An Escape Attempt 

Fiction enables us to grasp reality and at the same time that which is veiled by reality. [1]
Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road published in 1957, was credited with launching a new genre of fiction that wrapped up travelogue, autobiography and diary in an envelope of soul-searching, existentialist youth culture, its muscular prose narrating the American journey from East to West coast. The romance of the road is nowhere as marked as in the USA where the vast distances of the continent are poetically transcribed onto the two-way blacktop by Chevrolets, Buicks, Pontiacs and the like. It was typed on a great scroll - a single sheet of paper – over a period of 21 days, and underpinned the mythology of perfect symmetry, and the Zen-like elegance of the unique attempt. However, the book was a fiction, the distillation of four road trips undertaken by the author between 1947 and 1950.
            The Portuguese artist Henrique Pavão’s Almodôvar Mirror Site (2016) shows a synchronized pair of slide projections of seemingly identical motorway service stations located on opposite sides of the route between Lisbon and the Algarve, each serving a different destination. The artist and a collaborator, facing in opposite directions, had examined the 11 petrol stations along the road while in mobile phone contact to ascertain the similarities between the pairs; they concluded that only a single pairing was in fact identical, offering itself as a ‘mirror-site’ chiming with American artist Robert Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1969) close to half a century earlier.
            As with Smithson and other Minimal and Land Art pioneers, Pavão’s work here is underpinned by the journey undertaken, by exchanging the epic landscapes of the American West for the rather more compact setting of the Portuguese South. The works are linked by the cartographic explorations of territories hitherto unclaimed by art. Philosopher Michel de Certeau distinguishes between the ideologies of the map and the tour – cartography lays out the landscape to the eye, while the journey highlights actual experience. It follows that the idea of space can only be verified by embodiment.
            Accordingly, a map of highways provides a complex network of thoroughfares as visible as the natural features of the landscape but they are distinguished from these by being mere conduits of transit; this feature marks them out as ‘non-places’, which, according to anthropologist Marc Augé, refer to ‘spaces where concerns of relations, history, and identity are erased’.[2]
            But motorways are not only links between locations; initially designed to reveal the beauty of the landscape to travellers, these fast roads once displayed a panoramic edge that served to augment visibility. However, argues literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, this vision is now chiefly governed by speed and lacks the immersivity and atmosphere of the roads extolled by writers such as Kerouac, John Steinbeck or Robert Frost, who fused them with the experience of the environment.
            In Pavão’s scrutiny of identical pairs of buildings the very thing that defines them, the road, is never actually shown. We rely on the gap between the images of the petrol stations to describe where the road ought to be.  The banal near identical images fit into an aesthetic of doubling especially associated with postmodernity in the 1970s and 1980s typified by artists such as Sherrie Levine or Marcel Broodthaers. Levine writes that her images were like ‘ghosts of ghosts’ and underscore ‘the space in the middle where there is no picture, rather an emptiness, an oblivion’.[3]
            The cognitive dissonance that underpins abjection, according to philosopher Julia Kristeva, comes about through the loss of distinction between subject and object, or self and other, heralded by the mirror stage; the disturbance of the system of order results in a wholesale collapse of meaning.[4]Accordingly, Pavão’s discovery and activation of matching buildings creates a place of dissonance since there is nothing as unsettling to our understanding as indistinction. This architectural uncanny is typified by a perpetual return of an image, which unsettles the observer who is accustomed to progression from one place to another, rather than being trapped in a perpetual oscillation between identical locations.
             Each observation, argues philosopher Henri Bergson, occurs from a changing observational consciousness and is tempered by lived time. If the perception of space is mutable, then so is the observer’s position. It is this lived change that Bergson refers to as ‘pure duration’.[5]Time is therefore not an external mechanism but a certain fiction constructed in the mind. Duration acquires a material quality and a spatial shape. In his outline of the chronotope, a literary device, Bakhtin goes on to explain that, ‘spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history’.[6]

            As the slides of Almodôvar Mirror Site flash up the experience of being in two places at the same time is highlighted. In practice however, the twinned images can only be taken in together through extreme peripheral vision as they are projected onto screens at opposite sides of the space at SE8 gallery. A sheet of dialogue is presented alongside the images in which the artist describes the details of his examination of one service station to his counterpart located at the corresponding building on the other side of the road. Pavão goes through a routine of stock spatial identifiers that are affirmed laconically by his collaborator, punctuated with some umming and ahing and an occasional you know. The stunted communication barely signifies as a dialogue, vaguely reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon’s pronouncements in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The perfunctory interaction is neither edited nor polished and functions as a document that notes general congruence and minor disparities in what is described. It calls to mind Georges Perec’s publication An Attempt at exhausting a Place in Parisin which the author distinguishes landmarks well chronicled from what remains:

That which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.[7]

