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On Shaky Ground:
The Universal Theatre of Vasco Araújo

Text / Nuno Crespo

All of reality is a performance: this reality is one performance, but there is another, there are many others... Hence we are constantly acting, we are constantly performing; here, now, we are representing something, but when we go out onto the street, we represent something else [...]. My work is a performance. It is an act from beginning to end, that is, I can only think of it if I act it, if I stage myself.1

Facts do not exist in Vasco Araújo's world. There are only interpretations. That is to say that, for this artist, things, facts, art, and life play on the same stage, and are equally essential parts of reality. And so, entirely configured by each and every one of us, reality's terrain becomes precarious and unstable. We all project and construct the world's physiognomy. This is a realm charted by philosophical perspectivism, which sees the world as a construction, a project, and an intention. These principles buttress Araújo's video and sculptural work, which consistently enlists staging—or, if you like, installation. He subjects images, texts, and objects to the principle of installation by endowing each with its own environment.

Stills from Far de Donna [Playing as a Woman], 2005, video, 10:45 minutes (collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris; courtesy of the artist, artist, Galeria Filomena Soares, Porto, and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris)

In Araújo's work, the act of staging serves numerous purposes simultaneously. It serves aesthetic and existential imperatives. Staging also points to the originary form for his work, that is, its influence and model: opera. In many pieces, opera is both a central musical reference and the compositional principle. As in the opera, elements from different realms coexist in Araújo's work: text, music, and images. As such, each work is a synthesis—in the sense of the movement that the intellect undertakes in order to discover the different connections between things and to create the necessary hierarchies—rather than a series of strict analytical gestures: a synthesis of poetic, visual, and material elements. This is why, calling on composition, the structure of his work always transcends narrative: the texts he writes and appropriates need to be delivered and heard in a precise way. They also need certain specific images in order to gain amplitude. What's more, the artist directs his actors to declaim, express, and enact his scenarios, in order to deliver the desired meaning. In Far de Donna [Playing as a Woman], 2005, a boy discovers he is a singer on the day that his mother loses her voice. While the Oedipal relation is evident, it is neither specific nor personal, which would tip the work over into narrative. Instead, the tale plays on and inflects a universal image, that is, the combination of certain kinds of personality, comportment, and human experience that already have broad cultural currency.

Stills from Hipólito, 2003, video, 15:16 minutes, looped (collection of ARCO Foundation, Spain; Serralves Foundation, Portugal; Museum of Contemporary Art, Portugal, and private collection, Portugal; courtesy of the artist, Galeria Filomena Soares, Porto, and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris)

In a way, the crux of Araújo's work may well be its extraction of personality types from social existence. In works such as Hipólito, 2003, Hamlet, 2004, and O Jardim, 2005, he enlists classical references as a formal slight of hand, and as a way to tap into the perennial issues that could be deemed to be human nature—we have always been frightened by the same things, suffered from the same maladies, committed the same injustices.

Still from Hamlet, 2003, video installation, 12:44 minutes (courtesy of the artist, Galeria Filomena Soares, Porto, and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris)

If opera provides Araújo a world of text, sound, and image, the dramatic spectacle he aspires to create is a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, that is, a total work of art. This concept extends the parameters of the work of art to include both its reception and the artist himself. In other words, not only does this totality enlist all available media and materials in its construction, but its powerful unity of meaning also immerses us in an unmitigated sensory experience that calls on our imagination and intelligence.

Stills from Sabine/Brunilde, 2003, two-channel video installation, dimensions variable, videos: 30:03 minutes and 39:49 minutes looped (courtesy of the artist, Galeria Filomena Soares, Porto, and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris)

The two-channel video installation Sabine/Brunilde, 2003, is one such work. Here, the use of scenario and the configuration of the on-screen space as an amphitheatre underscore the work's theatrical dimension. In the two videos—which operate as a kind of symbolic mirror—a woman sings/tells her story. She inhabits both screens. Here, she would like to sing but cannot. There, she tells her tragic life story in the first person. It matters little whether this story is true. The weaving of identity, which is to say the tense interplay of the many strands that constitute our psychological fabric, actually propels the work. What's more, Brunhilde, the female warrior of German epics recast by Richard Wagner into the central character of his opera Ring of the Nibelung, guides the artist in this identity pursuit. Through her, Araújo encounters the alien, who becomes a type on whom he steadies his gaze. In many of his later works, he pays much attention to the figure of the other, by way of language and other means of communication. Language—that is, the words we use, the way we say things, the gestures we make, and so on—is the foundation of the Geist, or spirit, to borrow Heidegger's word. Language constitutes both humanity and art.

Stills from O Jardim, 2005, video, 9:44 minutes (courtesy of the artist, Galeria Filomena Soares, Porto, and Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie, Paris)

Difference and foreignness constitute a powerful axis in Araújo's work. In the video O Jardim, 2005, dark bronze sculptures cite Homeric verse in the Lisbon Tropical Garden, formerly known as the Lisbon Colonial Garden. The chosen quotations and their arrangement speak to the experience of being a foreigner: the garden, built during the Portuguese dictatorship, symbolizes oppression and the terrifying effects of colonial rule prior to the Portuguese revolution of 1974.

Likewise in The Girl of the Golden West, 2004: a black woman comments on the love triangle in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. She extends her commentary on justice and injustice to the world at large, insisting on fundamental issues of human rights and focusing on the laws that guide human relations. Both of these works highlight the fact that a change in perspective yields broad-based change; that is, if we change our way of seeing, new things are born, new facts, new words, and new feelings.

Nietzsche once reminded us that there are no facts, only interpretations. This does not just mean that all facts are premised on interpretations, but rather that everything is based in point of view: in the total landscape known as the universe, we only recognize what our fixed point of observation—that is, the toolbox of thoughts and judgments we have inherited and adopted—permits us. Here, crucially, Araújo's work emphasizes the play through which we construct identity and discover intimacy, another human construct developed in the realm of human community, rather than isolation. If Araújo's universal theater is built on identity construction, it is also reflexive. The artist explores this duplicity to an extreme: in fact, his work unfolds the successive moments of discovery of duplicity's constituents. His most recent video, About Being Different, 2006, is visually and musically dense. Shot in Newcastle, it features priests and nuns speaking about the injustices lived by those whom society casts to its margins for their sexual orientation. Beyond questions of sex and gender, the work focuses on the mechanisms of exclusion.

Araújo's works propose no thesis or theory. They offer up the possibility of sense experiences first, which then call on the world and on art. The social, political, and artistic consequences enter later, at a second moment. This is why, in his work, events seem to take place on a stage where a blinding spotlight, having been trained on the entire world, guides us through the action on stage, from utter brutality to extreme subtleties. No distant observer, Araújo's gaze is that of someone in our midst, at the center of our stage where, intimate with each and every one of us, he shows us our most secret yet widely shared fears, surprises, and inspirations.


1. Interview by Alexandre Melo, Vasco Araújo: Pathos, Salamanca: Fundación Salamanca Ciudad de Cultura, 2006-2007.

Nuno Crespo is an art critic and freelance curator living in Lisbon, Portugal, where he also teaches philosophy and art theory. His profile of João Louro was published in ART PAPERS 31:01 (January-February 2007).


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