The making of this biography began in August 2004. At first I was approached to tell the story of Joao Vilhena. Then that proposal became a quest of my own.
I conducted numerous interviews, consulted several media references, personal records, a diary, numerous notebooks, police reports, and recordings of extensive conversations with Joao.
What I wasn't expecting was that during this process, his story would change radically: Joao Vilhena died on July 1st 2005, and from that moment on I was no longer writing the biography of a surprising and talented figure, but of a great artist who had died in suspicious circumstances.
I was left to deal with his death which involved a criminal investigation, as well as, having fallen in love with him, a very concrete void in my life. In spite of my emotional ties and of being witness to several events that will be described here, I tried to be as immune as possible with regards to my feelings and opinions voicing what others had said and thought about him.
This being said,
Ladies and Gentlemen'sThe Story of JV
Wanting Me to Find a Way into His Life
The first time I saw him he was wearing white shirt and pants, crossing a street that faced Sao Carlos's theater downtown Lisbon, with sunglasses and a small handbag hanging from his shoulder. It was the beginning of August. A year had passed since I'd been back where I grew up in. A city, more and more something distant made of familiar spaces; a place whose power could only be conjured by his presence. And I had never seen someone as memorable as him. Because he was delicate, and yet seemed to evoke an aura that glowed through things when he turned his gaze, tighten his nostrils, twisted his lips. All movements of the face so incredibly perfect were studied, polished with an easiness which made him something illusory. And when he spoke his voice was deeper than you'ld expect, and it showed you manhood that was so special, it escaped the broadest categories.
I wanted so much to unravel that which was unclear, but neatly composed, as if everything in him was part of a harmony, in itself built out of profound disturbance. This was the first time I saw him really. Before that, we had crossed paths, we had even dined together, once or twice as part of a larger group, and I was just one more acquaintance he had not more or less to say. We had a friend in common; we had known about each other's existence for years but had never talked. Later I tried remembering each moment that became so precious, memories of a time when he wasn't part of my life, and I could have observed him. I could have enjoyed the exhilaration in the chance of getting close to him.
His skin was very pale, sort of glowing, and the vision of him that was sweeping had something of a pull that pierced through time units and slowed everything down. His blond hair, perfectly blond hair, stirred slowly in lazy curls and made you think he could have been Hamlet prior to his father's death, a glamorous prince. And if you would let yourself be taken by the glow, you'd realize he was a gender out of himself, a type so incredibly human that it became sterilized, and it haunted you the beautiful gleam around him and I thought there could never be a human being more desirable. He was a man, assertive in everyday, but ready to shout, ready to prescribe a move, change the pace of things, and it was only when you drew near that you could see it, that he knew more and more each second that went by what he wanted, and there he went searching for the sources.
At the time, I didn't recognize what his gaze really meant the sweetness that was so particular and for that reason, faintly unfamiliar from any sweetness I had ever witnessed. The way the words flew out of his mouth with unheard off presence, conquering all empathy, a true icon in diplomacy. I followed the tread of his voice, trying to hear what lay beyond the sound and meaning. There were many colors in the space which painted a mysterious being of intellect and emotion, his words meeting other people's words with a different sense of equality. Because he seemed, in some ways, to be a very ancient utterance and yet so new, built out of fresh references that it made you quiver as if something caught you in the middle of a faint. A golden color filed the space around him, even as the paleness of his skin became more pale, and I knew it was a light and I had to follow.
That afternoon when I first saw him, there were many people around us. Friends and unknown people, people who stopped unexpectedly to say hello, people who gathered at the corners, who walked, who talked, and then at that moment it crossed my mind I was surrounded by multiplications of him, and a golden rug was spread down into the river and the city was filled with what could only be said to be beautiful an idea of self. As I kissed his cheek I realized the smoothness I saw, paralleled what I felt with the lips. Inch by inch, his two kisses, the plump mouth were marking something in me. And I would be living a new era where he stood like a parameter of a world that could be lived, that was more than construct; it was finalized.
He liked women, he liked men, and people got confused when he jumped from one to another, always being himself, such an elegant presence. There was one Joao, but there was the possibility of many more, standing, the claws waiting but a moment for the prospect of extension.
Then, it was different. He was a rumor humming in the artist's circles. He was an extravagant figure, because of the way he dressed, and moved, and talked, and the things he was fond of saying. Many things were told, people commented, they waved past him hoping he would stop. And watched, sensing an incomprehensible distance.
I guess you could say he became a public figure early on, when he entered the art school and was already filled with purpose and desire to create. He was known for his videos filming himself naked, impersonating a doll with robot-like gestures playing at the mirror, injecting on the arm his own blood taken from the thigh, and the video lopped between the needle, the arm, the gesture, over and over again. He was known for his sculptures and for the photographs, which leads me to the suicidal series, which leads me to now.
We came together as working partners when he asked me to write his biography, which first he wanted to be focused mainly on the last four years of his career, (the career he didn't detach from anything else), but then ended up wanting it to include all his life. You could say Joao Vilhena, the man who aroused such polemic and thus a mixture of fear and fascination on those who socially knew him, was his work, his own creation, and for that he needed the written word to clear up his contours, to make him tangible.
He knew some of my work as a biographer and writer. He knew I would make the deadlines, and had a special interest in the time I had lived abroad. Those ten years, he said, made me able to see more, to go beyond the environment which surrounded him, in his circles.
He had lived away too, in and out of Portugal for years, between America and Europe. And many times we spent nights going through traveling pictures which slowly revealed something more important about the man who had taken them a very self-contained, yet open view of the world.
It was on the day I first saw him, and was so taken by him that we spent the afternoon drawing a plan for the biography: a list of acquaintances, a list of friends, a list of work relations, a list of lovers. I had to find the addresses, the places, the relevance, he said Investigate.
Some facts stood out even then: the passed year he had suffered a murder attempt, yet another serious death treat, and was the target of unexplainable and disconnected occurrences, leading to his premature death. Several months of research and I woke up one morning to the news of his passing away. It was a heart attack in very odd circumstances, and all over the city the newspapers were speculating about the case. I was left with a book, many conversations, hours of diving into tapes, writing notes, constructing a persona who was all around me, who was at my reach, but, each moment, seemed to dismantle itself, filling up another space.
I wanted to pin his nature, the source which made Joao Vilhena himself, and why he carried a spell. Many moments were intensely shared over the past months. I had fallen in love; he had continued being himself. I had changed; he had deepened. Having been profoundly involved with his life, I couldn't be indifferent to the last years events concerning Joao's physical integrity, and wouldn't stop wondering how they culminated in a natural death which was at best questionable, but somehow completely dismissive.
I pursued with my investigation. I was going ahead with the book. For the man, which absorbed my life and whose presence I felt I owned things not yet assessed, was asking something out of me, and I couldn't refuse.
Did Joao Vilhena Know What Was Going to Happen to Him?
On the morning of July 1st of 2005, the day twenty-seven years before he had been born, João Vilhena was found dead on the bathtub of his room at the Ritz Hotel, where he had been living for the past months. His neck was heavily bruised, his mouth wide open, and a cigarette had fallen from the right hand next to the tub, which was empty of water, and burned the bathroom rug. His naked body gleaming against the somber colors of the decor had made quite an impression on the maid, who, on entering, (Joao wanted his room cleaned as soon as he woke up) had seen what she described as a naked angel, and upon close examination found no traces of blood on the inanimate body.
I had been in Barcelona for a week when I got the call with the news. It isn't a lie when people say bad news travel fast. They sink into you. I had been living with Joao for the last nine months, and we were planning to move to California together. It was true he had been having affairs during all the time we were seeing each other, but in spite of that we had a deep understanding: I knew I couldn't be with nobody else, and as for him, I could never understand fully why he allowed me into his life. He rarely spoke his feelings. He was rather detached from all things except himself: because Joao Vilhena was his creation, which was his life which was his work.
As I took the plane to Lisbon I felt a choking sensation in my body: the anxiety all things that are irreparable do; to know that ones powers cant make anything against what is gone. So I joined together all the little pieces, and felt things vanishing like drops emptying containers through cracks.
It was love I was losing, but it was also a presence of such radiance that it had become a cult for so many. Joao Vilhena seemed to have lived as if he was out of this world and now he had finally became impalpable.