Perec is a master of observation who delights in bringing attention to liminal spaces that barely warrant description; he concerns himself with the idea of absence, something deemed beyond description, a notion taken quite literally in his lipogrammatic novel A Void, written entirely without the letter ‘e’.  Correspondingly, the alternation between presence and absence lies at the heart of Pavão’s investigation, resulting in a ‘work that discovers in the rules of its own making the rules that it tries to portray’.[8] Such rules may be conceived as fundamental to conceptual art, but they remain to be confirmed through their actualisation. In short, the work is given substance by the event of its enactment.
            The primacy of art as an idea arguably sought to negate aesthetic considerations, as witnessed by a quasi-administrative, undemonstrative style that pervades much proto-conceptual work in the USA and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s deadpan photographs of entropic industrial buildings and Lewis Baltz’s urban wastelands subscribe to a ‘new topographics’ of the anthropocene, which shapes the world in our image. Thus the notion of the landscape is largely displaced by an urbanised context dominated by serial architecture. Robert Morris’s two screen video Gas Station (1969) shows scenes of the same prosaic Californian building from fixed and moving vantage points – cars move in and out of shot while drivers and passers-by mill about; the informality of the scenes and the unedited real time underline the work’s lack of artifice.
            In a similar vein, Ed Ruscha’s iconic publication Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) depicts unremarkable filling stations located along route 66 between LA and Oklahoma through a series of black and white photographs. It is remarkable that this modest work comprising an edition of 400 copies led to a number of appropriations and homages over the years: Jeff Brouws’s Twentysix abandoned Gasoline Stations (1992), Eric Tabuchi’s Twentysix abandoned Gasoline Stations colour folio (2008), or Frank Eye’s Twenty-four former filling Stations(2008) are key examples of the legacy of seriality. The critic Douglas Crimp reveals that a failed attempt to locate a copy of Ruscha’s book in the art section of the New York Public library saw him discover it in the transport section instead:

I now know that Ed Ruscha’s books make no sense in relation to the categories according to which art books are catalogued in the library and this is part of their achievement. The fact that there is nowhere within the present system of classification a place for Twentysix Gasoline Stations is an index of its radicalism with respect to established modes of thought.[9]

Postmodernism, he argues, is precisely indicated by unstable, fluid readings of objects, and switching of taxonomic codes that govern understanding. Similarly, if one were tempted to consider Pavão’s work as a paean to the open road and to the buildings that service the needs of travellers, the unrelenting sameness of the images would quickly disabuse viewers of such a reading. Yet neither is the work not about what it depicts, since there is no evidence of the use of metaphor. The images do not conceal another set of hidden meanings, rather, they deliberately exemplify an instance of the space-time concurrence.
            The functional, quasi-didactic aesthetic of the work is demonstrated by the use of two Kodak 5000 carousel slide projectors that click noisily through paired images, their fans whirring on and off to cool their mechanisms. Slide projections were once ubiquitous in academic lectures and presentations where pictures served to provide visual underpinnings to the ideas transmitted through language. Equally, these apparatuses were also used to stage presentations of holiday snaps, ill-framed souvenirs of family journeys. Both instances employ the medium of performance in which duration is a key concern.
            InAlmodôvar Mirror Site the speaker is replaced by a script and a timer mechanism. Time is sliced into metronomic segments that narrow the chasm between now and then. The sonic aspect promotes an impression of time as a malleable, material substance, separated into portions by the images dropping rhythmically into place. Mechanical technology is barely technological by today’s digital standards that are governed by abstraction, silence and seamlessness; its deliberate use in the work has the advantage of revealing the sleight of hand, rendering the process verifiable. Images quite literally fall into place like the pieces of a puzzle or the resolution to a problem; once in place they are illuminated by the bulb of the projector and sharpened by the lens.
            Pavão sets out to demonstrate the mechanics of time and place; to accomplish this feat analog technology is employed as an analogy – in which the input and the output largely correspond like the mechanical minute hand on a clock that performs an entire circle to describe the hour. And yet, the mechanical performance of these prosaic images that demonstrate similitude, displaces a quasi mystical quest for a lost domain that can never be attained – the complete mirror site, the Aleph, the place of all places - masking ’the unsatisfied desire for that which is always missing and found wanting in modern rationalist society: the miraculous’. [10]

Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley, 2019

[1] Marcel Broodthaers, in Douglas Crimp, This is not a Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, 1989, p.71.
[2] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity , IJohn Howe, trans, Verso, London, 1995.
[3] Sherrie Levine in Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1999, p. 140
[4]Julia Kristeva,
[5] Henri Bergson, Matter and  Memory, Zone Books, MIT Press, Camb. Mass, 1988, op.cit.
[6] Mikhail Bakhtin,
[7] Georges Perec’s An Attempt at exhausting a Place in Paris,Marc Lowenthal trans., Wakefield Press, Camb. Mass, 2010, p.3.
[8] Yehuda Safran, Gravity and Grace, Hayward Gallery, London, 1975.
[9] Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, MIT Press Camb.Mass, 1993, p.78`.
[10] Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous, Afterall Books, London, 2006, p.45.

Almodôvar Mirror-Site, 2016 

35 mm slides (2 sets of 80) color, loop; two slide projectors, sound, 24’47’’, loop, text
Dimensions variable

Installation view, ‘Fallen Between Cracks’ KHM Gallery, Malmö

Photo — Jenny Ekholm

Video Documentation:

© 2024 Henrique Pavão