‘Remembrance, after all, is in the end nothing than a quotation’

(W.G. Sebald)

On the 3rd of February 2022 a slight figure sits on a stool in the darkened space, hunched over his instrument, a vintage Fender Vintera Jazzmaster Guitar, the action of his fingers on the strings and fretboard dimly illuminated by a small reading lamp. A vacant second stool with a bright spotlight trained on it stands adjacent, perhaps awaiting another performer who never arrives. A Fender Champion 40 amplifier and a Nux Loop Core Deluxe pedal bundle complete the spare, though detailed and precise theatrical setup in the gallery.

For his performance at Appleton the artist Henrique Pavão plays The Dead Man theme from Jim Jarmusch’s eponymous film from 1995, composed by seminal guitarist Neil Young as part of the soundtrack, as a continuous loop for six hours and one minute. The melody is played in two parts – a rhythm section, followed by a lead or solo section. The rhythm section is recorded through the loop pedal and played back to coincide with the lead section, then the amalgam is recorded in turn. What remains from the entire performance is a combined three hour 30 second track, contained within the loop pedal. For the ensuing exhibition, the device is housed on a plinth in a glass display case as a more traditional artefact accompanied by the recorded sound.

The critic and novelist Michael Bracewell writes that Pop music has reached ‘a phase of quotation as opposed to innovation…supermining its own iconography…no longer the imperial cultural form, and the one from which all others take their bearings.’ (1) Pavão’s one-off performance of the iconic guitar track can be seen within the quotational context of the hundreds of cover versions of the Dead Man theme by aspiring and established musicians online; reenactments refer back to original events, and they mine the gap between the past and its present-day iterations, where the artist becomes part of an extended process, embedding him in a ‘dreaming collective’ of desire.[2] However the relationship between Young and Pavão differs from that of the musicians seeking only to emulate the rock star.  His imperative is not to bask in the star’s glittering aura, but instead his performance is sustained and self-effacing, foregrounding the temporal endurance and physical suffering over the limelight. There is neither method acting nor emulation as the artist seeks an emotional and conceptual bond with the musician, a relationship that seeks to foster a new dialogue, in which art and music establish a new temporal experience ‘in which the world seems to untether itself from clocks, slow down and move in cycles rather than arrows.’(3)

The work owes something to apophasis – the rhetoric of negation – where presence is implied in objects and sound, though not shown. While all artists have an awareness of the cultural context of their work, and hence the inferred influence of their peers, Pavão’s oeuvre is strongly inflected by the manifest presence of others – the spectral semblances of distant artistic peers and heroes. While the references to important recent and historical artworks and artists are ubiquitous in all contemporary practice, Pavão’s relationship with other artists is more nuanced and demonstrative, since his films and installations might be described as elaborate quests devoted to restore their place in his creative pantheon. There is magical thinking at play as they reciprocate -  beconing him on, accompanying him on long drives, and resonating in his earphones. Indeed,  the absence inflected by apophasis becomes more potent the closer it is pushed towards an engagement with the ineffable.

Literature, the stage and screen have a long tradition of developing unseen characters that nevertheless shape the plot from the Greek tragedians and Elizabethan theatre, to Modernist plays such as Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In each instance the unseen character is paraphrased by others, or exists through their actions. As in Beckett’s play where Vladimir and Estragon deliberate the imminent arrival of Godot, in the seminal TV series Columbo(1968-2003) the detective’s wife is frequently referred to by her husband but never appears, leaving the viewer to ponder if she is a fiction within a fiction.

