Vhils and Pauline Foessel in Macau: Engaging the Other

“Great art — from literature to film and visual arts — is one that allows us to experience life from another’s perspective. By taking on the skin of other narrators, by feeling a part of other lives, the reader or the spectator also experiences part of the rest of humanity.”

These are the words of Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa, and they accompany a series of exhibits spread across Macau that have been curated by Alexandre Farto and Pauline Foessel. The passage outlines what both curators believe art can do in the increasingly polarised and disorientating world in which we now live: help bring us closer together through better understanding of ourselves and others.

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“It’s a metaphor for showing the fragility of everything we have built.” -Vhils’ work at ‘Alter Ego’ – photo by Douce D’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

The six exhibits of Alter Ego aim to elicit dialogue between artists, among audiences and across borders. The link drawing artists together is the connection between Portuguese-speaking countries and artists from China, Hong Kong, and Macau – a very broad spectrum offering the potential for myriad conversations. Among the works featured is a new piece by Farto.

Farto, better known by his alias, Vhils, is an influential urban artist from Portugal who has been increasingly involved in the art scenes of Hong Kong and Macau since he established his studio in Hong Kong in 2015. He now divides his time between Hong Kong and Lisbon. Foessel wears multiple hats in the increasingly global art world, having served as director of development at non-profit Hong Kong foundation HOCA while managing Vhils’ studio.

Zolima CityMag had the chance to sit down with Farto and Foessel on the day of their exhibition’s opening to talk about this expansive project and the state of culture in Hong Kong and Macau.

Zolima CityMag:  How did this project come about?

Alexandre Farto: I did an individual show here a year ago, and I’ve been back and forth for a while, and we had a project that we thought was interesting to bring here. We had been working on another festival where we gathered lots of countries’ music and art, and were invited to propose [something similar] here. And that’s what we did.

We got together a proposal with a lot of artists that we believe made sense working together. A lot of them have the struggles of an artist, and come from urban cities – they have that in common, and that brings a lot of points of connection. 

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Studio Pedrita, Site-specific work – photo by Kit Min Lee

ZCM: Can you tell us a bit about your piece in the show?

AF: It’s a new body of work. It’s breaking the walls of the white cube and gallery, which is usually flat, and I cut through the plaster and I put light behind it. It’s a metaphor for showing the fragility of everything we have built, of the urban cities, these constructions human beings have made. But it’s also about the confrontation we have between what we create and build to live in and our identity, and the confrontation that usually happens between what we are, everything that is surrounding us is affecting us, in a way we believe it’s our identity.

I know that is changing, and that the confrontation towards the last century of this process of globalisation is also affecting our identity locally because of globalisation. So it’s a work that is touching on a lot of these elements, and also the theme of the whole show. There’s a theme of  the creation/destruction symbiosis that runs throughout the show.

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“Identity is something that is becoming more and more uniform.” – ‘Culture Clash’, exhibition view – photo by Kit Min Lee

ZCM: What do you mean by confrontation? We are confronted by our urban environments or we confront our urban environments?

AF: We are confronted by whatever is surrounding us, whether we want it or not, it affects us and the way we are. So the cities we create give us a lot of more conditions than we had 50 years ago, that allow people to have more comfort and so on. It’s also letting us give up on some stuff for these comforts, and that is what I am trying to talk about here. As we are confronted with this, the world is evolving, and what was making us special in each of the world in a way is starting to fade… 

Pauline Foessel: Becoming more uniform, right?

AF: Yes. Identity is something that is becoming more and more uniform. [People] can dialogue with each other much more easily than 50 years ago, but at the same time, we are losing what was making us different and special. It’s not a criticism of this, it’s more a reflection, to expose this reality, and the impact that this could possibly have on us as humans. And I think that a lot of the challenges the world is going through have a lot to do with that as well.

ZCM: Do you ever feel compelled as an artist to try and preserve those things that we are losing?

AF: Yes. A lot of the work that I do outside is very related to this. Etching, destroying the surface of walls to reveal what is underneath, and what is underneath is usually layers of walls that were present 50 years ago. So it’s kind of bringing back this connection with the past that I try to do with a lot of the work that I do.

ZCM: What does it mean to you to have your work in an exhibit rather than outside?

AF: Outside you need to compete with a lot of things that are happening in a public space. When you go inside you kind of have more space to tell a story, have a deeper concept in your work, make people read the text and understand it in the context of a show. People come here to see an artwork, so they are ready to give an input. If you are outside you work with the surprise factor. 

ZCM: Working together, there would have been some tough decisions to make. How was that process, were there any conflicts between you?

PF: We have more or less the same point of view about how to put things together. We have been working for a long time together – six years. I was directing [Farto’s] studio for almost two years, so we have learnt how to work together, but obviously you have frictions and that is part of the process.

But I think, here, how did the whole process happen? We did research, so we were together looking for artists we both thought were interesting, and artists which, as a whole, made sense, as well as looking for artists from different types of media as well. We have a little bit of everything. Culture, photography, paintings, and that was the idea as well, to create a panel of expressions, and then we did the concepts, and contacted the artists, but we haven’t had a massive conflict either. And there are so many artists, it’s fine, we can find a way of choosing them together, and being happy about them.

We have more or less the same point of view about how to put things together” – photo by Douce D’Ivry for Zolima CityMag

ZCM: What were the biggest questions you had coming into the project?

PF: There was this one: what do cultures that are completely different have in common? All these countries are — from Brazil to Mozambique to São Tomé to Cape Verde — they are completely different cultures, even if they have this language linking them. 

AF: We were interested in exploring how art has a power to create bridges between cultures, rather than creating shocks and incisions. How art can help us work more as a group.

ZCM: In terms of culture, where do you think Macau is at?

PF: I think there is a very interesting approach in Macau. They have been willing to develop the space that they have and push for really good exhibitions. Hong Kong for me is another story. I have a very harsh point of view on Hong Kong. I wish things would be different. I wish that we could have more space with more art, and not only massive commercial galleries, even if I love them and I love to go and see the shows. You need more artists, more young artists, more young galleries to create art. And I think in Macau you have more space for this.

ZCM: What about public attitudes towards art in Macau?

PF: They have a big amount of visitors in all those [cultural] places. [They] are very well placed, really in the city centre. And you have a lot of people from Mainland China are coming. Even if they are not coming on purpose, there is the foot traffic, there is lots of people. And this is why we do it as well. We do it for the public. 

ZCM: Alexandre, you have created quite a name for yourself in Hong Kong since you established a base here in 2015. How is your relationship to Hong Kong now? Has anything changed?

AF: I still keep a small studio in Hong Kong. We still do a lot of projects in Hong Kong, and in China, South Korea. I still love Hong Kong, for me it’s very inspiring – [a place] where, strangely, I can find some peace. It sounds weird, but it’s kind of the place where I really like to get away from everything, you know, be at the studio, and be by myself. It’s a relationship that I think I will continue all my life.

ZCM: Why do you think it’s a special place?

PF: I think it has an energy that is really special. I love the contrast of things there, the contrast of the city and the nature. I just hope things will change in the art world. And I’m sure it will.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alter Ego runs at various locations in Macau until September 9, 2018. Click here for more information.


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