in Silence Will Save Us
João Louro admits that he realised very soon that the set of images existing in the world cannot be interpreted. That number of impossible images generates some kind of noise on which the artist reflects and works. Hence his emphasis on the image and language, which he examines through different forms which are incorporated into his work in a natural way.
His latest series leads us to start thinking about an action which became essential thanks to the history of art itself. When David Tudor sat at the piano in 1952 to perform John Cage’s piece 4’33’’, he gave a performance with silence as the absolute protagonist which involved opening and closing the keyboard lid to mark the progression of the movements in the score published by Edition Peters.(1) At that time, many were able to understand that John Cage’s piece, which is very well-known today, was not an ode to silence or a joke that had been created to annoy the self-righteous audience of the American classical music scene. Rather, it was a composition that had the essence of something new. An action that broke down barriers in music and brought some postmodern premises closer to this field; an action that suggested a reflection on the meaning of silence in music until then and on how it could be understood in our time; an action that opened new experimental fields towards new expressions in contemporary music, such as noisism or avoiding the traditional idea of structure in music.
In his texts on this matter, John Cage makes his interests clear and invites us to reflect on this with questions such as “what happens, for instance, to silence? That is, how does the mind’s perception of it change?” — he refers to the changes in his contemporary music in relation to previous types of music — or assertions like: “There are, demonstrably, sounds to be heard and forever, given ears to hear. Where these ears are in connection with a mind that has nothing to do, that mind is free to enter into the act of listening, hearing each sound as it is; not as a phenomenon more or less approximating a preconception.”(2) In this regard, we could understand that Cage’s silence plays the same role as monochrome in Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, or black paint in João Louro’s Blind Music. It is precisely in this in-between space, in that resting place, of absence, where new propositions appear, where the chances of creating new interpretations increase. In the analysis of what Bourdieu defined as habitus — that space of categories of perception, mental structures, thought and action, which are the unifying principle of the different practices (3) — where we can find the starting point and the place of creation of João Louro’s artwork. In Silence Will Save Us, he delves again into the mechanisms of creation of that habitus by suggesting the idea of Cage that involved starting from silence as an uncomfortable place, as a space to capture new types of music and new sounds and, of course, as a place from which to develop new mental structures that help us in our untiring task of categorizing in order to create the reality that surrounds us.
If, as Althusser said, the cultural apparatus — which would include literature, music or art in all its forms — is one of the ideological state apparatuses,(4) nowadays we are living a process of acculturation, of standardisation. The state, in its educational task, is superseded by the power of big corporations, which are determined to reduce our critical capacity to the simple capacity of purchasing. This educational process through fear and fake news takes place just at a moment of hope when environmental awareness and some social movements that demand a slower and more human-friendly economy are on the rise. We are also witnessing a process of hyper-spectacularization of culture and images against which the universe of João Louro’s work is shown as another space, as a certain place to escape, through which people can flee.
We can understand that João Louro’s view of culture has to do with an idea of building the world based on language. Nietzsche already noted that language was the skeleton and the limit of our thought. For followers of the 19th-century philosopher like Wittgenstein, language is also a tool that we use to create our universe, “that the world is my world is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world.”(5) In João Louro’s Blind Music, just like in Blind Images, the written language acts in this way. When facing the monochrome black (the metaphysical idea of the “zero degree” of painting) and writing (which this time refers to musical compositions for piano), we are put precisely in this situation. In these works by Louro, the apparent absence of images (Blind Image) and sounds (Blind Music) is not the case. The presence of black as a non-colour augurs a vision or, in this case, a mental listening. Language allows us to recreate, to conjugate Nietzsche’s eternal return through our own knowledge system. Words bring what appears to be absent in its usual form to our minds and to the present, and they make it possible for us to rebuild it. Immateriality helps the viewer to become aware of the processes that we use to give life to our cultural repertoires within our own contexts. Therefore, the validity of the linguistic propositions would derive from our own culture, from our own way of functioning. What Wittgenstein defined as our language games.
The language game invoked in the viewer by Louro refers precisely to a certain culture created at the end of the 20th century, when it was important, somehow, to read the classic authors, listen to the great composers or watch films that had meant something to the mainstream or to the independent culture. Louro introduces us in his own games and involves us inasmuch as we can share that code and as our cultural background is similar to his own (at least partly). Somehow, when he used the traffic sign format (in Dead Ends) to bring us closer to that personal and almost generational universe, Louro already mapped his own knowledge structures. These recurrences in Louro’s work are even more important now than in the 1990s, when he started his Blind Images. Nowadays, social media sites have managed to divert attention to these great artworks towards other authorships. This apparently more horizontal and democratic system is also creating a smoke screen which hides the truly important analyses and supersedes very wise voices, in addition to not using the quality of the proposal as the scale for its consideration but its capacity for impact or dissemination as its greatest validating factor.
His first Blind Images, from the early 1990s, are magazine and newspaper pages covered by the artist with ink to hide their images. In this exercise, which hides some anger, he would discover a certain horror vacui, some kind of subliminal will to saturate the empty space. Through his combination of the monochrome and a message as a kind of caption, he held on to the strength of that message, which prevails by obliterating the image and empowering it as a fact. It was then when the artist adopted that way of creating images and started his current line of work. The scope of our own background and imagery as viewers gains prominence and extends the image game, as if someone displayed an empty frame so that we, the viewers, could fill it with our life experiences and build upon something given. It is as though João Louro tried to open a rift in the romantic paradigm. Because, although in this case contemplation also goes from being something purely physical to becoming abstract, the romantic paradigm closes with the creator and then the work of art opens at some point, or more specifically, it never closes entirely and it is the viewer who completes the work. All the possible images of our imagery come into play in this empty and slippery space. Here the romantic ruins are the foundations for construction. Here dispossession is a strategy of continuity for those who observe and think.
