On an enumeration of goods for sale by João Penalva

Emilio Lledó tells us that “in the beginning was the word”[1] and from the beginning, the philosophers understood that the way to knowledge was to take charge of words. Most of Plato’s Dialogues consist of discussions around words, concepts that we use without thinking about what their true meaning is. “Socrates repeatedly devotes himself to questioning these unanalysed linguistic usages, which usually encapsulate contradictions.”[2]

The title of this solo exhibition by João Penalva (PT, 1949) is a list of words, an enumeration of goods that could be an advertisement for a shopkeeper of varieties. In this case, the philosopher would have little room for enquiry, considering that the words have a mimetic correspondence with the identifiable objects in each of the works presented. And, for João Penalva, in the beginning was the dance and this historical fact will be one of the peculiarities of his biography. It was also the stage, as the first place of encounter and discovery with the body, with space and with aesthetics, the key element for the way the artist sees, questions and fixes the world around him.

It is inevitable, for me, to experience the artworks of the series flowers, shoes or chairs, on show in this exhibition at zet gallery, and not feel the movement and rhythm of the absent body and the image-making gesture.

Between 1968 and 1976, João Penalva developed his artistic activity in the area of dance, studying between Paris, Lisbon and London. During these eight years, he was part of the companies of the Germans Pina Bausch (1940-2009) and Gerhard Bohner (1936-1992) and founded The Moon Dance Company with Jean Pomares in Copenhagen in 1975. He settled in London in 1976, starting a path in the visual arts after his admission to the renowned Chelsea School of Art. The 1980s were marked by exhibitions in the UK and Portugal.

João Penalva has adopted, since these early days, a stance aligned with politicising “the shape and not only the content of his works, the technique and not the theme”[3]. This importance given to the process and to the creative freedom that values the everyday is in tune with the thought of John Cage (USA, 1912-1992) and of Merce Cunningham (USA, 1919-2009), artists who met at the Dance Company and became inseparable. Cage started from music and Cunningham from dance, but what they represent in terms of thinking for contemporary artistic practices is beyond the subjects. The avant-gardes are marked by activism and the discussions of the last decades about art have been cyclically guided by the question of the activism of art, that is, “the capacity of art to function as an arena and means of political protest and social activism.

Art activists do not only want to criticise the art system or the political and social conditions in which it functions. They also want to change these conditions through art – not so much inside the art system, but more outside it, that is, to change the conditions of reality itself.”[4]

John Cage and the Fluxus movement were the precursors of this activism, and Cage approaches his work with a seriousness that is rooted in the lessons he learns from contemplating nature, which is stripped of solemnity. Cage embraces “a philosophical concern that allows the art of sounds to manifest itself without barriers, wandering in harmonious dialogue with all the arts. It is Cage himself who tells us, being an appreciator of all sounds, that laughter seems to him the most pleasant of all; however, already in 1937, he said that one day all audible sounds would become part of music.”

[5]Cage is one of the creators of New Music, which he designates as a way of listening, the aim of writing music being not to work around purposes but with sounds. “This game is undoubtedly a vital statement. Not an attempt to extract order from chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but sensitively a way of awakening to the true life we live in: ART = LIFE.”[6]

João Penalva’s work interests us, from the outset, because of its sensitive look at everyday objects, at commonplaces where, between image and spectator, there is only a poetic interstice, sometimes profane, but of slow contemplative appeal. The works of João Penalva are details of life, bits of the days.

In chairs, blankets, cars, flowers, shoes, fabrics, toilets, pavements, urinals and other goods for sale by João Penalva, the artist brings to Braga more than twenty works, produced between 2006 and 2022, in which he uses photography and painting to present his long and imaginative look on “everyday, very ordinary things” that he never thinks of as banal, as he tells us in the interview we conducted throughout the weeks of preparation of this exhibition.

The two-dimensionality of the selection, and a certain prevalence in the image that is concluded digitally, mark the chosen works, as if they were a synthesis of interests. The pavements are, perhaps, a mark of a biography across borders and of that attentiveness that is characteristic of the author, in a transient peace effect that contrasts with the trauma suggested in cars. In turn, toilets and urinals reflect the importance of the text in the author’s work, which, without irony, reveals his aesthetic appreciation of unusual places like a catalogue of construction products.

