EXIST/RESIST—Works by Didier Fiúza Faustino: 1995–2022
Curated by Pelin Tan
Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology
Open through March 6
AN‘s Bill Menking proclaimed that Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT), upon its opening in 2016, “could become the world’s most exciting venue for art and architecture.” Designed by Amanda Levete’s AL_A, the young, non-collecting institution—a swoop of white ceramic tiles built next to the city’s retired power plant—rises next to the promenade that lines the Tagus River. Its entrance is cut into the overhang like the smile of a benevolent, giant stingray.
Inside the kunsthalle, a cavernous interior awaits. In the main space, there is no natural light and no flat walls on which to display objects, presenting a challenge to curators and artists. Beeline, for example, was a 2020 installation by SO – IL for which the architects devised a frame-and-fabric inhabitable structure and added access from the museum’s scalable roof. The space is big and daunting—it invites a response of similar ambition.
Even so, the cavernous MAAT is no match for the expansive imagination of experimentalist Didier Fiúza Faustino, who has mounted an encyclopedic show of sorts in the belly of this beast. In EXIST/RESIST—the names of two recent pieces grafted together—Faustino, with curator Pelin Tan, stages an archival dive across two galleries that feels as bold as the works on view. It isn’t caught up in nostalgia: during a tour last fall, the artist characterized the show as a “prospective,” not a retrospective. As a personal encampment of ideas, it offers a provocation to the art world’s increasingly conservative slant.
Faustino has turned the MAAT’s forum into a basilica. Here, twelve panels comprise an “analogical data center” and focus the viewer’s energy into the center of the space. The would-be facility is illuminated by fluorescent lamps that run perpendicular to the grain of the museum’s overhead lighting. One steps up to approach the white modules, which are thick but hollow, with recessed blue-painted displays; models, objects, photos, and drawings from a range of projects are mounted on both surfaces, with artifacts lined up in the center.
Over nearly thirty years or work, Faustino’s constant concern has been architecture’s social dimension. Born to Portuguese parents who immigrated to France (and gave him his French name), Faustino is esteemed as a fabricator of outsider imaginaries presented with a sleek, cosmopolitan sensibility. An early example is Body in Transit from 2000: A flight case that could be mistaken for an orchestra instrument is a crate in which immigrants could cross borders without the stigma of doing so “illegally.” The piece is body-shaped but industrially made, establishing a plastic tension between its believability and political message: In a turn of verbal juxtaposition that Faustino often relies on, he described it as a “coffin for saving lives.”
At one end of Faustino’s church is Democracia Portátil (portable democracy), a galvanized steel contraption from 2016 meant to support democratic debate. Installed here on legs, it’s meant to be transported on the back of a pick-up truck as a portable ekklesia, which offers likeminded nomads a place to meet. (It also reminded me of a mobile Catholic altar I had seen years ago in West Texas, lighting up a parking lot in the night like a religious tailgating event—a memory I had forgotten until triggered by my encounter with this piece.) Close by is Opus incertum, another interactive work that invites visitors to conform their bodies to the shape of Yves Klein in his famed Leap into the Void photograph, originally stitched into existence by photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender. The Opus further freezes that image into a position that one (of a certain body size) can occupy.
Body politics are another important theme that Faustino has explored since his 1995 diploma project body BUILDING (and its related video). Indeed, many of the pieces are corporeal modifications that at times become prosthetic: There are a number of chairs, including one that meets the floor at four coned points, heightening the difference between a fleshy sitter and the tubular, metal precision. A series of images depict a molded bubble (Doppelgänger) that unites two people in an angled, tongued kiss. In the alcove below is a custom bullhorn molded to fit over the face of its recipient; the piece is documented in a photo of two suited men reminiscent of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. On the opposite side, the tall work Asswall invites viewers to climb up, sit with one’s rear in the wall, and look back across the show.
