Preliminary note. The first sense of unease must be established in relation to the work. First of all, the author wishes to state that he does not have a driving licence.
Conceptually, these works by João Louro should perhaps be inserted in some canon of genres, as a marked landscape or a sign posted landscape. However, nothing in them portrays or even simulates the objective reality of the “landscape”. As it is an invention, perhaps this would be a capriccio, or a mental itinerary. In the field of cartography, they are like portolans.
João Louro operates with the visual identity of traffic sign systems. In his work, there appear the metal signs of the Dead Ends series; the História do Crime (The History of Crime); the drawings entitled Pontes, Estradas e Cruzamentos (Bridges, Roads and Intersections); and another group of neon lights and metal letters entitled Language. His work could now be regarded as a problem of traffic engineering in order to guarantee the flow of the fluid (the traffic) and its intelligibility (intersections, short cuts, bridges and connections, men working on the road, etc.). Louro appropriates a system of road signs that makes use of lines, markings, symbols and captions, painted or affixed. He follows the design and the graphic pattern of the vertical signs used for the control of traffic, as warnings or as signposts. According to the Brazilian National Traffic Department , horizontal signs “are used to organise the flow of vehicles and pedestrians; to control and guide their movements in situations where there are problems of geometry and topography, or when they are faced with obstacles; to complement the vertical signs of regulation, warning or indication”. Even though the metal signs are hung on the walls, the viewer is inside the traffic flow. He is therefore faced with topography, and experiences obstacles that are experienced through horizontal signs.
Decontextualised in the asepsis of the white cube of the art gallery, João Louro’s work brings with it the danger of an imprecision in relation to places. The international colour code of road signs is a rigid one, but its territory is fluid. Nothing allows Louro the use of “local colour”. Furthermore, his territory is an enormous expanse of referents. An arrow that points to a hamlet, signposted as W. Benjamin (would that be West Benjamin?), for example, might perhaps allow us to infer that we could be arriving in the west of Frankfurt.
The visual artist João Louro knows that there is a code that defines the use of colours as the canon of road signs: blue signs with white letters refer to areas of interest to traffic, such as bridges, flyovers, etc. Black letters indicate cities and places, such as, for example, Rorty (if this were Brazil, there would be places called Tobias Barreto, in homage to the father of the Recife School of Philosophy, or even Brejo da Madre de Deus). Green signs are destined to guide people to their destination. The recipient of these destinations is the subject of language.
Failure on the part of the viewer of Louro’s work to obey these signs (i. e. metal traffic signs) does not imply any traffic offence, but, in the event of an accident, for example, the failure to obey them may be seen as an aggravating circumstance. God would have been run over in the German city called Nietzsche. At most, there would be a detour of linguistic behaviour without any consequences in the penal field. If João Louro infringes the colour canon, this is done in order to confuse the viewer by presenting problems of geometry, topography and obstacles. There are forks, indicated by two lanes, which open up in unexpected ambiguity in the region of Herman Melville.
In traffic control, (most) warning signs have a rectangular shape, with a yellow background and black letters and symbols, an outer yellow rim and an inner black one. A semi-circle is used to indicate a tentacular centrifugal place with exit roads leading to points such as Karl Kraus, Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. In Louro’s work, as the name already suggests, the signs have the role of alerting, guiding and warning the driver about a situation that he is going to encounter further ahead. Possibly these are Dantesque situations in which greater care and attention need to be shown, such as the one that seems to indicate dangers in desolate places (“senza gente”). The safest frontier is, however, all directions. “Beyond this point, abstract, by exclusion, is the end”, João Louro warns us . This same metal sign would indicate the end of the world (“senza gente”?) – or Land’s End, while the other one would point to the field of the Death of God, a place that appeared in the 19th century. Meanwhile, the physical distance is enormous (Nietzsche is 3750 kilometres away), but, even so, each metal sign amounts to a kind of mini-narrative, rather like waybills for a route that has been mapped out or already journeyed along. The signs shape a presence that is very close to the qualities of the places that they point to.
In João Louro’s city – in other words, in the corpus of his art – signs are, like language, a tool for communication, just like the brain or the city itself . In a similar vein, Ludwig Wittgenstein observed in his Philosophical Investigations that “our language can be seen as an old city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of modern sections with straight regular streets and uniform houses” . An exhibition of João Louro’s work amounts to the production of this maze or network of significations pointed out by the philosopher.
