Over the years Alexandre Farto aka Vhils has mastered the art of interacting with non-conventional media and tools.
Vhils explores contemporary society themes in his artworks by carving directly onto the wall. Some of his creations are made of metal, he transforms billboards into canvases combining acid, bleach or chisels, his portraits emerge from a wall using a drill or explosives as creation tools.
Starting at a very young age painting trains and walls in his hometown of Seixal in Portugal he then moved to London to study Fine Arts in Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. Soon Vhils starts experimenting with new mediums and infusing his work with a strong message.
Julie: You started as a graffiti writer, could you contextualise the scene in Portugal.
Vhils: Nowadays Portugal is very much like any other European country: it has loads of graffiti, some of it very good, some of it average, some of it bad. Graffiti first emerged in Lisbon in the mid-1980s when Hip Hop took the world by storm, but it was only in the late-1980s that a true scene formed in one of Lisbon’s suburbs, but it remained small with only a few dedicated writers. Then in 1992 the PRM crew was formed, which became pivotal in spreading graffiti around Lisbon and the rest of the country. Lisbon was also home to a very low-key stencil scene in the 1980s, inspired by what was taking place in Paris around the same time. In terms of graffiti, things really exploded in the late-1990s and today it’s massively present in every city. In Lisbon you can’t miss it, there is a big train and street bombing scenes, and over the years there’s also been an increase in places where painting is relatively tolerated. The city council has been actively engaged in working closely with graffiti writers and urban artists, and has been coming up with some interesting solutions in terms of institutional support to these activities. In recent years, the country has also seen an increase in the number of urban art festivals, some in remote locations like the Walk & Talk Festival in the island of São Miguel in the Azores, or Wool Fest in Covilhã in northern Portugal. These have been pivotal in increasing public awareness and acceptance for large-scale public art and murals, but credit must also be given to some Portuguese artists who’ve been working hard in their own right beyond these festivals and events. Underdogs Gallery in Lisbon has also been implementing a dynamic public art programme, inviting many local and international artists to work in Lisbon and leave their mark here. All of this coexists with the illegal scene, from graffiti to street art and other types of interventions. Despite some of the hype, there is still a low-key attitude and the whole scene is still pretty friendly.
J: José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, once said that “Chaos is merely order waiting to be deciphered”. How did these words resonate with you?
V: They resonate deeply with my work in the sense that what I’m doing when I dig into the layers of city walls that keep growing thicker over time, absorbing and reflecting the history and the socio-cultural and political events of a place, is trying to find a certain degree of order in their chaotic nature. Despite admiring Saramago’s work and legacy, I can’t stop also admiring the man for having been so ahead of his time regarding his reflections and quest for social justice and a better future for the world.
J: Destruction is the essence of most of your productions, what is behind this process in your art and how you would describe your approach?
V: There is something very powerful about the contrast generated by employing destructive means to create. This is a concept developed from graffiti which is quite often seen as a destructive creative activity. It is fundamentally an act of aesthetic vandalism. I like to play with this notion, to use it as a conceptual tool that emphasizes the message I’m trying to get across. I distort the notion of vandalism while turning it into something positive, and this concept has becomethe backbone of my work, to the point that I find it difficult to dissociate the act of creation from the act of destruction, even if rendered in the most subtle of ways. The cycle of creation/destruction/creation underlies everything in this ephemeral life. Even when you’re writing or drawing on a white sheet of paper you’re essentially subtracting light from its background. Creation is transformation, and transformation always entails destruction and replacement.
J: I find your work fascinating, could you talk me through your workflow and the tools you are using?
V: My creative process usually starts with an idea, which can be anything from a complete visual concept to just wanting to try out a new material or technique. Over time I’ve developed some work processes in connection to each series or body of work. Some of these are different but the basic concept is similar in most: to use a process that explores the practices of subtraction and removal – a kind of reverse stencilling technique. Walls are carved with the aid of rotary hammer drills, hammers and chisels. The Billboard series are carved directly into thick agglomerates of advertising posters using a utility knife, although some are also laser-carved. The wood pieces are carved with the aid of chisels, Dremel rotary tools or even a simple utility knife, depending on the characteristics of the material. In some cases I also employ laser carving. The pieces in styrofoam are created with the aid of a hot-wire foam cutter. Metal plates are etched with nitric acid following a process very similar to that used in creating engraving plates for printing techniques: the parts you want to conserve are covered with an oil-based bitumen and then placed in an acid bath – the acid eats into the parts that are left exposed, creating the image. For other mediums I use an assortment of different tools and techniques, but these that I’ve outlined here form the main bodies of work.
J: Your work literally emerges on concrete using explosives, what inspired you to work with this technique to create your art?
V: This technique can be seen as the culmination of the process begun with carving billboards and which then evolved to walls and other mediums. It can also be seen as the culmination of the concept of using destructive means to create. The idea itself came about when the world, and Europe in particular, was hit by the most recent economic crisis and I became interested in exploring a process that was even more destructive than carving in order to emphasise the notion that at times of social and economic crisis everything which we hold as certain becomes highly volatile. A simple spark can destroy the foundations of civilisation. It stands as a metaphor for the history of humanity and how it is symbolically reflected in the accumulated layers that form the walls of the cities we live in.
