In Lisbon, the Australian artist Jacobus Capone taped a poem to his chest. By day he visited miradouros, lookouts around the city. By night he visited fado bars.
Fado is a style of Portuguese folk music. Originating in Lisbon, it remains hugely popular, and involves a solo singer accompanied by guitars or mandolins. The mood is mournful, melancholy. As a form, it’s an encapsulation of saudade, a Portuguese word with no precise English equivalent. Saudade, Capone explains, means a deep sense of longing, “‘a kind of nostalgic melancholy. Saudade is about holding this longing close to your heart and cherishing it.”
In Forgiving Night For Day, Capone’s new exhibition at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, saudade is palpable. Every note of it hangs in the air. Filmed over seven consecutive mornings, the artist’s multi-channel installation fills PICA’s central galleries with continuous shots of the Lisbon dawn. Seven screens are staggered at varying heights and angles, requiring the viewer to walk around them, watching the city awaken from mulitple different points of view. On each screen, someone waits alone on a railed miradouro in the half-darkness above a city of lights. There is stillness.
Capone went to Lisbon to retrace the journeys of Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet who he counts as a significant influence on his practice. While researching in preparation for the residency, he began looking into fado, and several things coalesced. “Fado became a medium for exploring and releasing these embedded parts of my practice,” Capone says. “Things that I’d been working with, but not totally aware of. It became a facilitator for expressing the core of my practice: the theme of futility, this longing and yearning for something that isn’t obtainable.”
In Lisbon, Capone sought out singers in small, crowded fado bars, emerging close to dawn and wandering the city’s streets as the sun rose. In response to these experiences he wrote a poem, almost a meditation, reworking it each day. Renowned writer Tiago Torres da Silva then translated Capone’s text, both into Portuguese and into a lyrical structure suitable for fado.
Against the lightening sky, one figure begins to sing: an aching, plaintive offering. The music rises, falls, throbs unaccompanied, and ends. There is stillness. The singer looks out, again, over the city. On another screen, a different singer begins. The music in Forgiving Night For Day is not true fado, Capone explains. It’s a cappella, whereas fado is accompanied. But recreating the form was never the intent.
Capone is nearly always present in his works: a visible body, often undergoing a durational task or ordeal.
Here, however, he is absent. Even his words are translated through others: first altered in form and language by da Silva, and then interpreted differently by each singer. Fado is an improvisational form, and the singers were encouraged to imbue the song with their own flavour; to own the text and music for themselves. In a work about longing and absence, it is significant that the artist himself has stepped back, allowing strangers to perform on his behalf.
Another interesting point is the miradouros themselves. Based on the framing, a viewer unfamiliar with the city gets the distinct impression that these lookouts are separated from Lisbon, perhaps on hills surrounding the city. In fact, they are closely integrated within the metropolis. On a couple of occasions, Capone says, the dawn song was witnessed by people across the road getting off trams. Here, then, saudade is a nostalgia for something truly unobtainable, perhaps not even real. But the expression of longing is shattering nonetheless.