During the nineties, digital technology underwent an astounding revolution. This becomes evident in the democratization of the Internet and all of the social, economic and political implications that came with it. Other symptoms of this shift manifested themselves in audio-visual technology, which became widely accessible as of that moment. Within this context, the number of artists who turned to video as a means of expression was staggering compared to the far more limited and specific use it had in previous generations. A decisive moment in this process occurred during the summer of 2002 when video-based artworks represented the overwhelming majority at important exhibitions like Documenta in Kassel or Manifesta (a travelling biennial focused on young artists), held in Frankfurt that year. Understanding the work of artists like João Onofre is easier when seen in this context, to which one could add the interest in the temporary nature of the image and the reinterpretation of pioneering works of Conceptual art shared by many of his generation, including the Spanish artist Sergio Prego. Some of Onofre’s early work explored these questions through appropriated images, generally taken from historically influential cinematic works like L’eclisse (1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick or Martha (1974) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In his piece Untitled (Martha), Onofre isolated a few seconds of the German director’s film, famous for the elegance, expressivity and technical skill with which the cinematographer Michael Ballhaus filmed this particular scene. He used an innovative, circling camera movement to capture the main characters (a man and a woman involved in a tormented relationship) as they meet and pass each other, all the while keeping their eyes locked. To a certain extent, the psychological and emotional intensity of the moment, which Fassbinder emphasised by using slow motion, encapsulates the entire plot of the film, and it made a powerful impression on Onofre. So much so, in fact, that he decided to transform it into a silent, sixteen-second loop that repeats obsessively ad infinitum. His artistic contribution consists in underscoring how the impulse that attracts Martha and Helmut to each other is the very same one that prevents them from actually coming into contact, resulting in an incredibly perceptive reflection on people’s failure to communicate. The spatial representation of intersubjective relationships is present in much of the artist’s early work, conceived for two people “performing instinctive movements and reactions or, alternatively, movements carried out with great effort” as seen in Untitled (We Will Never Be Boring) (1997) or Nothing Will Go Wrong (2000). Eventually, Onofre moved away from appropriated material and began working with actors to stage performances, which he filmed and edited on video to make the most of the medium’s richly expressive resources, thus beginning a new chapter in his career.
Pedro de Llano