Actually, João Louro is also inviting us to reflect on the issue of the author. To the formal review that Louro’s monochromes mean of the work of Rauschenberg and other more contemporary artists who used paint in its purest form, we must add that idea of reflection which places the viewer inside the work, something that we see in very different artists, such as the paradigmatic case of Francis Bacon in the universe of figurative painting. In Louro’s Blind Image series, the methacrylate covering the canvasses is no longer a mere protection, it gains a more complex meaning. He covers his black canvasses with this material and adds a white vinyl with a caption — the written part of the artwork — as well as the logo of the famous piano company Steinbach in the case of his Blind Music series. This gives rise to the idea of the mirror as an element to separate worlds, as a limit that can be crossed — a recurring theme in art, photography or films. Take, for example, works of great significance in the history of painting, such as The Arnolfini Portrait or Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which tricked the viewer by trying to introduce “reality” in the space of the representation, or scenes devised by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, in which multiple mirrors immersed us in a psychological splitting universe. More contemporarily, Gerhard Richter’s grey paintings or the reflective walls in some of Dan Graham’s works are good examples of this effect, which creates a double game of inclusion and rebound for the viewer. However, an even better example is Robert Morris’ Mirrored Cubes, which reflect each other as well as the space and those who look at them or go around them. For Morris, context creates some dependence with the object, and vice versa. It is a reversible relation similar to that one intended by Louro; the idea of embracing what surrounds the artwork, which also predominates in Pistoletto’s Quadri specchianti; a place to rediscover what we have in front of us. This is also the case of the nature fragments in Robert Smithson’s non-sites. Perspective makes us look back. It is as if the image split to let us see forward and backwards at the same time. Our perception breaks and leads us to experience the uncertain.
Nevertheless, in Louro this does not end here. This presence takes on a deeper meaning regarding the construction of personality. The methacrylate, the mirror, works as a separating element, as a barrier between the physical space of the viewer and the creative virtual space. His approach is related to what Lewis Carroll insinuated in Alice Through the Looking Glass when Alice encouraged the kitten to imitate the Red Queen, or to the moment when David Lynch — another of João Louro’s recurring references — shows us the character of BOB on the other side of the mirror after agent Cooper slams his head into this element at the end of the last season of this recently resurrected TV series from the 1990s. It was not by chance that in 2015, for the Venice Biennale, he borrowed the lyrics of a song by Velvet Underground included in their first studio album in 1967:
“I’ll be your mirror / Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know / I’ll be the wind, the rain and the sunset / The light on your door to show that you’re home / When you think the night has seen your mind / That inside you’re twisted and unkind / Let me stand to show that you are blind / Please put down your hands / Cause I see you […]”
The reflection in João Louro’s works creates a contrast between what light hits and leaves, or what light swallows, as Paulo Herkenhoff interpreted so well from Blind Image #66. Herkenhoff wrote about the slight visibility of Louro’s work, mentioning his ability to annul the optical unconscious and scourge the oculo-centric system of vision and using Meleau-Ponty’s idea of taking a place in the phenomenological chink between the visible and the invisible. (6) “#66 evokes Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. The observer is a Blind Runner before the dark emptiness in the experience of ‘visible darkness’. The object only just brings about the inevitable discrepancy between significance and signifier. #66 could be the site of the Beckett scene or the extreme dissolution of the shapeless.”
Indeed, in Louro’s work, like in Beckett’s, silence does not tend to the void but to the representation. If Beckett showed us some kind of wordless act in Film, Louro leads us to Godard’s maxim, which claimed that, in cinema, the image of reality is just the reality of that image. Therefore, the idea of Louro’s black mirrors swallowing reality instead of reflecting it makes sense. Because they vomit reality inward. Light enters his work, and it is key to decoding the message. This is also how they turn context into content. Because they are not immune to where we place them, to other works or objects. It is about squeezing the most out of the poetics of the image as observation, as in Tarkovsky’s cinema and that ability to transit the different scales. The image as a field sank into the abyss. They are places of images embracing the sense of loss to which Georges Didi-Huberman referred when he pointed out that “the modality of the visible becomes ineluctable — that is, condemned to a question of being — when seeing is feeling that something escapes us ineluctably: in other words, when seeing is losing.”(7) It is as if shapes only grew towards their extinction.
