He paints with fluorescent tubes, bricks and bits of metal; sometimes he paints with oil, while others the paintings are sculptures. What’s important is the rigorous practice of artistic thinking: his own. If the shadow we project onto the world is the measure of ourselves, then Pedro Cabrita Reis’s shadow is larger than life. The Tate Modern has a room devoted to him until the end of the year.
Ever since he was a kid he never wanted to be anything else. When Pedro Cabrita Reis was 14 or 15, his mother would make him canvases to paint on and not only did he know he wanted to become an artist, but even more importantly, he realised he already was one. He affirmed this early awareness of himself in various circumstances and literally put it on show at an exhibition that gathered 390 of his drawings (The Whispering Paper, Carmona e Costa Foundation, 2011). He was born in 1956 and there were drawings from 1970, prior to his days at the School of Fine Arts. “The drawings of youth are what they are – the expression is rich and full and says everything necessary – they all show naivety, inconsistency and all the artist’s scary things that aren’t resolved, but they also have other things that drag them along and stimulate them. When you decide to follow a certain path, every step you take along this path counts. And you can’t deny the first steps and just focus on any others that follow. There’s a path, and there’s a point on the path at which it becomes obvious that this path is a kind of projection of your way of being in the world. You can’t build an idea of yourself without accepting all the hesitations of any start you might have made. That’s what I did.” The journey began with drawings and paintings, then things started to break out of the canvas: the paint became something solid he could pick up with his hands; then came wood, metal, glass, lights, electric wires, often materials he found, remnants and memories. He built works of art that he called office, house, garden, city, and he made a name for himself. His first individual exhibition was called Até ao Regresso (Until the Return); it was in 1981, thirteen years after he’d done an anthology sample (at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon). In 2003 he represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale (he’d already done so in 1995 with Rui Chafes and José Pedro Croft). From 2009 to 2011, a large retrospective exhibition travelled from Germany to France, then Belgium and finally Portugal (One after another, a few silent steps) and this year three of his works are on show at the Tate Modern, in London (which bought the pieces).
A pagan feast
“I don’t see myself as an exclusive follower of any particular discipline: I’m not just a painter, I’m not just a sculptor, I’m not just a designer. I’m a painter while I’m painting pictures and I’m a sculptor when I do sculptures. I produce work for public places as well as for homes: I’ve never put any restrictions on myself. I like to think that people know me as an artist. And by that I mean artist in the global sense – a person who has a way of thinking about the world and materialises it using all the available forms of artistic creation. Above all, I have an infinite capacity to be attentive, keyed up and inquisitive about the world. Your work as an artist is to be alive and awake 24 hours a day; it’s keeping curiosity constantly on the lookout. In philosophy this curiosity has a name: amazement – the permanent and endless capacity to take in everything around you.” There’s a voluptuousness and voracity that are part of the aura of Cabrita Reis: his fury for life is mythical (just like his monumental archive and the obsessive recording of what he does, in pictures and writing). The dinners and nights out on the town are mythical, when he drags along friends, admirers, critics, everyone charmed and/or dazzled by the vortex of his presence, speech and action, all three of which are equally imposing and assertive. He lives a kind of pagan feast, which is inseparable from his creative acts. “I’ve never needed any kind of isolation or ‘to get away from it all’ to be able to ‘create’. Quite the opposite. Out of this confusion, the chaos, the constant buzz that’s the presence of everyone around me at different times in my life – from the work in the studio to the long nights lost in unspeakable places – all this sort of flow of moments lived is the substance of how to build beauty. What’s crucial is to exercise mental rigour over everything that comes to you. There’s nothing important in creative thinking that hasn’t first passed through that unique and inevitable moment at which the choice is made. And in this aspect the artist is as thorough as a researcher in any other field – whether it’s quantum physics or oil painting. What we do is apply a way of thinking at each moment which makes us transform our way of looking. And this way of looking is always a way of looking in the mirror, or at least looking at the shadow we project on the world. Rather than looking outwards, it’s a way of trying to understand what we are.”
The order of the world
The beauty that Pedro Cabrita Reis talks about is that of primordial harmony, an elusive goal and the only one capable of infinitely opposing our incomprehension, our awareness of loss, the painful notion of our finiteness. He doesn’t exactly represent the world, but instead gathers bits of it, adding them to things that are profoundly his then starting again. Building, he says. “I am particularly curious about a primordial act of the human species, which is our affirmation in the presence of nature. Over the centuries, our presence has been materialised by the desire to build a territory where we can imagine that we’ve managed to understand what is adverse to us by nature – in other words, nature itself. The artist studies, thinks, analyses, gains awareness and is motivated by a kind of primary act – the act of building, stone upon stone, the act that defines the nature of humanity, of his humanity. It’s an act of affirming ourselves over the unknown, over what surrounds us that is hostile, and in relation to which we want to establish our place – which comes from our thinking and is materialised by our acts –, a place where we want to be in total control.” The house: in Cabrita Reis’s work, this can be a wooden staircase covered in glass, with waterproof jackets and helmets hanging from it (photo), or a set of photographs of doors and windows half open to the light (Mes jours, l’un après l’autre, 2001), or an acrylic painting (The Grid #15, 2008) or even a rough maze of bricks, mortar, wood, electric wires and fluorescent tubes (The Gardens #3, 2004).
by Maria João Guardão