Copyright ©2015 (Rui Calçada Bastos) All Rights Reserved

Me, Myself and I

Diogo Lopes

Clichés may only surface to existence given their anchorage to a pervasive universal truth, rarefied yet nevertheless factual. As far as art is concerned, to label it as a vessel for the manifestation of subjectivity seems to be nothing short of a tautological display. If this is indeed its intrinsic core, so unmistakable that it almost discards the need to underline it, many mysteries veil however its glimmering silhouette. Artists may very well be knights of creative freedom but their codes of chivalry also imply strict trials and unexpected entrapments. One could ponder if their pledge to self-expression should not be regarded also as their ultimate captivity, forever looped to the urges of a ‘persona’ they keep on building every day. Somewhere between Sisyphus and Narcissus, it is as if a devotional bond compelled them to manufacture everlasting Rorschach blots of their crossing through the world. Technique, motif, genre, media will try to steer and shift such inextricable paths but somehow the calling will echo again. This condition always appears to be most dramatically tackled in the undertaking of the self-portrait, or to amplify it to literary terms, the autobiography: “Dear diary, …”

In 1989, the hip-hop trio De La Soul launched their debut effort, 3 Feet High and Rising, to instant acclaim and praises of a musical renaissance. Featuring classics such as The Magic Number, Eye Know and the song that lends its title to this text, the record was a flowery alternative to the testosterone antics of so-called ‘gangsta rap’. Gleefully chanting the dawning of a ‘Daisy Age’, the Long Island combo felt quite at ease in swapping the ‘homeys’ and ‘hoods’ (1) for the sweet delights of inward wandering and pop psychoanalysis: “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” This might seem a far-fetched detour to what brings us here but for the sake of fiction, it is promising to wonder if those loopy, colourful sounds breezed by Rui Calçada Bastos when he purchased his first video camera that same year. Ten Years Looking Forward To See You (1999) celebrates a decade over such an occasion not without a certain hint of solemnity – a birthday of sorts – much in the same way a virtuoso performer commits to memory the day he was handed, say, his piano or guitar. The work sequences two alternate perpendicular projections where a variety of people visually engage with the person behind each lense. Some gaze, others smile, grimace or stare. The intensity of this flux establishes parameters for an intimate concord, be it friends on one side or fleeting encounters and strangers on the other. A bewildering reversal phenomenon happens: the author shields his more intimate sphere of acquaintances with discretion, otherness, whilst a humanistic drive seeks interaction with foreigners, expanding a league of accomplices, a family. Reflected in this mosaic of many faces and many places, he is multiplied and abides by Rimbaud’s illumination: “Je est un autre.” [”I is someone else.”] This will be pushed a step further in subsequent projects, namely in Quadrifoglio (2000-01), a fourfold clover-leaved video where the artist casts himself as the role player of interior unrest and melancholy, a solipsistic actor of his own theatre. In these cinematic interludes, of impeccable elegance and classic pedigree (Dreyer, Magritte), the only thing he can do is chase and run from his own doppelganger.

An everlasting charade of that kind leads one to a roving state of agitation, zigzagging through new realms, looking for the ever-mischievous formula that would tame his turmoil. Some call it process or journey; others will even summon the mystical aura of pilgrimage. Whatever the semantics, all share nomadic reverberations. The artist meanders from station to station like a corsair prowling for romance, euphoria, defeat or disgust, bounty hunting the stuff his dreams will be made of. Hence, yet another format could serve as a paradigm of his practice: the travelogue, a recording or narration of a voyage to unfathomable whereabouts. Set in a derelict tobacco factory for a self-organized, non-curated group show, Ghost City (1998) easily falls under suchlike category. The work is doubly site-specific: it was assembled with scraps and leftovers from the improvised exhibition arena and, on the other hand, conjures the eerie might of a deserted housing development in Macao. Mixing lo-fi (cardboard and wood) with hi-fi media (video) it is an atmospheric mock-up where art, simulation and wizardry make two analogue uncanny spaces encounter: dead ringers. The uncharted territories of the ghost city, evacuated due to Feng Sui predicaments, emulate a twilight zone that soars over the entire expanses of what was once the last Portuguese colonial citadel. Its alluring decadence, its shady characters, its end-of-the-line glamour (that so mesmerised Orson Welles and his Immortal History) have been the siren’s song for many. As you entered this spectral model of a microclimate you could sense that this had also been the story of Calçada Bastos. The trouble is when you arrive to the off-limits and realize you had been dodging your own shadow. An inquisitorial eye – a video beam shot through a hollowed grenade container –, his eye, had tailed him all along. An awkward feeling of incarceration, which the artist seemed to pursue in subsequent chapters; Untitled (1999), a wooden box of his height crammed inside with high voltage, is nothing short of a light casket. Calçada Bastos confines himself to solitude, we can hear his footsteps, and the temperature is very high, the knots of the planks glow in bleeding red. This existential mayhem is nevertheless presented with precise delicacy, like a carefully drawn, twisted little sketch or a bunch of assorted volatile notes scribbled on a pack of cigarettes. It is as if he would not let go the compulsion to sublimate the most decisive odyssey of all: ego-tripping.

