Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #6, 1999. Mixed media, installation view

Serene Disturbance: A Conversation with Pedro Cabrita Reis

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 year’s 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. Reis’s 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. Reis’s 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, Germany.

absent names, 2003. Mixed media, installation view. View of work at the Venice Biennale.

Michael Stoeber: 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?

Pedro Cabrita 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 realization—I 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.

MS: Does 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.

Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #1, 1998. Aluminum door frames, Masonite doors, enamel on Plexiglas, wood, and wrapping tape, 435 x 600 x 30 cm.

MS: Do used materials have a higher temperature for you than new materials?

PCR: Because 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.

MS: When you talk about the meaning of memory and history for your work, are you referring more to collective than individual experience?

PCR: Both. 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. Everyone’s 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 nothing—and I repeat this with resolution—has nothing to do with romanticism or any kind of transfiguration. Only the memory of that which was sharpens one’s 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 insight.

Cidades cegas eco (Blind cities the echo) #5, 1999. Plywood, tar, aluminum, roofing felt, window frames, and acrylic paint on glass, installation view.

MS: How is this related to the occurrence of the “perfect moment” in art?

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 time—or at least for as long as human beings maintain their receptivity to the perfect moment of such balance.

MS: What 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 nature—metaphorically speaking. Nature is God’s 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 one’s 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 being’s 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 reality—it 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.

MS: In 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 context—Cidades Cegas, for instance, identified with the favelas. How does this misunderstanding arise?

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 Velázquez’s portrait of Philip IV as political. But do I do him justice by doing so?

Cidades cegas (Blind cities) #4, 1998 Aluminum, cardboard, enamel on glass, and mixed media, detail of site-specific installation in Prato.

MS: How 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 God’s 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.

MS: That sounds like class theory.

PCR: Yes, 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.

MS: How 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 fragmented—symbols 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.

Serene Disturbance, 2002. Mixed media, dimensions variable

MS: Your black triptych in the last room, perhaps paradoxically, stores light?

PCR: Through 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 meaning—not 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.

MS: Is there something that connects Serene Disturbance and Black Monochrome/ Landscape Triptych?

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.

MS: What almost immediately leaps to the eye about the triptych is its great beauty.

PCR: 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.

Black Monochrome/Landscape Triptych, 2000. Acrylic, glass, and aluminum, 255 x 170 x 30 cm.

MS: Like in art?

PCR: Yes, 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.

MS: Is there an alliance here between aesthetics and ethics—in 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.

MS: Do your works—not only those being shown in the Kestner Gesellschaft—form a whole? Are they fragments of a great confession?

PCR: Maybe 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.

MS: Where 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 person’s 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.

MS: Are literary references important for your work? I am thinking specifically of the installation Petrarca’s Room.

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.

MS: Could you say something more specific about your wall installations in the Kestner Gesellschaft?

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 daughter’s 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 one’s 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.

Michael Stoeber lives in Hannover and works as a freelance author and translator.