Tacet & sonority in João Onofre’s work

By Maria Muñoz (IG: @maria_munoz_m; Twitter: @Maria_MunozM)


Research and experience as parts of the creative process are central to the work of the Portuguese artist João Onofre (Lisbon, 1976). Investigation and action 'in and for' contemporary art are fused in his work to the point of not being able to distinguish where one begins and where the other ends. To their pieces, the act of observing by the viewer and the artist expertise, merge in a simultaneous process. The idea of performativity of the protagonists bodies in relation to the camera, the exploration of the referentiality of sound, the potential to create spaces where the poetic and the action are confronted face to face, are constant features in Onofre’s work, in which documentary images of performative nature and tradition of conceptual art history converge. 





Tacet, is a Latin term meaning "he is silent" and it is used in musical notation to indicate that the interpreter of an instrument or voice should not play for a considerable amount of time –for example, an entire movement. Onofre’s piece is named after this term. Created in 2014, it serves as a starting point for the reinterpretation of the work 4'33" by American composer John Cage. In this piece, designed for piano or other instruments, the instructions of Cage for the artist / artists are clear: do not play for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the score.

Based on this idea, the action taken in Tacet is video recorded. It begins with the arrival on the scene of the pianist João Aboim, who prepares the piano with flammable liquid and sets it on fire. Then he sits, opens the score, close the piano lid and controls the time. The “gesture to close the piano lid” was first performed by David Tudor at the premiere of the piece 4'33 " in 1952. Tudor, Cage’s usual collaborator, closed the piano lid at the start of the three movements and then opened it at the end of each one. This gesture introduces a powerful visual statement, which determines when the ambient sounds that are generated in the site during this time become part of the piece. In the case of Tacet, the gradual expansion of fire becomes the dominant sound and also the image of the fire gradually fills the scene. A perpetual, mobile and indecipherable encounter between sounds –noise included– lies in the depths of all musical experience.


The pre-existing sound, is that to which Cage refers to, and eloquently tries to capture as the “non existence of silence”. Is it a fact that human beings can never experience silence because to do so, we would no longer be in a position to “experience” total silence, since it would only be possible to achieve when we would be dead. 


Onofre uses two concepts in Tacet that are immanent to the work of Cage. The first one is the use of the so called “prepared piano”, understood as a piano that has had its sound altered by placing external objects/elements (called preparations) on or between the strings. This brings up in uncalculated and unexpected sounds when the instrument is played. Sounds similar to quantums jumping indeterminately. In Tacet, the “external” element is the fire, which is by nature very unpredictable. This unpredictability is the second cagean notion used by the Portuguese: the indeterminacy.


In 'A Year from Monday', John Cage explains the development of his experimental work (unpredictable). A tendency to experimentation-indeterminacy equation with variable contributions of pragmatism will be the path that Cage will take to remove the relational structures. Beyond the interpretation and composition, there is also the event itself, understood as the execution of the piece –and its temporality– and thus the sonority as such: anarchic, without permission and supported by chance.


In João’s Onofre piece, the perception of an aural crescendo is caused by the unstable and unpredictable essence of the burning flame. But not only this, the event is amplified as said by the sound of the fire and by the action of a man counting time while facing a wall of flames, following the time line: event-happening-execution exposed above.


All these concepts visually approach us to the same experience, music and silence, which led the Mexican poet Octavio Paz to dedicate a series of poems to John Cage: Lectura de John Cage (On Reading John Cage). 


As Paz, Onofre reflects on silence, space, time and death. "There is no silence except in the mind ... Music is not an idea: it is movement, sounds walking over silence" in the artist’s words: "In Tacet, my interest lies in how to treat sound and time as a subject in the moving image ".


Celebration of sound in Onofre’s work 


As Tacet, most of João works have in common the implicit celebration of sound as central element, with a persistent and rigorous use.


The concept of acousmatic sound –defined as a sound one hear, but the cause of the sound remains unseen–, a sound where visual references are removed from the hearing, allows the contextualisation of Onofre’s latest audio visual work: VOX (2015). A disturbing video filmed in sequence shot, in which a gyro stabilized camera on a helicopter visually responds to the crescendo and diminuendo of the original musical composition Eu Amo by Norberto Lobo, played by himself under a parasol, on a promontory overlooking the Portuguese coast, with an electric guitar and making use of the bow to touch the strings.



In both VOX and Tacet, the sound is enriched by the environmental “noise”. As proposed by Michel Serres in Genesis, we must think outside the metaphysical categories. Serres wants us to hear the "noise", the "sound" and the "anger", which actually are in the background of every life and thought.


One of the most urgent tasks of current thinking, Serres continues, is to recognize that the multiplicity is on the agenda. Such plurality actually cannot be thought, but can be detected, felt and heard under the illusion of rational order imposed by civilization. In line with this succession of ideas, the works of the Portuguese invite to be detected, felt and heard, that is: experienced in its many facets.


VOX has also a parallel piece, 'Box sized DIE featuring ...' (2007-2015), consisting in a cube of still of dimensions 183x183x183cm inspired by the minimalist work of Tony Smith, DIE (1962). 'In Box sized DIE featuring ...' a band of Death Metal is inserted into the box with their instruments, the door is sealed and the sound is not heard from outside. The duration of the performance is completely variable, determined by the duration of oxygen inside. The work provides an invisible and inaudible show contained in an enclosed space. Only residual sound vibrations guarantee the performance from the outside.


Following the artist's timeline backwards, other earlier works explore the musical and the sound as a cultural heritage. This is the case of his 'Untitled (n'en finit plus)', 2010-11, where a teenage girl sings a cappella and down tempo into a hole on the ground of a prairie, the song La nuit n'en finit plus by Petula Clark, or 'Untitled (I See a darkness)', 2007, in which two children aged 11 and 12, interpret the version of Johnny Cash, I See a darkness, originally composed by Will Oldham. All these works have different levels of lecture that connect the mainstream culture, music in this case, with other different areas to reveal something new.

 As a postscript, quoting João Onofre’s own words on art and culture: "the cultural scenario, despite its apparent stability, is subject to (new) decoding and recoding that alter their physiognomy. I understand the cultural sphere not as a one-way street, but as raw material to be remodelled, as a territory predisposed to re-interpretation ".


More information about the Artist available on www.joaoonofre.com


Words: María Muñoz


Images: courtesy of Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art (Lisbon) and Marlborough Contemporary (London)


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