J: This technique involves loads of gunpowder, I can only imagine the kind of challenges you must have encountered! How long did it take you to master and refine it?
V: Yes, putting the idea into practice was very demanding, especially the first set of trials. I teamed up with a specialist in pyrotechnics and we experimented for some 8 months before we got everything right for the first video. We were literally breaking new ground, and even the specialist wasn’t sure how to proceed as he’d never used explosives like this before. It was all trial and error, very time consuming, but once we got it right the results were fantastic.
J: I really enjoyed seeing new materials and medium such as digital portraits at your solo show Dissonance at Lazarides this year. Are you tempted to explore new techniques in your work today?
V: Yes, this has always been one of the main drives behind my work. I’m constantly experimenting with new materials and techniques, testing their limits and potential, and much of my work has derived from these experiences.
J: Tell me about your portraits, they can be ordinary people or someone with a story that relates to the place you visited just like the one you recently completed in Kiev.
V: There is a great presence of people, and especially portraits, in my work, for a variety of reasons. The most immediate is that my work revolves a lot around the issue of identity and the factors shaping and affecting it in our urban societies. Portraying ordinary people is a way of somehow empowering them. It offers a critical contrast to the unreal people we see in the media and advertising, questioning the need for creating these icons in the first place. It also aims to render the city space more humanised in some way, but with real people. In projects developed with a specific community, like those undertaken in Brazil, it also serves to call attention to the issues the community is struggling with and the project is focusing on. I see portraits as a very powerful way to express the intricate relationship that exists between people and the places they live in, how all of us are locked in this cycle of reciprocal influence with our surrounding environment, which is one of the main themes I’ve been exploring with my work.
J: You have travelled extensively, each place are different. How do you think street art can impact the urban scenery and the community?
V: For me, the idea behind working in the public space is fundamentally to humanise it in some way. I believe that the relationship between a city and its citizens is like a complex network of reciprocal stimuli, of cause and effect. I hope my work contributes towards this interaction in a positive way. I believe that art in general can contribute to create a better environment for the city’s people and communities. Recent years have seen a huge increase in the number of large-scale mural works being produced in cities around the world, and the majority of these works are legal, commissioned works. This reflects an increasing awareness, acceptance and desire for these works. Urban art projects can contribute directly to help renovate neglected areas of a city, embellishing them, but this in turn can also create new interest for outsiders who are mobilised to come and see the new art. This interest can help draw attention to the communities, it can generate a new respect and acknowledgement for these areas and their communities, and it can bring tourists and foster the local economy.
J: One of your iconic London piece has unfortunately disappeared with the gentrification process now slowly eroding the place away. London is not an exception. Do you have any thoughts on how urban art will evolve nowadays?
V: The city is like a living organism that evolves by means of cycles of creation and destruction. When you work outdoors you learn to accept that everything is ephemeral, and that is the nature of urban art. Everything has its own timeframe. We just have to create more art to replace what disappears.
J: You have been involved in many projects. I am really curious about Nowness with the Guarani Community in Brazil. Could you tell me more about it?
V: The project with the Guarani community was developed in the scope of a solo exhibition I had in Curitiba, Brazil in March 2014. This was based on a short residency at the indigenous village of Araçaí, where a community of Guarani people live in very difficult conditions after being forced out of their ancestral lands by the federal government. Its aim was to raise awareness of their plight while reflecting about how these traditional communities are being left behind as they struggle to adapt to modern life. From this interaction I presented a site-specific installation in a gallery with carved wooden doors that were created with the participation of some of the community’s artisans and represent some of the village’s inhabitants. Four of these carvings were created entirely by the Guarani artisans, so the project really represents a collaboration between myself, my production team and the Guarani people. We also carved a piece in the village with the help of the community. The project is connected with the overall reflection present in my work, looking into issues such as identity, development, interaction between human communities, adaptation and survival in the chaos of the contemporary world. The exhibition was also taken to Recife earlier this year and the video we produced was then uploaded to Nowness.
J: Is there another venture that you have found particularly interesting working on?
V: I’ve been fortunate to have been able to develop or become involved in many great projects so far, so it’s very difficult to choose. In many ways, all the community-related projects I’ve done in Brazil and other countries have been very rewarding mostly because you’re working with people who are dealing with real-life issues and it feels good to help them in a very modest way.
In a very different front I’ve also been thrilled with being involved in an amazing project with Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen and the European Space Agency in the scope of a very interesting documentary by Portuguese director Miguel Gonçalves Mendes, titled “The Meaning of Life”. The film is still being shot but we managed to place a portrait of Mogensen aboard the International Space Station and this in itself was fantastic. I’m really pleased with the result and the whole experience.
J: You collaborated with several artists. One I would really like to see in person is your collaboration with Pixel Pancho in Lisbon, how is it working with another artist?
V: In the graffiti scene these collaborations are very common, and this has permeated this new generation of artists creating in the urban space. I certainly enjoy working with other people on specific projects, as it pushes you into new directions. It’s great in the sense that it pushes both you and the other artist out of our comfort zones and for me this is great as it allows me to explore, experiment and make my work evolve in new directions.
J: Any exciting plans that you can share with us?
More on Vhils’ work: http://www.alexandrefarto.com/