publication of the International Sculpture Center
Disturbance: A Conversation with Pedro Cabrita Reis
by Michael Stoeber
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absent names, 2003
Mixed media, installation view
View of work at the Venice Biennale
In a 1953 essay,
Martin Heidegger wrote that in Old High German the verbs to be
and to build originated from the same root. From this the
philosopher concluded that one does not become a human being until one
has settled down. For the Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis, there
is also no question about the fundamental meaning of the house in the
cultural life of human beings. Reis, who is representing his country at
this years Venice Biennale, uses the topos of the house as a recurring
motif in his paintings, sculptures, and installations. He alludes to the
house more than he represents it. In fragmentary form, it becomes a symbol
of the damage that has been inflicted on the contemporary human condition.
His preference for poor and worn-out materials also testifies to this.
They accumulate past and present traces of a life that has been lived.
Reiss elliptic manner of representation is as precise as it is poetic;
the sensual aura of his works is consistently checked by lucid intelligence.
There is not a second that the artist does not operate with the accuracy
of an engineer. Nothing is left to coincidence, everything is a part of
a complex strategy and a coherent artistic discourse. Reiss ability
to fuse philosophical reflection and aesthetic composition into a successful
alliance constitutes the magic of his work. His work was also seen this
year in a comprehensive exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover,
The last time we saw each other, you and your assistants had just returned
from a Hannover scrap yard and were very happy with what you had found.
What was it that made you so happy?
Reis: Picasso once said that it is not so difficult to begin a painting,
but it is difficult to complete it. The harmony one strives for as an
artist, the reconciliation one desires between the idea one has of a work
and its ultimate realizationI have to feel them physically. When
I succeed at this, when a mental concept successfully assumes bodily contours,
this is a reason for great joy. I made only the basic structure of Serene
Disturbance, my main work in the large hall of the Kestner Gesellschaft,
in Lisbon. I wanted to complete it in Hannover with materials from this
city, a method I regularly practice with my installations. It was an occasion
for great delight when I found the right materials and the installation
began to correspond exactly with my idea.
Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #1, 1998
Aluminum door frames, Masonite doors, enamel on Plexiglas, wood,
and wrapping tape
435 x 600 x 30 cm
your choice of used and commonplace materials place you in a certain tradition,
line you up with artists of the Dada or Arte Povera movements?
PCR: I have
never thought about that. I choose my materials because they have a certain
degree of reality, a hardness that has nothing to do with realism but
a lot to do with attitude, with form, with feeling. I select these materials
according to the temperature they have for me, according to the moods
they radiate. Or according to certain ethics or morals, according to their
politics. For me, in a political sense, plastic is very conservative.
It is rightist. I do not know why. Glass is obviously a very cold material,
but when I break it and glue it together, bandage it, it becomes quite
hot. I do not see myself in a particular artistic tradition, rather I
use these materials to develop a very unique nomenclature.
used materials have a higher temperature for you than new materials?
I understand upholding memory as a basic theme of my work, memory with
whose help survival becomes possible for people, I would agree. But that
is in no way canonical. I also use new materials. I only have one basic
rule in my work: never say never. Whatever occurs to me, whatever I see,
if I think it fits, it can enter into one of my works. I think that many
artists work this way: they look at reality and continually scrutinize
its suitability, whether and to what extent it can become part of a work
of art. This is exactly the way I work. The pages of my sketchbooks reflect
what my eyes have seen.
When I speak about
the temperature of used material it has nothing to do with any kind of
romanticism, with a romantic transfiguration of materials. I have a very
precise idea about the function that the materials I have selected will
fulfill, and I have a very precise idea about my role as an artist: I
consider myself responsible for people and their history. I administer
the treasure of life that has been lived. It is my duty to uphold the
image of human beings as well as to create it and pass it on to coming
generations. Art continually gives us the great opportunity of recognizing
ourselves in our limitations and in our possibilities. That is its fantastic
potential. I see this as a legacy of art and culture. It does not matter
where I go, which country or which cultural relics from which time I look
at when I am there: it presents me with an image of human beings and ultimately
with an image of myself.
you talk about the meaning of memory and history for your work, are you
referring more to collective than individual experience?
Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #6, 1999
Mixed media, installation view
The artist administers and designs a territory where collective memory
shows itself in pure, perfect form. Memory becomes meaningful for the
individual in this form. James Lee Byars called this wealth of meaning
the perfect moment. Of course, collective memory is nothing
more than the sum of individual experience. Everyones history is
the history of the individual, no more and no less. As an artist, to feel
one is the trustee of time and history and thus the trustee of human beings
has nothingand I repeat this with resolutionhas nothing to
do with romanticism or any kind of transfiguration. Only the memory of
that which was sharpens ones view of that which is and will be.
Memory supplies us with the necessary measure of knowledge for the present
and the past. If an artist has a task, then, as I
understand it, it should be the following: the artist creates the perfect
moment in his work. Memory is concentrated in it in a form that is collective
and that knows how to touch each individual. This memory is like a magic
mirror in which we are able to look into both the past and the future.