João Louro works what is mutable, and he is close to Deleuze’s horizontal thinking, as well as to Foucault’s and, in general, to that fine profoundness of French philosophy and literature. In this regard, we could delve into the origin of his reflections on literature or philosophy, which is almost always pictorial. We could also deduce the same from Beckett. This is why he always discovers some colour. Each colour has a very specific meaning, the result of a construction, of a research. It is not about adding an aesthetic element to his work but about completing its sense. Therefore, colour is essential, it is a very conscious figure in the scene. This the case in the black mirror of Blind Image #66, which, for Herkenhoff, is similar to the warfare and terror technology described by Paul Virilio: “João Louro gives the monochrome new meaning with #66 on the opposite side to the profitability promoted by the industry of fear. And this is a screen breaking down and an uncertain writing. Louro subverts Ad Reinhardt’s ‘Twelve rules for a new academy’ (1957). The glass of the frame on the black picture #66 swallows the world like a mirror. The caption, taken from Time (‘Time goes to War’) is inscribed under the Tower-picture: ‘At 9:02 am, with the north tower of the World Trade Center already in flames, United Airlines flight 175 slams into the south tower’. For the mediated observer, there is no time dimension: between the sensational event and the stultifying ‘information bomb’ (Paul Virilio). It was 9:02. This is light. Between the Freudian instincts to dominate (Bemachtigungstrieb) and the destructive ones (Destruktionstrib), there is no past nor future. #66 is the entropic crux between the expected and collapse.”(8)
As a good heir to Minimal Art, João Louro examines the possibilities of the perceptive experience of a viewer, who is no longer observing but sharing, accepting the space and the connections which, with this, end up defining the meanings. The most recent bases of João Louro’s work are built on the moment of rupture of Conceptual Art and Minimal Art. On the one hand, he defines a sort of minimalist landscape that takes us into unknown territory. On the other hand, with words, as symbolic representations, he allows us to interpret the world with our own personal background and knowledge. Because that interpretation is never ended, and it leads us to a balancing act due to the deep absence of an image. Language alters and disrupts meaning, and it is the channel used by the artist to describe the world. This is the case of his Dead Ends, a generic title for a series of works with road or highway sign posts in which their usual messages are replaced by philosophic or artistic references, from Nietzsche to Picabia. This is also the case of his Blind Images or Blind Music, in which the artist suggests lines of thought so that viewers complete the second reading level. These are works that invite us to venture into uncharted territory. João Louro sets the pretext, and meaning comes to us. Just as when we see a traffic sign, we come across object clearness, which, in this case, only serves to encrypt the enigma because its interpretation is not the explanation (very much in line with Nietzsche).
João Louro’s work is interstitial — it overflows its place to blend with its surrounding space and the viewer. Therefore, each work is proposed to us as a surface in transit. Perhaps we can only speculate, create our own mirrors. Knowledge is actively built, and the artist suggests an effective perception of the viewer through language, as it is the case in the work of one of his elective affinities: Lawrence Weiner. In both of them the experience is, without a doubt, fragmentary and continuous because the semantics of these language games is inextinguishable. However, if in Weiner’s work, language is a sculpture, in Louro’s it is an image, usually an evasive painting to be interpreted, which can confound the instant.
The void in these works is like a crack perforating perception, a scene that becomes eloquent thanks to language and reflection, because the void in João Louro’s artwork is not a neutral and inert space but quite the opposite, since it can work through a network of multiple intertwinings. It is irrelevant if the image has been hidden — it is an active background, a pure absence allowing all the presences, if we think about the creative void described by María Zambrano. It is the viewer who needs to understand the saturation of meaning and questions hidden behind João Louro’s blind screens. It is somehow similar to the orientalist total void, an external interiority. It reminds me of Mark Rothko: for him, painting was a radiation field which could expand and fuse the viewer’s observation and their reflection together. Therefore, colour is a source of energy, like Louro’s flat and reflective screens. It is not an easy exercise in that kind of inframince experience, particularly at a time of so much information such as this one, of impetuosity and immediacy. It is only natural that Christopher Rothko, the painter’s son, should consider that the problem lies in the fact that today’s society values science more than emotions, technology more than personal experience: “It’s something that I frequently see because I’m a psychologist, and many patients don’t want to talk about their problems, they just want pills.”(9) Art is increasingly becoming an attitude problem, and it should seek the viewer’s performativity, their interaction; in short, as it happens with Louro’s works, an active perception is required.
The density of references in João Louro’s artwork includes artists, creators and theorists who, in their work, kept the balance between what is seen and what is lost, as we noted earlier regarding Didi-Huberman. Barnett Newman and his experiences with immensity would be one of them, as well as the abovementioned Yves Klein or Robert Rauschenberg. In the cinematographic field, David Lynch and his horizon of complete visuality, or Antonioni and his images like a quiet adventure, with landscapes fading away because of this liking for vapour and mist. We talk about elusive atmospheres, which flirt with invisibility. However, far from being iconoclastic, they are a link to the experiential, which confuses the access to the image and knowledge, which makes it more complicated. It would be something similar to how Jacques Derrida sees the ruins in a text which he wrote on the occasion of an exhibition of drawings of blind people held at the Louvre Museum: “The ruin is not in front of us; it is neither a spectacle nor a love object. It is experience itself: neither the abandoned yet still monumental fragment of a totality, nor, as Benjamin thought, simply a theme of baroque culture. It is precisely not a theme, for it ruins the theme, the position, the presentation or representation of anything and everything. Ruin is, rather, this memory open like an eye, or like the hole in a bone socket that lets you see without showing you anything at all, anything of the all. This, for showing you nothing at all, nothing of the all. ‘For’ means here both because the ruin shows nothing at all and with a view to showing nothing of the all. There is nothing of the totality that is not immediately opened, pierced, or bored through.”
What is at stake here is the need for the viewer to ultimately be who prowls around the image. Let us call it dark matter. Just as in poetry, in Blind Images landscape holds the light of a non-visible background, whereas in the Blind Music series we will only hear an infinite listening. In the end, silence is present in every poetic statement. Poems tend naturally to silence, like Louro’s works, which no longer make sense if they are not heard before their word, their silence. This is something that José Ángel Valente poeticised like no other, or the abovementioned María Zambrano, who pointed out that poetry is about hearing in the silence and seeing in the dark. Nothing is more monumental than silence and blindness. João Louro is aware of this.
