File Note 92: João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Chris Sharp



João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva Images References Quote Biography Credits

João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva

Roughly six years ago, upon seeing the work of João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva for the first time, I had the temerity to liken them and what they do to Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet. What did I mean by that Was it true? Or was it just a convenient literary analogy? Were they like Bouvard and Pécuchet? If so, how But maybe before asking that, I should probably try and explain just who Bouvard and Pécuchet are. The comic anti-heroes of Gustave Flaubert’s last unfinished (and I would argue, un-finishable) novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet are two Parisian copyists who move to the Norman countryside, become would-be autodidacts and attempt to tackle virtually every form of knowledge and humanist discipline of their age, from agriculture to medicine to archeology to history to literature, so on and so forth. However, for all their good intentions, they fail almost spectacularly at every one of these undertakings, either due to their own irremediable incompetence or the protean and ultimately indomitable nature of whatever it is they seek to intellectually and practically dominate. An epistemological farce, this classic, for which its author claimed to have read 1500 books, stands as one of the greatest and earliest critiques of the enlightenment, and the hubris that, in Flaubert’s droll and pitiless estimation of it, lurked at its core. 

However, to characterise João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva as mere Bouvards and Pécuchets is more than a little inaccurate. Their relationship with the two copyists has as much to do with their method as it does with the master himself. The method is one of understated comedy, and the relationship with the master is one of shared, if magical doubt. While Gusmão and Paiva are not exactly indulging in satire, they possess a singular humor which borders on the slapstick but is tempered by a certain inimitable deadpan-ness (or maybe it is satire, but if so, who are they satirising but themselves?). At once furtive and candid, their pithy films could be seen, at times, as doctored proofs of dubious experiments or illustrations of questionable scientific principles or even the most banal phenomena (I’m thinking here, in particular of the film Pot Smaller than Pot (2010), or Spaghetti Tornado (2010)). At other times, the apparently unremarkable subjects they film (a partially eclipsed egg, a blind man eating a mango, etc.) assume a strange and bewitching quality by virtue of the insistence with which they are portrayed. A sober, albeit quasi-impish, self-consciousness underlies everything they do, as if they, like bad magicians, did not so much say, as implicitly communicate: you will not believe what I’m about to do, because I am making no real attempt to conceal its mechanism, its poorly constructed subterfuge, but I am going to do it anyway, and you will be enchanted. And somehow you are.

Their relationship with the legacy of Flaubert’s doubt and withering skepticism is complex to say the least. For where the master deliberately muddles and systematically deflates the reason, secular faith in science, and epistemological certainties of the enlightenment, Gusmão and Paiva elaborately appeal to a different kind of reason, one inevitably informed by Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics – the science of imaginary solutions – whose attempts to account for phenomena are as marked by wishful thinking as they are by wonder. Indeed, to the master’s so-called realism, they could be said to oppose and endorse a kind of magical realism. In other words, in Gusmão and Paiva’s hypothetical version of the novel, the two copyists would not necessarily have been the victims of their own curiosity, incompetence and hapless ignorance, but rather blessed by it (not unlike the protagonist of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (1877), Félicité, who eventually ends up praying to her dead, stuffed parrot, a story, which is, incidentally, arguably the real origin of magical realism). Theirs, then, could be seen as a different version, told differently and long after the fact, not to mention toward a different end. 

All that said, this so-called ‘long after the fact-ness’ is never far from what they do. If ever the work seems to revel in anachronism it is charmed by its status not as illusion, but as an illusion of an illusion, or better yet, as revenant. Beyond the content of the films and the camera obscuras themselves, this registers most notably in two formal characteristics: multiplicity and silence. Never shown singly, their films tend to be presented in large, mute assemblies. On the one hand, this sense of multiplicity, of crowding, is evocative of the multiplicity of the past, of the multitudes of ideas, beliefs, superstitions and ideologies of which it is composed. While on the other hand, this pastness or bygone (yet still strangely relevant) timeliness, is aided by its lack of sound, investing the work with a starkly uncanny quality. For few things more readily lend themselves to the uncanny than silent film (and when I write uncanny, I mean in the Freudian sense of the term, as that which is both familiar and utterly strange at the same time). Devoid of its auditory component, film has a way of partially forfeiting the cogency of its illusion and ultimately disclosing itself as what it really is; the illusion of life. Such potentially morbid issues as memento mori do not necessarily interest Gusmão + Paiva; if I bring them up, it is in hope of better understanding how the work functions formally and how it manages to agreeably haunt not only after you have seen it, but even as you watch it. It is through this haunting that the past doesn’t just become present, but deftly challenges the many certainties of which the present is supposedly composed and which we take for granted. 