We see what we once were and what we will become. Memory as a form of
is this related to the occurrence of the perfect moment in
PCR: The perfect
moment is the moment of a successful balance between form and content,
past and present, self and the world, which art, as I believe, continually
envisages. What touches me even today when I look at a painting by Velázquez
that describes a world no longer ours? It is this perfect harmony, the
balance of the painting that includes everything it shows and is involved
with it. A kind of epiphany appears in it, which will remain valid for
all timeor at least for as long as human beings maintain their receptivity
to the perfect moment of such balance.
is the connection in your work between the function of memory and the
house as a recurring leitmotif?
PCR: I am
not interested in the traditional image of the house, its social and political
function. I am not interested in the house as architecture, as a conglomeration,
as history, as a shell and a form of protection against inhospitable nature.
For me, human beings do not belong to naturemetaphorically speaking.
Nature is Gods problem. And human beings come later, after nature.
Human beings design themselves according to two parameters: one is the
horizontal, the horizontal line. It establishes an attitude or idea of
distance. The other parameter is the vertical. It establishes an attitude
of closeness, an idea of intimacy, and is first experienced in the shadow
a human being casts. Identity is not originally produced through experiencing
the other; rather it is produced through the realization of ones
own shadow. Together, the vertical and the horizontal establish a system
of order, a map that teaches us where we stand and where we are in the
world. The house marks our location on this map and in the world. For
me, the house is proof that human beings are equal to God and do not belong
to nature. When I draw a square in the sand, then it is a cosmogony, a
creation of the world and of the self. The building of a house is the
most exquisite example of a human beings appropriation of the world
and of reality. Building is an exemplary form of recognition. This is
also where the point of convergence with memory lies. Above and beyond
this, the house is even more than the appropriation of realityit
is a form of creating the world. A world counter to nature. Culture versus
nature. For this reason I am not very interested in the social dimension
of architecture. Architecture interests me more as a philosophy, theoretically
and practically, as an instrument for explaining the world and as an instrument
for creating and designing a world.
Cidades cegas eco (Blind cities the echo) #5, 1999.
Plywood, tar, aluminum, roofing felt, window frames, and acrylic
paint on glass, installation view.
an interview you not only dismissed sociological and political interpretations,
but also claimed the Benjaminian notion of the aura for your works. Nonetheless,
critics continually place them in a social contextCidades Cegas,
for instance, identified with the favelas. How does this misunderstanding
PCR: It has
something to do with the so-called open dimension of the work of art.
However, I do not think much at all of the widely held view that a work
of art can be used for all kinds of interpretations. I would appreciate
it if my work were interpreted the way I see it, according to my dictionary.
I understand, of course, how someone viewing Serene Disturbance in the
Kestner Gesellschaft would feel reminded of the favelas, of those living
in makeshift houses on the periphery of the big cities. But that is a
view that only perceives the most superficial contours of the work. It
is very easy to maintain that every work of art is in some way political.
Of course, I can consider Velázquezs portrait of Philip IV
as political. But do I do him justice by doing so?
would you like the viewer to understand Serene Disturbance?
PCR: The melancholy
this work exudes is important. The source of melancholy is always loss,
ultimately the fundamental loss of Gods protection. We stand alone.
And, for me, the very first thing this work speaks of is this, this existential
loneliness and homelessness, before any political or social demand. There
is a split in humanity. It separates the lonely, the rejected, and the
forgotten from those who are not.
sounds like class theory.
not in a Marxist sense but in an existential one. People who are excluded
from society can die of sadness. Examples of this have been handed down
to us from the Australian aborigines.
is one to interpret the material context of Serene Disturbance, the play
between ephemeral light and compact materiality?
PCR: All of
the compact materials are associated with the functions of a house: sinks
for washing the dishes, stalls for showering, aggregates for heating,
beds for sleeping. All of the elements are used, laden with traces of
life. Above and beyond this, everything is fragmentedsymbols of
the disunity of the contemporary condition humaine. The extreme stillness
and silence and the extreme desertedness of the work support, I hope,
my intended expression and impression of melancholy. The work is an apparently
paranoid visual labyrinth. Above and beyond this, it is hermetic: one
cannot get in, but one can also not get out. The light underlines the
malignancy of this universe in so far as the house represents a compressed
picture of the world. Light traditionally means the light of enlightenment,
of reason, of something positive: optimism and belief in progress. But
one can also torture, murder and rape in a reasonable way.
The work thematizes the perverse side of reason. Bestiality as the black
sister of humanity. When I installed this work, I wanted it to be silent,
evil, and sad and to convey precisely these emotions. It is intended to
make the viewer shiver in its hopelessness. When one stands in front of
the work, it is as if one is facing death. You cannot run away from it.
It is unavoidable.
black triptych in the last room, perhaps paradoxically, stores light?
Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #4, 1998 Aluminum, cardboard, enamel
on glass, and mixed media, detail of site-specific installation
the reflection of the radiating parts. This kind of reflection is the
original form of representation. It allows us to see. There is a reason
for my continual use of glass as a ground for my paintings. The radiating
ground simultaneously pulls the viewer into the picture. But, for me,
the triptych has a further function. It is like a winged altar, also a
kind of portable altar. Not in a religious sense, but in a philosophical
sense. I am not a nihilist. I believe in sense and meaningnot necessarily
meaning as brought forth by God, but a meaningful existence, in which
there is room for progress and higher development. We human beings are
creatures in search of meaning. This is the way I understand this work.
