Silvestre Pestana’s retrospective ‘Tecnoforma’ at Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art – Porto, Portugal

‘Technoforma’ takes visitors on an engaging interrogation of the relationship between technology and the body. For myself it was a beautiful and poetic retrospective introduction to an artist in his 5th decade of activism, generally unknown outside of Portugal. Consisting of a dynamic and diverse practice with works ranging from collages, film to installation and sculpture, I feel a little out of my depths attempting to talk about an artist as intelligent as Pestana, so please forgive me if this writing does not do his work justice.

Installation view of ‘Tecnoforma'(2016) – (‘The invisible worker’ can be seen in action)

With most of the works having been made 30-50 years ago it is astounding how relevant their ideas remain in the Internet age of today. The political and social focus of the changing relationship between the body and technology echoes ideas presented in works and writings by internationally acclaimed artist Nam June Paik, which leaves Pestana’s worldwide anonymity a bit of a mystery.

This focus on the relationship between technology and the body was showcased quite brilliantly in the recently realised kinetic work: ‘The invisible worker’ (2016). This consisted of several small, circular robots whirring around the gallery, moving at a speed much faster than the average human pace. These domestic robots chased and tripped the audience, creating a tension between annoyance and humour, but most importantly they reminded us of the precarious nature of contemporary work.

Installation view of ‘Tecnoforma’ (2016) – (‘The invisible worker’ can be seen stationary)

Earlier works focused predominantly on Pestana’s ‘Biovirtual’ (1981-1987) series made in the 80’s, with black and white images of the artist contrasted with white neon lights dominating the last room of the exhibition. These works present a very literal contrast between the organic organism of the body and the industrial materials of technology.

‘Biovirtual’ works (1981-1987)

‘Necro Eco Pietá’, (1979) a photographic series of 10 images near the end of the exhibition also uses the form of contrast to interrogate the modern human’s relationship with death. This is one of the most striking works of photography I have ever seen and living in a world of over abundant imagery this is quite a triumph. Beautifully composed, the artist holds a skeleton against his body along with the props of a gas mask and a cigarette. The symbolism in this series for me represents the ridiculous-ness of the life we have made for ourselves; the protection we will one day need from the environment that created us and the self inflicting damage caused by addiction, bringing us closer to our death whilst bringing others into a monetary profit…but only in this life.

1/10 of the series ‘Necro Eco Pieta” (1979)


The most interesting thing I found in this exhibition was the emphasis on the body, the performative side of the art and the presence of the artist himself in many of the works. It started making me think about how the body is the one thing that we don’t have to pay for, but it is the only thing that we truly own, and our physical organism is a constant reminder of how unnatural trade is as this process of ownership does not involve a single transaction.