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João Vasco Paiva: A Walk Amongst the Ruins

Emma Enderby

I’m interested in what people do to places and what places do to people – how people live and how their environment acts on them over time. And everything is human; in Hong Kong, even the sea is a highway. It’s all about actions: the laundry drying, the posters on the wall. There’s a huge creative outcome: all those people creating something, even if the don’t know they’re doing it.
– João Vasco Paiva

To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place – an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City.
– Michel de Certeau

Michel de Certeau’s seminal work The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), lays claim that users – the shopper, the talker, the cook, and most notably the walker – are the definers of the spatiality of urban life. In his role as city navigator, Portuguese artist João Vasco Paiva is such a user. But while De Certeau understands urban walking as a fundamental part of the unconscious routine of the everyday, Paiva wanders his adopted home of Hong Kong with an inherent bodily and linguistic lack of place. It is this position – one of an observant outsider – that has resulted in Paiva’s astute awareness of the Certeauian concepts of ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’. The former being defined as a constructed, static structure or place, while the latter as functions of daily life performed by those that occupy, engage with and manipulate said structure/place.

Starting with Hong Kong’s infrastructure, movement, produce and refuse, Paiva found entry points from which to build a picture of a more universal, global city, and imagine our place within it. Such entry points have taken the form of sculptures that represent speed bumps, plaster casts of textures found on Hong Kong pavements, roads, back alleys, parking lots and ceilings. Within an exhibition format, the works’ are often arranged to echo the seemingly chaotic array of signage, posters, wires, pipes and metal structures found within urban in-between spaces. Water, as a symbol of trade, movement and travel, reoccurs within Paiva’s work as a way to address urban infrastructure, along with people as a means to explore the complexities of lived city environments. But, as the artist states, rather than looking at individual or collective experiences, his interest stems from an interest in forms and materialities: ‘what people create and the place that people inhabit’. In Action Through Non Action (2009), for example, Paiva made audio recordings of the frequency of bodily collisions between a crowd of commuters, and it was the discarded objects of local producers, from cobblers to masons, that formed the assemblage of found objects turned artefacts of the everyday in his installation Dormant Fabric (Counter Space, Zurich, 2015). Paiva records, collects and reforms into video, sculpture, sound and installation the impact of the urban environment on humans, and the ways in which people mark and change such landscapes. Simply put, his practice investigates the symbiotic relationship between body and place.

Paiva’s work – similar to De Certeau’s thesis – presents a dialogue between the institutional structures that devise or assign urban spaces and the everyday users, playing on this relationship’s ambiguous nature. Exhibitions, such as Palimpseptic (Saamlung Gallery, Hong Kong, 2011), which examined public infrastructures, presented the notion of the user functioning within a pregiven protocol for navigating urban space. At the centre of the exhibition was a row of subway turnstiles, which turned on their own accord. Spinning quietly and then radically speeding up during rush hour, their rotation echoed the frequency of use according to the time of day. Other installations have presented the users as those that ultimately assign function to place. For the wooden structures in Benches, Stairs, Ramps, Ledges, Ground (Jacob Lewis Gallery, New York, 2016), which recalled park benches, staircases and rails, Paiva invited skateboarders to freely use these abstracted urban furnishings, their surfaces – covered in satellite images of the earth – becoming obscured, used, redefined. While Paiva understands skateboarding as a symbol of the ‘repurposing of urban space’, his ultimate interest lies in ‘the product of their performance’ as a marker for this phenomenon.

A recurring thread throughout Paiva’s work is the notion that all urban places hold memories of use, they record the passing of time. Signifiers of action and movement – marks, scruffs, abrasions – are all cues that signal a structure’s past, present and future functions in the world. These signifiers adhere to what Susan Sontag describes as the ‘involuntary collage-principle in many of the artefacts of the modern city’, the collage-principles in this case being the memory of action imbedded into structures, along with time: the potentiality for the structure to hold past events, while simultaneously being open to future use and change. All architectures, all places, become memory-laden – the intermingling of times and spaces. The turnstile in the gallery space, for example, rotates in relation to past, predicted movement. However, its real-time movement responds to the actions of the present, as well as the future. For this turnstile will turn again tomorrow, not only in Hong Kong, but in London, Paris, New York. For his exhibition Cargo (National Museum of Contemporary Art Museu do Chiado, Lisbon, 2016), Paiva wrapped and sent objects made of acrylic, styrofoam, carbon paper and dental stone via non-standard baggage from Hong Kong to Lisbon. The result of departure, and arrival, and the movement through ‘non-places’, were marked on the works for their final display in the gallery.

‘Non-places’ – travel hubs, parking lots, alley ways – as coined by anthropologist Marc Augé, are understood as the result of the acceleration of urbanism and the world’s increased interconnectivity, which, as Augé argues, ‘involves considerable physical modifications: urban concentrations, movements of population’, and that ‘[t]he installations needed for the accelerated circulation of passengers and goods (high-speed roads and railways, interchanges, airports) are just as much non-places as the means of transport themselves, or the great commercial centres, or the extended transit camps where the planet’s refugees are parked’.

Paiva consistently references Augé’s non-places when discussing his work, and points to their dialectical nature: these fundamental infrastructures are both ignored, while also offering a potential understanding of this decade. Perhaps it is an interest in the involuntary collage-principle of memory and time that has taken Paiva to these functional locations and structures. For his interest in non-places, spaces ‘which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’, is a contemporary rewriting of the sociological notion of place as defined by Marcel Mauss: a localised, non-transitional culture located in time and space. The world in which we live is defined by non-places and in turn non-objects – and for Paiva these should stand as cultural references, as landmarks of today that present the reality of our time: ‘In the distant future, any archaeological investigations of Hong Kong will discover more by digging up an MTR station, than a church’.

