Colombo’s Column is a short film by the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva that enacts the well-known myth surrounding Christopher Columbus and his self-proclaimed ability to make an egg stand on its end. In the film the protagonist attempts to construct a column of eggs by tapping the bottom of each egg to create a semi-flat surface, and subsequently piling one on top of the other to create a tower.
This work belongs to a group of thirteen silent films by the artists that are intended to be installed together in different areas of a darkened gallery space, projected onto multiple screens or walls and at different scales, so that they form a mosaic of moving images. Gusmão and Paiva work in 16mm silent film (although they also occasionally use 35mm) in order to recall the early days of film and cinema. They also use traditional cinematic devices such as slow motion, laying negatives on top of each other and reverse frames. The use of film, rather than new media, also links these works with the tradition of scientific documentaries, where film is used to record experiments and to provide evidence of the results. Curator Alessandro Rabottini has explained how the artists ‘look back to the image of early film, when it was synonymous with exploration and knowledge in anthropology and science. In doing so they recreate a kind of physical proximity, a tactile intimacy with the mechanism of projection.’ (‘João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: Pulling Strings’, Map Magazine, issue 20, Winter 2009, http://www.mapmagazine.co.uk/index.cfm?page=984F1E34-BDF5-2379-71075D0184E53D92&articleid=417, accessed 1 November 2010.)
The majority of films from the group are taken from two major series by the artists: The Magnetic Effluvium (2004–6) and Abissology: for a transitory science of the indiscernible (2006–ongoing). Colombo’s Column belongs to The Magnetic Effluvium series, the title of which makes reference to Victor Hugo’s obscure novel The Man that Laughs (1869). In this particular series, which also includes Fulcrum 2005 (Tate T13413), simple experiments are carried out which examine predetermined scientific or mythological proposals.
Colombo’s Column exemplifies Gusmão and Paiva’s interest in the dualities of fiction and reality, science and philosophy, man and nature. Characterised by irony and humour, the artists’ films often require the viewer to depart from accepted notions of reality. Nevertheless, underpinning the apparent absurdities of this stance are a number of complex references to science, nature and literature – ranging from the work of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) – that link these ideas to the ‘past’. By re-enacting archaic experiments that have either been discredited or forgotten, such as making an egg stand upright, Gusmão and Paiva’s observations invite the viewer to re-engage with or reconsider questions to which history has already provided the answers. Chris Sharp has written in Frieze: ‘The work of Paiva and Gusmão seems to enjoin us to see the world as we once saw it, asking us to reconsider the epistemological systems by which we used to negotiate it – all of them now supposedly bereft of the power to make the world intelligible and yet no less magical or powerful.’ (‘Pedro Paiva and João Maria Gusmão’, Frieze, 30 March 2008, www.frieze.com/shows/review/pedro_paiva¿_joao_maria_gusmao/, accessed 1 November 2010.)
Rene Zechlin (ed.), João Maria Gusmão & Pedro Paiva: About the Presence of Things, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein Hannover 2009.
João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: Abissology, Horizon of Events, Lisbon 2009.
João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva: On the Movement of the Fried Egg and Other Astronomical Bodies, exhibition catalogue, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham 2010.