My plane got to Lisbon on July 2nd at 8 a.m. As it landed I had begun evaluating past events: during the last year of his life he had been threaten twice, and before he died was the target of some strange events. Somehow these facts announced the tragedy, and I felt enraged for not having seen it. He had been followed; he was receiving anonymous letters. I couldnt help thinking that all this could have something to do with his death. My first thoughts were of murder, even though later that might have seemed strange to Carlos Silveira. I had many reasons to jump into those conclusions. And then suddenly I remembered the afternoon in August when Joao had hired me to write his biography, which I was currently in the middle of, and his eyes had been full of urgency for its quick completion. One had the feeling he thought he was running out of time. It made me wonder, and I had to pose the question to myself: Did Joao Vilhena know what was going to happen to him? and then, more quietly, I thought almost shyly..Did he let it happen?
On July 1st 1978, Joao Vilhena was born in a small village in Northern Italyï¿½s state Umbria. His parents were Hungarian and left Joao and his three year old sister to the care their aunt who later placed the baby, not even one year of age, and the girl, in an orphanage in Rome, after finding out she had a fatal disease that would cause her body's rapid deterioration.
In the spring of 1980, Joao was going to be three years old in the summer, and ended up being adopted along with his sister by a Portuguese family of intellectuals, writers, and artists, the family lived in a house in Sintra which had belonged to Isadora Vilhena, a Marquise known for her impetuosity and her ability to help people through Tarot reading skills. Later the villageï¿½s mayor would even name the main square after her.
His childhood was spent in Sintra whose mood he would later evoke in his Salome's shadowy-like studies. There were lush forests and deep shadows; hills and small roads connected the mansions, typical of the area, where the vegetation was superb, dark vivid green covering the trunks brought something animal.
Only forty-five minutes away from Lisbon, Sintra had its on microclimate of wind and humidity plus considerably lower temperatures. Even in the summer, when it was hot and dry in Lisbon, there was a sharp breeze and wetness in the air of Sintra. The cloudy sky often was thunderous, and the shade was bitter cold.
The woody hills lead to high altitudes where the Moor Castle and Feather Palace attracted many tourists all year around. From an early age Joao got used to roam alone in the village, and to meet many tourists who were drawn to his eastern European look, and often talked to the child who for their surprise spoke fluently English. About her sons talent for languages, Marcia said that when he was five he already knew how to speak English quite well. He said he had learned it from the TV. He would repeat movies dialogs and music lyrics. With me he spoke Italian and Portuguese with everybody else. He could switch quickly from one language to the other.
The house was slightly away from the center of the village and it was very quiet and different from the rush hour traffic Rome had had. It was a large two stories house with many hectares of land on the back, which ended in a fence dividing the property of the Vilhena's and the forest hills belonging to the Palace. The windows were big, yet square and the original tile work was restored in the front of the house and the large black gate, where the family titles had been engraved for centuries.
The first color of the Vilhena's house had been white, but upon her husband's death Isadora Vilhena decided it should become pink, and as she painted, the Vilhena's house turned into the first pink house of the population. Maybe it was because of such incidents that the Vilhena's were deemed as outsiders, even if the family had been practically the founder of the community, who was one of the only places in Portugal that could boost of belonging to World Patrimony.
In the village people talked about Hugo and Márcia as two extravagant people. Due to Marcia's presence on television, the villagers where usually nice to her, except when she played villain roles which prompted negative reactions from her neighbors. Often they would come to her for justification of her characters actions. Many unfounded rumors about where she had come from, and what she did before she had gotten married circulated around the village, and although Márcia paid no attention to them, Hugo would often get upset about it, and they would argue.
There were numerous species of birds including falcons, mockingbirds, woodpeckers and dears, and Joao showed much curiosity towards nature and its multiple environments. The first time he saw a dear by chance crossing the dirt path on the yard Joao dream t about it for weeks.I remember how he leaped the high fence and touched it with his right paw.
But the first one to notice how nature impressed the boy was Pedro Vilhena, after Joao's cat appeared with a dead mouse in his mouth. Pedro realized Joao wasn't playing with the cat like he used to, and when he asked the boy why, he answered "not until he says his sorry". It would take several years, until he would make peace with the animal.
The Early Years
The years Joao spent in Sintra were filled with nature and time alone. On the rare weekends both Marcia and Hugo Vilhena were home, sometimes the whole family went to the beach, which was close by, but very windy all year around. Hugo would build small shelters in the deserted beach so that the family could enjoy the sea breeze without wind. On special occasions they would go to Monserrat's park, which was a large hilly garden in Sintra with luxurious trees and a large pond. Later, they stopped going there, because Joao vanished for hours, and appeared at the gates, the eyes sparkling, one minute before closing, after all the security guards and his parents had been looking for him for a long time.
He was a slender, tall child with curly blond hair, and a slim neck. His eyes were avidly open, curious and attentive, and his fleshy mouth was bright red with the bottom lip heavily pouting. The straight and delicate nose completed the picture of a very handsome boy.
When offered candy, Joao, unlike other children, refused it. He had once said to his parents that besides the fact that he didnt like sugar, he found it to be humiliating to be given candies as if one was a dog. So in spite of most of his parents friends were fascinated with Joao, they were also sort of jealous of the child who was so different from their children, so fresh, yet whose awareness was unquestionably at odds with his age.
His parents enrolled him in school only when he was nine. Meanwhile he studied with a private teacher and took national correspondence level exams. His tutor Gerald Costa remembers Joao as inquisitive, but sometimes quiet. He lost interest in anything that was presented to him in a dry manner. All subjects had to be exciting for he had a wonderful sense of humor, and a witty mind.He practiced languages, mathematics, and writing skills, including music theory and art history. They met five days a week for fours hours and they developed a good relationship. Gerald, who knew a lot about plants, would often take Joao in the afternoons to the botanical gardens were he would teach him about different flowers, plants, and insects. Joao enjoyed these outings a lot, Marcia recalls "He was capable of memorizing the names, behavior and geography of innumerous trees and plants and would describe in detail his daytrips."
Joao's parents had been concerned he would be too discouraged with the pace of other children learning and would lose interest in education, so they retarded the process of placing him in school as long as they could.
They had been partially right. When Joao first got to school he was quick to make friends, but teachers often complained of his lack of participation and attention in class. Joao was always looking out the windows, or at the other students or at books, when questioned on what he was doing he would slowly answer "I am looking".
So he ended up many of his days at the deans office, and stood there straight and pleasant answering how he thought it was clear and right. For that reason, his parents were of the opinion it did him good to change school every year. Since he wasnt interested in class, he got nevertheless interested in new environments. He liked to meet other children; he loved the excitement of new schools, which meant fresh spaces, and people to know, to look at.
He had good grades. Somehow he managed to fulfill the requirements without too much effort. During his high school years he went to ten different high-schools, and made friends everywhere. He took part in extra-curriculum activities and even once was involved with a students association. When he was thirteen he started a radio show in school which was aired during the longer mid-morning break. He played records, and held interviews with Portuguese bands. Mafalda said "He was good on the radio and took it very seriously. Nobody could tell it was a high-school kid doing it."
During his high school years he experimented with music. His musical taste was exceedingly diversified; Bee Gees, Tom Waits, Nirvana, Big Mamma, and Nine Inch Nails. He had a beautiful voice and a good ear for melody. He had taken singing lessons, but most of all had his own way of singing. The voice bended smoothly between pitches, gathering notes into a curvy line of sound. He even had a band for awhile called The Deep Throaters where he played guitar, but mostly sang. They rehearsed in the facilities of the Lisbon Music conservatory, where every Wednesdays afternoon Joao would drag his amp with a pulley and practiced for hours. Often they made recordings, and once they even burned a CD, made copies, and distributed them at school.
It was in the context of his short-lived musical experience that Joao met Luis Lampreia, which would become one of his best friends, and who was a VJ (Video Jockey). Through Lampreia, Joao also met Eurico Moita which, besides becoming a good friend, would later do his piece American Psycho with him. I met Joao one afternoon; he was the new guitar player. As soon as I saw him, I thought he his too pretty to play guitar, but I was surprised when he could really play, Lampreia remembers. The two became good friends, spending a lot of time together playing music, and just hanging out, and Lampreia often slept over at Joao's house.
As a teenager Joao was tall and slim, and very handsome. Marcia said "It made me kind of proud walking with him and noticing people staring. He was so good-looking. He mostly got in trouble with his girls, not with the boys who were usually more independent. Apparently he had gained the reputation of being very sexually active, which was true, even though he wasn't the kind to talk about it, he wouldn't hide it either.
