Vhils Takes On Macau

João Pedro Lau
Portuguese artist Vhils will inaugurate his first solo exhibition in Macau in May

Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto, also known as Vhils, will inaugurate his first solo exhibition in Macau at the end of May with his show “Debris”. Those seeking an early taste of his work can look for his mural of the poet Camilo Pessanha, which was inaugurated in the gardens of the Portuguese Consulate in Macau at the end of last year.

It’s been quite the journey for the artist Alexandre Farto, who goes by the tag Vhils, since his days as a graffiti writer in the early 2000s and his group exhibition in his hometown of Lisbon in 2007. His breakthrough claim to fame occurred in 2008 when he produced a portrait next to a work by Banksy at the Cans Festival in London. A photographer for The Times captured a shot of Vhils creating the portrait, and the newspaper featured the photo on its front page.

Vhils’ concept of the aesthetics of vandalism across a range of media – from stencil painting to wall carvings, from pyrotechnic explosions to 3D modelling, from installation to music videos – has catapulted him into the limelight and seen him rake in accolades and projects around the world.

From the music video he directed, Raised by Wolves for the Irish band U2 in 2014, to receiving the Personality of the Year award from the Foreign Press Association in Portugal a year later, the Portuguese artist has been stretching himself creatively, yet keeping his eye firmly on that which matters to him: his work.

His groundbreaking carving technique has been hailed as one of the most compelling approaches to art created on the streets in the last decade. A form of visual poetry, the work has been showcased around the world in both indoor and outdoor settings, and has been described as brutal and complex, yet imbued with a simplicity that gets to the core of human emotions.

An ongoing reflection on life in contemporary urban societies and their saturated environments, it explores themes such as the erosion of cultural uniqueness in the face of the dominant model of globalised development. It speaks of effacement but also of resistance, of destruction, yet also of beauty, exploring the connections and contrasts between global and local realities.

Sponsored by The Cultural Affairs Bureau, the local realities of Macau will be explored in Vhils’ first solo show in the territory in a multi-site initiative establishing a connection between the body of works presented in the indoor exhibition venue and a series of art interventions in the territory’s public space, encouraging visitors to explore and reflect on the nature of the urban environment.

Using the city and its components, both as subject matter and prime materials, to delve into the essence of present-day urban societies across the globe, the show dissects, deconstructs and rearranges the images and tropes intrinsic to urban life to form a reflection on how individuals are shaped by and help shape their surrounding environment.

Expanding upon part of the body of works presented in the artist’s 2016 solo show for Hong Kong Contemporary Art (HOCA) Foundation, the exhibition in Macau aims to be an in-depth reflection on urbanity, creating a dialogue between cities, while exploring the similarities and contrasts between global and local realities. The exhibition will be structured around a progressive path through several interconnected environments purposefully built in the exhibition space, enabling the viewer to experience the passage from the city chaos outside to a neutral setting inside where the artworks will be displayed. Together with some of the works presented in Hong Kong, it will feature an entirely new body of works inspired by Macau’s unique history and culture, exploring the territory’s people and their identity.

 

DEBRIS

JUNE 1 - NOV 5

NAVY YARD NO.1

FREE ADMISSION

 

You spend a lot of time in the dense concrete jungles of Asia, from Hong Kong to Bangkok to Macau. What strikes you the most about each one?

It’s hard to put into words. Each city has its own special character, while also sharing common features with other large cities around the world. This is precisely what interests me, to be able to observe and discern these differences and similarities.

Most of my work tries to reflect on life in contemporary urban societies and how places, people and communities are affected by the current model of globalised development, which on the one hand is responsible for bringing people and cultures closer together, and raise the standards of living, but on the other is also responsible for creating an increasingly uniform reality that is eroding the cultural differences that made each culture unique.

Travelling and working in different contexts is crucial to understand the phenomenon. I’m interested in witnessing and experiencing this process first-hand in as many locations as possible, and thus aim to interact with different people, to listen to their stories and experiences, to gather images and capture something of this unique moment the world is living.  

Between these three cities, I’ve spent more time in Hong Kong, which is a city I find very inspiring. Like all large cities caught up in the tide of fast-paced development, it perfectly embodies both what I love and hate in our contemporary urban societies, but this is also true of Macau and Bangkok.