Without resorting to any verb, a paragraph from the Anthropophagite Manifesto (1928) of the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade depicts nothing but pure action and movement. Such a passage provides the title of this text and accurately predicts the development of certain works by João Louro: “Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes. Routes”. There is no ellipsis. Just compact substance. Oswald de Andrade was very close to Blaise Cendrars (the author of Feuilles de Route), who in turn knew of Arthur Cravan’s Dadaist adventure – the three form a chain of tourists in the land of modernity. For them, signposting is essential. Almost as in Dante’s literature, João Louro is a travel companion who ambiguously (dis)encourages the viewer to explore beyond the limits lit by the sun. Canto XXVI of the Inferno appears in fragmented form in one of Louro’s works as a solemn acclamation: “negare l’esperienza, di retro al sol, del mondo senza gente” . The incomplete quotation truncates Dante’s thought, like a sign that is misread in the traffic. Louro both invites and subverts the intention . He ends up proposing the opposite of what the writer encouraged: to travel beyond the world inhabited by men, in order to give chase with virtue and knowledge. The viewer would then experience the denial of language. Louro’s work calls for active interpreters.
João Louro’s studio or one of his exhibitions may therefore seem like an experience of urban traffic and the increasing chaos of contemporary life. Signs represent an attempt to order space, or avoid the disparity and collision of information. It is necessary to depart. As a starting point for approaching the work, we might consider that it is necessary to depart, it doesn’t matter where to, as Gaston Bachelard said. The Portuguese have always departed. Taking Camões with them to read on their travels. Language (and idiom), close to the geometry of water (and also of the traffic of old automobiles), would be in the area of fluid mechanics. It is for this reason that the nautical reference to portolans is pertinent.
One specific metal sign of João Louro’s, with texts and symbols referring to intersections (detour and level crossing) and work (would a hammer mean the image of Nietzsche demolishing the Idol?), indicates as follows: D’ÊTRE EN FACE / CONTEXT OF JUSTIFICATION / CONTEXT OF DISCOVERY. Die Gesellschaft ein langer Schatten des toten Gottes. Would it also be permissible to think of this work as a shroud? There is no room for passion, agony and pathos. The iconic aim of Louro’s work is to achieve the intended communicational efficiency. Where, in the city of Wittgenstein and Louro, might the death of God, observed by the author of Ecce Homo, be inscribed, now symbolising the very death of metaphysics? In the traffic, Louro alerts us to the finis terra of the metaphysical field – Land’s End.
The scientist Kurt Gödel inquired into the limits of rational thought and the possibilities that the logic of mathematics might become capable of explaining the whole universe. He was the scientist responsible for the development of the Theorem of Incompleteness. In this stretch of road, the context of discovery seems to be well removed from the theory of knowledge and philosophy centred on episteme in keeping with contemporary philosophy. By remaining apart from the ancient metaphysics of presence or its hermeneutic limitations, João Louro’s metal signs are guiding the viewer to a situation of rare problems in the topography of the unknown. His task in art is to attack the incompleteness of the gaze. Here, Louro is both a sculptor and an architect. He sculpts a void and plans the city of language.
The series of metal signs would indicate an international traffic in a territory without any national borders: Inferno, Paris, London, Milan, New York, Congo, Vienna, Cambridge, Frankfurt, Lisbon or Maine. João Louro’s perversity is to convert Arthur Cravan into the model of a territorial guide for his interpreters in their visit to all directions: poet, international flâneur, boxer and cultural provocateur. Walter Benjamin pointed out the anamnesic blindness that accompanies the flâneur in his deambulations through the city, not only to feed on it, but also to build up knowledge and experience of inert data . Just like language, Cravan constantly changed identity, sometimes weekly. It was a cyclical route that he followed. His need was to incarnate poetry in physical acts . A poet-boxer, he didn’t say a single word in a lecture in New York. Given that Cravan fired in all directions – he was also defined as a “forger” and a “noisician” – it would be natural that he should appear in a drawing by Louro as ALL DIRECTIONS – all the directions appended to multidirectional lanes and to the list of genres from his writing: Letters, Articles, Poems (and also lectures, boxing fights, silence, etc.).