When thinking about that monumentality of blindness, it inevitably reminds me of Blue, Derek Jarman’s paradigmatic film. The whole film features a single static shot of a monochrome blue with a voiced-over autobiographic text written by the author himself. Jarman, who had AIDS, developed this project when his disease was at a very advanced stage. In this film, he tells his experience in a moving and tragic way, calmly and with optimism, even with humour sometimes, but always poetically, over a very precise blue, from a very specific range which reaches its full potential in the darkness of the cinema. The result is, therefore, a mixture of formal rigour and political and existential anger, of the ‘structural cinema’ of the 1970s and a confessional tone. Without an image (literally), the colour blue contains all of them; they are reconstructed by the viewer, who imagines them on the other side of the screen. Blue is, above all, the perfect example of the indivisibility of form and content. Although it is possible to listen to the voiceover without the constant company of the blue screen (in fact, its soundtrack was broadcast on BBC radio), their juxtaposition is essential to the aesthetic strategy of Jarman. The complex interdependence of sound and image blends modernist self-referentiality with the impulse to turn a personal testimony into political practice. The rejection of any kind of artifice is an aesthetic decision inspired by ethical criteria: avoiding “the spectacle of AIDS” and any melodramatic strategy; although the colour blue is also a metaphor for blindness, which Jarman himself suffered as a result of this illness.
Nevertheless, when talking about João Louro, it would be unfair to leave Malevich out as his first essential influence. When in 1915 he showed his Black Square against white background, artistic avant-garde movements were anchored in figuration. However, it is true that that figuration was very advanced for their time, like Picasso’s Cubism or the previous break with the pictorial space which could have started with Caravaggio — since it can be said that he was the first one to see painting as an idea — and continued with Turner, who was able to evade chiaroscuro as an essential element to create a painting, or Caspar David Friedrich, who caused the public to complain because, according to them, they could not see anything. This is something which could still happen, and it does happen, in the 21st century with Louro’s Blind Images. Friedrich sought a void which, paradoxically, filled everything. His search for the sublime in works like Monk by the Sea led him to remove any sense of depth by eliminating the vanishing point and, as in oriental paintings, expanding the space laterally and superficially. Turner almost reached the abstract image by using a sketching technique consisting on spots of colours, which inspired Monet. If Monet abandoned the resource of drawing to give priority to colour, in his characteristic blend of shape and background, that balancing tension grows in the work of Cézanne, where the materiality of pigments is the keynote. Before, Manet had already eliminated the unity of the picture and spatial depth, bringing the background to the front. However, it was Cézanne, with his monumental figures and unfinished portraits, and with his “reservations” or empty parts that allowed a glimpse of the white canvas in some of his paintings, who never let his strokes seem final. It is not surprising that at the end of his life he admitted that the colour sensations generated by light caused in him abstractions that did not allow him to cover the canvas or delimit objects, which resulted in his difficulty to permanently materialise the painting. We talk about perceptions and revolutions which were yet to come in history of art and which, to a greater or lesser extent, form a family tree for João Louro’s works.
Because the arrival of abstraction was not programmed but a result of the gradual struggle for the autonomy of art in relation to its external reality. Paul Klee, Piet Mondrain… there were many examples but it was indeed Malevich, with that apparently last painting, who took abstraction too far, as he did three years later when he painted Black Square against white background. Malevich evoked the supreme in painting; he refined and reduced in order to expand the space more strongly. In this regard he stated: “It became clear to me that new frameworks of pure colour must be created, based on what colour demanded and also that colour, in its turn, must pass out of the pictorial mix into an independent unity, a structure in which it would be at once individual in a collective environment and individually independent.”(10) Mondrian’s artwork is not about what it is but about what remains. However, Malevich’s artwork, or Rodchenko’s, is about proving that everything came to an end, that the truth is hidden precisely in the inexistence of the object.
In the end, as Ad Reinhardt pointed out in the 1960s, we should not see the “last paintings” as the death of painting but as a return to the roots, to the beginning of things. Thus, artists like Yves Klein replaced the pictorial space by the spiritual space, creating environments with invisible paintings, as was the case in 1958 when he emptied the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris for his work La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état de matière première en sensilibilité picturale stabilisée. Le Vide. Others, like Piero Manzoni, emptied the surface of paintings because they did not understand why they should be covered with colours. Artists such as Rodchenko sought to reach the end of painting. And in this regard, it was not far from Minimalism, which started forty years later, in terms of the totality of objects.
With the subtitle “The Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings”, Malevich showed his first non-objective paintings in 1905. Much of the contemporary art of the 21st century was characterised by that search for the minimum, but Malevich took it to the highest level by presenting it in a corner, like Russian traditional icons. Many painters will look for the textural character of their surfaces, which in Malevich’s work is emphasised by the simplified delimitation of the square, the quadrum, which can mean square and frame. In the case of Malevich, we talk about the death of painting, an agony created by modern art and, more specifically, by abstract painting. On the other hand, the death of the author (Barthes), of the ideologies (Lyotard) or even of men (Foucault) define a general apocalyptical sense. The crises and progress of abstract painting can be intertwined by a common thread (rather than by the appearance of consecutive new orders, as in the case of sculpture): its obsession with its own death. The feeling of last painting emerged many times in history, as it was the case with Marcia Hafif, Robert Ryman or Blinky Palermo. Of course, we cannot forget Rauschenberg’s white paintings, which drove John Cage to perform his 4’33” silence in public. We see this later in Kounellis, who approached the idea of last painting. His white canvasses were literally crucified on the walls, as if they wished to play with that metaphor. As in the case of Ryman, the monochrome white empties the painting and removes content. The painting style of Kounellis is pure intuition, developed from a break with every possible reference. History continues, from Ad Reinhardt to Gerhard Richter. Of course, we cannot forget the debates proposed in the mid-1970s by the BMPT group, with Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michael Parmentier and Niele Toroni, who sought to research what is the minimum required to consider something on a surface a painting. Works such as Buren’s or Toroni’s offer us something specific to be seen, but their aim is to wonder how that is perceived.
