June 25th to July 13th, 2021
Ehxibition view. Photography: Bruno Lopes
The stench is strong, the noise is loud. We are walking between elephants´ legs but
nobody sees them.
Francisco Trêpa's artistic practice translates into a transdisciplinary approach that tries to materialize the often complex articulations between the human animal and the non-human animal, while crossing realities of conquest, confinement, speciesism and exhibitionism.
In this exhibition, he presents an installation employing significant elements of an animal exploration practice that can be traced back to the elephants pit at the Lisbon Zoo in the late 80s and early 90s. The ringing bell ‘trick’ was a well disseminated attraction and a mandatory stop for children and adults, having since become a sort of collective memory shared by those who visited the zoo in that period. The spectacle consisted of an exchange forged by a kind of commercial triad: the visitor threw a coin into the cage pit, the elephant received a peanut, and then rang a bell (A coin, for a peanut, for a ringing bell: a coin, for a peanut, for a ringing bell). This dysfunctional repetition is what constitutes the method for the works presented here, resulting in materializations that not only reflect a concrete problem of animal exploitation (which is always disguised) but also have the capacity to tease the viewer into questioning their own impressions.
The irony resulting from this subversive humdrum becomes a constant. For instance, The only way is through was made with 1700 individually reproduced paraffin peanuts and resembles a type of curtain commonly placed on doors and passageways, acting as attempted blockades to flying insects. While seemingly inviting, it was built using the same logic of a trap employed at the zoo: the peanuts act as bait, the trickery is granted by paraffin, a material that simulates bees wax, the awkward disproportion between the height of the curtain and its width seems to draft the unfeasible task of fitting an elephant through a door. Thus, the passage we see here is somewhat paradoxical, being simultaneously attractive and impossible.
This interplay is also evidenced by the pieces suggestive of the shape of an elephant's trunk. Despite signalling trunk, we are immediately disconcerted by its human scale, which reveals the reductive nature of a novelty mask. Identical but displayed in various configurations, the hard but delicate trunks are calling us to consider different topics through their common denominator: porcelain. When thinking about the discursive possibilities of porcelain as a material – white and irreversible – and the references to speciesism proposed here, we are faced with another inseparable point of tangency: that of a “fine”, antiquated, hierarchical and discriminatory system which, at times, lets out the fragility and hollow emptiness of its interior. This is the case in Re-reunion, an induced circular formation that recalls the gatherings of mourning elephants.
There is a Buddhist parable that tells the story of a group of blindfolded people who, unaware of what an elephant is, attempt to apprehend and conceptualize it through touch. Each person feels a different part of the elephant's body, leading them to describe it based on a partial experience, resulting in different opinions. In some versions, people become suspicious of each other and end up in conflict. The moral of the story is that we tend to claim absolute truth based solely on parts of a whole, a point of view, while ignoring other people's experiences and not making an effort to understand the shared totality of what is called into question. It's hard not to think about this story when experiencing Elephant in between, two pieces that establish the limits of the average length of an elephant on the wall, insisting on conjuring its presence in space, like two fragments that urge us to fill the gap in between, to complete a space that seems to be absent, in an attempt to fully grasp its dimension.
The video Apnea, installed on the back wall, seems to encompass an equally obsolete activity in the context of current Zoo practices, that of marine animal shows, exposing the absurdity of its standardization. By integrating one of the main elements (peanuts) from the initially referred show into the orca amphiteatre, the entire format is put into question. While these marine shows have been merely adapted, the peanut trick has been abolished altogether, according to new policies that bet on showing the public more ‘natural’ behaviours of animals.
Thus, there is a permanent dimension of theatricality in the Zoo that is also noticeable here. Sometimes through more direct associations, such as in Apnea, or more subtle associations, such as on The only way is through which could refer to the theatre curtain as a separating element between actor and spectator, stage and audience.
In Why look at animals John Berger proposed a theatrical optic applied to the Zoo, where definitions of stage, audience, actors and spectators are made somewhat interchangeable, in order to be accessed critically. We know that animals often look at visitors. We also know that the role of a visitor is decidedly active: it involves walking around and observing the animals. If so, the question arises: (who’s watching?) who in this “weird theatre”? More so, while reaching beyond appearances in the attempt to apprehend the entirety of an elephant, are there definitive actors and spectators on this twisted show?