Destination Berlin. There is always something of a quarantine in a residence program, a spell of isolation in which the artist reassesses his previous moves. Encased in a laboratory setting, he engages in a process of relentless internal awareness and exposes himself to new life forms, testing their chemistry. Possibly such a metaphor has too many positivistic undertones; maybe the religious procedure of monastic seclusion could also be called upon: restating ancient vows, purging undue ballast, and confronting wicked demons. Under such a light we now find Rui Calçada Bastos in the German metropolis, Overexposed (2003). A hood faces the wall, smothering a circular neon tube; from the inside a speaker broadcasts an audio loop of an antagonistic masculine voice: “Leave me alone! I don’t have anything else to show you. I think I am overexposed.” The work brings the introspective musings of the author to a kind of creative block, sheer autism. He refuses to cater any longer for the voyeuristic cravings of his entourage, the imprisonment is deliberate and strategic, an act of survival. For the sake of word gaming, it is his self-hood he seeks to salvage; the glowing neon halo of the sculpture may even hint at a superior goal, that of saint-hood. The starkness of this entrenchment is quite ruthless – arctic deep freeze and silence –, the trilogy of ‘Me, Myself and I’ has been mercilessly cornered into a bleak monolog, a sentimental wasteland. Loneliness Comes From One (2003) could be the dispiriting deduction of this oblique inquiry: two black raincoats, a neon light joining their sleeves and the title stencilled in the lamp. This last device is recurrent in the artist’s recent output, namely spelling out keywords such as ‘sex’, ‘fear’, ‘work’ or ‘death’. In what could be regarded as a subliminal correspondence with similar means employed by Bruce Nauman, he now seems to share with the American master a common interest in the ominous neurosis creeping into our everyday existence, its brutal solitude and the ensuing psychological violence. The procession stops here, at least for the moment, in what could be seen at first glance as an ill-fated descent into an abyss of bad karma. Luckily, his vanity keeps him from sinking deeper. Recent sightings caught him strolling nonchalantly through the streets of his new adopted hometown, carrying a mirrored suitcase as if it were a secret weapon able to perform the supreme alchemy of turning everything into art. Even with all the scars and downfalls he still believes he can provide the most crystalline reflection of the universe.

Somewhere between body and soul, the work of Rui Calçada Bastos celebrates subjectivity much in the heroic manner Walt Whitman did in Song Of Myself: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body/And I have said that the body is not more than the soul/And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.” (2) This all-encompassing inner world contains, as the poet chanted, multitudes and contradictions. The artist seems to be quite happy to keep on exploring its shifting geographies. His almost naïve allegiance to beauty and craftsmanship further persuade us he has placed himself, per chance or fate, in a great lost lineage of Romantics. Thus, if one were to sum up his approach (or should we say way of life), a fitting expression could be ‘emotional storytelling’. Willing to sacrifice his intimate logs to the brutal exposure of the beholder for the sake of art, this leap of faith – and exhibitionist compulsion… – is only attainable through a devotional belief in the very essence of what things once meant. Something we might still find imprints of, should we not be blinded by cynicism, in the realm of clichés. One last remark: this text is strictly personal. How could it be different?

Notes:

(1) Slang currency for ‘homeboys’ and ‘neighborhoods’.
(2) Verse 48 in: Leaves of Grass, 1st ed., 1855.