Therefore, the history of the work of Louro is as dense as the virtual meaning of his Blind Images or Blind Music series. Suprematism, Constructivism, Minimal Art or Conceptual Art are undeniable influences; however, João Louro will see Dadaism as the key to understanding Modernism and many of the current artistic experiences. We must not forget that the artist is mainly interested in generating new semantic matters that make other readings possible for us, far removed from interpretations directed in just one direction. This can be seen in his 2019 exhibition Ni le Soleil ni la Mort at the White Pavilion in Lisbon, in which an hypertextual montage combined times, texts and images, secularity and religion, directness and symbolism or poetry and anamnesis in order to project some sort of destruction of the conventional language which was produced with the emergence of World War I and the Dada universe.
His work is further proof of how Dadaism was a movement which caused some kind of strike force or shock wave that changed contemporary art; on the one hand, because it was a pacifist and propositive consequence of the disasters caused by World War I, that freedom which can be regarded as one of the origins of the genetics of what we now consider to be contemporary art; on the other hand, because it broke with the more masticated understanding of art to foster some sort of disobedient shapes that formed another history of art at the same time. In this regard, we could go back to Stéphane Mallarmé and the idea that every thought emits a dice throw, a premise that can be applied to all the artwork of João Louro. Precisely, nothing at the time could fractionate more the typographic notions adopted until then than the poem by Mallarmé Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (1897), which used the double page of a book as just one space. Something like those large black screens, in two pages, which Louro proposes in order to expand the expressive capacity of the image. The 700 words of this poem by Mallarmé (uppercased, lowercased, in italics or roman) alternate with blank spaces, as silences, embracing the sensational and working on the weight of the words or their temperature so as to define the intonation and the reading speed. Of course, this clearly anticipates what happened with postmodern supergraphics, with the constructivist typographic compositions which the designer Paula Scher created for New York’s Public Theatre, with El Lissitzky’s Proun Room or with the system of tensed structures in Frederick Kiesler’s City in Space, but also with Dadaism and, definitely, with the structures deconstructed of messages that João Louro proposes, which always offer an alternative whilst forcing us to make a decision.
It seems inevitable to see this poetic action by Mallarmé as a precedent to Guillaume Apollinaire’s pictorial Calligrammes (1918), to Carlo Carrá’s free word painting or to the futurist words in freedom of Filippo Marinetti’s poems, Les mots en liberté futuristes (1919), which, according to him, were inspired by his experience in the trenches. In addition, some decades later Guy Debord and Asger Jorn created an odd collage in Mémoires (1959), which is a labyrinth of quotations cut out by Debord himself and tainted by Jorn with paint, in line with the theory of the Situationist dérive, which combined art and politics. One cannot help but be categorical when defending the fact that those clever radical expressions are the key to understanding what could be described as João Louro’s “verbal painting”. Therefore, in order to comprehend much of its essence, one should go back to those times when authors like Marinetti presented his Parole in libertá in the book Zang Tumb. Sound sought equivalences in the shape and size of words. Thus, the magazine Lacerba was born in 1913; it was the outcome of Marinetti’s efforts and his partnership with the painter Ardengo Soffici and the writer Giovanni Papini. In Lacerba the bold type was used for violent onomatopoeias and italics for swift sensations. Images were replaced by words, as in silent films, where the visual appearance of words made it possible to continue the story. Soffici, in his work, even used parts of advertisements as punctuation marks because advertising showed the modern life. However, the case of Louro is different and it fits better with the foundations laid by the Dadaist phonic poems, which implicitly criticised the journalism of that time by trying to restore the purity of words, breaking with the traditional order of things and emptying the language of meaning. Viewers must be able to construct realities, and that can be extrapolated to João Louro’s Blind Images or Blind Music series and to the type of contemporary photography that densifies the moment. We already find that cinematographic character of the expansion of the time of the image, that perceptive suspension, in the virtually inconsistent elasticity of the Dadaist fragmentary collages, which are today reincarnated as works such as Louro’s, which condemn us to a reception that is never final. This is something that Arthur C. Danto sensed from John Heartfield and his photomontage, because “the task is no longer to represent the world but to rearrange it.”(11) In other words, this idea of mounting photographs becomes the best way to create inteligente metaphors, which is directly related to the work of designers but also to the use of other methods, like those of João Louro.
This openness in interpretation, this multiplicity of the idea which has been mentioned, has led him to introduce very Dadaist extrapictorial elements, like pieces of photographs, but also others which are typical of Pop Art, like neon lights or traffic signs. With a certain sense of humour, this makes it possible for him to stretch the meaning and syntaxis of the image as a chewing gum, expanding knowledge while honouring some of this literary and philosophic influences, like Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord, Georges Bataille, Arthur Rimbaud, Samuel Beckett or Maurice Blanchot.
Examining some of them gives us some keys to understand Louro’s work. On the one hand, the Beckettian silence, which tends to representation. When thinking about Film, Samuel Beckett’s only cinematographic experience starring Buster Keaton, we can see that there is no dialogue at all in this film, only a “Ssssh!” (in the end, both of them used silence as their language). We can also notice the abstract nature of the space in which characters move around. With this film we witness an indecipherable problem of self-perception. On the other hand, the labyrinthine writing of Maurice Blanchot and his way of eliminating any presence. Blanchot’s liberated writing is solitude before the unknown, and words become the fate which opens the possibilities of meaning. Like Louro’s, this is a deferred writing which delves into its own capacity for absence.
In effect, when we see João Louro’s works as viewers, we have an obligation to construct our realities in order to rearrange what we are told. To do this, it is not necessary to think of all the above mentioned virtual influences but it is vital, indeed, to have a well-trained ability for abstract thinking for such a demanding experience. In some way, this exercise has probably made him to explore in recent years the idea that music is an image and not its sounds. The artist himself once mentioned that our ability to think about a song without hearing its sound was the origin of his latest works.
