with Pedro Vaz

"you need time, a time of experience, 'mountain time'"

Pedro Vaz is a visual artist living and working in Lisbon. He graduated from the Universidade de Belas Artes in Lisbon. In his work, he explores themes of nature and landscape, mostly working in painting and video-installation. The personal contact with real environments is fundamental to his practice, and his projects often include a journey to the landscapes he then depicts. His process alternates between immersing himself in nature through expeditions and experiencing the abstracting qualities of memory when working in the studio.

What role do your walks play in the creation of your works? What is the motivation behind them?

They are of crucial importance; physical and bodily experiences are the ground on which I develop my projects. Motivation can be approached in various ways. Some of my projects emerge out of my point of view, but in many others I have endeavoured to find experience through the eyes of other people, the weather, or even the gaze of the very nature that I seek to apprehend.

For instance, in 2016, I did the Caminho do Ouro between Paraty and Ouro Preto, an itinerary of roughly 840 km where I tried to find, 200 years later, a number of vistas, landscapes depicted in Romantic paintings and drawings that were created during the time of picturesque grand tours and of the artistic missions in Brazil: that was my starting-point and motivation, but the final outcome drove me to actually realise and document the contrast between what existed then and what remains today of the Atlantic Forest, and thus address the problems that surround us today. 

I also wanted to understand how images were used back then, at a time when drawings and paintings were some of the most important means of communication. Most of these drawings are, to present-day eyes, exaggerated and caricatural depictions of jungle life and experiences. I believe that revisiting these places and documenting them in the present time is always important.

"physical and bodily experiences are the ground on which I develop my projects"

How do you physically and mentally prepare for your trips?

Every journey is indeed preceded by a process of mental preparation, internalisation, physical and mental planning. The longer and more dangerous the journey is, the more thorough the preparation must be. I handle the physical part by running; I usually run 30 to 40km per week, and before travelling I boost my training. Besides running, I also perform other activities which match the circumstances of my journey.

Do you start a journey with specific questions or ideas? How do your expectations relate to your actual experience of the journey?

Often I start my journeys with a number of pre-planned methodologies, but my experience on the ground forces me to rethink these strategies, as well as the manner in which they may be carried. For instance, during my recent Transpyrenean trek on the GR11, which took place between 2019 and 2020, I had planned to carry out, during the 45 days of the trek (one day per section of the road), a photographic survey every 100 metres. In other words, at every 100 metres I would take two photographs, one depicting the path ahead and the other taken in the opposite direction, as if looking backwards on the distance covered. Later, these pictures would be used to create a double video-installation.

However, in reality the experiment didn’t pan out as I had imagined: the scale of the landscape and its environment often wouldn’t fit my pre-planned concept. So, I decided to limit that particular project to a specific part of the journey, the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park; anyway, during my first days on the ground I came up with another concept for the whole journey, which I managed to carry out in good time.

That is why I, as a rule, avoid raising any expectations: the works that come out of my journeys must be created in tandem with nature, with my experience of it. If I set out with an already formed final concept, the odds would be that the outcome would be a failure, or at least end up as something quite unlike what I had originally thought.

"the works that come out of my journeys must be created in tandem with nature, with my experience of it"

How is your relationship with nature impacted by your journeys? How do you relate to the surrounding landscape on the level of body, mind and maybe soul over the course of a journey?

I constantly alternate between nature trips and stays in the city. That balance of ideas and experiences is needed for my research.

When I was younger, I lived for a while on the Arrábida mountains, while attending university, and then I moved to Lisbon. I few months later, I realised that the city was quite distant from nature, and that lack affected me, helping me understand better my work and its path.

Similarly, every time I set out on a hike, I need to challenge those predefined notions I easily develop during my time in the city. Only once that “reset” has taken place I can begin to perceive, see, read and comprehend my surroundings; to do that, you need time, a time of experience, “mountain time”, as the Monk Bla Bkla told me in Ladakh, during my last journey to India. By this, of course, I mean a deeper experience, one that changes you after your journey. 

Another basic trait of my approach is to never break the continuous line of the natural world; the landscape must not be changed by my passage. I always seek to pass through it, inhabiting it as a stranger, as someone who doesn’t belong there.

"you need time, a time of experience, 'mountain time', as the Monk Bla Bkla told me in Ladakh, during my last journey to India. By this, of course, I mean a deeper experience, one that changes you after your journey."

What are the biggest challenges and rewards of your journeys? What are you scared of and look forward to on a journey? How do these feelings develop over its course?

Journeying often brings me to a sort of edge, an edge that allows me to achieve a better understanding of the world; that edge is what I try to express in my art.