The Vilhenas first became aware of Joao's special talent through his first publicly known drawing. It was done in a psychiatrists office his parents took him when he turned six. The doctor had planned to do the standard test, since Joao's appointment was mere routine to make sure the adopted child was adjusting well to the new family. He was to draw a picture of how he saw himself, his family, and with his family. Joao had sat with his hands on top of crossed knees, and waited for the white paper to arrive and the number 2 pencil.
It was when the man saw it that he showed surprise, and then Joao was happy he knew he had been honest and that his honesty had always brought him good things. On the white paper he had drew a huge cock across the segment which said how you see yourself with minute details of circumcision, veins, and thickness. It was a very realist drawing, so much that his parents got to hear the excited psychiatrist calming himself over whiskey, and explaining how much talent their son had just revealed with just few lines, and to Marcia Vilhena's question: "Do you think my son sees himself as a cock?The psychiatrist had simply choked on a sip, and made for the door in an uncontrollable fit of agony. Without further consideration, Joao's parents decided they would not further discuss the matter, but would, nevertheless, keep the drawing.
The School Years
As soon as he entered AR.CO's art school Joao started to exhibit his work.
In the summer of 1996, he entered in his first collective exhibition which took place in the internal pavilion of Lisbon's greenhouse.
When walking to the exhibition, there were lush greens everywhere, and small ponds, which made the air more humid, and as you drew closer the shadows of the forest grew bigger. At the end of a narrow hallway, Joao's piece was placed in the ceiling, suspended: a turtle in a bowl underneath the only window where light shone through casting reflections of the water on the floor, and as one looked up, one saw the turtle's seize magnified several times.
He also had attached a microphone to the bowl, and besides the amplification of its shape through the glass, the microphone magnified any sound provoked by the turtle's movement. It was a intensification of sound and space, a distortion of perception and the reintegration of reality. Contained environments were interesting to him. Sets of rules that could be broken yet were part of a circular system with no way in or out. What the eye saw was a question of point of view, and thus the way reality was presented determined the new meaning, brought on new phantoms.
Later Joao would return to the turtle, but this time in relation to the Flaneur with its pose of the observateur, the dandy. It was said that the Flaneur should walk the city streets with a turtle on a leash. Only the slowness of the turtle could observe and enjoy the world that had been overtaken by the rhythm of modern times. Thus being cast from the worlds velocity and its dynamism, the Flaneur headed towards its essence, for he hadnt been strangled by time.
In 1997 he collaborated in another collective exhibition in the gallery Zé dos Bois (ZDB). The name was a phonetic trick in reference and honor of Joseph Beuys, and the gallerys positioning within the art world was that of the counter culture. The claim was anti-institutional, against the system, and for audacious forms of experimentation. Besides art, ZDB was also involved with music projects, and was located in one of the oldest parts of the city, in Bairro Alto. The name of the show was The House of Ruth. Each artist was to invade the space as if they were taking over somebodys house, and Joao decided to place one amplifier facing an unidirectional microphone, and thus generating continuous feedback that was processed digitally, in order to react to any oscillation in the room, caused by the movement of the visitors. Thus the peoples motions controlled the sound, and yet again reality was a matter of relevance, perspective, context.
Between 1998 and 1999 he participated in five collective projects, and commissioned one exhibition along with Susana Guardado in Lisbons Greenhouse, where he showed a piece together with Marta Wengorovius. For this installation the artist was to hide art in the middle of nature next to plants and trees. Joao and Wengorovius placed a bright red floating frame in a pond. Inside it, there were the water-lilies floating which had been inspired by Monets several paintings of that same flower, and the way the subtle alterations of light changed them. These two years continued to reveal Joao's interest on perception, closed worlds and the essence of physical existence. They were installations which involved sound, video, and an interaction of the person who was outside the piece, but whose awareness of reality was the art itself. The work depended on human evaluation of its body.
In 2000, Joao took part in five collective shows. And finally, towards the end of the year he started his suicide series.
ACT II :SUICIDAL
The first death he decided to enact was James Bond, the secret agent with eternal life, a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, seduction over old age, coolness over terror. James Bond had the answer: the comic book human superhero, never afraid or weak.
Joao wanted to step into his world to bring him down, to make a stain in an otherwise undraped picture, to make the cleanliness hurt with the dirt of death. The piece The World Is Yet Not Enough was composed by two pictures standing in front of each other. On the first, James Bond stood challengingly pointing a gun at the public eye. It was Joao himself who lend his body to the picture like he would do with all other suicidal enactments, perhaps trying to immobilize his self in a variety that would be uncountable for. He wore an impeccable tuxedo. The hair was dyed light brown, short and sleeked back, and his demeanor was flirtatious and enigmatic.
He had come to school one day before the photo shoot already dressed like the Bond character. Even his attitude had been transformed. He liked playing the role, coming from a family whose tradition rested in the theater and the media, whose lives had been linked for years to public scrutiny. He knew how to do it well, and drew his biggest strengths, his stronger moments from that gaze, which for him was continuous and ever present. The collectiveness of the world, even as he stood alone at home, away from observation was an invasion he had long learned to accept.
The second photograph which completed the death of Bond was the agent lying dead. A pool of blood dripping from his skull, and staining the bright floor of white interiors. It was the bloodiest one from all of the series, because, perhaps, Bond, unlike any of the other characters, didnt want to die at all. James Bond had the antidote for death. He was the prince of light, like Satan was the prince of darkness, and the great void which was the emptiness that consumed the suicidal.
He would spend nights awake thinking about the series. Endless notebooks were filled with annotations about the construction of the characters which he wanted to redeem. Death was cleansing. Death was weakness turned into strength, but in Bond death was the possibility to be human. It was Bond turned into man.
Tadzio was the angel. He stood so white. A small stain of blood suggested a stab, so profound it made one wonder were the depth ended, and the blood stopped dripping (Tadzio's Death). He was immersed in depth.
The characters which had puzzled the world were the reason people saw him imperceptible, almost inhuman, incapable of flaws, and Tadzio was in fact the archangel, his eyes, closed like arrows, were dormant in a black space Joao knew about.
Tadzio laid. One arm lingering inert in front of him and the other holding a stance of a stone-like solid figure. The curly blond hair in such pure disarray, the eyes opened to a void, and the lips tightly gripped as if death was something stern and not liquid that announced form rather than dissolved it. And he was just a body, an object, a matter of genetic and abstract codes.
During this year, Joao also did many studies of the blot: the dripping stain, the placenta, the prize for death. And like Salome wanted the head of John, the Baptist, Joao wanted the embryonic essence of their deaths and wishes. Death, blood and the human insights were again an obsession; more than anything, a closed and contained world that, nevertheless, could break its own limits, could submit its own standards. Salome's studies were like shadows or outlines of someone who observed in the distance. Joao stood outside gazing the furious impetuous of a woman, and he imagined she saw herself in John whose head she wanted on a plate, and by wanting it, she was neutralizing her most powerful enemy, someone who mirrored her, or was she wanting her own death?
In 2001 Joao did the other pieces. For I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan (which was the concretization of Salome's studies he had done before on paper), he used his sister Mafalda Vilhena for he needed someone who closely resembled him. She had darker hair, slightly red, and very white skin, the same curls, and about the same height. Their mouths were very similar. Even though Joao's was more plumped, both were heart shaped mouths, and their eyes had the same distance and depth of the gaze. It was as if they were the version of each other in the other sex, like twins. She was to be Salome, and Joao, John the Baptist. They faced one another kissing, but the lips softly touching, revealed drops of blood. The kiss was, more than anything, a suggestion. The body facing another body. Refusing perhaps to admit its own existence? Or was it true they both searched for a symbolic paradigm of the moment in the presence of the other?
And so it was completed the second piece of a series that now that Joao is gone and Vilhena is a white reflection on glossy paper it cant but leave you thinking on the meaning of mortality as an expression of the mind. That the ones who look into the depths of an abyss are, more than anybody else, the essence of that fall.
It wasnt quite confusion what Joao wanted to convey with the death of Kurt Cobain (It's Better to Die Than to Fade Away). It had something to do with the quantity of things the quantity of live that one is granted. It's an amount of energy one chooses to spend as one likes. It can burn all at once, or stretch until something gives away, and there's no more to give.
Kurt had velocity. His face was blurred from very low shutter speeds, and multiple exposures. The blood circulated and the heart pumped more avidly than the oceans tides. The brain was fluid; the thoughts emerged and submerged into realization, which was cosmic and above human comprehension. Talent was furious, creation was a tear. The body was becoming stone at a rhythm that was uncontrollable and unstoppable. It was a choice, like any other, and thus Cobain was not a man who did not have consciousness, but perhaps one of the most conscious of men.
