Mark Magazine#52 | VHILS | MovingCities

Throughout the past decade, Portuguese artist VHILS – born Alexandre Farto [Lisbon, 1987] – has been making a name for himself by taking apart and reassembling found objects. An exhibition at Lisbon’s Electricity Museum – curated by João Pinharanda and aptly named ‘Dissection’ – is the artist’s first big solo show. He uses a multitude of materials and formats to voice his stance on the city, which he bases on his experience of living and working in Shanghai 上海, Moscow, New York, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Paris. VHILS now condenses his findings in his home town, drawing from his work to produce a collective memory of the city.

I meet VHILS in his studio two weeks after the opening of ‘Dissection’. Located in an old warehouse on a nondescript street of the Portuguese capital, the studio is where he stores the found and abandoned objects he’s gathered, such as sections of walls, posters, pieces of styrofoam, scrap materials and doors. He explains that he doesn’t collect these materials simply to reassemble them into aesthetically pleasing compositions, but that he aspires to subvert our reading and understanding of urban elements. ‘Debris is a prime material for me,’ he says. ‘I like to use material that has been expelled from the city. I think this comes from my background in graffiti, which was for many years seen as something bad. But when you use it in the right way, graffiti allows you to look at the city differently.

Mark Magazine#52 | VHILS | MovingCities

Mark Magazine#52 | VHILS | MovingCities

VHILS | Cans Festival, London, 2008

Farto grew up in Seixal, a city on the less glamorous south side of the Tagus estuary. At the age of 13 he was already roaming the streets, exploring warehouses and railway yards. Admitting that he ‘went through a lot of shit’ as a kid who often got into trouble, he also realizes that his formative years have had a lasting effect on him. ‘When I was growing up, Seixal was a small-scale, almost rural area,’ he says. ‘But during the golden years of the 1990s, a construction boom hit Lisbon like a bomb, and concrete sprang up all around me.’ He witnessed the area changing at breakneck speed. ‘I was into graffiti at the time, and I started to reflect on why I was doing what I was doing. The first memory I have of stuff on the street is an image of murals made to celebrate the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. By the 1990s, though, the murals were completely fucked up and fading away – on walls that were crumbling down. Whenever I spotted one, it was sure to be opposite a huge billboard advertising commercial products. The confrontation between the two extremes appealed to me.’ Graffiti, which hit Lisbon hard in the early ’90s, added another layer to existing paintings and messages. ‘Public space reflected the changes in the country,’ Farto says, ‘and I decided to work with those layers.

At the Electricity Museum, VHILS’ work is described as the ‘aesthetics of vandalism’. The curator also point out ‘the removal of the surface layers of walls and other media with non-conventional tools and techniques.’ However, Farto’s engagement with the city stems not from a desire to cut it up but to express his apprehensions about the urban condition, in particular the effects of globalization and the uniformity of urban space. His concerns are human-centered:

Cities are becoming the same everywhere in the world. That allows us to come together, and that is important. But in the end it reduces us to by-products, results of our surroundings. Rarely do we shape the cities we live in. Some people do, but the system does not allow everyone to be involved in the process of building and changing a city.

Mark Magazine#52 | VHILS | MovingCities

VHILS | Dissection, exhibition @ Lisbon Electricity Museum

VHILS | Dissection, exhibition @ Lisbon Electricity Museum

Dissection, exhibition @ Lisbon Electricity Museum

The idea of exposing the layers of the city is one thing. How to execute that plan is something else. In the case of walls, VHILS uses carving techniques and even explosives. He destroys in order to create. ‘Part of the idea is related to the technique of stencilling,’ he says, ‘where you divide an image into fields of colour and use templates to apply paint to any uncovered parts.’ But instead of putting paint on a wall, one day he started to peel away various areas. ‘The first time I did this, I realized it was a turning point for me. Rather than adding layers, I was subtracting them to reveal what lay beneath.

For the destructive part of the creative process, VHILS uses small amounts of explosives – a technique he’s mastered only after a great deal of trial and error. He sees the resulting blast as a metaphor for the ignition of new thoughts and messages appearing on the wall before him. ‘As I reveal hidden layers, I observe the return of history, repeating and exposing itself anew.

VHILS | Xiaonanmen Station Area | Shanghai, April 8, 2012

VHILS | Xiaonanmen Station Area | Shanghai, April 8, 2012

VHILS | Dissecting the City by Bert de Muynck
published in Mark magazine #52 | Oct-Nov14

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