You may think that a 15km hike is a lot, but, once you’ve finished it, you realise that you can go longer than that and you take a 25km one; then, all of a sudden, only a 50km hike can satisfy you, and so on. Our insecurities and overconfidence can change completely with experience, and change for better or for worse. Generally for better, but in nature luck is in short supply; we need a process that weeds out possibilities of a bad outcome. However, there’s always a 50/50 chance of something unforeseen happening, and that sometimes causes the planned journey to come to a different end. It’s quite frequent.

What inspires me is something I have learned over time: that the human capacity for effort and accomplishment is astounding; something that appears impossible may actually prove extremely easy, and that’s fascinating. I believe that this is the best about us: our ability to overcome, our capacity for learning, our memory; all this is a process of constant construction, not only of the work of art but also of ourselves from within.

"Journeying often brings me to a sort of edge, an edge that allows me to achieve a better understanding of the world; that edge is what I try to express in my art."

As you cross long distances at a relatively slow pace compared to most modes of travel that we're used to nowadays, how do you experience time and place?

Time walking, time running, time on a bicycle or time in a car are completely different types of time. A simple instance of that: driving on a highway and driving on a regular road are completely distinct experiences. Walking, time measured in steps, is something slow that allows you a very different reading of the space. But even you may be fast enough, even time walking can be fast enough to keep you from paying the necessary attention to something interesting.

Time is just an invented concept; I’d like to live with no care for time…

"Walking, time measured in steps, is something slow that allows you a very different reading of the space."

How are your different senses involved on your journeys and then in the creation of your works?

I studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, in Lisbon; consequently, my training was deeply focused on painting and visuality, elements that remain present in my work. I also worked as a topographer for a few years, before entering the faculty and while attending it, and that taught me a scientifically-based way of looking at the land, connecting its morphology to human thought. Sound is something straightforward, unprocessed, innate and inseparable from field experience; however, my first video-installations had no sound, and that silence was intentional, because it increased (and still does) the distance between the viewer and the subject of the work. It’s like turning up the sound with the amplifier off, a glue-less agglutination! That can be a hard-hitting experience.

However, I have recently began trying to explore the magic of sound: some of my works are collaborations with composer Hugo Vasco Reis and the Drumming percussion group, which has taken some projects to a different level of experience, not solely for me during field work, but as a broader transliteration for the viewer who sees and experiences the work in the space where it is displayed.

"Sound is something straightforward, unprocessed, innate and inseparable from field experience; however, my first video-installations had no sound, and that silence was intentional"

What is it like to often be so remote from cities and other people? How do you experience this solitude?

I have experienced it in many different ways; you don’t need to spend a lot of time in nature to feel solitude. However, as far as I’m concerned, I need time to come into contact with nature! Actually, I think that only once I felt completely or fully integrated with it, but that took over twenty days of solitary mountain hiking. It’s interesting, because during the first days of the hike you’re questioning everything, but as time passes, your behaviour, you way of thinking, your stance radically changes. With time, everything becomes fluid and you get a feeling of a whole, of just being there, without overthinking it. Still, I have never spent a year or more alone in nature: certainly, my thoughts would change, or I’d have another idea. Even though I set out on great incursions, my return journey has always been prepared in advance, which probably colours my overall experience.

"With time, everything becomes fluid and you get a feeling of a whole, of just being there, without overthinking it."

How do you decide which views to paint?

That interests me deeply, and so I try to develop several methodologies. I have created works from what I see, from what others see, and even from what nature possibly sees. However, when the choice falls largely to me, I try to create in advance a number of methodological processes that will compel me to respect both the land and my body in space, avoiding idle strolls and unexpected circumstances.

My field experience has made me a firm believer in that our millennia-old relationship with nature has nothing to do with taste or some other merely subjective cause, because when you walk through nature, it leads you to possible paths, or you choose those paths where you feel more secure or safer.

Let us imagine a farmer some five hundred years ago, building a house in his chosen plot of land: probably he would not build it on a part of the terrain where no sun shines, on a location devoid of water, or on a place where he could not grow his food; these are just some of the factors that conditioned his experience with nature and the surrounding landscape.

I believe that there is much more to our field activities than solely some matter of occasional or subjective preference.

"I have created works from what I see, from what others see, and even from what nature possibly sees."

What is it like to return home from a trip?