For Louro, form is the expression of content; in other words, form is content. This is how, in each work of art, he starts a nonstop flight, like Charles Augustus Lindbergh, who inspired his recent exhibition at Galeria Vera Cortês. Lindbergh was the first pilot to fly cross the Atlantic Ocean, connecting New York and Paris, like Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar or some of Louro’s Dead Ends. Several others had tried and failed, but Lindbergh succeeded because he designed an odd and uncomfortable airplane, in which weight was reduced by leaving out everything that was not utterly essential. João Louro develops metaphorically the construction of that airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, in order to stress how its skin, its look, expressed all the conceptual content conceived by the pilot.
For Louro, deep down, everything has to do with language. A score, for example, has a combination of symbols which make it possible to accurately reproduce sounds, so it has a language, but it is also an abstraction, and that abstraction transforms music into an image. These reflections ultimately opened a new line of work which he presented for the first time at the Fundación DIDAC, a new way of approaching his Blind Images through sound.
This is also possible thanks to João Louro’s own knowledge of the history of music, which was the origin of his Score series, works which are related to the idea of his Covers. If in these he used covers from books by James Joyce, Robert Musil or Herman Melville, among others, his starting point for the Score series was the scores of Edition Peters, the emblematic music company established in 1800 in Leipzig by the composer and conductor Franz Anton Hoffmeister and the organist Ambrosius Kühnel. This kind of recurrence is not a coincidence in João Louro’s work. On the one hand, he uses a pre-existing cultural object in an exercise of appropriation that helps us to place him in the wake of those artists who, in the 1960s and 1970s, took the avant-garde exercises up again from a more intellectualised point of view and gave rise to conceptual art. On the other hand, for Louro, neither this search nor his choice of the music publishing house is a coincidence. The important history of this German company allows him to apply that Warholian aesthetics of the reproducible to the covers of its scores. This is a work that deals with the most recent history of Western classical music and reinforces the weight that the cultural fact in all its manifestations has in the work of João Louro as a whole.
After its establishment, in 1860 the management of Edition Peters was taken over by the Hinrichsens, a Jewish family that was persecuted by the Nazi regime during World War II and later saw their company nationalised by the Soviet regime after the occupation of East Germany. Despite many difficulties, the company managed to survive thanks to the efforts of the family, who successfully preserved its collection (which was possible because the company was a non-profit foundation for several periods), and to the movements that led this music publishing house to be headquartered in London, Frankfurt or New York. In 1867, the firm started to use design as the banner of their collection. Thanks to the effectiveness of their clean covers, which was based on the repetition of the same font, the use of their logo and colour classification (pink for the works of contemporary composers under copyright and light green for the rest of the catalogue), their scores became easily recognisable. This commitment to design was complemented by the use of rotary presses, which reduced the cost of the scores a lot and, as a result, turned Edition Peters into an almost contemporary icon, an exercise which showed the path that big multinationals publishing companies would take in the pre-Internet era.
Edition Peters gradually increased its collection throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including reproductive rights of works by Bach, Hummel, Ries, d’Albert, Brahms, Bruch, Dvo ák, Flotow, Franz, Gade, Listz, Loewe, Lortzing, Meyerbeer, Moszkowski, Raff, Sinding, Smetana, Vieuxtemps, Wagner, Mahler, Pfitzner, Reger, Schoenberg, Wolf, Richard Strauss, Paul Dessau, Hanns Eisler, Georg Katzer, Rudolf Wagner-Régeny, Ruth Zechlin, George Crumb, Morton Fieldman, Brian Ferneyhough, Vinko Globokar, Mauricio Kagel, György Ligeti, John Cage or Christian Wolff, among others. Nowadays this company is still alive and well.(12)
The colours pink and green of the German company can be seen in the Score series, alluding to the covers of works by Schoenberg, Ligeti or Debussy. These acrylic paintings are complemented by the use of vinyl on methacrylate, resulting in the combination of the pictorial tradition and the most recent industrial processes. Louro also uses the technique of graphite on paper in some of his Scores, as well as in the creation of Acuarela do Brasil, Ary Barroso and Yesterday, The Beatles as images of the first Pop culture, which are light years away from the commercial products broadcast by thematic radio stations, from the fastmusic of consuming and then forgetting, which emerged in the era of the abandoned physical medium and the omnipresence of the cloud. Those who look closely will notice that, just as in the historical artistic influences of the artist, the works selected for this sort of tribute are ground-breaking too. Therefore, he creates some kind of map of songs, symphonies and compositions that attract him and somehow broke with what was established at their time. This, let us call it political attitude, leads him to visually interpret works which caused some friction, such as works by Schoenberg, Haydn, Prokofiev… Of course, as it has already been mentioned, these works are directly linked to Louro’s Dead Ends through literary influences or connections with artists that, for different reasons, interested him. This is, in some way, a visual archive or register which organises his thoughts as an artist, like his Blind Images, but in a different way.
João Louro knows that there is no blind spot neither in language nor in the tunes of his Blind Music series. As Paulo Herkenhoff points out: “João Louro problematizes the notions between flatness (painting, drawing, photography) and sphericity (sculpture) to a point of contagion.”(13)
That spherical look of Louro has much to do with the earworms described by Peter Szendy, a tune which can come from everywhere or from nowhere at the same time, able to accompany our lives while being inscribed as an echoing repetition of ourselves.(14)
This book shows one side — and many sides at the same time — of João Louro’s formal universe, who is still interested in perception and who revisits matters regarding the image, as if it were an endless and incomplete project due, somehow, to the difficulty of understanding some sort of unsolvable obsession: reviewing the image of the world. João Louro has always played with the deconstruction of certain discourses through a restructuration or logical combination which seeks to transform the thoughts and credibility of the viewer. He might think, like Picabia, that our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction, always bearing in mind two premises which Delfim Sardo defined so lucidly: “a deep distrust in relation to the virtualities of the photographic image as a process of construction of any type of truth about the world, and a belief in the possibilities of language to describe that same world.”(15) Debates and reflections which expand in every direction.