In the corpus of João Louro’s traffic, language is generative action. His artistic production critically articulates unexpected semiological mechanisms, monuments of literature, philosophical reflections to blend together image and language. Everything passes through Louro’s metal signs (yes, his work is the place of this traffic), built as plastic theorems and a heteroclite circumscription of the void:
1) chance (Mallarmé and the opening of Un coup de dés);
2) ambiguities: (a) does the sign “Wittgenstein” lead to Vienna or Cambridge? (b) Barbara Johnson deconstructs Herman Melville, adopting a stance of critical difference in relation to the ambiguity between doing and being in the literary character of Billy Budd .
4) Artaud: bodies without organs, appearing in the schizophrenia of capitalism;
5) control of discourse (by the State, metropolis, dominant class, religion and others);
6) conventions: Codes are also accepted that have been agreed upon by restricted groups such as sects or gangs, or the specialised discourse of areas of science, technology or any other field of action.
8) the Divine Comedy;
9) the aesthetics of disappearance;
10) excess (excessiveness in the system of communication as a production of its opposite: misinformation);
11) grain of voice (what would be of interest here would be the visual diction of the plastic artist in the manipulation of industrial traffic signs into a poetic combination of language and image);
12) ideology (Zhdanov);
14) unspeakable: (a) (“l’innomable” of Wittgenstein from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in one of João Louro’s metal signs); (b) “Whoever says that horror is unnameable is wrong, horror is only unnameable for those who only know docile words, for those who only know middle-term words, but horror is speakable in the hypothesis in which you were seen by an eye-Auschwitz and, having understood that you were being seen-and-spoken-about by an eye-mouth-Auschwitz, you simultaneously witnessed all this happening” (Juliano Garcia Pessanha, in Certeza do Agora, quoted by Louro).
15) lacunas and absences.
16) free will, free association;
18) novellas (by Goethe, Melville, Nabokov and others);
19) opera aperta;
20) paradoxes (e.g.: “In this way, we arrive at the strange statements of G. Agamben – the Coming Community – when he says that we are united by that which most separates us,” says Louro ).
22) poetry (Valéry, Mallarmé, Cravan, Gide, Rilke and others);
24) specialised territories of knowledge;
João Louro warns us that his work includes “language in the full sense of the word, translation (another great theme), writers, books and poetry (a theme that I broach with every possible caution). It is clear that language is perhaps man’s greatest invention. Language and the opposed thumb make us what we are. Beings that use the idea (and manage to communicate it) and who produce tools and objects. The rest is history. But language is pure invention… Whereas the opposed thumb is a genetic invention” .
João Louro’s discourse of Language/Image understands the hypothesis that language is sculpted through crises, as is implicitly signposted. Against oppression in History, Walter Benjamin claims the discourse of the oppressed. He rejects a history made up of winners. Colonialism and Eurocentrism suffer erosion of the type found in Joseph Conrad’s journey up the River Congo. Like a storm that is brewing in the ocean, people hasten to denounce the bankruptcy of the European colonial model. The controversial Dependency Complex, described by Octave Mannoni (Prospero and Caliban, 1993), suggests the idea that the colonised peoples have a pre-existing wish to be colonised. In the area of resistance, Frantz Fanon radically understands that the psychology of the colonial regime suggests the disturbing internalisation, by those that are colonised, of the values of the system of domination – Black Skin, White Mask. Defining Conrad’s position, Louro indicates the deconstructive processes through which colonial domination ceases to be the universal language with full validity. The world’s cultural mesh, enjoying inexorable expansion brought about by many political, social and economic phenomena, points to the dissemination defined by Homi Bhabha.
In the Stalinist countermarch determined by the International, Zhdanov imposed the subordination of artistic discourse to ideology, Bureaucracy against Culture. It was proposed that the formalism of bourgeois “decadent” art be repressed. The antidote was the Jesuit Baltasar Gracian, who wrote about the knowledge of the world: “do not adopt the wrong side of an argument only because your opponent has embraced the right side.” That double hand of Zhdanov/Gracian is inside the work of João Louro. Image is a pact/ image is a fact. Bridge (sign) / Erreur de transcription / La terreur. Gide. Zhdanov. Rilke. Lukács. “The word is an incoincidence between exterior and interior.” Louro guides the traffic along this fissure of language. More than a linguistic play on words, the pact/fact binomial calls for a caesura. This is one of the tasks of art. This is its point of inflection in language. However, all caesuras incorporate the possible discomfort of an overlapping of meanings. The circle – the geometry of traffic drawn on one of his metal signs – is open. His drawing disproves the notion of circularity, but writes in favour of a fragmentary dispersal of the possibilities. The circum-centrality is brutally interrupted: La terreur / Erreur de transcription.
