Vhils’ solo show at the Electricity Museum in Lisboa, “Dissection/Disseção,” was a fascinating exploration of creative destruction and the humanization and dehumanization of public space. The show, which explores a variety of mediums and scales, moving from the three-by-five centimeter snapshot to the half-city-block square construction, offers an exegesis on the urban as a space of texture, destruction, and creativity in a transnational frame.
Alexandre Farto, aka,Vhils is a 26 year old Portuguese street artist who is well known for his unique style of chiseling faces out of walls, instead of adding paint, paste, or paper onto them, in a fashion that is more typical of most street artists. His subjects are often residents of the neighborhoods which he visits, and often, are those who would be ignored in hegemonic history books. They are favela dwellers, community workers, grand parents, women, children. Their faces are produced out of the materials that make up urban spaces: concrete, paper, wood, metal, and are generated through violent approaches to surface: burning, scraping, scoring, drilling, exploding.
The exhibit at the Electricity Museum, in Belem, is a large scale installation work with several rooms. It is also heralded by a series of portraits created through carving up palimpsests of advertisements, which are then installed on a large water tower, as well as a piece on a building a little closer to Lisboa on an abandoned building.
Entering the space after waiting in the hot sun on a flight of stairs the visitor is plunged into darkness, interrupted by sounds and pulsating color from a set of screens that are in fact screened or filtered by stencils of human faces. It is difficult to see the “content” behind the screen, but it is easy to see constant movement and life. Stumbling into light again the viewer encounters a set of scaffolding stairs two stories tall, facing what appears to be a styro-foam forest with columns of varying heights and widths. Yet, after clambering up the scaffolding, two (or more) faces are visible, the effects of distance of variations in size creating shadows, volume, and depth.
“Look, you can see more and more faces!” a visitor next to me exclaimed as we peered over the precarious edge. This exercise in spatial trickery was powerful, because it also inverts the prevailing logic that distance allows human affairs to become smaller, less visible. In the inverse, distance, in this formation, makes human pathos more apparent. After climbing down the steps guards pointed out two single-channel televisions perched on a shelf against the blank wall behind the scaffolding. The screens recorded the faces from above, and quite possibly, the reactions of visitors. Following white walls around I reached a more open space with a set of text explicating Vhils’ intense concern with urban gentrification and the humans erased from urban landscapes, and across from it, a map of the world with a thin glass display case running horizontally under the map with lines running vertically marking different cities into the case. Like a kind of sacred grail, the viewer has to come close, very close, and peer inside to see what is contained. From the lines cutting across continents; Shanghai, Malaysia, London, Sao Paolo, are small snapshots of Vhils’ work, some of which, we learn from a series of short videos, have been destroyed along with the neighborhoods from which its subjects come. One of the films explored his work in a favela in Rio, a favela slated for demolition to build a tram that, per interviews with neighborhood residents, serve future, wealthier, denizens. In response, Vhils installed the faces of long term dwellers, standing as haunting chastisements to the city planners and future visitors, images that (barely) outlast the residents who are displaced.
Indeed, urban transformation involves what Joseph Schumpeter called, creative destruction, razing structures to the ground to allow new capitalist growth. Vhils’ process mirrors and inverts this logic, using creative destruction to create a catch in urban fabric, drawing viewers to dwell on spaces that are framed by marketers as obsolete. Using hammers, drills bits, dynamite, and plaster, Vhils and his collaborators scratch, explode, scrape, and chisel at walls in order to reveal from within the characters they support. It is an almost mystical process, an literal exegesis of urban fabric.
This method is explored with other mediums in the show, including doors, and thick, messy swatches of advertising posters, carved up to create faces among imperatives to consume, display, and want. A series of short videos demonstrates the drama of Vhils’ creations, showing neat phrases: “non place,” “life,” etc. emerge from seemingly blank or bland walls.
Such an active use of time and wear and tear as medium as well as theme makes Vhils’ work (much like street artist Swoon’s work) take on a lifelike quality: it changes with the wind, the rain, with urban planning. All of these different explorations in medium and videos of process are contained in a set of seven or so pods that the viewer enters, creating a sense of being contained, but also protected. Little barriers against the wearing down of time.
The exhibit concludes with a deconstructed tram car, dissected in the way in which a cadaver might be, painted white, and suspended from the ceiling in a kind of arrested free fall for the visitor to tentatively walk under, look up at, and imagine what would be revealed were the pieces to be re-fused together. Trams, like other kinds of public transit, can connect, but also dissect neighborhoods. Indeed, the show is about dissection; of urban politics, spaces, materials, but also dissection implies a will to imagination, a thoughtful reconstruction and consideration of a future possible. In this sense, Vhils’ work might be understood as destructive creation.