Perhaps as an expression of a hedonistic religiousness, a hedonistic belief.
there something that connects Serene Disturbance and Black Monochrome/
PCR: The aura.
The wonder of knowledge and insight. In my opinion, this is what all aural
art is about. The differences between the works could not be more obvious.
When I stood in the Kestner Gesellschaft for the first time and saw the
rooms, it was clear to me that I would exhibit two works there that could
not be more different. I had already created the triptych and exhibited
it once before. Serene Disturbance is new. The two works, which are simultaneously
visible to the viewer, operate both with and against each other in this
visibility. They are not intended to be viewed singly, but rather in dialectical
tension to one another. The elegant domed architecture of the exhibition
space was important for Serene Disturbance. I wanted it to lay itself
over the work like an octopus or a spider and to emphasize the claustrophobic
character of the work. In addition, the room had a considerable influence
on the size of the work. There is a strange ambivalence in Serene Disturbance.
What is it: a model, inhabitable reality, or a sculpture? The house-like
boxes assume an alienating intermediate position. The white paint and
the light also react to the room. The white of the boxes absorbs the white
of the room, the light partially relieves the work of its weight. However,
both the inhospitable white of the boxes and the cold neon light are also
a counterpoint to the floating, dancing white of the room.
almost immediately leaps to the eye about the triptych is its great beauty.
is the desire for harmony, a harmony that we need and desire. Beauty is
the appearance of the divine. We experience God in beauty. Beauty is sense
and meaning. The world suddenly makes sense in beauty, things fit into
one another with meaning. We experience redemption in beauty.
Serene Disturbance, 2002
Mixed media, dimensions variable
in happy moments. I am searching for beauty. I search for it through my
work. I believe that this is my task as an artist. I cannot imagine having
any other task. Sometimes I appear to be successful. Not that I wanted
to create this beauty in my works. Rather, when I am fortunate enough
to be successful, my works have the power to allow beauty to be created
in the soul of the viewer.
there an alliance here between aesthetics and ethicsin the classical
sense of a connection of goodness, truth, and beauty? Is there something
moral about beauty for you?
PCR: The word
moral does not belong to my vocabulary as an artist. Ethics
and morals create a foundation for certain codes of behavior. They deal
with fear and exclusion. In contrast, beauty is absolute. It knows no
constrictions whatsoever. It always aims at the entirety of our existence.
If you will allow me to formulate it in a paradoxical way: beauty is too
moral for any form of morals.
your worksnot only those being shown in the Kestner Gesellschaftform
a whole? Are they fragments of a great confession?
in the sense that my work as a whole is contained in each individual work,
and each individual work always has its sights on my work as a whole.
I hate things that happen unexpectedly and things that remain incomplete.
I tend toward control. Every artist wants to convey his way of seeing
and understanding the world. This impulse is perhaps the secret center
of my works.
do the concrete impulses, the stimuli, for your works come from?
PCR: It varies.
It can be scraps of conversations on the street that I accidentally pick
up. Or an object that catches my attention, perhaps a chair in an odd
position, for instance in relation to a table. Or light that I perceive
when I am driving my car. The smile on a persons face. A sudden
silence in the middle of a conversation. All of this has to do with a
special atmosphere that things or situations have for me. It is basically
this atmosphere that I am interested in. And this is what my work deals
with. This atmosphere can be positive or negative. I do not place any
elaborated philosophies or images of the world in my works. My reasons
are extremely modest.
literary references important for your work? I am thinking specifically
of the installation Petrarcas Room.
Black Monochrome/Landscape Triptych, 2000
Acrylic, glass, and aluminum
255 x 170 x 30 cm
PCR: It is
no different with literature. Often the melody of a sentence or the reverberation
of a word is sufficient for me. They create echoes in my mind and lead
me to my own work. Here, too, it is more a matter of atmospheres than
specific references. I was very impressed by a book by Stendhal, Le Rouge
et le Noir. Do not ask me the name of the protagonist or about the plot.
I have forgotten everything except for the atmosphere of the book, which
I recall as being extremely sensuous.
you say something more specific about your wall installations in the Kestner
PCR: All three
works operate with window and door elements and light. Neon light that
is gentle and domesticated by a honey-yellow. Not the cold light from
Serene Disturbance. Here, light has a reconciling and illuminating quality,
which the title of the work already indicates: Light in the Window. A
light that radiates in the general darkness. I used my now adult daughters
crib in the construction of One of my Children. What could be a stronger
argument for saying yes to the world than the conception and birth of
a child? Also yes to oneself, to ones own existence. And the third
work, Everywhere, anywhere, elsewhere, shows a door, the symbol of passage
and initiation, of becoming a human being. Everything I do as an artist
has to do with experience: reality is the undercurrent of every work of
art, in that it re-emerges transformed, as a kind of fictionalization
of what is real.
lives in Hannover and works as a freelance author and translator.