He had chosen to dye his hair slightly red for that performance, because he found it was closer to Kurt's real physical appearance, and because he had seen it that way, with his eyes closed, the countless times he had stayed in his bed, wanting sleep to come, but knowing his mind was burning quickly too, that, like Kurt, he had chosen to spend his time faster than most, and his consciousness was taking up all the space. His mind was a well of thought, so fierce and deep it rooted out any possibility of returning to reality.
Hedda Gabler, someone once said, was a character dead inside (The title of the piece is People Don't Do Such Things). Was it emotional life that he was trying to bring back to her? Her pose is of someone so very tired. She leans against the wall as if she could lay all her weight into it, pouring like one empties down a candle. She gazes, and her look is expressionless, emptied of content. She dives into a world, and the realm she encounters is far from any scrutiny. Faded, her neck bends and dives and leads her somewhere maybe she doesn't want to go.
And, even though, it can't cease to amaze me and sadden me Joao's death to be so linked to his work, and thus, when I think of it, or the more I think of it, I understand the meaning of the word Destiny as a clear and somber word, I can't help thinking he had a conscious ego, the ego of metaphorical identity. Did Joao know what it really meant, the bathtubs, the suicidal series, the blood pools and the helplessness of the Strangler?
In 2002 Joao did three individual exhibitions which inaugurated simultaneously, each five days apart. The first was in Porto at Presença Gallery where he exhibited his suicidal series followed by Lisbon where bathtub paintings were presented at Assirio& Alvim the publishing house that would publish his first book and lastly in Madeira at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Fortress of Sao Tiago, where he presented two videos and some photographs.
This wasn't a coincidence. It was Joao's approach to career management, and he would follow it through out: simultaneous openings consecrated Joao Vilhena as one of the most predominant artists of 2000ï¿½s generation. It worked. That year Joao's career really took of.
Later, in 2004, he would repeat the same strategy. In January he opened at Cristina Guerra's Contemporary Gallery, and in February at Luis Serpa Projectos.
ACT III :BATHTUBS, POLYESTER, AND CITYSCAPES
He had started the bathtub paintings in 2001, but the interest in the tubs had been present before in videos Joao had shown at school. "A Strange Consternation Against Human Vulgarity Episode 0 :The Man Who Sold the World", which featured him on a bathtub, the faces profile lean and penciled drew, smoking a cigarette and leaning on the edge of the tub. The pale skin against the grayness of the stone evoked sadness which was consuming and desolate, and also old, as if he had been living for centuries, like the character Ziggy Stardust David Bowie had created, the space being who had accumulated incredible knowledge, and upon discovering human society had seen it as a cruel and childish world.
It was a large cracked tub inside the filmmaker Ana Reis apartment in the center of the city. He looked frail, with a glamour that was fading and could only leave one at awe of its origins. His lips painted with a dark wine color, and the hair melted deep into his skull: a fantastic figure of shadows so potent in meaning, they brought on light. Sometimes youl'd only see his legs moving, or his arms. Sometimes the image on the screen was a language that could be translated into words.
Joao Vilhena was saying I am Joao Vilhena.
The obsession was also obvious in the photographs of bathtubs in an outdoor space surrounded by grass. The bathtub was empty. It was a space requiring a body to exist. Something to be filled up, just like the insights of the human body needed blood to be filled. And bags needed air, and the body craved water.
The tub was waiting for him, until the end, like it had been for Jim Morrison found dead with a heart attack caused partially by his drug abuse, and having written the lyrics for the tune The End, he had thus laid one more piece of evidence of the draw to the pit as an ageless attraction. Containers were Joao's grave side and it carried his utterance silently. He was a master of permanent and vital disguises. He was a metamorphosis of other people's desires and longings. He was a fantastic superstition nobody cared to examine for fear of what laid behind the eyes of pure honey glow.
But Joao also wanted to be solid. He wanted to harden flesh which retained the members and sustained breath. So he built a miniature replica of his own body, in crystal polyester, which was a transparent material slightly pink in color. A dummy represented a dimension of himself to the world, which denied it. Facing the wall, the dummy turned its back on the viewer; stood away from the spot of light which beamed to its side, restrained, expectantly waiting. It wanted to prolong the moment to be revealed. The instant just before the lights opened, the theater began, the movie unreeled. The second when the lights went dark and there was an excitement that generated probability. And he could dream, always.
Crystal Polyester JV, which was the title of the piece, was showed at Bores & Mallo in 2002. The space of the gallery was a square of 3m by 3, and one of the walls was a shop window. Crystal Polyester JV had its back turned to the window, facing the wall. To complete the installation Joao placed a series of three photographs featuring the dummy: with hands, feet and face with hand. And the body was already leaving space, which was the physicality of the world, prophesying. Was he enacting his own death? Transforming into something inanimate?
It was the year of The Strangler, 2003. A step further from the suicidal series, aiming at the entire genre of human kind every man and no man as in the Unknown Soldier. On the verge of something, the Unknown Soldier was the moment of wait between what lied underneath and the vicissitudes ahead, like the unidentified body of a boy, Man Ray had found floating in the Seine prompting a series of photographic works, concerning the anonymous identity. His face was almost floating, almost sinking, a middle ground resembling the way he was perceived in the world.
Like a figure looking to formulate its presence absolutely, Joao Vilhena hovered between light and dark. In a way a master of suspense which he so much admired in Rod Sterling's work or the film noirs but also the archangel, a messenger of some divine possibility of human existence. Sometimes, he seemed to have been cleansed in such ways, one had the illusion of absolute purity. And so The Strangler was the world on the verge of discovery and The Unknown Soldier the world made light: God said "Let there be light! and light began to exist.
Joao revisited his bathtubs, many more, driven to the last consequences, showing the paintings in 2003 at the gallery Castelo 66, where the Unknown Soldier would also be displayed. He revisited The Strangler, but this time, the killing was done in daylight, the channels more and more open. Death breathing close as time drew nearer, and the cycles he had propelled were finally reaching up to him. He could feel it. He was facing it. Oddly enough, neither of the two Stranglers was ever exhibited
The Warrior, The Horse and The Man Painting were the beginning of the series Cityscapes, and Joao presented them at the First Prague Biennalle. They were the fusion of Joao Vilhena with himself. Light and dark, side by side, and the smallness of the universe human beings managed to encounter. Three photographs divided by the two colors. On the bottom, small images could be referenced back to the world that was physical and concrete, matter beyond obscurity.
Joao showed some more Bathtub Paintings in an exhibition that took place in January of 2004, in Cristina Guerra's Contemporary Art Gallery. The paintings were discreet and pale. Whites, baby blues and greens, light yellows and subtle beiges, grays of more distinct personality, colors of fading and contoured definition making a statement which was strong enough by itself the form aiming for the content to enter. They were about a relation of two: a person with itself, a person with an object, a human being with the landscape that took hold of the world. Because for Joao Vilhena there was the I, and the I was the only motion that mattered. There could only be one individual, and after that all others were one individuals too. The world was made out of fragments and parts. The world was a part one could try to escape but never could.
In the same year as part of a series of exhibitions concerning the celebration of the twenty years of existence of the Gallery Luis Serpa Projects, Joao presented an installation of nine photographs, which were placed in such a way, done in such a way, as to be inseparable, and so could not be sold individually. Their dimensions were 1m height and 70 cm width. Nine large black photographs, and in the mist of the black, varying in the placement, small stripes of white revealed, as the eye got nearer, images of a manï¿½s lower body appearing in several different positions. It was overwhelming: the enormous black, and the smallness of the white. First of all, on the glossy surface of the glass one could see one's own reflection; eyes recognized as one's own suddenly vacant and staring, immovable as eternity.
It was as if a curtain was closing in and the actor got stuck in between the stage and the offstage; an eye watching more and more and thus losing some kind of perception in detriment to another perhaps perception of what mattered, or of where the image was heading to. The way pieces related to each other pointed to a universe yet to be established; connections were secret; white lines for the eyes to follow.
And the glossy paper buried reflecting, looking back at you, and it was a dimension one wasn't expecting. Again, art turning into the public, asking more than just glance, attention, and sensitivity.
ACT III : MONOLITH AND FILM
2004 was the year Joao had gone to Middelburg and presented his black glass monolith. It was the year of blackness, the year before he died, where someone had tried to kill him and another had threatened to do it, all just in the short span of six months. He was more than ever attracted to blackness, and that seemed to be reviving something inside him. He was turning into the Great Surprise, wanting to make life more mysterious, subtracting more and more things that could be palpable, unraveling the dormant dimension.
