The art of filling time. Revisiting Henrique Baixinho’s objects

The theme of tedium has been discussed since the mid-nineteenth century and has been called by some the mal du siècle. The topic has been addressed by several philosophers: Pascal, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger… In the late 1920s, along with the contributions of other thinkers such as Thomas Mann, Siegfried Kracauer or Walter Benjamin, Heidegger (2005; 2007) question himself about the nature of modernity. Can we define it as “the age of the image of the world”? Can the world become an image? We speak of “image” in the sense that a humanist theory can be discussed from the observation and contemplation of the world, without anticipating in it the political-ideological and critical understanding that the authors of the Frankfurt School or, even later, the Situationist International with Guy Debord and others, argued.

I make this preliminary remark to suggest that our subjective world is perhaps constructed, at least in part, by and with the object-images that constitute our companion species, or that ones we adopt like someone adopting a pet. These are the partner-images of our daily lives. It was this pursuit of the desire to transform experiences into images, fostered by Heidegger (2005; 2007), that led me to revisit Henrique Baixinho’s workshop, albeit hesitantly as to the renewed motivations driving me there:

It is the 16th of August, a Monday morning, in Caminha (Portugal). I am going to Henrique Baixinho’s studio and on the other side of the street, next to CTT, I see him at the door. I walk up to the studio and suggest him to tell me the story of his “hobby”, while I look at his pieces on exhibition, or rather, the objects stacked halfway across the room. Until a year ago, this was half the size and then housed two adjoining shops instead of just one. I start by reminding him that I was there the week before, and that I’d bought two pieces there in previous years: a blue-painted wooden dog with black legs and pink drugstore brushes for teeth (a “sculpture” my son particularly cherishes and still keeps on the nightstand in his room) and a wooden spoon painted half in red and half in yellow, raised high, with two pink hands on each side (the hands of Baixinho’s granddaughter served as the model, as far as I know), a piece that sits with other decorative items on the mantel in our cottage in Moledo. Both objects suggest a slight sense of humour. (Field note, August 16, 2021, Caminha)

In everyday life we become indifferent to the present, to what appears and shows itself, to what still remains mysterious. What to say about that which manifests itself only through objects, namely in domestic space? What is your indeterminate way of being? I decided to counteract the oblivion of the everyday present and let myself be guided by the enigmatic character of the brush dog on my son’s headboard, and also by the wooden spoon-like hands that animate the gutter of the fireplace… As Svendson (2006) argues in contradiction to Heidegger’s imperative aiming to discover the deep existential meaning, there will be nothing in the present but the meanings of small everyday things, work, hobbies… Svendson, who acknowledges the importance of boredom as a means of self-knowledge, warns against the danger of despising the personal meaning inherent in all things and indulging in the illusion of waiting for the revelation of a “great meaning”. Talking to Baixinho, while enjoying the visit to his studio in Caminha, Moledo do Minho, I was carried away by the desire to understand the place of such an original hobby in his life. Several mysteries, simultaneously with many other revelations, joined each other:

The job was born out of an urgency to pass the time between training sessions – ‘what to do, go to coffeeshop?” he asks himself – in 2003, when Henrique Baixinho, a professional rower and renowned athlete with several titles at home and abroad, returned from Brazil after working there as a coach for eight years. He turns 60 in September, he is a coach in Vila Nova de Cerveira and still competes. During the interview, he talks about the rowing competition he took part in at the weekend in Oeiras, a tough test because “the sea was rough” – he shows me the cuts on his legs – but that did not stop him from winning another medal. His interest in the world of bicycles (he even had competed), coupled with his life as a sportsman, favoured communication between the two worlds of his daily activity: the sport on the one hand, and the hobby of (re)making objects in the workshop, on the other. It is in bicycle repair workshops he found many of the parts – lamps, handlebars, wheels, chains… – that he reuses to make his objects. The complicity he has established with the well-known workshops is very valuable, because in return he turns to them as customer. It happens that they call him when they have leftover materials that are interesting for collection. (Field note, August 16, 2021, Caminha)