And what, to conclude, is more often taken for granted than anthropocentrism? Titled after that animal most susceptible to anthropomorphism by virtue of its ability to mimic human speech, the parrot (papagaio means parrot in Portuguese), this particular exhibition touches upon the complex issue of where the ‘human’ begins and ends, and how it may be projected, thus entering the tricky territory of the anthropocentric. The eponymous film, Papagaio (2014), is a case in point. The 43-minute film (the artists’ longest to date) silently depicts a West African voodoo ritual in São Tomé and Príncipe in which it is believed that spirits of the dead enter the bodies of the participants in order to heal the spectators. Filmed over the course of an entire night, one third of the piece was shot by the participants who were themselves apparently in a state of trance, which complicates the authorship of the footage in the sense that it becomes difficult to locate both spatially and in time. Potentially operated from without, the body that operates the camera becomes the host of a ventriloquial intervention akin to that of the human voice entering and seemingly possessing the parrot. Incidentally, this act of possession carries out a mise-en-abyme of the transferal of human subjectivity to the camera, which always attends the act of filming. It is precisely this series of slippages and blurs that renders it difficult to say where the ‘human’ begins and ends, the extent to which it is projected upon and from without. Thus the film, along with the rest of the exhibition, does not so much seek to prescriptively heal the so-called ills or resolve the quandaries and blind spots of anthropocentrism, but rather to illuminate the depth of contradiction and perplexity in which it exists. Whatever the case may be, the act of parroting is no simple enterprise, and this exhibition explores this most contemporary of preoccupations in all its paradoxical splendor.


Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot. (UK: Jonathan Cape, 1984)

Daumal, René. A Night of Serious Drinking. (France: Editions Gallimard, 1938)

Diderot, Denis. Letter on the Blind (1749), in Tunstall, Kate. E. Blindness and Enlightenment: An Essay (New York: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 2011)

Gombrowicz, Witold. Cosmos: A Novel. (UK: Grove Press, 2011)

Griaule, Marcel. Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas. (USA: OUP USA, 1976)

Jarry, Alfred. Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll Pataphysician,
(USA: Exact Change, 1996)

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. (UK: Wordsworth Classics, 1996)

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. (London: Faber & Faber, 2003)

O’Brien, Flann. At Swim-Two-Birds. (UK: Longman Green & Co., 1939)

Pessoa, Fernando. The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro. (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2007)

 ‘The Pyrrhonist was convinced
by a stick that he was wrong
in doubting his own existence.’ Denis Diderot


João Maria Gusmão (b. 1979) and Pedro Paiva (b. 1977) have collaborated since 2001, creating objects, installations, photographs, 16mm and 35mm films. They currently live and work in Lisbon, Portugal. The duo have had solo exhibitions at: Fondazione HangarBicocca, Milan, 2014; Objectif Exhibitions, Antwerp, 2012; Fri Art – Centre d’art de Fribourg, Fribourg, 2012; Kunsthaus Glarus, Glarus, 2012; Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2012; ZDB, Lisbon, 2012; Fondazione Brodbeck, Catania, 2011; Le Plateau, Paris, 2011; Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, 2011; IMO, Copenhagen, 2011; Index, Stockholm, 2010; Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 2010; Kunstverein, Hanover, 2009; Mercer Union – Centre for Contemporary Visual Art, Toronto, 2009; CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 2008; and Matadero, Madrid, 2008. 

Their work appeared in the following group exhibitions: Art Unlimited, Art Basel, 2014; Nouvelles Impressions de Raymond Roussel, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2013; Film as Sculpture, WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2013; Ghosts in the Machine, New Museum, New York, 2012; Superpower: Africa in Science Fiction, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, 2012; Leopards in the Temple, Sculpture Centre New York, 2010. Gusmão + Paiva have participated in numerous biennials, including the 53rd and 55th Venice Biennials.


Chris Sharp is a writer and independent curator based in Mexico City, where he co-runs the project space Lulu with artist Martin Soto Climent.