Aujourd’hui has the pleasure of presenting Alexandre Farto (also known as Vhils) as our most recent interview. His groundbreaking carving technique shaped him into one of the leading figures among Portuguese artists and a global ambassador for Portuguese street art. Born in 1987 and raised in Seixal, a part of Lisbon's outskirts, Vhils started his visual interactions with the urban panorama as a prolific graffiti writer in the early 2000s. The simple, yet very emotional, carved murals were hailed as one of the most compelling approaches to art created in the last decade. With countless works in the public space around the world, Alexandre's work has also been exhibited both in solo and group exhibitions in institutions such as Fundação EDP - Museu da Electricidade in Lisbon, Magda Danysz Gallery in Paris, Coa Museum in Portugal, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Museu de Arte do Rio in Rio de Janeiro, Lazarides Gallery in London, among many others. Often dealing with social issues, his work highlights and exposes several feelings, pioneering a fascinating aesthetic while also garnering critical acclaim. Read our interview to find out how he is avoiding overstraining, how he still wants to make materials dance and how it felt to be distinguished with one of Portugal’s highest honours.
At the age of 28, you have already held a major retrospective exhibition in a museum, created a music video for U2, participated in several solo and group exhibitions around the world, created countless public art walls, and many other projects. Aren't you afraid of overstraining?
No, as things stand and for the time being I don't feel afraid. Ever since I remember I've always been very active, and I guess that's just the way I am. I grew up with this feeling that one day I would reach a point when I wouldn't be able to do more or create more. I can't really explain it, perhaps it was some irrational fear of dying before I could accomplish the things I wanted to, or perhaps it's because I was so restrained to create as a child that now it's all gushing out in a torrent. On the other hand, maybe it's just the way I like to do things, taking everything to an extreme that fulfils me to a point I no longer think about how fucked up this world we live in really is. I can't really say, perhaps the day I eventually manage to understand is the day I stop creating. For the time being I'm happy doing what I'm doing, and happy with what I've done so far. I have ideas, I'm surrounded and supported by a great team and family all of whom help me achieve and materialise what lies deep in my mind.
You constantly refer to the importance and influence that political posters and paintings have had in your work which you saw in the area you grew up in, on the south bank across from Lisbon. Were you aware of the importance of these elements when you started out or is it something that you came to realise later?
Definitely later. The political murals and posters fascinated me for many reasons but back then I wasn't aware of the importance they would later hold for me nor how they were helping shape my view of the world around me. In reality, more than the content present in these murals and posters what became pivotal was the contrast they provided with what came next, the random visual dialogue they established with subsequent layers of advertising and graffiti. Becoming aware of this overlapping of material layers and how they accumulate over time was what led me to understand how urban walls absorb what takes place around them, retaining the feeling, character and history of a given place. Once I realised this, I began wanting to work with this wealth that was already there, instead of simply painting over them and adding yet another layer.
Throughout your career you've been testing and choosing different materials. Do they follow specific criteria or are the materials just a medium? How important is the process of testing/failing until you achieve the results you had idealised?
To be honest I view this interaction like a dance with the materials. I adapt to the materials and they in turn adapt to me, we play with each other. This process is always different with each material and most times it is in this process where the message lies. I do idealise things but I can never be sure how things are going to turn out once I start working. I can start out with an idea but it always comes down to what lies beneath the surface of each material. In a sense it's always a surprise, and I like it this way. It shows me I can never achieve full control of the work and I'm happy with this. This concept acts as a metaphor in my work that says a lot about what's behind it. Experimentation is a very important step in my work process, but most of the time it's not carried out with the aim of achieving a particular result. I like the randomness of the process and seeing what comes out of it. I have no problems in working with mistakes or unexpected results, most of which I can incorporate into the piece or series I'm working on.
People associate Vhils with the act of carving and drilling and you usually mention this concept of destruction, a way of digging up the past. However, your styrofoam pieces follow the exact opposite method (by adding up), what is their connection with this base concept?
