The short, silent films of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva were among the most memorable works shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, where the pair represented Portugal. Their seemingly inconsequential films stay in the head and won’t go away. Now some of these same works fill a darkened floor of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, in On the Movement of the Fried Egg and Other Astronomical Bodies, the duo’s first show in Britain. A stone skips across a still pond, in very slow motion. An egg suspended from a thread slowly turns in space, like a distant moon, light and shadow crossing its surface like day turning into night. Somehow this is inexplicably beautiful, arresting and incomprehensible. It’s like some kind of old scientific demonstration film – except one is never exactly sure what is being demonstrated, or why.
In another film, a man tries to make a tower of raw eggs, crushing the base of each shell and balancing the eggs on top of one another. He has several failures before finally managing to make a tabletop version of Brâncus¸i’s Endless Column, using seven eggs. A farm worker, clearly a bit drunk, turns and turns in a dusty yard. You think he’ll fall over, dizzy with it all. He bends to pick up a brick, but it slides away from him across the dust. Is this a joke on him, or a joke on us? In another film, the same man squints at the sky through a hole in his boot. There is as much sadness as humour in this brief moment.
These films are more than clever gags. Something deeper informs them, and they are made with a great deal of care, attention and expense. The artists’ writings and catalogues explore extreme forms of deja vu, weird metaphysics and medieval anthropological rumours. The pair also make compilations of texts by other authors, including Plato and Pessoa, Jules Verne, HG Wells, Victor Hugo, Borges and Poe. It is impossible to know if they are teasing us, or trying to educate us in their occult and quite possibly fraudulent ideas; this is theory as rumour, fiction, old-wives-tale and fabulation. The overall effect is magical, without ever being twee.
The films themselves look a bit old-fashioned, the projections never very big on the wall. You can hear unseen projectors clattering. Some works focus on a single, tiny event – like the precise behaviour of water when a stone plunges through the surface. In this particular black-and-white film, the footage is slowed to a few frames a second, allowing one to watch the water’s surface break and a sudden hole appear; then the surface boils and bulges, the crisp leading edge of the ripple spreading and losing energy as it expands, the water behaving as ponderously as lead. It is like watching a slowed-down atomic explosion, or some huge cosmic event.
The appeal of Gusmão and Paiva’s films lies in their mystery. The Great Drinking Bout, in which a bunch of guys take a clay pot of hooch into the jungle for a booze-up, is like found footage from some lost, and quite possibly ill-fated anthropological expedition. In another film, a man’s hand walks among sculptures dotted about a table; I shan’t spoil the end, but let’s just say it’s tragic. The apparent simplicity, even corniness, of their work has to be seen in the particular context these young artists have given them. There must be something more to a film in which an egg is broken into a pan and slowly fries, the orange yolk floating in a coalescing, whitening cloud of albumen. Two more eggs join the first, not side by side but superimposed in triple exposure. At least, that’s how I think it’s done. The yolks float together and apart, like triple suns in a weird galaxy, striking through curdling interstellar matter. How strange the world is, Gusmão and Paiva seem to say. But in the end, it’s just fried eggs.