MARCH 1, 2020 BY: JC RODRIGUEZ
Destruction as a form of creative archeology. That’s how artist, Alexandre Farto, also known as VHILS has transformed the modern art scene. Carved, etched, and even exploded murals across the globe from Hong Kong, to Miami, to his hometown of Lisbon, where he grew up, has mesmerized the public and grabbed the attention of the art world. Looking to expose human connectivity to the urban landscapes that surround us, Farto shows more often than not we are one in the same. Farto excavates with his signature technique, using a hammer drill to peel away the layers exposing the beauty and history that lies beneath a city's walls. From there, emerges a series of expression-filled faces that bring to life unique stories interconnected with the city itself. His work is extraordinary. Not only is the work aesthetically beautiful in it's imperfect and destructive way, but it's much deeper than the layers that confront you. It makes you question who you are, where you come from, and where you fall in the grand scheme of it all. This is art that challenges the old techniques, while at the same time exposing the old, making you contemplate how it was made in the first place. Well, I don't think it gets any better than that. We asked Farto (VHILS) questions about his work and the connections between us all. I, for one, can't wait to see what he blows up next.
© Alexandre Farto
What’s your earliest memory of art?
My first memory of art was seeing the post-revolution political and artistic murals that covered the walls around Lisbon when I was a child. Having been mostly painted between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s they were already decaying by then, but they still had a fantastic power and fascinated me beyond anything else. They still do, to this day, especially for the use they made of the public space to engage with the passer-by and spread their message.
Who inspired you to become an artist?
No one really inspired me to become an artist. I started writing graffiti around the age of 13 and this became my gateway to the visual arts. Although it was something I really enjoyed doing, there was never a conscious plan for me to become a full-time artist, things just evolved naturally in that direction. If anything, you can say that it was the city that inspired me to become an artist.
‘“MY WORK SEEKS TO REFLECT ON HUMAN IDENTITY AND HOW IT'S BEING AFFECTED AND SHAPED BY THE FORCES AT WORK IN OUR CONTEMPORARY URBAN SOCIETIES EXPOSED TO A MODEL OF GLOBALIZED DEVELOPMENT THAT IS MAKING THE WORLD AN INCREASINGLY UNIFORM ENVIRONMENT." - FARTO
© Alexandre Farto
When I look at your work I can’t help but think of the connectivity of who we are to the place we live. Why do you think our identity is so tied to where we live?
Because from the moment we're born into this world, we’re constantly exposed to the many elements that make up the environment that surrounds us. And these leave an imprint on us, helping shape our identity. It’s a mix of nature and nurture. We in turn help shape this environment and, as thus, both we and the places we live in are locked in a cycle of reciprocal shaping through which, over time, we come to develop a shared character.
WE ARE LIVING IN A WORLD OF TRIBALISM. WE NEED TO IDENTIFY WITH SOMETHING. EVERYONE IS CHOOSING SIDES WITH LITTLE REGARD TO EMPATHY AND UNDERSTANDING. IN YOUR TRAVELS, WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND THAT CONNECTS ALL OF US?
I believe that, beyond the obvious biological traits, there is a core essence that defines us as human beings which is shared by all individuals and cultures, despite their differences. It's immaterial and hard to define, but it is precisely one of the things I'm trying to reach and reflect on through my work.
How the hell did you come up with the idea of using a hammer drill on a wall?
I started working with hammer drills back in 2007. I had been observing how city walls become thicker over time as new layers of painting, posters, etc. are periodically added to them. One day I realised that instead of adding yet another layer to these growing walls, by painting a stencilled image or whatnot, I could peel them back and work directly with what the city had to offer. This subtractive technique, which I was to employ in most of my work, came about from the convergence of reversing the stencil technique (in order to create by removing layers) while pursuing a concept of creative vandalism I had picked up from graffiti. I first began applying this technique to thick agglomerations of posters I removed from the streets. At the same time I also realised that not only was the final visual result somewhat random, which is something I have always been interested in, but fragments from past events were brought to light after being buried beneath the more recent layers. It was like accessing the city’s recent history, and I began looking at this process of carving as an act of urban archaeology. Eventually I began applying the same process to the walls I was removing the posters from, which are also composed of different layers that reflect the passage of time. After experimenting with a few other tools, I found that the only way I could effectively remove the layers of a wall was with a hammer drill. So this is how I started the “Scratching the Surface” project, which ultimately became a reflection on all the different layers that form us, as individuals, cultures, and histories. In line with this I also like to leave most of the process to nature and its process of decay and transformation. This is why most of what I do is purposefully arbitrary, as I never really know what will come up when I dig into these layers, whether working on walls or posters or any other material. I play with the material itself and adapt the piece to it, so it's like a dance between the piece and the material and the layers that give it shape, but which nature is already slowly eroding. I like to think that I help nature erode in a particular direction, but that my contribution is but a small one.
