Unidentifiable Objects: João Vasco Paiva

Joao Vasco Paiva, Mausoleum, 2015. Acrylic on stone resin modules on galvanised mild steel structure, 341 x 341 x 559 cm
João Vasco Paiva
Installation view of Green Island exhibition
Detail view of Green Island
Detail view of Green Island
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Portugal-born, Hong Kong-based artist João Vasco Paiva is known for elevating the commonplace to the mythical. He talks urban density, progress and dehumidifiers with Christie Lee.

TEXT: Christie Lee
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

 

Joao Vasco Paiva, Mausoleum, 2015. Acrylic on stone resin modules on galvanised mild steel structure, 341 x 341 x 559 cm
Joao Vasco Paiva, Mausoleum, 2015. Acrylic on stone resin modules on galvanised mild steel structure, 341 x 341 x 559 cm

 

Should you ever find yourself tempted to snap a photo of a stack of styrofoam boxes, upload it to social media, and hashtagging #art or #joaovascopaiva, please do. The artist promises that he won’t be offended. “In fact that is exactly what I want people to do. To stop and look at these commonplace objects,” the artist says with a mischievous glint in his eyes when we meet at his temporary studio in Chai Wan in early October.

The Portugal-born, Hong Kong-based artist might be best known for his cement casts, but he started off with painting at the Porto Art Institute. “Instead of buying paint, I bought pigments so I could mix my own colours,” recalls the artist. “I always try to get behind the surface.” A chance encounter with a Tisch professor in Macau piqued his interest in new media art, and in 2006, he nabbed a scholarship to study Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong.

 

João Vasco Paiva
João Vasco Paiva

 

As foreign as the mind-numbing humidity was, it was Hong Kong’s density that left a lasting impression on a young Paiva. “I was on the ferry, and all these buildings were either being destroyed or moulded around me. It felt very post-apocalyptic,” he reminisces his first moments in Hong Kong. “In a way, it’s a caricature of where the world is going. Hong Kong is just a condensed version of that.”

 

Progress naturally had a very different meaning in Portugal, “we’re known for being nostalgic. Not in a sad way, we like it,” Paiva grins. “You’d find people sitting in cafes day in and day out, talking about their plans for the future. But that’s it. There is no execution. There is this saying, ‘the only time when we’re happy is when we’re daydreaming. Once we’ve achieved our goals, we aren’t happy anymore.”

 

Hong Kong’s frantic building pace, coupled with the language barrier – he still doesn’t speak Cantonese – led Paiva to look for codes – ‘encrypted histories’ if you will – embedded within commonplace objects, as evidenced by Mausoleum (2013), where styrofoam boxes cast in stone resin were stacked atop one another in meticulous fashion. In Palimpseptic (2011), the artist’s observances in the subway – or ‘non-space’ – are translated into a set of algorithms. This is then fed into an installation of five turnstiles, which spins according to frequency of passenger use. Videos and paintings, which reduce human crowds and motions to blocks of colours, complete the installation.

 

Green Island
Installation view of Green Island exhibition

 

The artist’s sensitivity to objects, especially their intended function and the repurposing of that function, stems from a teenage past time. “I used to skate, and with skating, you’re always finding different things to use as obstacles.”

In Green Island, the artist’s latest show at Edouard Malingue Gallery, bags and water contains casted in cement lie amid a swath of sand. Rather than remind of idyllic beach summers, it reads more like a construction site or a ruin – a transitionary or ‘in-between’ space that await the next big project to land. Like Palimpseptic, there is a deliberate absence of cultural or geographical context – one that, according to Paiva, is reinforced by the virtue of the sand. “I bought it [the sand] from China. It’s from the same type of rock so it’s whiter and finer. If you buy construction sand in Hong Kong, it’s wet and full of shells. There would have been too much distraction.” This aesthetic is extended to The Highways Department Colour Book (2016), a collection of drawings illustrating Hong Kong’s public spaces. Curiously, there are no explanations or keys.

 

Detail view of Green Island
Detail view of Green Island

 

A Hong Kong resident for the last decade, Paiva is a keen witness of the various changes that the city has undergone in the past decade, including in the fashion arena – “when I first arrived, it was fashionable to wear your smartphone around your neck. And one day, that trend just stopped,” he chuckles. “Where I come from, you’d just get mugged,” he gives a light laugh.

 

 

Detail view of Green Island
Detail view of Green Island

 

 

Yet, if the novelty of Hong Kong was part of what spawned Paiva’s artistic language, is the city becoming a tad too familiar? “At times,” the artist pauses. “But it’s also not like I want to just move anywhere. It was the combination of language, place and visual stimulation that made Hong Kong so interesting.”

Not that he needs to move elsewhere. At the time of writing, Paiva is bound for a one-month residency in New York, after which he’s due in Shanghai for ART021. He has also been invited by Public Art Fund for a project that is set for a launch in 2018. His next exhibition will be back on home turf though – during next year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. “I’d be working with dehumidifiers,” he beams. “It’s perfect for Hong Kong. The whole tropical theme and all.”

 

 

 


Christie Lee is a Hong Kong-based arts journalist, her articles have been published in Art + Auction, Artsy Editorial, Art in Asia, Baccarat magazine and Yishu. She has a degree in English literature and political science from McGill University.

 

 
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