And he also had worked more than ever with the cinema. Film Series started with Rita Hayworth pointing a gun in 2003, and continued through out until in 2004. After the enactment of characters, and the person who was abstract and thus contained a multitude of existences, Joao grabbed the movie, its characters, and the life of the ones who gave breath and body to them. It was a cycle of photographs taken from movie stills of the Noir epoch of cinema. Among the actors one could distinguish Fay Dunaway, James Dean, and Warren Betty. He would frieze the moment, cut it, manipulate the image and give it new context.
2005 opened with an exhibition at the Gallery Graca Brandao in Oporto, where he presented twelve photographs, one painting, and four drawings. The photographs were movie stills he had manipulated; their colors contrasted, bloody and dark; the moods defiant, tragic where love hovered somehow into everything.
On entering the gallery there was a piece, so much like Joao it made you shiver when you looked at it, a black photograph with a hanging ballerina, so small you felt she was a brittle dummy. Her body was falling into a great void, and the catcher was the lightness she herself bared, and she was a sequel of something that had started long ago, perhaps has Joao stood in the middle of his parents house in the country, dismounting objects or investigating on the countless things of life, he had been a tiny thing immersed in a world yet to be discovered.
The lighting of the show was sober, and the photographs were lined up like a movie reel, as if one was watching still after still of a rather disconnected story, linked by diagrams the inner movements of the pieces had installed. The only painting was on the corner of the room, reflecting light into the wall that resembled film empty of image. On a separate room the four drawings were placed. Done with acrylic paint in revival colors, they were studies for the stills.
Plastics, Fixes: Do and Redo
Of Joao's face people used to say it was changing all the time.
First the cheekbones, then the jaw and lately they spoke about the lips and the nose. Truth was it was hard to tell if the changes were age making his face leaner and longer, or was it the consequence of innumerous interventions of chirurgical nature. Joao himself used to joke about it. Or so it seemed. He said :"Today I did a little mending" and people would try guessing what the mending was. The skin around the eyes or the cheeks higher in their places?
It was true he had a doctor he consulted from time to time. The son of a great surgeon who was the first one to perform plastic surgery in Portugal, and his customers had been the most important and famous people of the country.
Joao's doctor followed the footsteps of his father and worked in a very reputable clinic, where his well-known and well-to-do customers entered wearing dark sunglasses, after being dropped by taxis or limousines, and returned unseen leaving someone behind to take care of the check.
When looking at Joao's early pictures it is clear his mouth, although plump, had different contours than his later years, and his cheekbones would become incredibly lifted. He would never have a single wrinkle. Until he died his skin was exceedingly smooth, stretched, almost plasticized. Not one pimple, not one piece of flesh starting to give away in the face of gravity.
He had been quoted several times saying that the secret laid not in a big intervention when one was forty or fifty, but several small adjustments over the years, so small that the changes became almost imperceptible, but contributed greatly to the general improvement of the face, and when one stopped to look or think about it, the appearance had suffered considerable mutation.
Truth was, upon his death, Joao Vilhena had been more beautiful than when he had finished his last high school year. Not just because he knew better than ever how to carry himself, but because his apperance was absolutely flawless and every element of his face when pulled apart was a perfect specimen of a body part, and when placed in context created a harmony that could only be equaled to that of a manmade replica.
According Joao's close and longtime friend Susana Guardado, he had done several adjustments to his lips, and one major operation to his cheekbones; according to Marcia Vilhena, her son had changed his jaw, done nothing to the lips, but altered the contour of the eyebrows. Yet Louise had once written in a letter "Today, Joao will do it: finally he is going to fill his chest with implants, and I am so excited I can hardly wait he gets home." But his father had said visibly upset in a interview: "Joao did absolutely nothing to change his face or body and I can prove it".Though he never did.
It cannot be denied he had been regularly consulting his plastic surgeon, and one nurse had told the TV that, upon entering in the middle of Joao's appointment, she had seen spread out on the table several pencil drawings of his face with notations, marks, scratches and the two man were violently discussing the benefits of a lift at twenty-six.
Had he constructed his face and body like he had controlled all the other areas of his life? He once said when confronted with a new acquaintance, he noticed parts before becoming aware of anything else, and it was true how he could, upon one quick look, describe a persons main features including details of the mouth's contour, nose, and eyes, and made his own diagnosis of suggested changes that person could do, with a little bit of this and that, to be more beautiful. He wasn't shy about presenting free advice, and that had cost him many dedicated enemies.
He believed beauty was an infinity work and would say it often. However, here was a man who had been born dazzlingly beautiful. The elegance and the delicacy of his face could only have been carved or drew, yet he sprung from flesh and bone, was a product of unknown genetic material, and had in fact a very physical existence.
When asked about Joao's facial alterations his doctor refused to make any comments, and even upon his death, he would say:" Joao was a dear friend of mine who I consulted on private matters." And when the reporters would catch him at night, and harassed him about Joao's alleged work on the eyebrows, the three lifts, and nose straightening, after a long day at the clinic, the doctor would stare blankly with reproach, and even once threaten to run a cameraman down with his motorcycle.
One of Joao's boyfriends Matias Clark said he in fact had done a small adjustment on his lower lip and another on the corners of his mouth, but Sofia Berge believed he had fixed his nose and worked on the upper lip instead.
Although there are no records of any surgery of an aesthetical nature, there were nevertheless innumerous appointments where not even a nurse had been present. It is possible Joao had done some small interventions in the clinic with the work of the doctor by himself. Truth is, it would be needed considerable medical support of other specialists including a general anesthesia for some procedures he allegedly made. And he would admit to any people suggested he had performed.
It couldnt help being noticed how he was capable of describing the processes in detail. He could explain different implant materials and the way they interacted with the bodys source, and things like duration, results, dangers or consequences. He knew about the latest developments in every kind of plastic surgery including vagina-plastia and he could recommend doctors in Portugal and most other countries he had ever visited.
Upon looking at anybody he knew exactly what kind of work had been done on the face or body, and could show precisely the methods that had been utilized. It was certainly one of Joao's main interests. Nevertheless, he admitted to his surgeries most times with a smile on his face, in a bit of a mocking way.
When he died people wanted to look at his face, compared photographs at different times of his life, speculated a lot. And then there were still no certainties, still no things to be defined. His best friend Galrao said "He told me he was going to do things, but I dont remember what they were."
But Galrao might have been one of the only people to think this away. For many, Joao knew how to be beautiful because he was in control of things. He had an eye for shape; he knew why a big lip looked good on one face, but could destroy another, and most of all, he defended beauty as an extremely individual process, perhaps the most personal in life, and that it was so intimately linked with personality, ethics, and choice that it was the prime material for readings which he considered fundamental in finding out, when faced with the other, who that other was.
The only picture of Joao has a child reveals a very attentive look. The wide open eyes and the cheekbones are trying to stir from the face. Yet there is something almost unrecognizable about him. The child is Vilhena because one knows it, for the clues are minimal. The soul is in the eyesï¿½ is indeed an old idea, but in Joao's particular story the gaze had changed over the years.
In fact Joao's face was like an alchemic recollection. His eyes dove into a pit of something so obscure and wrapped in riddles, and yet he had been the result of his own transformation, which had been a discovery he had entered without guidance.
His only standards were himself, and perhaps that is why his appearance was molded at his own image: he made himself the way he perceived himself a gentle form of nature; for perfection was reflected in those things which were ethereal and beyond the capability of human perception.
He saw the world in lines. Everything was constituted by lines and through lines, and the design was exceptional in everything. Shape took hold of all and was a matter of stages, and than there was movement..
And the face was the resting place for the eye, which meant transformation, which was the world.
Pompadeur was a Beauty shop over one hundred years old, located in the center of the city, and where Alexandrina, who had been a cosmetics salesperson all her life, designed a personalized skincare plan for Joao. La Prairie was the brand of choice. He used their day and night creams on a regular basis. As far as make up went, both thought Yves Saint Laurent was the most appropriate option, being for the lipstick, or foundation.
On his hair he used Redken and Sebastian, and he always cut it at Paulo Vieira's Hairdresser, which was located on the large Avenue leading to the train station and the core of Lisbon, and with whom Joao had worked with for the hairdo of each of the photographs done in the studio with Joao Silveira Ramos, the photographer he usually collaborated with.
Since his teen years that his perfume had been Chanel nº5, the Parfum, due to the abstraction of the smell.
