Copyright ©2019 (Rui Calçada Bastos) All Rights Reserved

Between irony and uncertainty

Delfim Sardo

Imagine a story about a man replete with images, sometimes sounds. This man – an individual without qualities – would feed on an endless yet parcimoniously digested flow of images.

This man would merely exits through the look of others, defining himself through the others’ probing gaze. On the images, which would – in a sort of autophagy – be produced from within himself, he would always appear as someone else, both on film and on screen. At times, to ascertain he existed, he would position himself in these images next to other characters, mainly women. Not all of them, but next to a figure, which by sublimation, would represent all possible women, all future female characters. This man would have a hero. This hero would be Dennis Hopper, transformed into Tom Ripley, in Wim Wenders’s version of Der amerikanische Freund. Lying on a billiard table, Tom Ripley takes photographs of himself with a Polaroid camera. The photographs that pop out from the machine fall over his face, covering him until he disappears, virtually through his own image; to ascertain that he exists.

The first work by Rui Calçada Bastos I saw consisted of an installation, the record of a performance. In fact, I did not see the installation, but photographs of the installation, in which a second life could be distinguished. It was about a platform, the size of a body, which was delimited by two video monitors. On the platform lay a man, wrapped in a sleeping bag. The monitors ran nearly still images of a face and feet, supposedly belonging to the motionless man in his sleeping bag. At this particular time, Rui Calçada Bastos had just recently arrived from Macau. This sculpture was consequently telling an entire story. It referred to the nomad character of his life, and talked about a Spartan life and self-recognition. When I recently went through his work, from the installations to the video films, or the most recent sculptures, I recognised the same topics in different forms. In fact, the issue of self-recognition remains, as if his work was situated in a crossing of gazes that projected themselves onto a figure in transit, the artist’s figure, a character that navigated under the flag of solitude.

Soon after my first encounter with Calçada Bastos’s work, I had the opportunity to see a video installation that, in a way, explicits and establishes a framework for his future work. During his traveling, Rui Calçada Bastos filmed peoples' gazes, some of which were directed at him, and others, which he "stole" with his video camera. These faces, looking at us, were displayed on two screens that faced each other. There is a subtle difference between these gazes that cross each other at a central point – corresponding to the viewer's position in the room, or the place where the artist stood when he filmed. There is a difference in expresssion between a gaze that recognises and one that doesn't. We do not (or cannot) recognize any of the gazes that meet, but we do perceive, at a given and uncertain moment, that one of the screens runs faces of people who are familiar to the artist, while the other shows people without that same familiarity. Both types of looks define a field corresponding to the terrain in which the author’s gaze is inscribed. However, it is also the field in which the viewer recognizes himself as such, thereby establishing a friendly coincidence between the author, the spectator and his self-recognition.

This reinforcement of the nomad connivance between the author and the spectator is a recurring feature in Rui Calçada Bastos's body of work. As any idealist (and Calçada Bastos lives passionately for ideals), he is dealing with the notion of an ideal spectator, an entity that feeds itself on the artist’s emotion. This always refers back to the condition of the spectator – of himself, of an ideal figure, of memory or of strolling. One of the most telling pieces in this respect is a video that captured his grandparents' testimonies. For the first version of the video, they had been asked to tell the story of their first encounter. The two accounts of the story were partly identical and spoken with a similar rhythm, both hypnotic and naive. The rhythm had a coincidal pace, and sometimes the coincidence would be reduced to a phoneme, simultaneously spoken. It was a story about ideal intimacy, the kind that builds slowly, told by two archetypal figures. Later, this piece underwent some changes to become an installation where, two voices came out from under a bed, both telling the same story. With the growth of the device, its scenographic character and therefore its presence was enhanced, widening the distance between the author and the protagonists' intimacy, and thus turning into an idea, a typology that went beyond the work itself.

This particular piece is probably central to the most recent typologies of his work, which use forms of self-representation. One of Calçada Bastos's recent pieces, an installation that includes four black-and-white videos, is built from micro-narratives. All are centered on a protagonist who searches himself in others, and transforms himself through others. His metamorphosis takes on various forms – he dissolves himself into an alter ego (which is simultaneously a cinematographic reference and a symbol of a fantasm that runs through his work), transforms into a woman, and finally turns into himself. The collection of proficiently edited small narratives introduces melancholy as the missing piece to the notions of search, strolling and metamorphosis his work pursues. Sometimes, the relation with intensity seems to slip away, as if a fine thread of irony was disturbing the nostalgia, transforming it into a device. At other times it is a devoted quest that is inscribed like a tattoo in the faces of the female characters. It is in this limbo that Calçada Bastos's work operates.

Delfim Sardo is a Portuguese curator and writer based in Lisbon.