It plays with it. It's a totally different body of work which, as you say, is based on the reversal of the carving process I employ in most of the others. The Diorama series is essentially a reflection based on the concept of reciprocal shaping between the city and its inhabitants, a process by which both develop a shared character. By looking into how the city and public space shape us into who we are and what we are and how we in turn help shape the city and its landscapes, it speaks of growth and expansion and this is achieved through the choice of material, method and technique. It also reflects on how a city depends on the existence of contrasts in order to exist and function, be they social contrasts or material contrasts, like the interplay of light and shadow which is rendered in these pieces by way of lighting cast over their intricate forms. In this sense, it also acts as a metaphor for how most of the time we only focus on the dazzling light of development and hardly consider the deep shadows it casts over parts of the city and some of its inhabitants.
You were awarded the distinction of Cavaleiro da Ordem Militar de Sant'Iago da Espada by the president of your country, Portugal. At the same time, carving walls without a permit as a form of public art was declared illegal. In a country with a government that holds an anti-culture stance, does this distinction feel somewhat bittersweet?
Yes, it does. To me it felt perverse as fuck and that's one of the reasons why I decided to address the issue at length on my Facebook page, expressing my views on the subject. To be clear, the nomination for the distinction wasn't put forward by either the president himself or the government but by the council that oversees the order, which is an independent institution. In this sense it had nothing to do with the person who currently holds the presidency, otherwise it would have been very easy to refuse. If you're interested in why I ended up accepting it after a harrowing debate with myself, you can click on the following link (in Portuguese):
Your work takes on a very political and social role, specifically in your public art projects. How do you measure the long-term impact of your work versus the fact that the pieces are temporary?
The concept of permanent change and the ephemeral nature intrinsic to all things is pivotal in my work. In this light, working according to these lines is what truly shows respect for a city, creating a form of organic-like public art that changes over time, reflecting how that city is alive. To me, the city is like a living organism that evolves by means of creation and destruction; everything is in constant change, and in this sense I aim at working with nature, not against it. This is the reason why I try to create an art for our times, one that changes and grows along with us. Also, when you work outdoors you learn to accept that everything is subject to this change, and that is the nature of urban art. Everything has its own lifespan, we just have to create more art to replace what disappears. When I dig into the layers of city walls that keep growing thicker over time, absorbing and reflecting the history and the socio-cultural reality of a place, I'm trying to find a certain degree of order in their chaotic nature, but this is done with the intention of playing with this nature and its impermanence and not trying to stop the march of time.
You have a project and gallery - Underdogs - with the original goal of promoting and supporting other artists. Can you tell us a little about the evolution of this project and its position in Lisbon's art scene?
The Underdogs has been a long story and a long struggle. None of it would have been possible without the help of Pauline Foessel, who co-directs the platform with me, and is really the life and soul behind the project and a huge help to all the artists we've been working with, by getting them to explore their work and helping promote it on an international scale. As for me, I was simply tired of living in a city and a country that seems unable to value their own artists, tired of seeing all these great ideas and potential go to waste. I was lucky to have found someone who helped and supported me when I was starting out, so I feel this is the minimum I can do to give something back. When the project took on its current form in 2013 there was nothing like this in Lisbon or Portugal. The idea was essentially to provide a service to artists, the city, and the community. This involved opening a gallery where local and international artists who have been operating outside the established circuit could show their work, while also creating the opportunities for them to work properly in the public space and give something to the city, and putting out affordable artist editions as a means of reaching out to the public and creating a bond with them. None of this was easy to achieve, but we're lucky that the project has resonated so well with the community, the artists, and the public.
Do you collect art?
I do. I have a huge collection of political and protest posters from around the world, mainly from left wing organisations, situationist and anarchist groups, raging from “May 68” to North Korea, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, etc. I'm also a big collector of prints by contemporary artists and I have several pieces by artists I know and whose work I love.
There's a new project with your name involved that has recently been presented. What can you tell us about Solid Dogma?
Solid Dogma is a creative unit, a business aimed at activating brand and cultural power through art. It's not connected with my personal work, even if it might make use of it from time to time. Its aim is to overcome media boundaries and focus on consumer and social value by developing effective communication projects and powerful branding tools. It basically seeks to bridge the gap between artists and brand creators by helping nurture talent and instil imagination into the world of branding, advertising and culture. You can check it out at www.soliddogma.com.
You’re usually very secretive about upcoming projects. What can we expect from Vhils in the future?
You can certainly expect Vhils to remain secretive :)
Exclusive interview by Aujourd'hui.
Photography courtesy of Alexandre Farto and Vhils Studio.
Alexandre Farto aka Vhils - www.alexandrefarto.com