João Onofre, Once in a Lifetime [Repeat]
A few years ago, an artist was only allowed to set an anthological exposition when they reached a reverential age. Fortunately, in this day and age, an anthology no longer means an elderly artist, but rather one that has a wide-ranging and significant body of work. Such is the case of João Onofre (1976), an artist who mainly uses video as artistic expression, but who, as shown until the end of the week at Culturgest, works on other materials such as photography, drawing and even sound, in exclusively sound-based efforts. Therefore, it is quite interesting the way he uses sound, even in videos. Whether through a meticulous work of folleys or in music videos, João Onofre works the sound itself: the different environments or the lack thereof, even the decibels are carefully studied (there is some noise contamination among works, something we do not believe to be merely unintentional in such a grandiose exhibition).
Onofre also relies on performance, recording it on video, exemplified by Untitled (zoetrope) (2018-2019), specifically devised for this anthological exhibition. The song I want to know what love is by Foreigners brings together, in the very same place, a band, a gospel choir and a rugby team. They all attempt, in turn, to sing the song in front of a microphone hanging in the centre and all of them are blocked by player tackles. A two-and-a-half-hour “Sukurovian” sequel displays some sort of loop between the singing attempts and the tackles, where physical exhaustion interferes. This plan-sequence removes from the video one of the most important film elements: the assembly process, which, for Gilles Deleuze, transforms the image-movement into image-time[i], determining the length and rhythm of a film. Yet, Onofre builds that very same process within the video through repetition.
Repetition is a quintessential presence in Onofre’s work. The most obvious example is the video loop, but there are also several musical cadences, as in the graphic works composed by different series Running dry series(2005 – 2007), Five Words in a Line series (2006), Degradation (2007) or the Black monochrome series (2008), in which Onofre uses language not only as a graphic blur, but also as a cornerstone to erase, paint or deconstruct.
Repetition is a musical attitude. The systematization of sound pieces, which, together, comprise a song, lives through the repetition of those different pieces, just as it lives from an array of notes that, arranged in a certain way, give birth to a song and, when conjugated differently, produce something entirely different. These notes can also be translated into printed characters. Onofre does that in Untitled (I see a Darkness original video score) (2007), the music score of the video Untitled (I see a Darkness) of the same year: in a sound studio, two children sing and play this music whose darkness and lyrics do not suit their ages. Since Onofre is not afraid to show the imperfection or his own process (he also shows us his studio in three other works), we see one of the children laughing and looking at someone (we can imagine that this person is the artist himself or a relative of the child) while singing “(…) alone or with our wives, and we can stop our whoring and pull the smiles inside and light it up forever (…)”, somehow deconstructing the mise-en-scène through a childish spontaneity and turning a suicidal song into a light and friendly version. This deconstruction is clear in many of his works. The mise-en-scène is carefully put, but is often deconstructed in a process of close exhibition with the spectator, in a more conceptual attitude that derives from the artistic forefronts, but which shapes his videos, as put by Wim Wenders. “Each movie is also a documentary about itself and its conditions”[ii].
There is a certain lightness in João Onofre’s pieces. They lure the spectator, there is a kind of complicity and, although death is a recurring subject matter, as in the series Every Gravedigger in Lisbon (2006), it is never shocking. His sense of humor also players a role in this, as well as a subtle irony, revealed in the title Once in a life time [repeat], referring not only to this notion of musical repetition, but also to those times we deem unique, when they are actually cyclical. João Onofre demands time availability from us, so we can watch his videos, even if we are standing, and mentally availability, to embark on this subtly ironic and contemplative journey, which is an exhibitive route throughout his more than 15 years of works, now publicly shown at Culturgest.
[i] Deleuze, Gilles, A Imagem Movimento, Cinema I. Lisboa: Assírio & Alvim, 1983, 2ª Edição
[ii] Wenders, Wim, A Lógica das Imagens. Lisboa: Edições 70, 2010, p.18