scratching the surface
By Christophe Chommeloux
10 April, 2017
Portuguese artist Alexandre Farto has been interacting visually with the urban environment under the name of Vhils since his days as a prolific graffiti writer in the early 2000s. Now Thailand has its Vhils: an impressive fresco on the wall of Bangkok’s Portuguese Embassy he recently realized.
Vhils groundbreaking carving technique which forms the basis of the Scratching the Surface project has been hailed as one of the most compelling approaches to art created in the streets in the last decade.
His striking form of visual poetry, showcased around the world in both indoor and outdoor settings, has been described as brutal and complex, yet imbued with a simplicity that speaks to the core of human emotions. An ongoing reflection on identity, on life in contemporary urban societies and their saturated environments, it explores themes such as the struggle between the aspirations of the individual and the demands of everyday life, or the erosion of cultural uniqueness in the face of the dominant model of globalised development and the increasingly uniform reality it has been imposing around the world. It speaks of effacement but also of resistance, of destruction yet also of beauty in this overwhelming setting, exploring the connections and contrasts, similarities and differences, between global and local realities.
Inspiration in Lisbon
Vhils grew up in Seixal, an industrialised suburb across the river from Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and was deeply influenced by the transformations brought on by the intensive urban development the country underwent in the 1980s and 1990s.
He was particularly inspired by the way city walls absorb the social and historical changes that take place around them.
Applying his original methods of creative destruction, Vhils digs into the surface layers of our material culture like a contemporary urban archaeologist, exposing what lies beyond the superficiality of things, restoring meaning and beauty to the discarded dimensions buried beneath.
An avid experimentalist, he has been developing his concept of the aesthetics of vandalism in a plurality of media (from stencil painting to wall carvings, from
pyrotechnic explosions to 3D modelling, from installations to music videos) which have enabled him to expand the boundaries of visual expression.
His unique approach and artwork have been garnering critical acclaim around the world and Maria Madureira, Director of the Portuguese Cultural Center in Bangkok, thought that it would be interesting to open the cultural year with showing a contemporary Portugal to Thai people and other international communities: “The relationship between Thailand and Portugal goes a long way, 500 years! Vhils is a Portuguese artist who has worked in the entire world. This is the first time he is here and it makes sense to have this art piece outside so everyone can have access to it. We wanted to offer it to Bangkok for celebrating our friendship relation.”
Vhils & virtues
For Alexandro, “the idea was to extract an image of this area from the wall, to work on the layers because of their meaning. It goes back to the Ayutthaya epoch and on some parts you can see a mural that was done before, some tiles and typographies and so on…
This wall has a lot of layers, in which you can see different times, like an archeologist. The wall talks a lot about the history. Walls are not just walls, you know, they can absorb the stories and as soon as you can break the surface and see what’s inside, something invisible start to be visible.
I also wanted to create a bridge with some of the patterns and historical portraits from the Embassy and from the tales of the relationship.
The main focus was to make a composition telling of these two cultures, when they met, by bringing up some graphic elements and use them to portray people and show the ties.
When you work with the portraits, you can make a connection with the history of the place and the people who lived around this place. It’s like a confrontation between two realities and it leads to a reflexion about the way we create our identities. That is reflected by walls materials, concrete and murals and advertisements that you find in the layers of the walls.
But, like the project I did in Shanghai in 2012, here the path of change reveals much faster and much more violent sometimes. There was a lot of tension in the city, places were changing, so I wanted to work on this impact of change. Sometimes, it gives you a lot, but also sometimes it makes you lose even more.”
I think it’s impossible to separate both. Even a poet writing on a white page is destroying the piece of paper, and the white paper has destroyed the trees, and the trees the place where you had something else before… As soon as you have evolution there is always a process that makes disappear something that existed before. I try to reflect on that, on the impact of evolution and change, and their destructive side.
Do you consider what you’re doing as street art or simply art?
I don’t really like to put names. I work with a lot of different media. Of course my background is graffiti and it gave me a lot, I learn a lot from it. I started graffiti when I was 13 years old. For me, it was a way to emancipate as a kid, I just wanted to be able to show my art. Today, what I’m doing is completely different, it’s a body of work in which I don’t limit myself to public spaces.
The new generation of artists come from art school, they have different backgrounds and they don’t do art only on the street, they also do some other work. I think the link between all of these artists is not the street, but the times they were raised in. This generation was exposed at such an early age to visualisation, to a lot of advertisements, to a lot of visual things always more present. All of this exposure drives them to create some particular graphics, images… It’s a reflexion on the era we live in.
“When you start to carve, you ignore what you’re about to find.
It’s a dance with the wall, you never know how it will look like at the end.
I do a sketch, take pictures of the wall, dig a hole so I can see the layers, what lies under the surface.”