I depends on the trip. Sometimes, it is very good to know that you have a secure, modern abode waiting for you when you return from a journey. On the other hand, certain places I have travelled to can make you want to stay there for an indefinite amount of time, like the Atlantic Forest, in Brazil. In 2016, during my LAB Verde residency, I visited a local village inhabited by descendents of indigenous people and became friends with an elderly lady. It appeared that her father or grandfather had been Portuguese, and she welcomed me warmly. We spoke for a while, and she told me: If you’d like, you can stay here. She was speaking in earnest; I could really stay, and that is a strange feeling, to suddenly find yourself rethinking all your life, and being left wondering how good it would be to stay there for a while.

Another example: recently in Ladakh, India, I was fortunate to have a fantastic team: Sonam Dorje, the horseman, and his four horses; Stenzing Choszang, the cook, and Balti Raju, my guide, a true gentleman, always concerned about me and the work I had to pursue. The cook was tireless, blessed with incredible kindness and perseverance. And the horseman was no less indefatigable.

Seven days of walking, an itinerary of roughly 100 km at a height between 3500m and 5000m. A mountain-shaped desert, brutal landscapes of water, clay and rocks. The blazing sun, the stony path and the altitude were three components in what proved to be an unprecedentedly harsh experience for me. To walk with a five kg pack there is like walking with with a ten kg one; to walk ten kilometres is like walking twenty.

At the end of that journey, already back in the city, I realised that for the people of the Himalayas, the Indian Tibetans, giving is much more important than having. It is a way of life, a cultural trait that is beyond our understanding. When you come into contact with such a way of life, it triggers an equally brutal conflict in our way of existing.

"for the people of the Himalayas, the Indian Tibetans, giving is much more important than having."

Can you describe the process of creating your paintings? How do you bring the experience of a place and a landscape into the work of art? How do the process of the journey and the process of production inform each other?

The photographs and video footage I gather during field work, what I call my primary raw materials, combine in the studio with the secondary materials, i.e. the whole experience of my physical travelling to the place, which no sort of second-hand visualisation or experience can replace. Then, with these two sets of raw materials in my possession, I begin work on the project in my studio.

The studio work brings to fruition the aforementioned strategy of now distancing myself from nature, now drawing closer to it. Here, in a way that is quite unlike the expedition’s careful planning, I give room for chance to play, allowing nature to operate here.   

What is the production process of your video works like?

My video works and paintings have similar processes, usually of accumulation or removal. However, one of my most unique approaches involves a process of accumulating photographic images. In my project Tour du Mont-Blanc (2013), an itinerary of 740km, I took pictures of my left eye and right eye views at every 100m, so as to completely cover my frontal field of vision. I had already used this approach in Terras do Risco (2011), though at shorter intervals and in a shorter itinerary: a picture was taken at every step in a 1km path. These photographs are used to produce stop-motion videos, respecting the order in which the pictures were originally taken in the field. My video pieces are usually very slow, with the image sequences organised as a series of transparencies through the continuous overlapping of multiple frames.

My intent with this includes the creation of a landscape that is revealed at a slower speed than the one the eye captures. In other words, the video piece appears to us as an approximate depiction of reality, in which the actual transformation of the landscape, in terms of standard time, cannot be captured. Here, however, we have an itinerary that allows itself to be defined by the time of the passage of an individual along it. In other words, the hiker defines the landscape through his own passage, hence the landscape’s deceleration. The time of the video piece attempts to condition perception itself in order to examine the slow, almost imperceptible and yet visible evolution of the landscape.

"the hiker defines the landscape through his own passage, hence the landscape’s deceleration"

You use a variety of mediums in your work. How do they respectively relate to the themes you explore?

My video-installations frequently resort to the indefinite superimposition of single takes, a sequencing that turns the still image into an animated image. I use these various animated pieces to divide the time sequence of my presence in nature into small sections. This continuous reading of several sections is a means to expand the viewer’s time. 

In the event that the exploration I’m engaged with is better served by painting, that generic strategy of drawing away from and closer to nature occurs literally on the surface of the wood panel or the sheet of paper, via a specific painting technique I have developed.

By means of a photographic image, which I use as an aide-mémoire, I transpose my experience to the artwork. I begin by making a detailed figurative painting. While composing that landscape, I use data taken from nature. The distancing moment occurs when I interrupt the paint-drying process on the canvas by literally washing the paintings with water. As the wet paint is washed away, excess information goes with it, as well as my influence.

photos: Eglė Duleckytė

A Practice Proposition

by Pedro Vaz

– Photographic Walk –

Go for a walk and carry out a photographic survey: Every five minutes, take a photograph of what you see – the path ahead of you or the path behind you (or both), a detail along the way, or any other view. Later, you can put these pictures together (digitally or printed) into a photo installation of your walk.

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