João Louro confessa ter percebido desde muito cedo que o conjunto de imagens que existem no mundo não permite a sua leitura. Essa quantidade de imagens impossíveis gera uma espécie de ruído sobre o qual o artista reflete e trabalha. Daí a insistência na imagem e na linguagem, que ele perscruta a partir de diferentes formas que se incorporam à sua obra de forma natural.
A sua última série leva-nos a começar por pensar num gesto que a própria história da arte se encarregou de colocar como fundamental. Quando David Tudor, em 1952, se sentou para tocar a peça 4’33 ” de John Cage ao piano, ele apresentou uma performance com o silêncio como protagonista absoluto, numa performance que envolvia abrir e fechar a tampa do instrumento de acordo com os intervalos indicados na partitura da obra publicada pela Edição Peters(1). Naquela época, muitos entenderam que o agora conhecido trabalho de John Cage não era uma ode ao silêncio, nem uma piada destinada a irritar o público bem-pensante da cena musical do colégio americano. Em vez disso, era uma composição que continha a essência de algo novo. Uma ação que quebrou barreiras musicais e que se aproximava dos pressupostos da pós-modernidade neste âmbito, propondo uma reflexão sobre o que o silêncio representou para a música até então e como poderia ser compreendido nos nossos tempos, abrindo campos de experimentação para novas manifestações na música contemporânea, como o ruído, ou a fuga da ideia tradicional de estrutura musical.
Nos seus textos sobre o assunto, John Cage deixa claros os seus interesses e propõe reflexões em forma de perguntas como «O que acontece, por exemplo, com o silêncio? Ou seja, como a muda a forma como a mente o percebe? “, referindo-se a mudanças no que era sua música contemporânea em relação à música anterior, ou afirmações como” há, pode-se demonstrar, sons para ouvir, e haverá sempre que houver ouvidos para ouvi-los. Quando estes ouvidos estão em conexão com uma mente que não tem nada que fazer, essa mente é livre para se lançar no ato de ouvir, ouvindo cada som como ele realmente é, não como um fenômeno mais ou menos próximo do preconceito»(2).
Neste sentido, poderíamos entender que o silêncio de Cage desempenha o mesmo papel do monocromático nas pinturas de Robert Rauschenberg, ou da pintura negra das Blind Images de João Louro. É precisamente nesse espaço entre, nesse lugar de descanso, de ausência, onde surgem novas propostas, onde se multiplicam as possibilidades de criação de novas leituras. Na análise do que Bordieu definiu como habitus – aquele espaço de categorias de percepção, estruturas mentais, pensamento e ação que constituem o princípio unificador das diferentes práticas(3)-, podemos localizar o ponto de partida e o lugar de construção da obra de João Louro, que em Silence Will Save Us mais uma vez faz um exercício de irrupção nos mecanismos de criação desse habitus, propondo a ideia de Cage de partir do silêncio como um lugar incómodo, como um espaço para captar novas músicas, novos sons e claro, como um lugar a partir do qual desenvolver novas estruturas mentais que nos ajudem na nossa incansável tarefa de categorização para a criação da realidade que nos rodeia.
Se, como disse Althusser, o aparelho cultural, no qual se inserem a literatura, a música ou as artes nas suas diversas manifestações, é um dos aparelhos ideológicos do Estado (4), estamos atualmente em processo de aculturação, de uniformização. O estado na sua tarefa “educacional” é substituído pelo poder das grandes corporações, determinadas a reduzir a nossa capacidade crítica a um mero poder de compra. Estamos diante de um processo de educação por meio do medo e das notícias falsas e ao mesmo tempo num momento de esperança em termos de ascensão da consciência ambiental e de certos movimentos sociais que exigem uma economia mais lenta e respeitadora do ser humano. Assistimos a um processo de hiperespectacularização da cultura e da imagem perante o qual o universo da obra de João Louro se mostra como um outro espaço, como um certo local de fuga, através do qual se criam fugas.
Podemos entender que a visão de cultura em João Louro tem que ver com uma ideia de construir o mundo a partir da linguagem. Nietzsche já apontou a linguagem como o esqueleto e o limite do nosso pensamento. Para seguidores do filósofo do século XIX, como Wittgenstein, a linguagem é também o instrumento pelo qual criamos o nosso universo «que o mundo seja meu mundo, é o que se mostra nisso, os limites da linguagem (a linguagem que, só ela, eu entendo) significam os limites do meu mundo» (5). Na Blind Music de João Louro, como já acontecia nas Blind Images, a linguagem escrita atua dessa forma. Ao nos depararmos com o preto monocromático (ideia metafísica da pintura em seu grau zero) e a escrita (desta vez referindo-se a composições musicais a serem tocadas ao piano), coloca-nos justamente nessa tessitura. Nessas obras de Louro, a aparente ausência de imagem (Blind Image) e de som (Blind Music) não é tal. A presença do preto como incolor pressagia uma visão ou, neste caso, uma escuta mental. A linguagem permite-nos recriar, combinar o eterno retorno nietzschiano através de nosso próprio sistema de conhecimento. As palavras trazem à mente e apresentam o que está aparentemente ausente na sua forma habitual, mas que somos capazes de refazer recorrendo a elas. A imaterialidade ajuda o espectador a tomar consciência dos processos pelos quais damos vida aos nossos repertórios culturais, dentro dos nossos próprios contextos. Assim, a validade das proposições da linguagem derivaria da nossa própria cultura, de nosso próprio funcionamento. O que Wittgenstein definiria como os nossos jogos de linguagem.
