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João Penalva at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

The first solo exhibition in Ireland by the Portuguese artist João Penalva opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on Friday 9 June 2006.  João Penalva presents a selection of installations and videos created over the past decade. Many of the works involve superimposing objects with fragmentary narratives, reflecting the supreme importance of language as a medium in Penalva’s varied and meticulously-crafted body of work.  The complex webs of meanings which he creates are used to explore the way in which culture is categorised and presented, largely through a process-based approach employing collection, detection, translation and documentation.  The exhibition will be officially opened by Francis Mckee, Interim Director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, at 6.00pm on Thursday 8 June.

Comprising some 30 works, João Penalva ranges from Wallenda, 1997-98, depicting the artist’s heroic feat of whistling the complete score for Stravinsky’s monumental Rite of Spring, to the much gentler Kitsune, 2001, with its delicate imagery of pine trees in a foggy landscape accompanied by a reflective, hypnotic narrative. Penalva started his career as a dancer, and the gestures associated with performance retain their importance in his work. In an interview in the exhibition catalogue, he explains that his “language is, and always has been, a theatrical one”. In his 1999 film Mister, set in an old caravan, a shoe takes to the stage to discourse – in declamatory tones and with Beckett-like absurdity – on illness, faith, medicine and death, including quotations from that last refuge of the afflicted, The Book of Job.

Mr Ruskin’s Hair documents a remarkable chain of events, which began with Penalva being invited by the South London Gallery (he has lived and worked in London since the 1970s) to create a work based on its collection. Having discovered a small frame containing a ring of hair of the great 19th-century writer John Ruskin, Penalva produced seven identical frames with identical locks of hair. During an exhibition of all eight at the Courtauld Institute of Art, one of the frames – later discovered to be a false one – was stolen. The documentation of the investigation and recovery of the frame was then added to the work at the artist’s request, highlighting further the issues of authenticity and falsification inherent in the original work.

Well known for his hour-long films spoken in less-frequently-heard languages, such as Japanese, Hungarian and Esperanto, Penalva revels in the twists and turns of writing in English, having the text spoken in another language, and then reintroducing the original English version as subtitles, all part of his constant “fictionalisation of reality”. When told that Kitsune, which had been filmed in Madeira, looked Japanese, he replied: “If it looks like Kurosawa, it does so because you hear the language of a Kurosawa film. If I were to use the same image with Swedish actors, Bergman would be your cultural reference and you would immediately identify it as unmistakably Swedish.”

Born in Lisbon, João Penalva studied ballet in the early 1970s at the London Contemporary Dance School, where he was particularly interested in the ideas and techniques of Merce Cunningham. He later worked with other choreographers, including Jean Pomares and Pina Bausch. In 1976 he turned from dance to painting, enrolling in the Chelsea School of Art. At this time he was particularly influenced by the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauchenberg, in whose paintings he saw something of the “purity” of Cunningham’s choreography. From the early 1990s the use of texts and narratives became increasingly fundamental to his art, which has always been characterised by the desire to explore new possibilities: “Whenever I am aware that something has been done enough times to become a rule, alarm bells ring to warn me that it is time to break the rule and go in the opposite direction. Not because the opposite direction is any better but because it is there, and if it is there I should go and find out about it.”

Penalva’s work has been shown widely internationally, most recently as the Portuguese representative at the Sydney Biennial, 2002, the Berlin Biennial and the Venice Biennale in 2001 and the São Paula Biennial in 1996. He has also exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre, London, in 2000, and at the Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, in 1999.

The exhibition is curated by Rachael Thomas, Senior Curator: Head of Exhibitions at IMMA. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, with texts in English and Irish, is a characteristic Penalva production, comprising an interview with the artist by João Fernandes, Director, Museu de Arte Contemporánea de Serralves, Portugal, in which Penalva has hand written his lengthy and fascinating replies. Again his reasons, which he explains in the words of Primo Levi, are illuminating, “… doing things with your own hands has an advantage: you can make comparisons and understand how much you are worth. You make a mistake, you correct it, and next time you don’t make it”.

The exhibition is a collaboration with Fundação de Serralves, Oporto, Portugal, and the Ludwig Museum, Budapest, Hungary.

Gallery Talk
The artist João Penalva will discuss his work practice on Thursday 8 June at 5.00pm in the First Floor, East Wing Galleries.  Admission is free, but booking is essential. To book please telephone the automatic booking line on tel: +353 1 612 9948 or email: [email protected]

João Penalva is supported by the Instituto Camöes, Portugal.

The exhibition continues until 27 August 2006.

Opening hours:   
Tuesday to Saturday 10.00am – 5.30pm
except Wednesday 10.30am – 5.30pm
Sundays and Bank Holidays 12 noon – 5.30pm
Mondays Closed

For further information and images please contact Monica Cullinane or Patrice Molloy at Tel: +353 1 612 9900; Email: [email protected]

19 May 2006