On ne parle tant de mémoire que parce qu'il n'y en a plus.
[We speak so much of memory because we have little of it left.]
Pierre Nora - Les lieux de mémoire
Growing up across the river from Lisbon in the industrial suburb Teixcal, Alexandre Farto came to graffiti at age 10. He chose Vhils as his tag because they were the fastest letters to write.
It’s a juxtaposition to be noted that an artist so obsessed with speed now resonates as a commander of patience. Not 20 years later, his pseudonym crowns an extensive portfolio spanning urban archaeology and outsider art.
Using explosives, electric tools and hand chisels, Vhils rose to prominence through his unique practice of “creative destruction” - an oft-quoted term used to describe his monumental portraits carved into urban spaces across the globe.
Perhaps “destructive creation” is more apt for his intricate flaying of intimacy as public spectacle.
An artist never surpasses the integrity of their beginnings. Even in the contemporary, some definition of a priori should always be established:
The Portugal of Vhils’ childhood was scrawled with symbols of discarded communism and emergent capitalism. Traipsing from the dictatorial propaganda of the Estado Novo through the rebellious voice of the Revalucão dos Cravos / developing through the ghostly hand of globalism and incumbent consumerism into economic vice / becoming newly re-Europeanised through introduction into the EU.
There is an explicit complexity to Vhils’ work which detonates again through contact.
There is a personality and integrity to his techniques which makes the viewers “outside” rather than the art itself.
A tenuous self-exposition of intimacy so becomes public spectacle.
Le long plaisir pourtant de nos métamorphoses
Squelettes s’animant dans les murs pourrissants
[The length of pleasure throughout our metamorphoses
Skeletons become alive in these porous walls]
Paul Éluard - Notre mouvement
At the end of every self-constructed redemption arc, you can find a monument. A physical blockade to remembering -
a marked definition of difference/regret/change.
Archive fever and memory-mania have structured the post-post modern art world since the late 1970s, demanding us to deconstruct perception and identity as individual and as society. After Benjamin and Nietzsche / after semiotics and symbolism / after wokeness, deconstructing history and the day-to-day anamnesis we call living has become convention. The contemporary art world is predicated on a spectacle of self-awareness repeated as constant apology for context.
In past manifestations, our need for constant evocation of the past has relied on utopian idyll upheld by memory. Fear of forgetting the past through the perversion of the present is not a new anxiety. Socrates / Aristotle / Horace all criticised the past-blind perspective of youth. Modernism itself was established on the diversion from speculative, horror-filled futures, reliant instead, on a desire to preserve the structural consistency aligned by history.
The fear of forgetting is well-documented through academia as it is through practice. It is a fear of worsening the present and losing the future /
it is a fear of being-less.
I sculpt the city, just as the city sculpts us, and as we continue to sculpt it.
Modern memory is distilled by the rhizomatic rebellion against linearity and the constant search for historicity as mythic validation desperately sought by our detached globalist culture. We all seem to be remembering different pasts / creating them and revealing narratives which are equally our own as they are products of the past.
Vhils drills into this troubled contemporary relationship with history through activation of the present. Since the beginning of his ‘Scratching the Surface’ project in 2007, he has continued to slice away at that skin-ego of culture, marred by personal interpretation and stretched taut by local belief. Through his anonymous monuments and process of physical removal, Vhils disrupts / / but does not compromise structural integrity. The intention is not to erode culture. It is to peel back its decorative branding, layer by layer.
Inspired by both stencil graffiti and the inquiries of Gordon Matta-Clark, Vhils’ winning combination of fine art and street sensibilities caught the eye of Banksy, who invited him to the 2008 Cans Festival in London. Since then, Vhils has installed site-specific works in 40 countries and at the International Space Station.
There is no single reason for Vhils’ universal appeal:
“it looks zany/cool/interesting” to misquote Sianne Ngai
“it recreates collective memory and promotes creative remembering” to bastardise Nietzsche
“it reaches into the dialectic nature of urban space” to bring in Huyssen
What can be agreed on is that work by Vhils is some kind of revelation. Disrupting the present to mobilise hints of not-so-distant pasts. Fracturing our only constant [instability] and tracking our impermanent, ego-forward belief that one day, we’ll be more than another layer, left behind.