© Alexandre Farto
I THINK ABOUT HOW MANY ARTISTS HAVE ATTEMPTED PORTRAITS OVER CENTURIES. THE NUMBER IS IMMEASURABLE. I ADMIRE YOUR WORK BECAUSE YOU SEEM TO FIND NEW WAYS TO MAKE PORTRAITS THAT PEOPLE HADN'T THOUGHT ABOUT BEFORE. WHY IS DOING PORTRAITS YOUR CHOSEN SUBJECT MATTER?
Simply because most of my work seeks to reflect on human identity and how it’s being affected and shaped by the forces at work in our contemporary urban societies exposed to a model of globalized development that is making the world an increasingly uniform environment. When I started exploring a more figurative line of work in order to interact with a larger audience in the public space I began seeing portraits for what they really are: a depiction of identity. I became fascinated with what a face can tell us about a person and where they come from, it is simply so powerful and expressive. The objective is also to try to humanise the overbuilt urban environments most of us live in today. Some portraits are composites created by blending portraits of different people, but the majority depict real people I have met. In some of the larger projects, especially those involving a community, this involves getting to know them, sharing experiences, listening to their stories and concerns, photographing them in their environment and then carving their portraits in a place they have a particular connection with. In other cases, I might walk around the streets when I arrive in a city and simply ask people if I can take their photo. I explain to them what I want to do with it and ask them a few questions. Even if it’s a short conversation, I always like to have a sense of who this person is, where they come from, what they do, what they like, but also if their city and culture has changed much over the years and how, things like that.
I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE "ETHEREAL" IN MIAMI, YOUR SOLO SHOW AT THE WYNWOOD WALLS. I WAS BLOWN AWAY BY THE WORK. IN PARTICULAR THE PORTRAITS MADE OF STYROFOAM. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THAT CONCEPT AND EXPLAIN TO US WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT?
I started working with styrofoam in 2012 with the aim of illustrating the concept of reciprocal shaping that lies at the heart of the relationship between the city and its inhabitants, a process by which both develop a shared character. This was materialised through three-dimensional pieces that, from up close, look like a cityscape, but when seen from a distance reveal a human portrait. I gathered these pieces under the Dioramas body of works. This was a new sculptural, three-dimensional line of work and an important new direction, as up until then I had only really been investing in creating by means of subtractive processes. In some ways, the styrofoam pieces were inspired by the portraits I had been carving on walls, but with a slightly different concept. By looking into how the city and the public space shape us into who we are and what we are and how we in turn help shape the city and its landscapes, the Diorama series speaks of growth and expansion and this is achieved through the choice of material, method and technique. It also reflects on how a city depends on the existence of contrasts in order to exist and function, be they social contrasts or material contrasts, like the interplay of light and shadow which is rendered in these pieces by way of lighting cast over their intricate forms. In this sense, it also acts as a metaphor for how most of the time we only focus on the dazzling light of development and hardly consider the deep shadows it casts over parts of the city and some of its inhabitants. Like most of my work, it seeks to render symbolically visible that which lies invisible.
© Alexandre Farto
YOU'VE DONE SOME AMAZING COLLABORATIONS WITH ARTISTS LIKE SHEPARD FAIREY, RETNA, AND PIXEL PANCHO. IF YOU COULD DO A COLLABORATION WITH ANY ARTIST DEAD OR ALIVE, WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Gordon Matta-Clark, for his ability to work with architectural structures in connection with a reflection on urban decay and its effects on people and communities living in the urban environment.
Many of our readers are artists or people in creative fields. What word of advice do you have in looking for and harnessing creativity?
I find it difficult to offer any advice other than to try to absorb what’s going on around you and use it as a stepping stone to help you move forward to something entirely new. Plan your strategy and go for it. You can always learn from your mistakes.
What inspires you?
Inspiration comes from everything in life: cities, contrasts, people, identity, struggles, visual culture, graffiti, art, films, music, travels, nature, ideas, life’s mundane details… I find it hard to dissect all the elements that have inspired me in one way or another. Anything and everything has the potential to do so. Even the most insignificant episode or event can leave an impression on you and eventually contribute towards defining who you are. I simply like to absorb everything that life has to offer. I’m interested in history and in cities, in landscapes and in travelling. I like to experience and come into contact with other cultures, with people who have different life experiences from my own. I like the chaos of the urban environment, its asymmetries and contrasts, the layers present in its public walls, its textures and ambiences. I like to feel like a foreigner in a city while I observe what takes place around me, with no rush. I like to observe and learn.
Images Curtesy of Vhils Studio
Artist: Alexandre Farto
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