With its emphasis on interaction—not to mention emo titles like like Delete Yourself, a stool, and Nowhere Somewhere, a neon piece—the work has a Pop sensibility, as if its creation was soundtracked by ’90s French House. Music appears to have a big effect on the work; This is Not a Love Song, an orange portal added to a sculpture habitacle by André Bloc, and represented here in a photograph, is a cartoonish shout made in CMU and paint. (I also remembered seeing the piece online years before I had any idea who Faustino was.) The Show Must Go Home is a fast work that layers a cut-out laminated panel in front of a gold emergency blanket. Apparently a critique of the art world, its high/low mix more clearly suggests a discotheque scene. Sometimes this musicality happens in name alone: The aforementioned spiky chair with BDSM vibes is titled Love Me Tender. In the center of the display, a torqued crowd-control barrier looks as though it had been wrenched from a raucous concert queue or the aftermath of a protest. Architects, in Faustino’s view, should be sequencers of sorts, both through spatial investigation and media broadcast, a belief that explains the involvement of Radio Alhara, a Palestinian cultural collective, in an upcoming program organized at the MAAT—“I think architects should be DJs in the future,” Tan mused during my tour.
Faustino has completed a number of interiors, buildings, artist studios, and prototypes as a “working architect,” and models of some of them are stocked on the exhibition shelves. This deployment of architecture’s tools toward socio-artistic ends borrows from Vito Acconci’s playbook—the two were spatially in dialogue when Faustino installed the chain-link piece (G)Host in the (S)Hell within Acconci’s beloved Storefront for Architecture in 2008. But perhaps the most vital precedent is the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose “instrumentations” seem a clear source of inspiration for Faustino’s body-pieces and protest-soaked declarations. Consider Exploring Dead Buildings 2.0, a video mount made of rebar that was used to create a film about the afterlife of Cuba’s National School of Arts.
EXIST/RESIST is paired with Architecture for Disquiet Bodies, a new monograph of Faustino’s work edited by Christophe Le Gac and published by Lars Müller Publishers. The book sequences almost 30 years of work together but equalizes the treatment by re-drawing everything in blue ink with a hatched rendering style. It’s easier to get a sense of the architectural output of Faustino’s studio Mésarchitecture—who also designed this show’s scenography—in this format as it includes many proposals that went “unrealized” as physical constructions, as well as additional documentation of projects like Panic Room, a 2018 showroom that broadcasts austerity chic through its stainless steel, marble, and olive carpet surfaces.
The rave continues in the second gallery of the MAAT show, where’s Faustino’s commitment to design as a form of resistance gets louder. At its entrance, the darkened room includes a ring of galvanized steel shapes bolted together, as if to isolate demonstrators from the reach of the police. Inside, neon signs, set on plywood, sport messages like “occupy” and “resist” casually, as if they might be decorations at the newest Sweetgreen location. On the wall above a set of steel-framed conical forms, red neon flashes between “Too late for tomorrow” and “Tool for tomorrow.” Rather than provide clear answers, the works probe questions of control. Who builds public space? Who gets to participate in society?
These are big questions that Faustino has grappled with since his earliest works, like 1996’s My First House, in which he built a structure for children from refuse. These inquiries have also become central to cultural practice in recent years, as discourses about decolonization and queerness become more urgent. If it seems too heady or serious, never forget that Faustino is a trickster, so the show is also about pleasure—the pleasure of inhabiting a body, the pleasure of encountering the bodies of others, and the pleasure of believing that newness is possible, that the world could still become what we imagine it should be.
On Thursday, February 26, and Friday, February 27, the MAAT will host Entangled Thinking/Clouding Sounds, two panel discussions about “the body under normative design and the colonial paradigm.” One panel, titled “Queering bodies and social practices,” will see Faustino in conversation with Carla Cardoso, Piny, and Mark Wigley. The second, “Decolonial body and boundless territories,” Both are moderated by Pelin Tan and are carried out in collaboration with the Palestinian Radio Alhara. More information is available on MAAT’s website.