Nobody Nowhere the limbo of the future in Gabriel Abrantes’ paintings

On December 5, Gabriel Abrantes will open a painting-only exhibition at Galeria Francisco Fino, Lisbon. Nobody Nowhere is the name of this ground-breaking show. Although he is mostly known for his work in film, painting is a relevant part of his activity. On a rainy November morning, we visited his studio in Lisbon. Large paintings completely blanketed the walls. Our body invaded by a tragic and overwhelming melancholy.

Ghosts. Painter ghosts, ghosts with 16mm cameras, artist ghosts occupying different scenarios. A museum, a gallery, or the studio. Ghosts prevented from moving freely without a wheelchair or crutches. All spaces are flooded by calm or turbulent waters, and almost all are illuminated through a single spot of light. The ghostly bodies merge and disappear into the water flooding the spaces. A tragedy where bodies are not bodies and space is nowhere, “Nobody Nowhere”.

Cinema or painting, the discourse is common in both media used by Gabriel Abrantes. The history of painting or the ideas of his painting are in his films, just as the paintings adopt the language of the films he produces. A lover of Art History and the History of Technology, Gabriel Abrantes enjoys how technology influences art, allowing for stylistic revolutions over time. His work reflects this interest, creating digital worlds or Artificial Intelligence (AI) as the basis for paintings and films. The starting point is Autodesk’s 3D animation and visual effects program Maya, which he uses to digitally construct images of the universes he depicts. These images are rounded off with the Dall-E AI system, creating realistic images from the language input. «This approach is part of painting’s tradition. When it started to clash with photography, the Impressionists tried to counteract hyper-realism in painting. More recent painters, like Richter or Tuymans, use photography as a basis for their work. My approach is identical, but in the digital world», says Gabriel Abrantes.

When the images are generated, he uses traditional oil painting techniques, mentioning inspiring styles or ways of painting throughout history. The contrast between light and shadow points to a kind of cinematographic lighting that he attempts to capture, reminiscent of Georges de La Tour’s work, where dark environments are lit only by a candle’s flame. In some canvases, the turbulent waters resemble Caspar Friedrich’s stormy landscapes. And we find quotes from Miró, Cy Twombly or Mark Rothko, with the representation of their works through AI.

The link between animation and Gabriel Abrantes’ work rejects the supremacy of human existence over non-human objects or beings. The concept of Object-Oriented Ontology or Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro’s idea of Perspectivism, which push man away from the centre, are in many of his works. For example, the film Les Extraordinaires Mésaventures de la Jeune Fille de Pierre (The Extraordinary Misadventures of the Stone Lady), where a Louvre sculpture comes to life and wanders through the streets of Paris; or the video Os Humores Artificiais, where the main character is a flying robot “Andy Coughman”.

In these paintings, the ghosts personify the artist as a digital avatar, dissociated from the body, empty, lost, unable to move. In the exhibition text, also conceived in the AI software GPT-3, as a conversation between the artist and a digitally generated contemporary art curator, we read “the ghosts might represent anxieties relating to the role of the artist in a society that is fractured, partisan, extremist, and threatened with extinction. Gabriel Abrantes tells us that the figure of the ghost originates not only from his passion for the work of the painter Philip Guston or the Fleischer brothers from the animated film Betty Boop, but also from the book Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, where the ghosts are in a limbo, progressively oblivious to who they are. «In ghosts I’m interested in that notion of limbo. I try to develop characters that have no body at the same time, the images they produce spring from artificial intelligence, the world is flooded… So they have in themselves a notion of a limbo of the future».

The catastrophic aspect is completed by the flooding of spaces. The allusion to water, an element composed of millions of particles as a representation of a complex system, foreshadows a tragic future, closely tied to climate change. In one work, a ghost pours a bucket of water over his piece. A gesture that destroys his creation, annulling himself, just as the human being destroys the planet, building tools that remove him from the real world and lead him to extinction. For example, software that allows digital worlds to be built or Artificial Intelligence that gives machines or robots the ability to address questions or tasks that demand the use of intelligence, hitherto exclusively human.

Despite all these tragic, complex, and current issues in Gabriel Abrantes’ paintings, we empathise with the ghosts represented, similarly to the figure of Diamantino in the film Diamantino. Although a satire, it is also an emotional motif that moves us and makes us feel compassion and tenderness. Nobody Nowhere is a reflection on the place of art and the artist in today’s world, or of our place in today’s world, tainted by a digital world increasingly dominated by AI. A threat? Or salvation? Bodies that are not bodies and spaces that are nowhere. A satire. Gabriel Abrantes drops us into a kind of limbo, just like Saunders’ ghosts. He materialises the uncertainty of the future and our self-effacement. An exhibition that cannot afford indifference. We feel dread, fear, anxiety, despondency towards the world we live in and, at the same time, an overwhelming allure.

Joana Duarte (Lisbon, 1988), architect and curator, lives and works in Lisbon. She concluded her master in architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura of Universidade de Lisboa in 2011, she attended the Technical University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands and did her professional internship in Shanghai, China. She collaborated with several national and international architects and artists developing a practice between architecture and art. In 2018 she founds her own studio, concludes the postgraduate degree in curatorial studies at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas of Universidade Nova de Lisboa and starts collaborating with Umbigo magazine.

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