Having all the artworks by renowned international artists brought into the region just for Art Macao is nothing less than inspiring. But what makes our hearts melt is when some of the most spectacular art is created by the artists who work and live right here in Macau. Two of such artists are João Ó and Rita Machado. They built Sanctuary, an interactive bamboo installation on Mount Fortress. We met with João Ó and Rita Machado to talk about art and architecture, Art Macao and bamboo.
Let’s start with both of you. How long have you been in Macau? How did you meet?
João: I’m Portuguese, but I grew up in Macau. Then, I went to university in Portugal to study architecture. Shortly after that, I returned to Macau to work and met Rita.
Rita: I came here in 2006 to do a research project. I interviewed João for it because he had an open view of Macau. From that moment, we went back and forth between Macau to Portugal. In 2013 we decided to open Impromptu Projects, our studio.
Tell us more about Impromptu Projects.
João: We wanted to do our own thing and explore some ideas we had. One of those ideas was to work in the arts field. We are architects, but I’ve had experience in working with painting and photography. We had the motivation and some savings (laughs). Thus, the studio was born.
In 2013, we were living near the A-Ma Temple–it was right in front of us. Eventually, we started to observe the bamboo opera theaters in Macau that are built every year next to the temple. We began analyzing and researching the field with the bamboo masters. In 2014 I went to Colombia for a workshop about bamboo and later to the World Conference in South Korea. The whole bamboo story evolved in 2015 when we won the online open call organized by Babel, a non-profit cultural association in Macau. We proposed the bamboo Pavilion (Treeplets) and they chose it.
Today, one of our biggest projects is the renovation of the Macau Grand Prix Museum. It’s challenging as we have to work on the existing building. We have to bring something new but understand the old building as well. It’s our everyday life now.
Do you guys consider yourselves artists or architects? What word would you choose to define yourselves if you had to?
João: I’d like to say that we are architects because of our educational background. But we’d like to blur the border between the two. For instance, an installation incorporates both arts and architecture.
Rita: In fact, we can manage this type of structures because we are involved in the architectural field. One part is being supported by another.
João: We have been testing intervention both in the art field and the architecture; in museums and outdoors. Outdoors is our usual intervention space, which is a public realm. We aim to get the reaction of people, to promote the outdoor space and not just to work inside the white cube of a gallery. However, we’ve done both.
It’s not just about the artwork, it’s about the event. It is important how people engage with the space and structure, how we create a parallel event with that structure. That’s why it then falls back to the architecture because you need to live that space not just observe it like a painting.
You focus on ephemeral structures which is not a very traditional focus for an architect. Normally, we would assume that people choose to become architects to leave a legacy that will stand for centuries. Why did you decide to focus on ephemeral art?
João: We want to create an event. Our canvas is space. We usually make this comparison that space is our canvas and the bamboo is our median. A canvas for a painter is space, right? And the paint itself is the medium. So in our case, we work with space and we use bamboo to express and manifest.
But yes, it’s true what you say. The education we got in architecture dictates something different from what we do now. I think that’s exactly why we needed to create our studio. We also have long-term architectural projects; we work with the government. But it’s usually around five years working just on paper, a slow pace of life. In the end, it might not be built at all.
One of the works that we’ve done with the government was a pedestrian walkway in Taipa that links Taipa Houses–Museum with The Venetian Macao roundabout. We won the tender in 2016.
Rita: This one is a little bit different because we are using the bamboo to give some shade, but also as decoration. By the way, bamboo is a very sustainable material.
João: There is a worldwide promotion of using bamboo now instead of trees in furniture production to solve the deforestation problems. We learned this at the conference and brought this knowledge to Macau.
So would you say that the main message behind your artworks is ecological?
Rita: Not just that.
João: We have a sustainable strategy. The material that comes from the scaffolding and the masters who work with us come from that industry. The material that we use doesn’t go to waste, it goes back to the industry.
Rita: We are giving a second life to bamboo.
João: Also, it is to promote the local community’s identity. Even before the Portuguese settled here, the tradition of opera houses made with bamboo existed. We wanted to continue this and give this tradition a contemporary vision. We were inspired and wanted to be involved in this amazing event.
For Sanctuary, we put the hammocks so people could do something more than just observe and take photos. We wanted them to relax and appreciate the outdoors.
Let’s talk more about Sanctuary. How did the project come to life?
João: We presented our project to the government and it turned out to be a great time. They immediately said yes because they were planning a huge art event–Art Macao. An outdoor art project fit in perfectly.
To be honest, the first location for the sanctuary was right behind the Ruins of St. Paul’s. The idea was to put Sanctuary behind the facade. So when you “enter”, instead of seeing nothing, you would see the arches of Sanctuary. That was the first approach that we created when the project still had no name. To our delight, the government accepted the idea. However, in the process, there were a few issues, so we had to choose a different spot and implement the plan there. That was Mount Fortress. It fit perfectly. Tourists normally go there for a panoramic view of Macau. And suddenly there is a surprise element. You climb up to the hill and there is a place to rest! The whole thing made sense.