Whilst there is a psychological latency in the discourse of the subject (the language of the subconscious – the Theory of Dreams), its presence in Louro’s city is, however, seen as directly opposing the psychoanalysis revealed by Freud. The rulings of psychoanalysis on the discourse of the subconscious emerge as a critical counterpart in the words of another citizen of Vienna, Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness it purports to cure”. Dream and forgetfulness in Freud find another counterpart in Louro’s work: the silence of Blanchot (a necessary condition for his creative process). This silence would be a kind of non-sphere. A literature that moves from the circularity of narratives to the discourse of fragments.
In the history of the crisis of metaphysics, precipitated by Nietzsche with his reflections pointing towards the death of God, we are now faced with the criticism of epistemology and hermeneutics in contemporary philosophy. In one of Louro’s works, the name Rorty appears. In a lecture at MOMA , Rorty argued that the “onto-theological tradition” described by Heidegger was an attempt to find something big and non-human to which human beings might attach themselves, “the being of beings.” For him, this was also the redescription of that tradition by Derrida as “the metaphysics of presence.” Derrida engaged in polemics against the idea of escaping from temporality and contingency by finding something that would stay forever fixed.
In the dialogue Theaetetus (or on Science), Socrates reminds us that it was urgent to talk about dreams, diseases, and notably madness. “Plato’s disease” is the disorder that affects the rationality of discourse – the defence mechanisms of reason against illusions. At a certain point, Louro’s work touches upon the discourse of madness – Plato, Freud and Artaud. The Eidos may be the specific characteristics of a disease, insists Thucydides (History, II, 50), or also the way of shaping the form of things in the mind. His work comes up against the eidetic mirages of the sign and its discursive articulation.
Language seems to be something that escapes through all times and directions, on the way to places indicated by traffic signs, such as Nietzsche, Benjamin, Gödel or Wittgenstein. However, it implicitly incorporates as possibilities cummings, Saussure, Barthes, Jakobson and Peirce, amongst many others. The insufficiency of the mathematical model in linguistics, highlighted by Jakobson, is countered by Louro with the plastic model and an articulation of Gödel. Here, João Louro’s astonishment is the astonishment of Jacques Derrida: on recognising language as the origin of history . By inscribing Nietzsche on metal signs, the artist includes all of Nietzsche’s philosophy and none of Nietzsche’s philosophy at the same time. By inscribing W. Benjamin, Louro proposes all Benjamin and no Benjamin. All and no Rorty. The work calls for a response by the interpreter at a level that circumscribes and extrapolates knowledge and the lack of it.
João Louro’s work recovers the criticism of everything that confuses, is missing, is in excess, fractures, makes fragile, obscures, causes friction, contradicts, clarifies, deviates, distorts, corrupts, reinvents, affirms, pilfers, denies, through the most difficult extremity, the extreme need that we have for language, to the extent that it can be seen as a kind of exacerbated denial. That is because, as the artist says, “the abusive use of language, perhaps the result of a simplification and convenience that pleases us, has ended up degrading the meaning of words.” It is from this entropic base of language that João Louro’s art emerges. After all, as Mário Pedrosa wrote, “art is the only thing that is opposed to the world’s entropy” .
Noam Chomsky considers it the prime aim of generative grammar to answer the question: “what is the nature of the intuitive, unconscious knowledge, which (in particular) permits the speaker to use his language?” Faced with this image, João Louro has an impulse to paralyse the traffic: “It was from this desire to stop the images, to interrupt this flow, in this replete, overloaded and repeated universe, that I began to cover, paint, black out, etc. pictures that I saw in magazines and newspapers or books. What appeared after this action was fabulous. I encountered monochromes that had a caption” Where are the limits between philosophy and literature? (Juliano Garcia Pessanha ). After Joseph Kosuth’s Art after philosophy, João Louro’s question is about the limits existing between philosophy, literature and art. Far removed from any sense of illustrating theories, Louro’s work investigates image/language as a movement and transformation in reality and philosophy. The artist infiltrates the order of the gaze into the field of language, giving new meaning to relations.
