Interview with Francisco Trêpa, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

In Umbigo’s new monthly online cover, Miguel Pinto interviews Francisco Trêpa (Lisbon, 1995) about his work and the concept of The elephant got in the room and never left, which was on view at the art residency venue Duplex AIR.

Miguel PintoThe elephant got in the room and never left is the title of your previous exhibition, which is now the cover of Umbigo’s new online edition. Can you tell me a bit about these works? What is this exhibition’s “elephant in the room”?

Francisco Trêpa – During the 2021 lockdown, I spent three months painting daily and did paintings that show us places in Lisbon Zoo. One of those was based on a photograph that illustrates a child giving a coin to an elephant, the “famous” elephant of the Lisbon Zoo bell. When I was invited by Susana Rocha, Duplex’s artistic director, without even knowing what the exhibition would be, I looked at the elephant painting and found in it the potential to expand that landscape, that practice, that collective memory, in several works. That was how the intention of taking this elephant’s story into the exhibition room came about. This is a set of works that relies on the senses and relationships that these objects create between each other. I started to recreate some key elements of this cruel spectacle, such as the trunk, the bell, the coin and the peanut, assigning each object a “script” within this “performance”. A peanut is just a peanut, but these peanuts, at the Zoo, ceased to be just what they are, becoming the bait that led this elephant to ring a bell for 20 years and that allowed Lisbon Zoo to create this “show” that attracted many visitors. Obviously, if the elephant was not given a coin, the keeper would not give him the peanut and you would not hear the bell “trelim… trelim…”.

Answering the second question, I don’t know how many “elephants in the room” passed through this room. Maybe the ones I saw were not the same ones other people did, but I tried at least to have an invisible elephant in the showroom when I made d, two sculptures with the average measurements of an elephant. At Duplex gallery, I can say that the elephant would barely fit in the exhibition room. But, for me, the biggest “elephant in the room” is the very reference to the Zoo and the whole system of displaying live animals. These places don’t just have real elephants, but are “elephants in the room”, in cities and societies. They are educational projects, but they depict a massive world problem that everyone can see. But many don’t want to notice the pointlessness of having wild animals in cities, like elephants.

MP – One of the most striking features of your artistic output is the importance you attach to food, not only as materials that are part of the works, but also as referents, endowed with meaning – as happened with this exhibition. Why does this universe have such a powerful role in your work?

FT – Precisely. In this exhibition, the food that I portrayed, the peanut, “entered the scene” with a specific meaning. The sense of food as bait, food – trap. The elephant was hooked on the peanuts and not on the coin, the bell, or the guard or, much less, the audience. He was hooked on the peanuts. When the Zoo ended this show, the elephant for six months did not leave the place where he was daily given his peanut fix. We can therefore think of food as the basis for animal domestication. A food can be the lure to the perfect trap.

Food has been emerging in my work. I have worked with real food, for example in the video Who’s Watching?, where I use birdseed to manipulate the action, attracting birds to the video frame. I have also worked with animal feed and processed grain, bridging the gap between the two industrial food products and their similarities. In industrial processes, there is a stringent screening of the form defined as “perfect”. This screening removes from the sales process many shapes that do not fit the industrial standard. One day, when I was about to cook an omelette, I opened the egg carton and saw for the first time a wrinkled egg. Then I realised that this is something relatively common. However, for those who only see the eggs in the supermarket, it’s something rare, a sorting failure whose job it is to withdraw defective eggs from circulation. The egg has been part of several works, where I always use the same wrinkled egg. Consequently, other eggs (ostrich) and vegetables such as eggplant, peanuts, etc. have been added. I find myself interested in the idea of reproduction of the same form and the creation of another body with the same body, as with the sculptures made with eggs and eggplants made of stacked ceramics, which I have presented in several exhibitions I have been involved in, including the exhibition Le Salon des Aubergines at the Bordalo Museum. There is something that captivates me about a piece of clay that takes the shape of an egg and starts to act like an egg, even if it is not. We know the sound a spoon makes when it touches glass or wood. That is what fascinates me in sculpture, when we make objects that may seem so distant, but which, when we see their material constitutions, are close to us. With food we can talk about an exterior-interior connection, because it travels in our body, it enters, it leaves, it is absorbed… I have no reason why I started working with food and food representations, but I can tell you that I like it and I will go on.

MP – The reference to the elephant, an animal that points to different contexts, mainly in a colonial background where it was considered an attraction – something visible in zoos or circuses even today – seems to be a major concern of this work. In Beatriz Coelho’s text, which is now a descriptive memoir of the exhibition, it is said that the fuel for these works was also a show performed at Lisbon Zoo in the 1980s and 1990s, where the elephant was used under a logic of curiosity and amusement. How did this theme of animal exploitation, in particular of the elephant, come about and had an impact on you?