João Penalva crosses the 1980s with a painting of “strong figurative suggestion and dense of matter or festive of colours”[7]. The works framed in blankets and fabrics chapters inherit this density while carrying the affective dimension of the journey and the encounter with the culture of the other, with its form of endearment. In artistic terms, colours, textures and patterns are constant throughout more than four decades of production. In the 1990s, his work acquired a site-specific condition and the installations he developed occupied and transfigured the space, feeling the meta-disciplinary dimension of his practice and an investigation, which continues until today, and which has in the concepts of archive and memory its basis. Video is another of his performance times and spaces, with the contrast between the more linear narratives and those encoded as tonic.

The diversity of processes and media that mark João Penalva’s path, and the consistency of his ideas, have earned him indelible national and international recognition. João Penalva does not enrol in styles or schools. He has created his own rhythm and imagery dimension that accompanies him in painting, installation, video, and photography and that he probably inherited from his dance and body learning. As Byung-Chul Han (n.1959) wrote: “Running is not a new way of walking. It is simply an accelerated walk. Maybe the dancing or the swinging of the body are, they are, completely different movements. Only the human being is capable of dancing.”[8]

We cannot claim that the group of works now presented is only a synthesis of the phases and rhythms of a story. However, there is in all of João Penalva’s work, and once again we return to the dimension of praise for Nature that John Cage exacerbates, a challenge for us to stop for contemplation and to counteract the accelerated rhythm of the days. The shopkeeper’s listing, evident in the title’s enumeration, which we could see as irony or subtle criticism of the consumer society, perhaps even has such a visceral contrast to it that it strikes us.

Returning to the South Korean philosopher, it is interesting to say “the cultural life of humanity, in which philosophical activity is also included, is only possible and only develops when there is deep and contemplative attention. Culture presupposes a space conducive to deep attention. Deep attention is increasingly being supplanted by a completely different type of attention – hyperattention. This scattered or distracted attention is characterised by a sudden change in the focus of the issue, the constant switching between tasks, information sources and processes.”[9] João Penalva’s work is an invitation to curiosity and deep, contemplative attention, and that is also his transversal way of being an activist.

The work of João Penalva does not interest us, therefore, only due to the artist’s curriculum, which includes, among many other achievements, the official Portuguese representation at the Venice Biennale in 2001. It interests us because, in decades of production, this is an artist who has never stopped reinventing himself, remaining faithful to ethical principles and aesthetic values. And, above all, it interests us because he does not allow us to remain indifferent to thinking the unspeakable and the indirect of the image because it contains that “Philosophy of the Hammer”, of which Nietzsche (1844-1900) speaks and which is intended to “hammer” the idols, that is, every type of mental model that enslaves life. Nietzsche hammers away the certainties. That is why Nietzsche’s philosophy is a philosophy of deconstruction, which tries to show that there are no absolute truths.

João Penalva’s work is true and because it is true it is inscribed in the History of Contemporary Art. But it is part of that group of truths that praise doubts and that do not allow us to live without the restlessness to continue to question, transform, and change the world.

chairs, blankets, cars, flowers, shoes, fabrics, toilets, pavements, urinals and other goods for sale by João Penalva on show, from November 26th, 2022, to February 25th, 2023, at the zet gallery, in Braga.

Helena Mendes Pereira

[1] LLEDÓ, Emilio – Fidelidad a Grecia. (Loyalty to Greece). Valladolid: Cuatro editiones, 2015.

[2] CAMPS, Victoria – Elogio De La Duda (Eulogy Of Doubt). Lisbon: Editions 70, 2021.  Page 139.

 [3]MELO, Alexandre – Arte e Artistas em Portugal. (Art and Artists in Portugal) Lisbon: Instituto Camões, 2007. Page 93.

[4] GROYS, Boris – In the Flow. Lisbon: Orpheu Negro, 2022. Page 55.

[5] BARROS, António – John Cage, Música Fluxus e outros gestos da música aleatória em Jorge Lima Barreto. (John Cage, Fluxus music and other gestures of indeterminacy in music in Jorge Lima Barreto). Coimbra: António Barros / Alma Azul, 2013. Page 26.

[6] BARROS, António – John Cage, Música Fluxus e outros gestos da música aleatória em Jorge Lima Barreto. (John Cage, Fluxus music and other gestures of indeterminacy in music in Jorge Lima Barreto).  Coimbra: António Barros / Alma Azul, 2013. Page 27.

[7] ALMEIDA, Bernardo Pinto de – Arte Portuguesa no Século XX. Uma História Crítica. (Portuguese Art in the 20th century. Critical History). Porto: Coral Books, 2016.  Page 383.

[8] HAN, Byung-Chul – The Burnout Society. Lisbon: Relógio D’Água, 2014. Page 27.

[9] HAN, Byung-Chul – The Burnout Society. Lisbon: Relógio D’Água, 2014. Page 26.