Prominent Portuguese sculptor Rui Chafes, 48, has been working with malleable iron for the past 25 years. His other-worldly creations combine sharp industrial elements, with shapes from the natural world and art. From Lisbon, he’s about to exhibit 100 of his creations from his long career at the city’s prestigious Gulbenkian Museum. And in Dubai, the gregarious artist’s works form part of a show at Carbon 12 gallery titled ‘Black Rainbow.’ Chafes’ sculptures are exhibited alongside meticulous drawings by Berlin-based artist Ralf Ziervogel.
Chafes believes he sees conceptual similarities with Ziervogel’s work, explaining, ‘It’s about creating an idea that’s beyond the image you see.
In this case, there are things that look like images but are in fact words.
All my sculptures have titles, so normally I say to people that I work with iron, fire and words and the words [titles of the sculptures] are part of my work. So when I saw Ralf’s work, which was just words, I felt that it was a good moment.’
A keen intellectual, Chafes’ interests stretch far beyond sculpture. In 1992, he translated the work of the 18th German Romanticism poet Novalis. Through this work, the Portuguese discovered a deep affiliation with the writer’s words. ‘It was already part of my thinking in terms of how I looked at the world and not just a philosophical question. For me it was important to find myself in front of a writer and a spirit of writing that would fit my questions. I’m also very interested in the art of other times – not just the 20th century and the 21st century but also from the 18th and 17th century. It’s very important to look back for me.’
Chafes’ nebulous sculptures have always been finished in matt black iron. ‘First of all, it’s the only thing I can do and I’m still learning even after 25 years. I like the idea that you can create something with fire, with something that came from the earth. Iron and steel is something that comes from inside the earth so there is a romantic context but at the same time there is an industrial banality around it. Iron was not an artistic material in the 20th century so I think that artists like [Julio] González, David Smith or Richard Serra – they brought this industrial banality into the art world and this is very important for me because I don’t like artistic materials – I like very real materials.’
One of the sculptures, Inferno XXX, is a wall-mounted work, which is inspired by the early Renaissance master Botticelli. With references to the hair on the painter’s famous depictions of beautiful women, Chafes’ sculpture also alludes to the Botticelli’s horrifyingly graphic drawings created to illustrate Dante’s great work of literature, Inferno [hell]. ‘I wanted to create a very mimetic sculpture that would look like a woman’s hair falling down a wall. But at the same time, by putting the sculpture upside down, you can see the graphic representations of the phrases from Dante’s Inferno.’
Chafes also cites the French 1950s comic filmmaker Jacques Tati and Giorgio de Chirico, the Greek-Italian painter, whose work pioneered what would later become surrealism, in his work. ‘They inspire me and they are like models – they are creators that had a way of working that I follow and want to honour. Jacques Tati was the most precise filmmaker – everything that he was doing had a very light quality and at the same time there was absolute precision. Chirico is also an artist who followed very precise and magical ideas like [painting] shadows going against the sun – so again it’s someone that I admire. He had a very unique way of seeing reality.’
Chafes certainly has very particular views about what constitutes art. ‘I really enjoy site-specific [commissions] because I believe that an artwork only exists when you put it in its final position. [French artist] Marcel Duchamp said: “I don’t believe that modern art can work without being in its position.”’
Talking of his exhibition in Dubai, Chafes says he sees the city as a unique place, due to its relative youth. ‘If you look around you, everywhere is like a child being born – everything is happening for the first time.
That’s very interesting.’
Exhibition: ‘Black Rainbow’ runs until March 10 at Carbon 12, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 340 1799).
Artist: Rui Chafes and Ralf Ziervogel.