Interview with Tomás Abreu, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month
Miguel Pinto – Olho ao vento, pé no mar is the title of the exhibition you presented between March and April last year, at Appleton Box. It is now Umbigo’s cover of the month (even though one of the works you presented is missing). How did this production come about?
Tomás Abreu – The project was born to put different pieces into dialogue. I started working on it at the end of 2019, at a stage where I was living in Porto and didn’t have a workspace. I painted and sculpted wood and stone at home or on friends’ terraces. I was able to set the project in Artworks’ premises, where, with their technical support, I completed the production and developed a new project that I haven’t presented yet, where I use a compressed air device to create the soundscape of a film.
MP – The sea is inevitably a cornerstone theme in this exhibition. And not only in the occasional abstractions of the Nuncaseries, or in the pebbles you use in Onda Partícula, whose almost imperceptible touch reminded me of the intermittent minimality of the Offshore Turbines you presented at Kubikgallery in 2020. What is the sea in your works?
TA – I like to work with my surroundings and I visit the sea regularly. We are essentially made up of water.
In painting I explore ideas of photography and abstraction. I try to materialize something immaterial and inexplicable, as if it were a time. The occasional abstractions in the Nunca paintings can be considered attempts to realistically replicate whale skin, in large formats on disconnected screens. They are searching for a photographic and abstract image that does not exist. They become a slow, sometimes blind, sometimes careful drawing. One of the paintings is uncertainly more cosmic. The largest has a mark of the barnacle Coronula diadema, which only lives on whales. The third is more celestial. All required many hours of immersion.
The process of Onda partícula lasted two years. It started with several seaside walks in the northern region, looking for the most oval stone. It was a good exercise for eyes and hands. After more than a year on various beaches, where I collected many pebbles, I found a beach upstream from São Bartolomeu do Mar. Instead of sand, there were very oval stones. The second time I went to this beach, to complete the selection, a grey-haired gentleman passed me by the seaside and said, “The secret is not to give up”. I thought about how much time was wasted in vain. Fortunately, I know it wasn’t. It is part of a work process that enjoys serendipity, which reveals mistakes and unforeseen events, and that requires many hours of reconstruction.
Offshore turbines was an experiment between painting and moving image. The idea came up one weekend in Vila Praia de Âncora. The house balcony where I was sleeping had a wide view of the sea. During the night, on the horizon line, three red dots flashed over three yellow ellipses. It was a very hypnotic image in a windy place. The lights were too high to be boats. I remembered having read something about an EDP project for wind turbines on the high seas. I thought about the wind and the sun. And nuclear fusion. I thought about energy storage. I thought about the need to investigate its unknown environmental impact and how bad it would be to invade the oceans with giant structures. I thought about capitalism and appropriation. I thought about bad moves by bad PS and PSD governments. I thought about how incredible it would be if extinction reached offshore bank accounts and how the world could improve if these turbines stopped. When I returned home, I liked the discrepant idea of the purist painter, who assembles LEDs, a microcomputer and a battery behind a landscape painting. I challenged myself to paint that image. With the support of a friend, and using an algorithm, an electronic system replicating the sequence of flashing lights. The towers of the recent wind station have propellers 80 metres long. Here we can find the imperceptibility you refer to, in scale. What seems small is quite large and vice versa. Like the sea seen from space. Or a grape. Or a photograph.
MP – This tendency towards a natural imaginary seems to be recurrent in your works. I am thinking of the environments and atmospheres of the concept of this exhibition, but they are also present in your artistic production. Your first works are installations suspended in the air, where you worked outside of exhibition venues. Is there for you a constant need to return to nature?
TA – In production, I believe that not always. But personally, I think so. I have always lived in cities and, when I can, I go out for walks. Preferably I do it weekly, but sometimes it’s monthly. I might call it washing my eyes on the land. Or simply touching the sea. Taking a deep breath of clean air. I remember a very beautiful moment, at a waterfall, when I noticed a spider web suspended between tall trees, only perceptible when the sun reflected off it. I’ve walked barefoot in the middle of a stream, prone to threatening a hidden scorpion, surrounded by spiders and avocets, watching blue and green dragonflies dance. I’ve been lost in a mountain range, within a radius of tens of kilometres, eating pasta with a chopstick.
The concept of metabolic rupture may answer your question. Capitalism disconnects people from the earth and appropriation is everywhere. I think authoritarianism wants widespread artificial intelligence and nobody planting potatoes. As a person, I think there’s a big problem with the anthropocentric posturing of humans, states and big industries that guarantee them abundance. It’s blindness. Bees are much more important. Human intelligence seems commendable, but we are the most polluting species. If our genetic recycling becomes extinct one day, the Earth will continue to orbit and hopefully fossilise us. As an artist, I can’t see art as a way to save the world, nor does it seem right to politicise the artwork in the face of something alien to its gesture and expression. It is not a vehicle for awareness, nor does it need much captioning. It is a cultural multilanguage, which arises from cognitive and sensory experience. It seems to me to deal with something visceral, intimate and shareable. I continue to look to nature for inspiration and study different sciences. But I find it lost on the side of the road. And in people. It is everywhere. And in every body, on every scale. Work is another body. An indefinable and disruptive ignorance.
MP – Fórmios Inócuos, one of the works in this exhibition, seems to establish a very specific, formal relationship with Yucca, another work by you, presented in 2020, at Espaço MIRA, Porto. Is there a relationship between the two? What attracted you in these forms?
TA – Yucca is a study for Fórmios inócuos. It is an aluminium corner board, painted and lacquered, distorted with hands and hammer, and worked with a saw. It depicts a dried leaf of the most common ornamental plant in Porto. Fórmios inócuos (Phormium Tenax) are copper corner boards, worked in the same way and which, due to forced oxidation – a smokehouse with ammonia, salt and vinegar – acquire different shades of blue. These exercises arose from the desire to work with metal. Large, dried leaves seemed to me to be beautiful designs. I like plants. Between 2019-20 I made the film project Praga regada, about a flower that travels with the wind.
MP – In the future, what projects do you have?
TA – I’ve been painting and will be presenting paintings after this summer. I am also planning some shoots this year. I have been editing a book with photographs and words, and I have been spending a lot of time with installation and sculpture.