Rita: It’s important that people touch the structure, feel it, interact with it. We asked the museum to open the area so people could go there. It was more important to make people interact with our work.
People are very polite here where they take off the shoes to relax in the hammocks. They leave their stuff hanging on the bamboo, sometimes even forget their belongings. It’s like one of your friends that goes to your house and forgets something so it’s quite funny.
João: It made us realize that people feel comfortable here; they feel at home.
What have been some of your favorite reactions of people to Sanctuary?
Rita: Oh, I think it was on the day when we were installing the hammocks. There was a barrier because the mounting was in process. Four security guards were around. Unexpectedly, a guy jumps into the garden and starts running towards the hammocks. The security guard whistled and asked the guy to leave. He was really upset because he wasn’t allowed to relax in a hammock.
João: That’s when we understood it’d be a success. This man saw the hammocks and instantly thought, “It’s a good place, I want to go there!”
Who doesn’t like hammocks, right?
João and Rita: Exactly, who doesn’t?
Rita: Once, we witnessed a heated discussion between a grandmother and a grandson. They were arguing who should take it first.
João: One more important reaction. These artworks make the bamboo masters proud. Normally, they build scaffoldings. Here, they transform from construction workers to artisans. But for us they have always been artisans, their contribution is very important. And they feel it, they feel elevated.
Rita: When we did the Treeplets, the chief bamboo master was there on the last day of the installation. He had to go back home to China but didn’t want to go as he said: “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever created. I want to stay and enjoy it”.
What are some of the challenges in creating an open art installation that the public might not know about?
João: Every project we built before only required our knowledge of structure, intuition and masters to help us with the reinforcement. This time though, we needed an engineer to approve the structure and make sure that it will withstand typhoons. The engineer we spoke with accepted the challenge and he reinforced it with some diagonal elements for the typhoons or strong wind. That wasn’t in the blueprint, but it was necessary.
Rita: Weather is one important thing. For this project, we had five masters for 10 days and whenever it rained they had to stop because the bamboo is very slippery. At the same time, we have a timeline and deadlines to meet. So the weather was a very big challenge.
João: I think the main challenge is bureaucracy (Rita laughs). You have to deal with a lot of departments. Working outdoors, especially in the heritage site brings a lot of challenges, restrictions and obstacles. But that challenge is a part of the creative process, it makes our brains work. Often, obstacles improve the original idea. If everything was easy, it wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes you need restrictions. Sometimes you don’t know what to do with a white canvas, but when you have restrictions and conditions, it gives you some kind of inspiration.
Your art piece will soon be dismantled, how did it feel participating in Art Macao?
João and Rita: We are not exactly nostalgic.
João: The goal is achieved. And dismantling is a part of the ephemeral art life cycle, we embrace it. We will just start thinking about the next project and find ways to implement the knowledge we got.
Rita: It’s easier because we knew from the start that this project was going to end. It adds artistic value to the work as it has a limited life.
What is it like to participate in the art event of this scale? You are going to be forever in the history pages of Macau art scene.
João: First of all, we feel very grateful for this opportunity that the government gave us. It is a very big project for us. We hope that the next editions will keep the pace of the first Art Macao.
Rita: A great thing about Art Macao is that now, people don’t have any excuse not to go and see art–it is everywhere in the city. It’s amazing for the citizens and tourists alike to have all this interaction with art.
For us, it was a big surprise to be involved in Art Macao. We didn’t understand the dimension of the event, we only understood it during the process.
Do you think Art Macao will influence the local art scene, the artists, the locals?
Rita: It will definitely push the artists to work harder.
João: The government tries to motivate outdoor events more and more. Having more entertainment in the outdoors, installations, sculptures or even paintings will make people more interested in the arts. An average citizen might not go to a museum regularly. So the museum comes to them.
I believe that it’s necessary to mix the works of international artists with the local ones. Macau artists will bring something unique–their vision. The visitors love seeing big names, but I believe they also wish to see something different. Like with the food, people come here and want to try the local food.
Does Macau inspire you?
João: Yes, especially the old part of Macau. The cages that you see on facades that citizens appropriate to create more space. In a way, it’s ugly, because it’s destroying the facade. But what we see is an interesting way of appropriating space. We see an extension, a need for people to intervene. This part is very inspiring.
Rita: The building is the body, the cages are the veins. Also, sofas, chairs on the street, people playing mahjong, chatting. It’s great to see how locals use public space.
João: And then there are these shops that extend to the street. It’s quite inspirational in terms of design. And makes you think outside the box about outdoors versus indoors. It gives you an insight into how the social element should be implemented in the design.
Rita: In the end, space is not for the architecture, it is for the people.
For more information on João Ó and Rita Machado’s architectural artwork, check out their website.