Though there is no visual reference to Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, its presence nonetheless resonates in the gallery through soundtrack, dubbed a psychedelic Western, it tells the tale of Blake – the titular ‘Dead Man’ on his ill-fated trail through the American West. Blake, mooted to be the reincarnation of the Romantic English artist and poet William Blake, is slowly dying from a bullet lodged close to his heart. He is befriended by a native American healer called ‘Nobody’ who prepares him to enter the spirit world; both characters’ existence is precarious - a man who is not present and another who is soon to be no more. The film’s overarching porosity of the border between life and death gives it an oneiric quality that resonates strongly with Pavão’s own sense that ‘things live by perishing’. (4)   

The extreme duration of the D.E.A.D Man performance is noteworthy and can be seen in the context of other sonic works presented within the context of the gallery. Ragnar Kjartansson’s collaboration with The National in 2013 saw the rock band play their song Sorrow continuously for 6 hours at MoMA PS1 in New York and sets the endurance benchmark for Pavão to surpass. Other salient instances of protracted performances include composer Max Richter’s Sleep (2015), an all-night concert at the Wellcome Collection in London was simultaneously played on BBC Radio as the longest uninterrupted broadcast, lasting eight-and-a-half hours. Perhaps the most extreme example of duration can be found in John Cage’sOrgan2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) (1987), a piano score adapted for the organ and projected to last, in an interpretation begun in 2001 at the Burchardi Church in Halberstadt, Germany, until the year 2640.

The toll on the body by prolonged repetition of an act is significant, though the mental feat of maintaining concentration of such a technical task is all the greater. Pavão’s feat of endurance has required sustained practice to achieve a certain physical fitness, comparable perhaps to the preparation of a long-distance runner, for example; however, sustaining constant focus requires honing a separate skill; composer Erik Satie suggested to any player of his piano work Vexations – a short piece played 840 times in succession– that ‘it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.’

Accordingly, the artist had to achieve what the philosopher of attention James Williamson calls ‘Flow State’ which harnesses total absorption in the task, yet allows for a degree of mind-wandering. That said, the performance does not seek to be musically perfect – over time there may be lapses, missed notes and lagging tempo – allowing its conceptual symmetry to waver when faced with the reality of its enaction. The live work is forged in this single encounter with the audience who witnesses the artist’s struggle to continue, and indeed, his concomitant suffering. Critic Janneke Wesseling maintains that we focus too much on the content, interpretation, and meaning of artworks, taking the sensory experience of the work for granted, and argues for a more engaged positioning in the work by the spectator. (5)

Eventually, Pavão and the listener surrender to the fate of abstraction, as if locked in the exhausted embrace of the marathon dancers in Sydney Pollack’s film They shoot Horses don’t they?(1969) who lean on one another for support, barely conscious of the music any longer as they shuffle across the floor through the small hours. Only then, in weary empathy can the artist and the spectator come together to become co-creators of the very moment that is the work of art. It is then that the empty, spotlit stool - held symbolically for one of Pavão’s mentors – is finally filled by the spectator.

Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley, 2022

The project is the subject of a book ‘Six Hours and One Minute : Henrique Pavão’ by Nicolas de Oliveira and Nicola Oxley pub. by Mulberry Tree Press, London, 2022

(1) Michael Bracewell, Souvenir, Orion Publishing, London, 2021, p.10/11.

(2) Sven Lüttiken, Life once more: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art, Witte de With, 2005, p.7

(3) David Toop, in Joachim Koester: Bringing something back, Koenig Books, London, 2019, 59/60.

(4) Rainer Maria Rilke, The Ninth Elegy, in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell, Vintage, New York, 1989, p.199-201.

(5) Janneke Wesseling, The perfect Spectator, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2017, op.cit.

The D.E.A.D Man, 2022
Installation views, 'The D.E.A.D Man', APPLETON (BOX), 2022

Photo  Bruno Lopes

Image 1 - 4: The D.E.A.D Man, 2022
Light projector, mdf, glass, nux loop core, fender champion 40 - solid state amplifier (sound, 6 hours and 1 minute of Neil Young’s The Deadman Theme (1995), loop)


Image 5: The D.E.A.D Man (18:00-00:01), 2022
Light projector, reading lamp, 2 x modified fender black barstool, fender vintera 60’s mod. jazzmaster PF – 3 tone sunburst, tc electronic polytune, durham electronics – crazy horse, boss re-20 (space echo), carl martin – headroom, boss fv50-l, nux loop core deluxe, fender champion 40 - solid state amplifier (sound, 6 hours and 1 minute of Neil Young’s The Deadman Theme (1995), live performance)

Video Documentation: 

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