FT – The Zoo was a place I visited frequently when I was a child and it shaped me in a certain way. Up until a certain period, I believed in the contemporary paradigm of the zoological institution, the conservation of endangered species. But, despite the personal allure of observing an animal trapped in the middle of Lisbon, something was disturbing and violent about the whole habit of going to the Zoo. Like other social structures, which shape our way of thinking, this one had to be deconstructed after a stage of denial. The subject of my master’s thesis is the exhibition of live animals in an exhibition context, in a zoo or a museum. So I researched this topic for a period. What I was doing in the studio was very much focused on what I was thinking and what I was researching. This exhibition is an extension of that research into a local history, which I witnessed and which is part of a collective memory. Most of the Portuguese who visited the exhibition had memories of this elephant. It was an obvious habit, based on a monetary exchange, the exploitation of an animal, in a place that urges us to save species. At the end of the 1990s, the European Union issued new legislation for zoos, putting an end to practices involving close proximity between animal and spectator, a greater “naturalness” in the recreated habitats, among many other rules to make the Zoo a seemingly more “paradisiacal” and “fair” place. However, there are still dolphin shows in 2021.

As I said before, in this exhibition the elephant comes from a photograph, which became a painting, which became an idea, and then an exhibition. What does the elephant mean in Portuguese and Lisbon culture? Its colonial past and present, clearly. The zoo arose with European colonisation, to bring the ex-colonies to the colonising cities and show its public wild animals deemed exotic and sometimes “people considered exotic”. Today’s Zoo continues to propagate the idea of colonisation through caged animals and their recreated habitats. It is no accident that Lisbon Zoo uses the image of the elephant on an advertising billboard near Praça de Espanha, whose title is “Africa right next door”. Where, in Sete Rios? It is a rather unfortunate billboard and it seems that it was not thought out bearing in mind the significance of Portugal and its colonial past for the world. It is something deeply rooted in my (our) culture. In the 15th century, King Manuel ordered the construction of the Royal Elephantry in Rossio (today Teatro D. Maria II) and there are written accounts that tell of the king riding an elephant down from S. Jorge Castle to the city. Lisbon Zoo is over one hundred years old. It has been visited by many millions, always with elephants on show. Centuries pass, times change, but the elephants are still in Lisbon.

MP – Again, taking the elephant motif, I find it remarkable how you move from the real to the symbolic in your work – for example, the direct references to the animal are, apart from the title of the exhibition, the pieces you made in porcelain, representing only its trunk. I also highlight the sculpture The only way is through, where you play with the idea of peanuts that were given to the animal. However, they are constructed here with paraffin and arranged as if they were a curtain. Do you think that this transformation of the concrete into the figurative is a key part of your creative process?

FT – I think so. This transformation allows me to generate intentionally figurative objects, I wouldn’t say only of the concrete into the figurative. But of something into something else, something that sometimes I am not even sure what it is. Then, what emerges from so many intersecting processes can be transformations of the matter that I wanted to live in a certain way, in a certain story. I bought a silicone elephant mask to make a work that I have never done. When I decided to borrow this story for the exhibition, I remembered that I had that mask and thought how that trunk was perfectly adapted to my human size. Instead of being two metres long, it was forty centimetres. This led me to reflect on this reduction of the trunk’s scale and to make a comparison with the scale reduction of the elephant’s territory into a recreated habitat in a Zoo. This exhibition was a interplay of relationships in a mini-world that I created as I was producing works for the gallery. I wanted to make a peanut mould and took its positive in paraffin. Then I started to reproduce this peanut exhaustively to make a “peanut curtain to keep flies away” with the height of an elephant. With the moulds, I produced one thousand seven hundred paraffin peanuts.

MP – When I see your works, I marvel at the sense of restraint you apply to the objects. Although minimal, they seem conscious of all the possible meanings they can retain. Is this construction of readings more conceptual for you, an essential concern in the creation of the works themselves, or something more spontaneous that you witness during the making?

FT – Both and many others. Making is very important for me, for my process. A teacher from the sculpture course in Fine Arts used to tell me that I would create a great deal from my stomach. I already had that part, but I needed to use my brain more, at a time when I was freely “vomiting” objects. It was a very important observation for me. I think the stomach and the brain can be compared to the conceptual and the spontaneous. In that sense, I need both a lot to create, but also hands, eyes… It’s something very complex that I try to do in the simplest way when I can.

Miguel Pinto (Lisbon, 2000) is graduated in Art History by NOVA/FCSH and made his internship at the National Museum of Azulejo. He has participated in the research project VEST - Vestir a corte: traje, género e identidade(s) at the Humanities Centre of the same institution. He has created and is running the project Parte da Arte, which tries to investigate the artistic scene in Portugal through video essays.

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