Landmarks, like monuments and memorials, have acted for centuries as public sites of collective remembrance and markers of our shared cultural heritage. Mausoleum (2015) stands as Paiva’s memorial to the non-place, the non-object. This 5.6-metre tall sculpture of styrofoam food boxes, cast in stone resin and painted with coloured lines, which are found throughout Hong Kong’s wet markets. Stacked upon one another, the installation not only echoes the towering shapes of boxes formed by market vendors, but also the ubiquitous shape of mausoleums – in this sense, the work memorialises the everyday and celebrates the common act of trade found within Hong Kong’s street life. Its anonymous nature presents the realities of a contemporary mausoleum – standing for both no one and for everyone – but also the fundament of our society: the contemporary worship of commercial exchange.

Mausoleum can also be understood as a ruin. The ruin symbolises a condition of being-between, pushing forth a matrix of nature over culture, death over life, and the slippages between past, present and future. For ruins project forward, they act as reminders of an impending catastrophe or fall, what Denis Diderot describes as the inevitable ‘devastations of time’. In Andreas Huyssen’s seminal text ‘Nostalgia for Ruins,’ a new world order is discussed through the symbol of the ruin:

‘Authentic Ruins,’ as they still existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, seem no longer to have a place in late capitalism’s commodity and memory culture. As commodities, things in general don’t age well. They become obsolete, are thrown out or recycled. Buildings are torn down or restored. The chance for things to age and to become ruin has diminished in the age of turbo capitalism. […] [T]he ruin of the twenty-first century is either detritus or restored age.

The throwaway styrofoam food boxes, Mausoleum’s material, are the realities of what our civilisation will leave behind, not only in their abundance of use, but in that these objects will take millions of years to decompose. The notion of a mausoleum also takes us to a future that looks to remember a past, as if future beings have created a styrofoam monument to the workers of the past, or to an elapsed civilisation (our civilisation), or have simply gathered and displayed ancient (now cultural) artefacts.

Previous works by Paiva can also be considered in the framework of the contemporary ruin. During a residency in Berlin, the artist made the series Anno Zero (2014), a collection of works originally found within the debris of a destroyed supermarket that were adopted by Paiva into sculptures. The series references Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist film Germany, Year Zero (1948), in which a young boy walks over and between the rubble of a devastated Berlin. While rubble might not have previously been considered an ‘authentic ruin’, as noted by Huyssen, the pervasive imagery of World War II, which Paiva was referencing, has resulted in a collective understanding that ‘rubble, is indeed transformed, even aestheticized, into ruin’. Expounding that within our contemporary world, ‘[c]oncrete, steel, and glass building materials aren’t subject to erosion and decay the way stone is. Modernist architecture refuses the return of culture to nature. […] [T]he real catastrophes of the twentieth century have mainly left rubble rather than ruins’.

However, while Paiva’s ruins are suggestive of the permanence of contemporary materials, he also contemplates what Huyssen describes as ‘the nightmare of the Enlightenment [was] that all history might ultimately be overwhelmed by nature’. Paiva finds in the city what Georg Simmel advocates as a central factor in ruins: the triumph of nature. Simmel understands architecture as a constant struggle between humans and nature, a reality Paiva observes within our contemporary urban landscapes:

We like ruins because it [sic] shows us there was this civilization, we like it [sic] even more because there is time that goes through things, and that gives us a sense of something that is bigger than us, that was here longer than us. Here in Hong Kong you see a lot of places that already have all these elements of decay that were created by time, […] trees jumping out of the concrete. […] [N]ature is always coming in, making breaks in the cement.

Whether a vision of the future is rubble, styrofoam monuments or nature overcoming impervious materials, impermanence is a constant within Paiva’s work. Perhaps it is this that is at the heart of his exhibition Green Island (Edoudard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016). A bed of sand, the simplest reduction of all eroded stones, covers the gallery floor. Imbedded in this asperous ground sits that which does not erode: concrete casts of water coolers and industrial bags, a sunken lamppost, and a broken corner of a worker’s aluminium pallet, waiting like everlasting fossils or castaways, which both in their materiality and seeming decay represent production, consumption and a once-upon-a-time civilisation. The sculptures on their eroded bed sit as a threatening collision of present and future, urbanisation and nature, construction and collapse. This post-human landscape is accompanied by a series of collaged images of areas of Hong Kong, with line drawings of rocks and debris, and, perhaps positioned in contrast, The Highways Department Colour Book (2016). Presented as a publication, The Highways Department consists of the technical drawings for how to define and build Hong Kong’s public spaces. This harks back to De Certeau, reminding us that while a foreboding sense of decay is present within all contemporary urban spaces, construction, urban development and change is still the reality of our age.

Paiva presents us with the dialectic of urbanism – a common phenomenon the world over – and the result of the realities of hyper-modernity in which all cities have grown and exist. Within this framework he concentrates on infrastructures, users and the pull between radical progression and inevitable collapse. For Paiva, today’s ruins, evident in all urban spaces, are still being used as containers, coolers, pallets, bags, benches, ramps, streets and public spaces. His work reminds us that the present day is already a ruin, continuously defined by the past and the potentiality of further change. However, Simmel’s world, in which ‘all that is human “is taken from earth and to earth shall return”’, is no longer absolute. For amongst the stone, sand and rubble, will lie the styrofoam and the plastic, prevailing as reminders of the city, its produce and its people. They will remain, as symbols of the passages of time – one marred by loss and great ruin.