João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva at Camden Arts Centre

I’m revisiting this show at Camden Arts Centre – quality of lightness in the work.  Seems to have a kind of underlying metaphysics.   Cumulative effect of multiple 16mm projections with none of the sometimes oppressive sophistication of multi-screen projections.  Animated camera obscure installations.

João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva – Papagaio was at Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 until 29 March 2015

Adrian Searle in the Guardian…

What a peculiar world the Portuguese artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva inhabit. Populated by birds, fish and animals, cyclists, smokers and donkey-riders, it is a place of abstractions and illusions, the everyday and the impossible.

Bristling with ideas, snatches of reality, optical tricks and enigmatic moments, this magical, mesmerising exhibition is alive with the whirring hum of an orchestra of 16mm film projectors. Images spill across the walls in room after room. I don’t recognise the galleries at Camden Arts Centre, and very often I have no idea what I am looking at, or why.

Part of an international touring exhibition that changes from venue to venue, Papagaio (Portuguese for parrot) is both a compendium of films and an immersive installation that takes us from the artists’ studio to Lisbon zoo, from a voodoo ceremony in the Gulf of Guinea to outer space – or at least a photographic version of it.

A white stone raises its long hair, as if by some strange electromagnetic force. Do boulders have hair? It looks like a weird creature haunting a cluttered corridor. Is it terrified, defending itself, lonely? Look. It’s doing it again. In another film, a live cowfish sits on a plate, squirting water from its mouth and slithering around. Three suns set over the sea and three eggs (eggs are a recurrent motif) fry in a pan. Maybe it’s the same egg, superimposed on itself. A nearby closeup shows a man at the barbershop having a bald spot shaved into his scalp. But as soon as you detect a theme, it’s gone.

Lit by the multiple projections of 19 silent films, many running concurrently, the spaces of Camden Arts Centre have been plunged into cinema darkness. Some films are short and very simple. A baker makes croissants, flipping each triangle of dough and rolling it around in mid-air. I am amazed by his skill, as he flicks the dough towards the camera like a lizard’s tongue. How much sculpture there is in the baker’s craft.

Heat Ray, 2010, by Gusmão + Paiva

A blind man eats a papaya, screwing up his face at the texture and taste. The man looks like Goya’s Saturn, devouring one of his children. This is a somehow terrifying scene. Sometimes staged, or shot on the hoof, Gusmão + Paiva’s films are mostly only a few minutes long, yet time stretches as we watch. They are slower than reality. This slowing down, and the use of high-definition film, gives everything the artists do a sense of expectation and gravity. What will happen next?

Often, not much. A turtle’s head emerges from under its shell, giving us its round, shining eye. A man rides a donkey across a town square in Kenya, seen from a high, distant vantage point. The camera looks through a car’s windscreen on a rainy day; the windscreen wipers move with metronomic slowness as the car turns a corner. The end. This last little vignette is called A Day Without Filming: somehow, the artists just couldn’t resist. They can make a drama out of nothing and art out of anything. The voodoo ceremony, at 42 minutes, is much too long. It takes eons. Sometimes, the artists film the drinking and dancing, and people rolling around in the dust in trance-like fits, and sometimes participants hold the camera themselves, jerking it around, swooping wildly.

The show opens with a space devoted to a short film of a gorgeous pet macaw, who occasionally takes flight in an explosion of colour, and sometimes hides out of sight. There’s a metaphor here somewhere. In another gallery, the projectors point this way and that from a clever arrangement of plinths and little seats. As soon as you focus on one work, another catches your eye and you have to move.

At their best, Gusmão + Paiva return us to that sense of wonder that spectators of early film must have felt as they watched the world unfold before them in the dark. Seeing a shadow play of bicycle wheels turning on the wall, I realise it isn’t a film, but a projection from a camera obscura. Squinting through several bright lenses set into a false wall, I could see the wheels and moving lights in the hidden space beyond. I’m reminded of Duchamp, who liked to keep his arrangement of a bicycle wheel and a stool in his studio for the pleasure of watching the wheel idly turn.

Motion of Astronomical Bodies by Gusmão + Paiva at Camden Arts Centre, London.

A second camera obscura throws the image of a room, and a view into what seems to be a moonlit garden, on to the gallery wall. The light shifts as we watch, like the passing of time. This is magical, understated, and oddly spellbinding. Even when you know how the illusion is achieved (looking back through the holes in the gallery wall, to the inverted model beyond) it retains an air of strangeness.

Camera obscura display by Gusmão + Paiva

What does it all mean? Part of me doesn’t want to know. The book Teoria Extraterrestre, which accompanies the exhibition (it’s much more than your bog-standard catalogue) is full of little stories, anecdotes, jokes, quotations from philosophers, and imaginary conversations. Here is Walter Benjamin, from his famous essay on being out of his head in Marseille, ordering oysters while stoned on hashish. And here is an imaginary conversation between a wine taster and the blind man who ate the papaya. Spoof philosophies, real quotations, cod science and bits of arcane text accompany numerous commentaries on the works. It’s a labyrinth. I’m sure Borges is in here somewhere, and now and again the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa makes an appearance.

The more I try to make sense of Gusmão + Paiva, the more I balk at explanation. At some point, my inner critic leaves. What a relief. I stand gawping for hours. When I eventually leave, too, and cross the traffic on the hectic Finchley Road, the world is unhinged.