All three of them mirror perfectly our current material aspirations and the direction we’re taking as a whole on a global scale. All three of them are also some of the most dynamic cities in the world. Due to their colonial heritage and cross-cultural experiences, both Hong Kong and Macau have a unique history that speaks of both the dialogue and the tensions between East and West.

Macau has the added feature of its Portuguese connection, which makes it both familiar and exotic to me at the same time. Again, all three cities are some of the most densely urbanised and populated cities in the world, which make them a perfect case study for what I’m trying to reflect with my work.

 

Does Macau's Portuguese heritage/history influence your work here beyond subject choice? (with reference to the Camilo Pessanha work at the Consulate) 

Yes, it’s pretty much unavoidable for someone who comes from Portugal. There are a lot of very familiar features that force us to make that connection, even in small, mundane details such as the number plates on cars, police uniforms, the colours of the taxis, the Portuguese pavement in the city centre, the street names, and so on. Some of this has to shape my perception in some way or another and influence me, even if it might not be explicit in what I’m working on.

You work around the world.  Do the different geographies influence the materials you use in each place?

Yes, materials have their own history and character and that’s why I place such importance on sourcing them from the places I’m working in. But just like the people and communities that lie at the heart of our urban societies, the material reality we find today is also becoming increasingly similar in different places around the world. Tied in with the reflection on how people are being affected by this phenomenon is also that of understanding how this increased homogenisation of our material reality is taking place, and how it is helping shape people’s identities.

Which material do you find the most challenging to work with?

All of them present their own challenges, but I like a good challenge. Some are easier to work with, while others offer some difficulties, but the fun part is achieving the balance, getting to know the materials, seeing how they react and how far I can work with them. This interaction is like performing a dance with the materials, a process where we adapt to each other.

Does the increasing recognition you get interfere with your approach to projects?

No, so far I haven’t experienced any interference due to this increased exposure. I believe it all comes down to how you manage it. I like the focus to remain exclusively on the work and what it’s trying to express. I have no interest in making it about my personal life.

Looking back at the Debris show in Hong Kong, are you pleased with the outcome?

Yes, absolutely. It was a very inspiring exhibition and it helped me achieve a great deal in my work. I see it as one of those pivotal turning points on my path.

What was the inspiration behind the Underdogs cultural platform started in Lisbon with Pauline Foessel?

Fundamentally, to help artists whose work we find inspiring and believe in, to produce work in connection with the city of Lisbon. I wanted to give something back to the city and the country I grew up in, but also to the community of artists. I was lucky to have found someone who helped and supported me when I was starting out, so I feel this is the minimum I can do.

The platform operates in three main areas: a gallery where local and international artists can show their work; a public art programme that gives artists the opportunity to work with the right conditions in the city’s public space, which is complemented with a service of guided tours for the public to visit the sites; and the production of original artist editions, which seeks to provide artists with the means to develop their skills in the field while also helping to bring a new generation of collectors and enthusiasts in contact with their work. At this stage, besides the art gallery, we also run a store in the city centre where we sell these editions that also doubles up as an artist residency and puts on small exhibitions around them. None of this was easy to achieve, but we’re lucky that the project has resonated so well with the community, the artists, and the public.

You have just staged Periférico in Lisbon, your first stage production with a team of choreographers, musicians, dancers, and video directors. How was the experience and is it something you see yourself exploring further in future?

It was challenging, inspiring, demanding, interesting and rewarding all at once. The whole process taught me a lot. I like stepping out of my comfort zone, which was exactly what I was invited to do with this project, but I have to admit that sometimes it felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew. In the end I was happy with the result, but I was only able to set it up with the help of an amazing creative team, including producers and technicians, and I really see it as a group creation. It definitely opened up new directions and possibilities for my work which I would like to keep exploring. We’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.

Your work and travel expose you to a lot of the current global creativity. Where do you feel the most inspiring work is happening now? 

This is hard to answer. Being the global village that it is, there are amazing things being done in all corners of the world at this stage, and that’s precisely what I believe defines the current age, the erosion of the concept of periphery and its limitations. You can create and produce amazing work pretty much from anywhere.

Do you still harbour dreams of being an astronaut?

I passed that dream on to my artwork after placing a piece on board the International Space Station in 2014! Never in a million years did I believe I’d come close to anything remotely like that.