Portugal at the Venice Biennale: an interview with Pedro Neves Marques

Pedro Neves Marques (Lisbon, 1984) is the artist representing Portugal at the next Venice Biennale with the project Vampires in Space, curated by João Mourão – director of Arquipélago – Centro de Artes Contemporâneas nos Açores – together with Luís Silva, responsible for the Kunsthalle Lissabon.

The exhibition will be held at Palazzo Franchetti, in front of the Ponte dell’Accademia – the headquarters of the Portuguese Pavilion for the next three years – and will be open to the public between April 23 and November 22, 2022.

Created as an interstellar journey of a group of vampires, the show will transform the palace’s rooms through films, installations and poems, in a journey without beginning or end. Spectators can lose their way in it, letting themselves be seduced by the set design by Estúdio Diogo Passarinho.

Vampires in Space, curated by the Directorate-General for the Arts, has the EDP Foundation as its main patron. It also has the support of many private Italian collections, including the Neapolitan Galeria Umberto Di Marino, which represents the artist’s work in Italy. It will be produced with a budget of 400.000 euros. After the Biennale, Pedro Neves Marques’ project will return to Portugal to be shown at the Modern Art Center of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. It will then be at Haus der Kunst, Munich (Germany), and at Pivô Arte e Pesquisa, São Paulo, Brazil.

Despite having been presented at Teatro Thalia, Lisbon, Vampires in Space retains a mysterious aura, which is not made clear by the artist or the curators. The “surprise effect” remains for the opening days in Venice.

We talked to Pedro to shed some light on the world of his nocturnal creatures.

Matteo Bergamini – The inspiration to undertake Vampires in Space came from the Biennale’s title theme “The milk of dreams”. Can you tell us about what you conceptualized?

Pedro Neves Marques Vampires in Space was a project in the form of a poem and script. I was already thinking about it before the biennale, but it turned out to fit perfectly with the theme “The milk of dreams”. I am presenting a new film, distributed over three rooms of Palazzo Franchetti, where we see the daily life of a group of vampires – let’s call them that because it’s a bit more complicated – aboard a spaceship. This ship is traveling between Earth and a distant exoplanet, perfect for human life to flourish. Since vampires live forever, they are ideal candidates for traveling through the cosmos. The film is paired with new poems that, as usual in my poetry, mix biography and fiction – in this case fantasy – and a set design dependent on the Venetian Gothic of Palazzo Franchetti.

MB – What is the connection between the current work and previous ones? What is your methodology for constructing a work that is a video, an environment, or an installation?

PNM – Writing, whether it is poetry, script, fiction, or even critique, is often the basis of my works. In this case, the project started with a first poem, which quickly unfolded into more poems. They are personal, very intimate poems, with reflections on gender and sexuality, and the image and expectations of the vampire, as well as queer forms of reproduction, and the idea of eternity and memory – the way we go about reconstructing who we are throughout our lives. There is also a playful side, with pop references to cinema or Marvel books, for example. It was from the poems that I reached the characters that personify the film we watch in the pavilion. In this project, I take fantasy and sci-fi to the farthest end. But, in methodology and theme, it’s easy to see how Vampires in Space relates to previous films. For instance, Terminator Seed, The Bite or Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, where a deep investigation flows into speculative fiction and emotional drama.

MB – The core of the Vampires in Space project is the explicitly non-binary body. It speaks to the idea of gender, but also issues such as ecology or biopolitics. Is it essential to raise awareness about these topics, even though they are difficult for many?

PNM – Gender issues cut across much of my work, even in more ecological or technological pieces. There is a vast history related to the control of the body and, on the other hand, various forms of feminism or a queer notion of ecology. In these, neither humans nor nature exist on their own but are always part of other technological systems and concepts, animals, plants, minerals, etc. All this is very important to me. It is not simply that I am a non-binary person. This project intensely lives a transgender experience. This lies in the poems, in the dialogues, in the reinvention of a person and their relationship with memory, in the state of suspension – or transition – aboard this spaceship, in the possibility of generating life or not… Fortunately, there is more and more art and literature reflecting on these experiences. This is my contribution.

MB – How do you approach the figure of the queer vampire? In the cinema of the last century, their role was often developed in a bisexual-binary version…

PNM – Historically and culturally, the figure of the vampire has always been libidinal, but above all as a gender disruptor – for example, the deconstruction of masculinity. Also, we have this notion of viral reproduction through the bite, which is beyond gender or age. However, the element I was interested in exploring emotionally is the eternity of a vampire and the inevitable exercise in memory and self-fictionalisation of a long life. This psychological and physical self-analysis is not limited to a non-binary experience but is very special.

MB – The French artist Orlan, who has worked for several years on the concept of rewriting the body, has stated: “Art can change the world”. Alfredo Jaar said: “Art transforms the world, one person at a time”. Do you think art can achieve this? How do you use it?

PNM – Art is political. Always. From the moment a person, whether a child or adult, is touched by a film, sculpture or book, art can transform a subjectivity. If we don’t believe that, it’s not worth being an artist. Even because that spectator, that person touched by an artistic object, could be you. In relation to my works, the political root is always in ecological issues, technological futures, dissident gender experiences, or simply emotional aspects. This is something that I consider natural and that I reflect on intensely.

MB – Nowadays, who is the vampire? What is their social role?

PNM – The vampire, whether male or female, is just an image or a cultural fiction, which has always reflected the way certain eras viewed issues of gender and sexuality, virility, vitality and death. This is quite obvious in the Victorian age, with the standardisation and control of bodies, binarities and scientific categories – which attempted to control libido and suppress homosexuality, transgender lives, or simply shape femininity and masculinity. But we see this reflection from the 1960s with feminism or in the 1980s and 1990s with the AIDS virus. I wonder, then, how do vampires reflect our experiences today? In a time where transgender and queer experiences are visible, but also a certain collapse of the notion of the body as an autonomous entity.

MB – The Palazzo Franchetti premises will be transformed with the help of Diogo Passarinho’s studio, creating a contrast between the palace’s evident gothic style and the exhibition’s atmosphere. What sensation do you want to induce in the spectators?

PNM – I want visitors to dive into another world and be carried away by the cinematographic, literary and scenic work we have created. I want them to enter a past and present spaceship, a psychological space inside and a galactic cosmos outside. And I hope they will be thrilled.

Matteo Bergamini is a journalist and art critic. He’s the Director of the Italian magazine and also a collaborator in the weekly journal D La Repubblica. Besides journalist he’s also the editor and curator of several books, such as Un Musée après, by the photographer Luca Gilli, Vanilla Edizioni, 2018; Francesca Alinovi (with Veronica Santi), by Postmedia books, 2019; Prisa Mata. Diario Marocchino, by Sartoria Editoriale, 2020. The lattest published book is L'involuzione del pensiero libero, 2021, also by Postmedia books. He’s the curator of the exhibitions Marcella Vanzo. To wake up the living, to wake up the dead, at Berengo Foundation, Venezia, 2019; Luca Gilli, Di-stanze, Museo Diocesano, Milan, 2018; Aldo Runfola, Galeria Michela Rizzo, Venezia, 2018, and the co-curator of the first, 2019 edition of BienNoLo, the peripheries biennial, in Milan. He’s a professor assistant in several Fine Arts Academies and specialized courses. Lives and works in Milan, Italy.

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