João Louro travels incessantly over two great “bodies of work ” which never draw closer to any end between them – Language/Image. Even so, they are destined to be in permanent confrontation in the work of art. The first great theme, related with the Image, has its origin in excess. The second theme is Language. His point of arrival in this current work of his is to convert the image into an image of verbal information, into a visual image of language. His medium, says Louro, is “the saturation of the incessant life of images, which, at every moment, are inexorably and ceaselessly superimposing themselves on one another.” In the intersection of these fields, excessiveness is the condition leading to disappearance. The artist says that this is due to the “erosion of the word, in which the signified ceases to coincide with the signifier… The infidelity thus created, in which we have all been participating in some way, is the current state of communication. The word is a fine skin that has lost its contents.”
João Louro refuses to be the translator of the visibility of the legible. “Reading is understanding and not seeing,” says J-F. Lyotard . Even so, Louro knows that there is a crack opening from the visible onto the legible: the sweeping of the eye over what is written, noted by Lyotard. It is in this narrow field that the artist searches for the inscription of his visual facts as significant units and, from this very limited base, begins the construction of the meaning of the discourse. And this is how his concept of the “matrix-image” appears.
“I was looking at nothingness,” João Louro tells us, “through the caption, something. From this “blindness”, the image would be recreated by the mind; or, in another way, it would be the recourse to a previous mental image, already existing in the accumulated memory of each individual, projected into the mind: the “matrix-image”. I stimulate this resource in works that I have called Blind Images” . Like Diderot, Louro makes his Eulogy of Blindness. Arguing through negation, he speaks of blindness precisely in order to proclaim, confirm and comprehend the sense of sight. Continuing in this vein, Louro deals with what might be brought closer to the notion of the optical subconscious (defined by Rosalind Krauss): “That pile of images that each individual has and which seem to me to be enough to set in motion a logic that stimulates the creative and imaginative process, the rich, illusory and veiled character, which is only induced, which may arise in a viewer and which seems to me to be more delicious than any banquet that has already been served cold”. This Krauss reinterprets versions of modern art in order to incorporate the gaze as a process of dichotomous confrontation with the “opacity of the body” and the “invisibility of the subconscious”.
“The question of translation, which continues to interest me and surprise me more and more,” writes João Louro, “the distance between the form (which is epidermic and calligraphic) and the meaning (will the “meaning” in fact be the “use”, as Wittgenstein warned? – “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use”). In this space created between meaning and use, without any certainty, a “middle term” can be created. A fertile terrain of nuances, analogical, in the realm of the binary.” After so many names linked to the problematisation of the idea of truth, a necessary detour could perhaps be taken with a quotation from Theodor Adorno: “art is magic, freed from lies to be the truth”). More than this, João Louro is concerned with converting his astonishment into art.
João Louro’s aim is to define the route of vulnerability of the viewer-interpreter, but without taking the pedestrian from his path. At best, information is given in order to confuse the interpreter and offer him iconological doubt. At this bottleneck point, the best means of access to the traffic is a lack of knowledge. Deliberately made difficult amongst all the signs is our understanding which way the traffic is going. For the pedestrian, it would flow in a capillary fashion between these names-spaces and places. For the interpreter, it is a series of communicating vessels, uniting names to thought, like an attempt to connect energy. João Louro’s almost industrial recourse to iconology offers no certainties. Where are we going? The question, devoid of any metaphysical connotation, wishes to know where language is taking us. “Only those”, says Karl Krauss, “who can create an enigma from a solution are artists.”
This couldn’t be the work of a semiologist, nor even a job for a semiologist. On the contrary, it would be the death of his poetics. “An image must be regarded with suspicion”, says João Louro . A corpus of metal traffic signs is not concluded without its work-synthesis. This would be an all-directions (a possible allusion to the Pollockian all-over style of painting), the point from which the interpreter would depart to anywhere and the point at which the pedestrian would stay. In this sign, like an Aleph, there would be just one piece of information and simultaneously all information, the name would be written in an arrow spinning in all directions: João Louro. Here, he would produce maximum suspicion: the self-portrait as an object of doubt.
The crucial passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein on the unspeakable is to be found in the prologue to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence” .
Perhaps the best thing would be for me just to look and be silent.