"An archeology of the present" is how Alexandre Farto, a.k.a. VHILS, defines his work. The practice of the Portuguese artist reminds you indeed of an excavation process. A process in which his carved representations are like remnants recovered from the past, like ancient frescoes saved from oblivion.
Hammers, chisels, corrosive chemicals, electric perforators are his tools of choice. The creation of a new piece typically involves banging on it, scouring it, drilling through it, even blowing it up with explosives. Instead of adding to a surface, VHILS removes parts of the successive layers that make up a wall or a facade. Successive layers with their particular colors and textures that bring in a wide range of different shades to the whole composition. But the artist is far from only doing walls, he works on discarded doors found on the street, metal sheets, blocks of concrete, accretions of advertising posters... Whatever the medium, each piece is given the same sort of treatment, receiving the mark of what he calls an aesthetic of vandalism.
This very act of carving through the thickness of things, which he refers to as scratching the surface, is for the artist a gesture loaded with meaning. "In this act of excavation," he says, "it is the process that is expressive, more than the end result." All those superimposed layers are the memory of the city, the memory of the transformations, developments, renovations that outline its history. For the artist, to reveal those layers is to render visible the developments of our societies.
This archeology of the present is embodied by portraits of men and women, anonymous people for the most part. A poignant way of recalling the human reality at the core of the development of cities and infrastructures, and a way of highlighting this network of interdependencies that connect each community with the wider world. VHILS seeks to put Man back in the center, to reaffirm his importance in the face of economic rationales of which we know today how much they can take precedence over individuals.
But if the underlying intention is political, the emotion that prevails in the work of VHILS has more to do with an aesthetic shock. In the end, what are we presented with? Ragged posters, corroded metal plates, walls riddled with impacts, slashes on an old wooden door... Insignificant scraps and rubbles which we commonly come across every day without even seeing them, transmuted by the hand of the artist into what is most dear to us: the human face. It is the juxtaposition of these two antagonisms, the triviality of the mediums next to the empathy that the representations trigger within us that is most touching and that make his work so powerful, so deeply humanistic.
Alexandre Farto, a.k.a. VHILS, was born in 1987 in Portugal. He became active in Lisbon in the early 2000s in the world of graffiti artists. In 2008, he was invited by Banksy to participate in the Cans Festival in London, where his work was immediately hailed as one of the most innovative in recent years on the urban art scene. He now regularly presents exhibitions in major institutions around the world, such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, or the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati, where his first monographic exhibition in the United States was held in 2020. He lives and works between London and Lisbon.