The derisory finitude of João Onofre

The most significant works of Portuguese visual artist at Culturgest

The derisory finitude of João Onofre

Once in a Lifetime [repeat] is the largest exhibition ever assembled of the work of Portuguese artist João Onofre. Culturgest provides a journey through two decades of Onofre's creative practice, focusing on video - the area in which the artist stood out the most - but also on photography, performance, and drawing. Until May 19.

“It was not intended as a retrospective, nor did we try to showcase João Onofre’s entire work,” says Delfim Sardo, the curator of Once in a Lifetime [repeat]– an exhibition that brings to Culturgest some of the most significant works of the Lisbon-born artist (1976). One could say that, throughout the exhibition, “the focus is on this limbo of sorts between Romanticism and art history’s major themes, especially love, failure or death, which seems to permeate Onofre’s entire work… All this with undeniable irony.”

The exhibition begins on the outside, at the entrance to Culturgest, with Box, a 1.83m steel cube that hints ata grave’sstandard depth of 6 feet. The piece is a quote of a seminal minimalist sculpture – Tony Smith’s Die (1962) – which Onofre revisits as a soundproof box in which a death metal band (Holocausto Canibal) delivers “an extreme performance”: imprisoned inside, the band plays until the oxygen runs out (the performance will take place again on May 17 at 10.30 pm).

Box sized DIE featuring…, Marlborough Contemporary, London, June 2014

The trilogy O Estúdio [The Studio]also echoes modern and contemporary art history. The three videos are a direct quote of Bruce Nauman, an influential US conceptual artist who used his own studio as the focus of some of his most remarkable works. Nauman believed that “art is what the artist does in his studio,” and Onofre seems to take inspiration from this motto to film – “with a trenchant irony regarding the transfiguring ambition of artistic images” – a female singer performing Sol LeWitt’s ‘conceptual art’ prepositions to the melody of Madonna’s Like A Virgin ; to have an illusionist performing the traditional levitation trick with his partner (again, a Nauman quote); and to release, in the studio itself, a vulture which ends up destroying everything – an ironic take, as the curator points out, on the “necrophagy of the artist’s work.”

Another reference to Nauman, more specifically to his famous Self-Portrait as a Fountain, emerges in Untitled (Luminous Fountain), a self-portrait against the backdrop of Praça do Império’s Luminous Fountain in Belém.

Untitled (Luminous Fountain), 2005 | Digital photo between aluminum and plexiglass | 110 x 150 x 4 cm

Movies are another source of quotes in Onofre’s career. If, on the one hand, the oldest work in this exhibition is a short excerpt from Antonioni’s masterpiece The Eclipse– a looped sequence in which the main characters (Alain Delon and Monica Vitti) play out the seduction game with their hands -,the most recent (and until now unseen) piece consists of a complex two-and-a-half-hour single shot, recalling Godard’s One Plus Oneor Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark.

Untitled (zoetrope) is an extremely long take starring a gospel choir,a music quartet and a mixed rugby team, who “stage an endless ritual, to the point of complete exhaustion.” To the sound of I want to know what love is– a pop tune that topped the charts in the 1980s – the rugby players try, one by one, to sing the song’s chorus to a microphone in the middle of the set, surrounded by the musicians and the choir. But they can never finish it, because they are repeatedly tackled by their teammates.

Untitled (zoetrope), 2018-19 | 4K Video, color, sound, 142′ | Maria João and Armando Cabral Collection / Courtesy of Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art

This filmed performance is particularly illustrative of the spirit behind the entire exhibition, which was conceived, as Delfim Sardo points out, “around the importance of circularity and repetition as a creative process” And there is also “the ubiquitousness of the idea of finitude, of lack, failure and error, which are intrinsic to life and, therefore, to artistic creation.” Yet in João Onofre’s work, these experiences are seen through the lens of “an exquisite irony,” making each piece “oscillate between tragedy, comedy and concept.”