Among his notes, he had been designing a project, which entailed publishing a book and a set of videos presenting an optimal lifestyle for everyone, very similar to what he had been following and experimenting with, for years. It involved vitamins, enhancement medications, skin and hair care, plus a physical conditioning plan.
The Murder Attempt
On Thursday, May 28th 2004, Joao had gone to an opening at Cristina Guerraï¿½s contemporary art gallery and then had decided to go for a drink in Bairro Alto. It was a large group and people drove in several cars one after the other. The opening had been crowded. The entire artists community was there, Pauliana Valente recalls: "We all decided to go out for drinks.
The streets were brimming, for, even though it was May, the weather was already getting very hot prompting going out, and it was also the first time the European soccer championship was taking place in Portugal. The populace was euphoric with the possibility of winning. The country actually had a good team to boost of.
On the good weather months in Portugal, people were in the habit of drinking in plastic glasses in front of bars, and because the bar had been crowded, Joao, who had always been a bit claustrophobic, had gone outside with his drink to get some air. It was very stuffy and packed inside the bar, and I just had to get some fresh air. I started to pierce in between the swarm of people and stayed outside not to far from the door, where everybody was gathering.
There were two odd coincidences that night without any apparent justification his friend Galrao had insisted on Joao to stay in not knowing quite why he was asking him that, and had been unusually nervous the minute Joao ignored him and left. I just had a feeling he shouldn't go outside. I remember urging him to stay in, because it didn't fell right; Also Joao had been tense all night, and upon wondering about it had dismissed it has nothing of importance. He had felt apprehensive during the day and as dinner began approaching had almost decided against attending the opening.
It wasn't so common going out to bars in Lisbon anymore. After years of living abroad for long periods of time, Joao had lost the taste for Lisbon's nightlife, with its burliness and the usual swarm which stood mesmerized watching, glass in hand, whoever happened to be in their way. More then ever, I wasn't enjoying going out at night. The environment was hostile. I couldnt feel at ease. People stared all the time Joao later would say.
As in most incidents of this nature, it all happened very quickly. A few minutes later, Galrao, being a person who paid attention to his presentiments, followed Joao outside only to catch a glimpse of a stout looking man, sticking a knife into Joao's chest, and two women standing behind him who, as soon as the attack occurred, started running through the narrow and winding streets, which characterized the old neighborhood of Bairro Alto, I just remember stepping out and suddenly seeing this man attacking Joao with a knife.
When asked about the murder attempt, Joao remembered most of all the sudden spurts of blood caused by the stabs. That night, a burly looking man of Venezuelan descent began insulting him without any apparent reason. The man was accompanied by two women, and he spoke rapidly stirring from side to side; his body was muscular and angular. He wore jeans and a green open shirt revealing a hairless chest, which soon would be tarnished with Joao's blood a dark, thick and sticky stain. Both women were wearing skirts and heels, but one had dark sunglasses, and the other a tight fitting scarf around her head, and they held their purses rigidly against their meaty bodies of pearly skin. An abrupt burst of movement and words further disrupted the stillness of the high hour, and then he was moving towards Joao, violently stabbing him on the lungs area.
A few moments before he had been laughing and talking, and just a few minutes later he was bleeding heavily amazed at what had happened, looking at his blood, not aware of pain yet. And even though there wasnt one perceptible cause for such hostility, one could say it had had something to do with the way Joao looked that night.
He was wearing an outfit he had made himself for JVLAb along with Susana Guardado and Joao Galrao, by wrapping two white bandages around his body. The clothes were to be presented as a special piece for the opening that night. His shoulders were bare, and his chest and back were beautifully outlined by the clothes. Surrounded by white, the shimmering blond hair and the velvety even skin revealed a figure of perfect features as delicate as a womans and yet, seductively male, as Nuno Delmas would later describe him a sexless elegance which conquered both realms of men and women alike.
The police had arrived shortly after the stabbing had occurred, and stood by Joao arguing for him to fill out the necessary papers for the complaint. Among the crowd someone said they could still catch the man running down the street, but the two policemen didn't move while three standbys started in the direction the man and the two women who had escaped, It was amazing!. Two policemen were arguing with Joao, who was on the floor bleeding, because he had to fill some papers instead of doing something about it, Susana Guardado remembers.
The cops wanted to take Joao's statement. Without it there wasn't much they could do. I am not going to make it through, Joao had said while he heard an endless description of police procedures and the necessities of arrest warrants. See, theres not much we can do, if you dont fill a complaint now they had said almost at the same time and around the crowd people were starting to insult the two men, crying out words of order. There was a climate of instability and disorder, the chaos that the sight of blood had caused and the face, which at plain sight was visibly losing color. were stirring everybodys concern. Suddenly, I thought he can actually die and I got so worried I had to fight tears, Joao Galrao recalls.
The ambulance was taking unusually long to arrive and Joao's friends tried to calm him down. But soon nobody knew what else to do .It seemed endless the wait for help. I kept thinking this is civilization, Pauliana Valente said.
By this time Joao had lit a cigarette while his chest was dripping blood. That seemed to finally make him still It was strange to look at him. One hand lied lifeless and the other holding a cigarette Galrao recalls. Around him the crowd that had gathered was staring vacantly at the person who was lying on the sidewalk, the white bandages completely soaked in blood, and one arm lingering heavy to the side touching a pool of stale water.
It took half an hour for the ambulance to get there. A new system of security had been installed around Bairro Alto to prevent the flow of cars inside the narrow streets. Only residents could drive into the neighborhood, and the ambulance hadn't been able to get through the safety pins installed on each entrance. When they finally got through, Joao was almost unconscious due to the blood loss, and was beginning to have difficulty breathing. His breathing slowed down and was feeble. I held his face up and his eyes closed slightly, for a minute I thought he had died, remembers Carlos Almeida. The white bandages were covered with blood, and his gaze was wide open and furious. The stab, which almost gotten to his lungs and thus would have killed him, deep, but small in width, was located slightly above his chest on the left side.
It was four a.m. and the streets were considerably emptier. The ambulance arrived storming through with the sirens on and the lights flashing. At first Joao had refused to go in, half dazed by the blood loss, and had demanded his friends should come inside the ambulance with him, He didnt want to go alone Galrao said. But the hospital policies didnt allow that and the nurses werent going to make any exceptions. I think you better come in, if you want to live the nurse had said, but it was Galrao who solved the situation by guaranteeing he would follow right behind. Joao almost passed out into the stretcher.
A lot of blood had gone to his lungs, and needed to be drained out in order for Joao to breath, and the doctors didnt give him any anesthetics when they punctured his inner lower thorax to put a 6mm thick drain tube, to suck the blood out of his lungs. I felt everything and the pain was horrible. I couldn't understand why I hadn't been giving any anesthetics. It was pure malice.
The tube was connected to an 8 liter basin that was filled up and changed several times. Outside, in the waiting room, the people who had been at the opening were waiting including Galrï¿½o, Susana Guardado, Pauliana Valente, who was a photographic reporter Joao was friends with, the artist Joao Onofre, and Carlos Almeida, who wasn't an artist but worked in publicity and film, went to most openings, and knew Joao through some common friends. Lying on the floor, it had been Carlos and Pauliana who had placed their hands around the wound to stop the bleeding, and had kept talking to Joao.
Later, the man who had attacked Vilhena was identified by three eye-witnesses, including the doorman who had been working that night. The police was able to track him down after finding out he had a considerable record of physical assaults, including threatening people in several bars around the neighborhood. Strangely, no order of arrest was issued. He was being protected by his boss, a construction companies owner who told the police he had been working with him all night. Faced with that, the investigation was archived, even after Joao insisted upon the positive identifications of the criminal by the witnesses, as irrefutable evidence that a throughout investigation needed to be continued.The murder had been identified by several people. They had all the proof needed for the arrest, yet they did nothing, Joao said.
He stayed in the hospital for six days, and during that time kept his life style. From the beauty shop he sent for his skin creams, his make up, and perfume. The bookstore delivered him the usual batch of weekly magazines, and he even got his friend to bring him champagne. Every morning, when the nurses came to check on him, he was already combed, shaved, and with flawless make up."It was amazing. The night before he was at the Urgencies, and the following morning when I came to check on him, he looked beautiful and even smiled at me", Marisa Dias, one of the nurses who had been responsible for Joao remembers. In spite of all the blood and weight he had lost so quickly, his face looked healthy, any signs of illness were covered up by the artfully done make up. And during visiting hours he was social, pleasant, even humorous. He seemed to be taking things well, yet I knew it was all being very difficult. Someone had just tried to kill him Susana Guardado said.