É justamente o jogo de linguagem invocado no espectador por Louro, um jogo referente a uma determinada cultura construída no final do século XX, quando a leitura dos autores clássicos ainda tinha uma certa importância, ouvir os grandes compositores ou ver os filmes que significaram algo para a cultura dominante ou mesmo para a cultura mais independente. Louro imiscui-nos nos seus próprios jogos e faz-nos participar na medida em que podemos compartilhar esse código, na medida em que nossa formação cultural seja semelhante – pelo menos em parte – à dele. Já quando usa o formato dos sinais de trânsito – os seus Dead Ends – para se aproximar desse universo pessoal e quase geracional, Louro gera uma espécie de mapeamento sobre as suas próprias estruturas de conhecimento.
A importância dessas recorrências na obra de Louro é ainda maior hoje do que nos anos 90, quando começou a fazer as suas Blind Images. Agora, as plataformas de redes sociais desviam a atenção dessas grandes obras para outras autorias. Um sistema aparentemente mais horizontal e democrático que traz simultaneamente uma cortina de fumo que cobre as análises verdadeiramente importantes, que desloca vozes carregadas de sabedoria e que não mede a qualidade da proposta como parâmetro de consideração, mas sim a capacidade de impacto ou difusão, como a sua legitimação máxima.
As primeiras Blind Images, do início dos anos noventa, são folhas de revistas, páginas de jornais que o artista cobria com tinta, escondendo as suas imagens. Neste exercício, que esconde uma certa raiva, descobrirá o medo do vazio, uma espécie de vontade subliminar de saturar o espaço deserto, desocupado. Ao combinar o monocromático com uma mensagem, como legenda, agarra-se a força dessa mensagem, que prevalece, obliterando a imagem e potencializando-a como facto. É aí que o artista assume essa forma de construção de imagens, abrindo uma linha de trabalho que continua até ao presente. O campo da nossa própria bagagem de espectadores, da nossa imaginação, assume o centro das atenções e alarga o jogo da imagem. Como alguém que coloca uma moldura para que nós, os espectadores, a completemos com o que vivemos, construindo-a a partir de algo dados. É como se João Louro tentasse abrir uma fissura no paradigma romântico. Porque, embora também aqui a contemplação deixa de ser meramente física para se tornar abstrata, o paradigma romântico encerra-se no autor e aqui a obra abre-se em um ponto, ou mais especificamente nunca se chega a terminar e é o espectador quem completa a obra. Todas as imagens possíveis do nosso imaginário entram em jogo neste espaço vazio e deslizante. A ruína romântica é aqui cimento para a construção. A destituição é aqui uma estratégia de continuidade para quem observa e pensa.
No fundo, o que João Louro também nos propõe é refletir sobre a questão do autor. À revisão formal que os monocromos de Louro supõem da obra de Rauschenberg e outros artistas mais contemporâneos que trataram da pintura no seu estado puro, devemos agregar aquela ideia de reflexão que insere o espectador na obra, algo que vemos em artistas muito diferentes, como o caso paradigmático de Francisco Bacon no universo da pintura figurativa. Já nas Blind Image, o acrílico que cobre as telas deixa de ser um simples elemento protetor, para adquirir um significado mais complexo. Com este material ele cobre as telas pintadas de preto e sobre elas aplica o vinil branco da legenda inferior, a parte escrita da obra e, no caso das Blind Music, também o logotipo da famosa casa de pianos Steinbach. Assim, surge a ideia do espelho como separador de mundos, como limite transferível, tema recorrente na arte, na fotografia ou no cinema. Basta lembrar obras importantes na história da pintura como O Casamento de Arnolfini ou Las Meninas de Velázquez nas quais se jogava com o espectador, na tentativa de colocar a “realidade” no espaço da representação, ou as cenas pensadas por Orson Welles em Citizen Kane, nas quais a multiplicidade de espelhos nos mergulha num universo psicológico de desdobramentos. Mais perto dos nossos dias, as telas cinzentas de Gerhard Richter, ou as paredes de materiais reflexivos de algumas das obras de Dan Graham, são um bom exemplo desse efeito que cria um jogo duplo de inclusão e reflexo para o espectador. Mas eles serão, sobretudo, o exemplo dos cubos espelhados de Robert Morris, que se espelham, mas também refletem o espaço e quem os olha ou rodeia. Para Morris, o contexto cria uma dependência com o objeto e vice-versa. É uma relação reversível próxima àquela que Louro busca. Uma ideia de abraçar o que rodeia as obras que também domina os Quadri specchianti de Pistoletto, um lugar para redescobrir o que temos pela nossa frente. O mesmo acontece com os fragmentos de natureza dos não-sítios de Robert Smithson. A perspectiva dirige o olhar para trás. É como se a imagem se desdobrasse para nos permitir ver para a frente e para trás ao mesmo tempo. A nossa percepção quebra-se e conduz-nos a uma experiência do incerto.
Mas em Louro isto não termina aqui. Essa presença adquire um significado profundo em termos de construção da personalidade. O acrílico, o espelho, funciona como um separador, como uma barreira entre o espaço físico do espectador e o espaço virtual do criador. A sua abordagem está relacionada com o que Lewis Carroll sugeriu em Alice através do Espelho quando Alice empurrou o gatinho para imitar a Rainha Vermelha, ou quando David Lynch, outra das citações frequentes de João Louro, nos mostra o personagem de Bob do outro lado do espelho, no momento em que o agente Cooper bate contra esse elemento no final da última temporada da recém ressuscitada série dos anos noventa.