The useless things Baixinho discovers in garages and other places become, in his hands, potential painkillers against boredom. That is the purpose that triumphs over potential “usefulness”. For that matter, usefulness is a principle that seems to mean little to Henrique. He seems to engage only in creativity to pass the time, with no other clear goal in sight. As Ovídio said in one of the Epistulae ex Ponto: “…nothing is more useful/than this art that has no use” (quoted by Ordine, 2018, p. 57). Baixinho’s pieces immediately point us to the broad discussion that has unfolded about “the utility of the useless” (we use the expression in allusion to the title of Nuccio Urdine’s work earlier mentioned) in relation to literature and art in general. Art for art’s sake could be another expression for the denial of artistic purpose. Referring to Heidegger, Urdine notes, “In his attempt to liberate the idea of the useful from an exclusively technical and commercial purpose, the German philosopher clearly expresses the difficulty, widespread among his contemporaries, of understanding the meaning of the useless. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult for “contemporary man” to feel interest in anything that does not imply a practical and immediate utility for “technical purposes” (Urdine, 2018, p. 80).

In particular, the motif of the bicycle leads me to Duchamp and I end up discovering curious facets of Baixinho’s creative craft, in some cases in the form of “co-created art” and reinvented at the whim of chance:

The bicycle is clearly one of the most important references, literally integrating the composition of many pieces. The comparison with Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), a work of assemblage that combines a bicycle on a bench, is inevitable. Baixinho says he knows neither the artist nor the work in question. He vaguely mentions that he appreciates art and refers to the Bienal de Cerveira. When I ask him if there are any other local artists in Caminha, he refers to a tinsmith artist now-deceased. His relationship with art comes mainly from his relationship with some clients or co-workers. Sometimes because Henrique asks them to complete certain pieces by painting them, sometimes because they order pieces from him that are later completed in some way by the artist-clients. This is the case with a piece I discover in the studio, lying on the floor, made of (real) animal horns he got from a butcher, and a head of fibre. The client will paint the piece later. Each piece is determined by a circumstance and is therefore unique: “I will not get another pair of horns because it’s not easy to go to a butcher and place a second order like this… it would happen other time, when my mother had two butchers (…)”. Another of the shown pieces was from an order from a client who had brought pieces made from electronic scrap, including computer mouse, from a professional family member or expert in the field, and who asked Henrique to create a creative piece to offer him. Other accounts of episodes in which clients had brought the raw material for transformation are added. Pieces of wood, spoons, scrap metal… Some make suggestions about the kind of end result they want, others respond to the suggestion of redesign by adding suggestions or discarding ideas and suggesting others… I still remember an episode of the five-meter shark that was once on display in the second store and now “belongs to some architects who put it in their holiday home”. Henrique shows me the photo of the piece and is proud of its size and the technical difficulties in its execution, which he overcame and explains to me in detail… or the case of the Frenchman who had bought the huge house next door (as well as other buildings in the centre of Caminha) and had commissioned from him a large whale made of rusty iron to keep the pool company… Henrique tells me this story while holding the prototype in his hands, a small whale made of wood with a metal-coated tail (“so it will not break”). He still has to make the mold, test it on site, and only then have the piece made by a blacksmith… (Field note, August 16, 2021, Caminha)

Baixinho’s workshop gives the visitor the impression of being immersed not only in a semi-private space, but also in a space that belongs to a domestic temporal order that evokes routines and memories, paced by the nuances between dense shadows and some half-light corners. It is not difficult to sense there the slow passage of time, a passage that is present in its protracted way, materialized in the persistence of what hardly changes and what is only transformed by Baixinho’s hands, who is engaged in the continuous recovery of the objects that overwhelm the scarcity of the interior space:

As we talk and walk through the studio, the connections between this space and the memories are revealed. The same store-studio is owned by the family, as is the adjoining store, also formerly used by Baixinho. I remember a blurry image a few years ago, when on one of my late afternoon visits to the studio, I caught sight of an elderly woman sitting in the shadows of one of the corners of the interior, next to a dusty window in the background… while Henrique attended to his craft from another angle. I also remember at this time his daughter (or granddaughter?), who was still a child, who was keeping her grandmother company (or was it grandmother taking care of her granddaughter?). Whereas an updated memory of Baixinho’s mother, which now challenges me, other images intrude, evoked by the atmosphere of intimate depth that surrounds her like an aureole of unreality, reminding me De Melkmeid (1658) or Vrouw met Weegschaal (1665) by Vermeer. The workshop, to which is added the intimate sphere of home suggested to me by the conjured image, unfolds in my memory at a triple border site: house-studio-shop… I preserve the memory of the feeling of evasion that visits to this place always gave me (visitors usually got in hesitantly, not knowing exactly what role to play, that of a potential customer or that of a visitor to an exhibition… or even if they were unwittingly thrown into the role of intruders in the domestic space… Henrique Baixinho, on the other hand, was usually, as he still is, economical in his dealings and remained reserved). Rummaging through the shelves on one of the side walls at the back of the studio, I am surprised to see a shelf of antique china that does not match the objects on display. The general pile had initially prevented me from attaching any importance to the detail. Henrique explains to me that these are objects left over from a family store and serve as souvenirs: “No one will buy it because these are very expensive,” he hastens to add. Before my eyes, I see not the forgotten stock of a store, but a kind of “showcase” with the leftovers from a family’s dining room. Moreover, I walk across the room, hoping to surprise someone at breakfast, perhaps still shivering and in their pyjamas… similar to a scene I had been told by a visitor to a gallery in Berlin around the 1980s… (Field note, August 16, 2021, Caminha)

Infected by the sense of floating that pervades everything there, I think of the way objects seem to approach (and bring us closer to) the poetics of time because of their inanimate nature. In Pascal (2004), boredom appears as a counterpoint to desire and communication. This idea is partially confirmed in Baixinho’s universe. There, objects communicate with each other, are linked to memories and future expectations. The annoyance that the passage of time evokes in Henrique paradoxically encourages him to seek strategies. Even there, in the workshop, he keeps rowing without stopping, to the taste of a sea of object-animals, object-lamps… He paddles slowly. It does not matter if he’s leaving or arriving. It’s the duration that counts. And the restart:

What follows is the punctual enumeration of innumerable little stories that happen to be triggered every time I point my finger at a piece – “And this one?” “This one was made with my daughter’s bike – she does not even know she has it here.” I notice that the word “princess” is still stamped on the handlebars. I imagine that the metal part was pink in the original before it was painted black. The so-called “sculpture” coexists with a section for lamp objects, one of the author’s “utilitarian” series based on the reuse of lighthouses and going beyond a purely decorative function.

From the list of accounts, I also recall the reference to a customer who ordered a little owl – “because she likes owls”. Moreover, in Baixinho’s studio we find, in a way, a small inanimate zoo: cats, dogs, owls, birds, whales… showing that figurative sculpture clearly predominates. Unique is the case of the snake, designed first by the sea and then by Henrique. The visit ends when I finally walk out the door with a wood black cat in my hands. Henrique has attached a hook at my request to hang it up. I walk away thinking about… what use can I give to the cat? (Field note, August 16, 2021, Caminha)

 

Helena Pires, Caminha, Moledo do Minho

August, 2021

 

P.S.: On the back of a postcard with a design alluding to rowing, which Baixinho offered me during my visit, it can be read: “Homage from the municipality of Caminha to all the former and current rowers of its most prestigious club and especially to its athlete Henrique Jorge Capela Baixinho, who is the most complete and international Portuguese rower of all time”.

 

References:

Heidegger, M. (2007). Los conceptos fundamentales de la metafísica. Mundo, finitud, soledad. Madrid: Alianza.

Heidegger, M. (2005). Ser e tempo (Parte I). Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.

Ordine, N. (2018). A utilidade do inútil. Matosinhos: Kalandraka Editora.

Pascal, B. (1977/2004). Pensées (Édition de Michel Le Guern). Paris: Gallimard.

Svendson, L. (2006). Filosofia do tédio. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

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