a metaphor (but it could be!). It is a place in France, in an offensive “in the flesh”, in two hills, in an area that was called “Cumières-le-Mort Homme”, in the Meuse. This area, which comprises 5 regions, does not have a single inhabitant even today. That name could be the name given to all this tearing war. It could be the “death of man”. And it was, in some way.
HMP: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?
JL: I believe that man can make leaps in evolution and the fight is for intelligence. It has done so on several occasions and started in the distant past… and the various hypotheses that there is something malevolent man, a natural predisposition, I do not believe. I think that the human being, due to the excess of testosterone, due to the reptilian memory he still has, has turned towards action, ingenuity and predation. But I believe that our vocation is much wider and the carnivore that lives in us, if it was an important tool in evolution, is being overvalued.
In distant times, being omnivores and mammals, small beings, we lived harassed in an ecosystem of large animals and ferocious predators. It was in these setbacks that we developed strategies, expanded intelligence and survived hidden and fearful of the impotence and magnitude of the environment that surrounded us. These setbacks created the device. That was our broth. I think we have not yet freed ourselves from things that made us survive, but after we have reached this high level of intelligence, strangely these strategies remain active. We still live stuck in the reptilian memory. We are better than that and I am therefore an optimist!
HMP: How do you see the future in terms of rights, freedoms and guarantees for citizens?
JL: The world is in an accelerated process and we, because it is our time, are in the midst of the whirlwind of events without the capacity to withdraw and perceive them in totality. The present has always been an enigma for those who live it. And there was always a present, at a certain moment, for men of any age. It is only when you look back that there is a critical distance and it is only at that moment that you can better understand what that present was, now past time.
Each “present” asked particular questions at all times. This is the time to face ours. The evolution curve has never been or will be continuous. It is helical… progress is made by setbacks, misunderstandings, curves and folds. Then there is time dilation… how much time, or how much time do we need to see significant changes? The future is long!
HMP: Is the word, in your work, narrative or enigma?
JL: The word is invention. It is the real laboratory. It is experience. I often feel that my work is closer to laboratory experiments, where I test the resistance, the pressure, the crack of the word, than an art studio. It is an art laboratory if you can call it that. Thus, the word is the means I have at my disposal to perceive the world.
HMP: What attracts you in creating new semiotics with pre-existing thoughts?
JL: If we look at the alphabet, we realize that its magnitude is infinite. The new is not just pure invention, it is the gathering of things never together. That’s where the creation of energy is. It is the shocks of things that exist, the friction, that produces the new. It is like chess, a finite set of pieces, that creates an infinite number of possibilities.
HMP: Is colour symbolic or just plasticity?
JL: Colour is my ready-made. I look for colours that had another life. And it is these colours that allow us to build an alphabet of personal experiences, sets of latency. All the colours I use have some meaning. For example the “roasted yellow” is the mustard of the hotdog that I ate in the tennis club when I was a young teenager. And that yellow brings memories, the shapes of the rackets and the marks; the equipment we used; the sound of balls hitting the court; the flirts on the bench… and this is just a colour! Each colour, for me, has a whole world inside!
HMP: Did “História do Crime” (History of Crime) seem impossible?
JL: There are dangerous works that can unbalance the world. The works that invent a new world have this characteristic. That is pure dynamite. And then the whole technical process, of putting verbs to one side, adjectives to the other, taking the words out from the meanings and combining them back into your group and all this having to be done word for word, seemed to me to be a job of one crazy clerk, to do for a lifetime.
The technical issue solved by Priberam, who immediately understood my project, allowed me to produce that piece of dynamite in the form of words with their new definitions, in a simple way.