But the one thing he hadn't been able to do was to get transferred to a private hospital. The first night he had been taken to Sao José, and then quickly transferred to Desterro, both state hospitals with precarious conditions. His life was dependent on the drainer, because if the blood stayed in the lungs, he would suffocate. It was a very laborious and dangerous task to transport him in an ambulance to a private hospital, and no doctor wanted the responsibility of Joao's life: "Maybe one of the most aggravating aspects of this incident was staying in a public hospital with poor conditions, and no possibility of comfort. The hospital was very depressing, and it made me angry to realize it could have been prevented if only a doctor would have agreed to move me".
On the first night at the hospital, Joao slept across from a patient whose curtains were drawn enclosing the bed completely. He knew it was because the person was dying, and in the middle of the night he could hear the man's painful moaning. The next morning, Joao requested to be moved away to a different room because he didn't want to see that person die. He managed to get a room alone, where he had a small TV, but tried to read most of the day to keep his mind from too much thinking (watching TV had always been an enormous pleasure to him, yet Portuguese television, the only channels the hospital had, seemed to be depressing him), "It is a terrible feeling to know someone is dying in front of you".
The entire artists community had been to the hospital to visit him, and the TV had asked permission to go in but access had been refused. As far as the media went, Joao didnt want any news to appear in the papers. So, while he was still at the hospital, he got on the phone and blocked the accident from press coverage. It was a sad event, and most of all it regarded my personal affairs. I didn't want to hear about it again.
For Joao it was the end of the matter: a man had tried to kill him and escaped, but he had survived and meant to continue living.
A Death Threat at JVLAb
JVLAb was an European Art Laboratory interested in establishing a hybrid between academia and the art world, to generate a platform for a unique new centre of excellence by bringing together scientists, engineers, and artists from different backgrounds, disciplines, cultures, and nationalities to create and explore new forms of making and present art. Joao had started this project in 2004, and had rented a space to do his paintings but also to function as the Lab headquarters.
When he saw the large studio in Sao Paulo Street, he thought it was the perfect location, and it seemed like a good place to sleep over when work was done until exhaustion. Now the studio is an art gallery of considerable repute, but rather marginal of the circuit called VPF Cream Gallery. Victor is the owner, and Joao had known him for some time for he was an art collector.
Two large rooms and plenty of light. The windows where elegantly covered with white transparent fabric, yet it was thick enough and the sun shone on its back so you couldnt see inside. On entering there was a large desk and a computer, and on the left side a working table filled with photographs and other objects, whatever he happened to be working on. Paintings were leaning by the walls, and hanging on them were works other artists had given him (there was a corner piece by Joao Galrao and a painting by Ricardo Valentim).
A fake wall divided unevenly the second room that was furnished with a couch only, behind which there was the bed Joï¿½o would sleep in the nights he couldn't make it home, and one wondered how those times had been. How were the nights of Joao Vilhena, and did he sleep alone? Did he lie in bed and shut his eyes and what sort of dreams did he have, a troubled or a relieved sleep from work that was completed, and the consumption of things made real.
Many times before I had joined him in his bed, after having turned the wall myself. I had been tempted to put my ear to its hallow texture, and listen for any evidence of his self, his habits, his nature. Even though, I knew Joao Vilhena didn't follow routines, or rather, as soon as they were established he would steer away from them, as if they were death itself. He was certainly the most unpredictable person: moody, fitful, at times the language was ethereal, at times so clear it made your skin fill up with goose bumps. And the more you analyzed the actions, the more the motives were estranged and unclear.
I would call him saying I was coming, and he would come down to open the door. It was an old building and the two flights of stairs up didn't have any lights. Then there was a gate, and then a dark hallway to his door. On his floor there was a miniature planes club, and a bald, blue-eyed man spent the days looking at illustration drawings of plane models.
The Sao Paulo Street was a beautiful street. This may seem like an odd statement, but it was beautiful because it had the streetcars, and the prostitutes, and a small church and a square where all the prostitutes and the all-time residents gathered to watch who passed by; there was the police station just down the road, where cops talked, and hanged out, and took it easy. There was a couple of interesting bars, and clubs, and the market place not too far, and the train station which entailed a whole different world.
Sao Paulo's Street was close to the river, but Joao never went there. He didnt like staring at the other margin; it made him feel like looking back at something long dead and useless, and it was true he wasn't too fond of lingering on anything that had the power of pulling him down had he permitted it.
As soon as he stepped out, he woud get into a cab and head for the Four Seasons, the Ritz, next to the park Eduardo VII and sit at the bar, which in the summers had an open terrace and he would watch the light of end of day or work on his computer until dinner time, where he moved to the other room and was served.
He always had different company.
The waiters already knew Joao, of course, and they knew him like he was: holding a champagne glass in his hand, ordering foie gras and scallops which were so rare in Lisbon, and after that he might still go for some more drinks in a quiet place, with someone else.
He would return to the studio, sometimes bringing friends, sometimes friends dropped by in the middle of the night, but most times he would choose to be alone.
As far as I could see it, Joao preferred much to be alone.
By this time, after the attempt in Bairro Alto, he had started to pick his places more carefully. You would not see Joao just anywhere. Most people wouldn't see him at all. And for that reason, Joao's public appearances where progressively less frequent. On the days following any social gathering he had attended, people invariably talked about him, especially among curators, collectors, gallery owners and artistsï¿½what was he wearing, who had he come with, what were some of the things he had said. Often Joao was subject of what I called post-opening gossip. Either he had worn something, arrived with someone or did something. People talked, Joao Galrao said.
He kept faithful to friends and artists whose work he admired, and in those occasions he was pretty certain to show up. Yet more and more it was becoming uninteresting to be at the openings. The same people, the same conversations, the same jokes. It took so much energy from him: the social urge to have the answers, to continue conversations, and he knew he had to manage words like a precious patrimony for the least mismanagement would mean eager gossip. Most people considered Joao to be untouchable to all reproach, and beyond vulnerability.
But he wasn't. On the day of the incident, we had spent the night talking, making love, dancing in the studio and at seven a.m. had gone to the beach, but had returned at nine after falling asleep and waking up with the cries of the seagulls which were unbearably distressful. We stepped in and sat by the table that fitted between recesses on the wall under one of the windows smoking, having coffee.
I leaned back against the corner. Through the curtains sides I could see the neighbor across from us, which was the man on the left side. And his eyes met mine. He said:"Psst, call your friend, will ya? rapidly in a hostile tone. And then he stayed on looking. I was wearing a bra, and some shorts, and the tension in his voice, made me quiver, so I leaned forward and laid my head on Joao's shoulder: we both had decided to ignore him, and had gotten up to lie on the bed, behind the wall.
Incredibly loud music suddenly playing from the left corner window, where the groaning man, who spoke in a drunken accent, the throat dried and the voice fuzzy, started screaming at us.Ya wanna play loud music? Here's some music for ya, and the music was unbearably loud.
Hours passed. It was eleven, and he had been screaming obscene things, insults and threats for hours. At twelve he stopped screaming, having ignored the pleas of the other neighbors: the two women in the right side who had told him to shut up, who had told him he was the one with no respect, but he had continued Haven't ya seen them? and the neighbors had decided they hadn't noticed anything particular about those windows, but, now, were trying to look inside through the sides of the curtains.
Some time after we started hearing his voice in the near distance. He was downstairs by the door, yelling more death treats, gesticulating with his arms and torso, and by his conversation you could tell he had been watching Joao for months in a row, remembered each man and woman who had ever visited the studio, had known what time of day or night they had left, and when they had chosen to stay over.
The man, very strongly built, wore a golden chain and an open white shirt, which revealed a heavy belly and dark hairs covered with sweat. He had tried ringing the bell downstairs, but it didn't work. For two hours he waited by the door, until we called the police which arrived after an hour (it was never clear why, having a station just a few meters away, they had taken so long), not after hurriedly removing the red nail polish (chanel rouge noir) from Joao's hands.
The first cop that came over to the studio filled with cigarette buds, and empty champagne bottles, had a bored, cold look on his face. Joao, whose skin was pale and the eyes worried, didn't say much. He waited sitting behind the wall. Waited for the police to enter, waited for me to tell what had happened, and then he asked, speaking for the first time, if they knew who that man was. The cop had lazy eyes and a large body. He was young. He walked like an army officer, and maybe for that reason chose not to answer directly. Maybe its better if both of you come to the precinct with me. There's nothing we can do, until something happens. You can file a complaint .He finally said. We held hands and started down the stairs.
