This series was started by Vhils (Alexandre Farto) in 2007, first presented at the Visual Street Performance collective exhibition in Lisbon, Portugal, and first presented to an international audience at the Cans Festival in London, UK, in 2008. Since then, it has been developed in many surfaces around the world.
The project consists of a series of pieces, mostly based on human portraits and images of urbanity, that have been carved onto the surfaces of walls in chiselled simple contrasts, revealing the rough layers that lie beneath.
The fundamental premise behind this series is the act of working with the city as the prime material, using part of the urban environment itself, incorporating it into the piece and making the piece a part of the city at the same time. With this series Vhils is trying to express the notion that behind the monotone brick and concrete surfaces that make up the cities we live in, defining the nature of who we are, lies a human dimension which is dwarfed by the immensity of what they stand for. “Scratching the Surface” is an act of creation taken from lifeless forms, by subverting and rearranging the purpose for which they were built in the first place. The intention is to engrave the idea of life on a wall, creating an iconographic piece of symbolism that will endure – bringing to life the idea of life on a lifeless surface. In the un-organic and grey landscapes of the urban world it is easy to lose track of what our nature really is and where we came from – these portraits are a symbolic representation of life and nature, of people.
With this series Vhils has been exploring the notion of creating by means of destruction – a notion he first encountered in his practice of illegal graffiti. The main tool is based on the inverted use of the technique of stencilling – by forming compositions through the removal of different layers of matter to create sharp contrasts, instead of creating by the overlapping of layers. It is in essence an art of removal. The brutalist procedure involves first the projection of an image on the wall, which is then traced in paint and afterwards chiselled away, removing bits and pieces with recourse to hammers, chisels, pneumatic drills and other unconventional tools. Both the act and the process aim at creating contrasts as much as the final result of the piece. Everything is devised to help people consider and question the reality of urban life and their place within it. The pieces themselves aim to reach out to people and communicate, by reclaiming the use of that same public space and imprinting a symbolic portrait of humanity – to encourage ordinary people to have their own say and their own right to embellish and interact with the urban environment. To render it more human.
By highlighting the poetic value of decay, as he commonly works with dilapidated and derelict surfaces, Vhils aims to explore the randomness of what results from the destructive processes he resorts to, as well as the ephemeral nature that underlies all things. The patterns that are brought to the surface lie beyond his control, and this randomness can be found beneath the surface of all things – reflecting the growth process of the material and the passage of time, like the rings in a tree. This is a key concept in Vhils’s work – that everyone and everything is formed, in a symbolic way, by many different layers. By removing some of these layers, in the very same way as an archaeologist, Vhils delves into the past and brings to light something which might have been forgotten along the way of development: a notion of purity, a more human dimension of life.
The violence of the methods aims to create a sharp contrast with the poetics and beauty of the results.
– Text submitted by Alexandre Farto
Alexandre Farto (b. 1987) has been expressing his visual poetry under the name of Vhils since the early 2000s. He moved to London from Portugal in 2007 to study Fine Arts at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and currently works with Lazarides Gallery in London and the Vera Cortês Art Agency in Lisbon. His first solo show for Lazarides took place in July 2009, and since then he has been travelling and creating site-specific pieces and participating in exhibitions around the world.