The Human Torch is a short film by the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva showing a man mysteriously guiding the viewer through a series of caves using a torch that appears to burn from his hand. He eventually extinguishes this ‘human torch’ on a wall at the end of the journey.
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, no.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). The Human Torch belongs to the Abissology series. The expression ‘abissology’ is a term that was coined by French surrealist writer René Daumal (1908–1944) in his allegorical novel La Grande Beuverie (1938) to mean the scientific study of the abyss. Each film in this series takes a different philosophical or scientific proposal – some real, some fictional – which the artists attempt to visualise on film.
The Human Torch 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 in Colombo’s Column 2006 (Tate T13414), 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.