In the street, the man was standing on the opposite side, and two policemen were grabbing his contorting body. As soon as he saw us he started yelling:" I'm gonna kill you! I'll rip your face out! We passed on. I started laughing. I was nervous. I couldn't stop laughing. And my hands were shaking, and my voice was deep and weak, while Joao looked unflinching ahead.
As we sat on the precinct, side by side, a policewoman took down our account of the incident, a very faithful description of all threats, insults and aggressions. We sat on the entrance, waiting for a police car to drive us to the studio to pick a few things and go out of town for two or three days. And the man who had threatened us stopped his car by the station to intimidate us once more, barging through the door like a madman. His eyes wouldn't stir from Joao, transpiring desire, hate, fantasy.
The sky was clear blue and the weather hot. We sat in my car. That's why I can't be here anymore, he had said. He was referring to Portugal. He was thinking about Lisbon. It was out of the question to sleep or work at the studio ever again, They've tried to kill me before, he said, and Joao's eyes were red with anger.
The following days we went canoing in Constanca, a small village an hour north of Lisbon. Joao was quiet most of the time. His face was serene as if he had concluded something, and it was settled. We drove trough the villages into winding hills where, looking down, you could see the water reservoir bulging against the rocks, and the canoes, around which one or two people swam. At dinner time, with our clothes wet, we drove back and he took photographs of himself as if wanting to keep something that now was threatened.
Two weeks later he was going back for his stuff. A small truck parked at the door, and two policemen were waiting. The paintings and photographs were packed, carried, and stored in several places, spread out between galleries and storage.
Even having the police as witness, neither I or Joao, who filled two separate complaints ever heard anything back about the case. And when, six months later, I called the station to know how the legal proceedings were going, I was told there was no record of a complaint.
Among the many people present, I thought I was seeing the entire human variety: the resentful lovers, the estranged and the close friends, the sagacious and obscure make-believe artists, and the cool, gazing art dealers.
Three hundred people showed up. People who had known Joao through his work, very superficially, and people who had known him intimately.
At the funeral hovered a general overwhelmed feeling of sad elation. A desperate need (or was it curiosity?) to look at the cadaver, as if people didn't quite believe he was dead. When they opened the casket of sandalwood and found the red linen space filled with his body, there was a wave of sound stretching to infinity.
His skin was very white and slightly purple. His eyebrows neatly designed and his hands rested on his chest. They had dressed the corpse with the same clothes he had worn the night he died: the stripped suite with a white shirt tied up to the collar. His hair was pulled back, and the temples, became more angular as he laid there. Person after person walked the altar to kiss him. Some on the lips, some of the face, and things were being dropped into the coffin. Messages, flowers, handkerchiefs, drawings, and by the time almost everyone had stepped forward, the coffin was filled with objects.
I stood away from the crowd of people observing who had come to the funeral, and judging the nuances of grief. I saw Mafalda Vilhena with her face covered in tears, and the eyes black and hollow. She was one of the only people who hadnï¿½t stepped forward yet, but remained on her seat, praying with her eyes closed. I saw Joao's parents, Hugo and Marcia sitting far apart from each other, not touching hands even. They had gone to kiss the body, and Marcia had touched his lips and his father had caressed his face with the back of his hand only.
Susana Guardado had been one of the first people to arrive. She carried a large bunch of roses, which she placed by the side of the casket, and than she kneeled and prayed. Her eyes were red from crying and her hands were shaking.
Joao Galrao was wearing a black suite and his face was down trodden. He had brought a drawing which he placed at the coffin, and a small sculpture which he laid besides the cadaver, and would later put on top of the tomb for guidance he said. He would be smoking nervously outside the church, and then when he returned he couldn't contain his tears. After sometime, Galrao and Susana sat side by side on the third row. They had been one of the last people to leave church.
Ana Reis entered and her heels tapped loudly on the floor as she walked. Her skin was pale as ice making a stark contrast with the black suite she wore. Miss Reis had met Joao when he had applied to the school of Cinema. They were close. Ana was the daughter of a famous Portuguese filmmaker and did films herself, and at the funeral had been one of the people who spoke about Joao in the podium.
The night before, she had written an elegy, and was tearfully reading it out loud. Her red hair in disarray shimmered under the stain glass behind the altar, while everybody listened to her words carefully; her voice filling a dead silence where only feet moved occasionally, and the sound of crying became at times explicit, at times echo less. When Ana approached the body she began to cry uncontrollably. Her sobs were piercing and her breath was quick and loud, and finally Galrao had to take her outside where she remained until the coffin left for burial.
Then, I noticed the gallery owners. Luis Serpa sat with his wife whose face was covered with a veil. Her large eyes glittered through the net, full of pending tears. She had brought marigolds that she placed by the coffin together where all the flowers were accumulating. When the time of speeches came, she stepped forward and spoke about Joao as one of the most unique young men she had ever encountered.
Mr. Serpa sat quietly. In front of him, Cristina Guerra also was in silence. Her hands folded on top of her lap held a handwritten paper, she would later place inside the coffin.
He was dressed in black and besides him was his sister with a concentrated gaze on her face.
The three gallery owners spoke to each other at the beginning and at the end of the ceremony. Meanwhile they seemed to avoid even eye contact, as if that would, somehow, compromise them.
Nuno Delmas appeared to reveal no emotion, but around the corners of his mouth, his lips were shaking. He held a cigarette which accumulated ashes that poured into the floor of the church, and after several commentaries from the priest who told him, in spite of everything, church was still a smoke free zone, Nuno would still lit cigarette after cigarette without smoking much of any. He seemed to have some trouble opening his eyes, which gazed in one direction only: Joao's open coffin that he hadn't came close to yet.
The Ritz manager, besides attending the funeral, had sent one hundred bouquets of white carnations that covered the floor of the side aisles. He had placed a table with water and food, which had been left untouched.
Juliao Sarmento and Rui Chafes were some of the artists that were present, both with their respective wives and their semblances seemed light and rested.
By the churchs entrance the art critics seemed to have formed a clan. They were talking among each other, speculating who would be the legal responsible of Vilhena's estate now that he was dead, and betting when and where the first retrospective of his work would be announced.
The TV was outside the church. The priest had prevented it from entering the premises of the altar, but when people left, the cameras approached. The main targets were the Vilhena's and Marcia had started to insult a reporter, when Hugo conveniently pulled her aside. To the cameras Hugo had said "I could not think of a greater tragedy to befall a family" and his voice was weak and solemn. It was plain to see the many uses of such a ceremony. At the corners, gallery owners talked to gallery owners and the word out was, somebody had the right to manage Vilhena's estate, but who was it? It was the question behind everybodys stare and conversation.
Collectors were been cajoled into buying and selling. Collectors called the galleries and had come to the funeral with grave expressions and manners, but ready for business. Auctions were being organized. Artists got closer to gallery owners trying to sell themselves as possible answers for a now incomparable void, and the circles were slowly formed.
The planning was in store. People were informed and provisions were taken: the deals which arose on July 1st had now been consolidated, and Joao's death had become much more profitable than his life had ever been. His works had reached unheard off prices, the collections of several important museums were now luring the galleries and the private collectors, and people who had his work were asking outrageous prices.
The concentration was intense. It was written in the faces, zealous in the eyes. They looked at each other, knowing there was something to be grabbed, out there, where the body was lying, knowing that the whole business of the death and the investigation was causing enormous speculation and increases in Joao's creations; knowing that despite his young age, he had produced an incredible amount of work that would be controlled, as far as velocity went, reaching the market only when the time was opportune, and things were going to be played out, carefully; knowing that the proximity with the dead artist could become a self-made momentum to another artist; knowing all these things and many more, the circles were formed around the irrevocability of the coffin.
I had stayed up all night next to the body, and as people began arriving for the official service in the morning my mind was tired and my eyes hurt. I would never think of me doing such a thing. All my life I had avoided funerals, even of those who were dearest to me. But now, the need to be present had been terrible. I had to convince myself once would be enough that the man I couldn't live without was lying in a bed of silk.
And because things which have been unsettled still have not been settled, Joao's biography is now more important than ever. Time and again I think about his urgency in finishing the book and the irony of it all, as if he knew what was going to happen.
It's better to burn out than to fade way, I still don't know how to answer this question.
A project by:
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This is the end of the suicidal series art project by Joao Vilhena (1996-2005)
Further contact at email@example.com