Sonority in João Onofre’s work


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Research and experience as parts of the creative process are central to the work of the Portuguese artist João Onofre (Lisbon, 1976). Investigation and action “in and for” contemporary art are fused in his work to the point of not being able to distinguish where one begins and where the other ends. In his pieces, the act of observing by the viewer and the artist capacity, merge in a simultaneous process. The idea of performativity of the protagonists bodies in relation to the camera, the exploration of the referentiality of sound, the potential to create spaces where the poetic and the action are confronted face to face, are constant features in Onofre’s work, in which documentary images of performative nature converge with tradition of conceptual art history. In this text we will explore the last works of the Portuguese artist along with some of his initial pieces in a kind of reverse path in his carrier.


Tacet, is a Latin term meaning “it is silent” and it is used in musical notation to indicate that the interpreter of an instrument or voice should not play for a considerable amount of time –for example, an entire movement. Onofre’s piece is named after this term. Created in 2014, it serves as a starting point for the reinterpretation of the work 4’33” by American composer John Cage. In this piece –designed for piano or other instruments– Cage’s instructions for the artist/artists are clear: do not play for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the score.

Onofre uses two concepts in Tacet that are immanent to the work of Cage. The first one is the use of the so called “prepared piano”, understood as a piano that has had its sound altered by placing external objects/elements –called preparations– on or between the strings. The external elements bring up in uncalculated and unexpected sounds when the instrument is played. Sounds similar to quantums jumping indeterminately. In Tacet, the “external” element is the fire, which is by nature very unpredictable. This unpredictability is the second cagean notion used by the Portuguese artist: the indeterminacy.

In the text A Year from Monday [1] , John Cage explains the development of his experimental work –unpredictable. A tendency to experimentation-indeterminacy equation with variable contributions of pragmatism will be the path that Cage will take to remove the relational structures. Beyond the interpretation and composition, there is also the event itself, understood as the execution of the piece –and its temporality– and thus, the sonority as such: anarchic, without permission and supported by chance.

In João’s Onofre piece, the perception of an aural crescendo is caused by the unstable and unpredictable essence of the burning flame. But not only this, the event is amplified, as said before, by the sound of the fire and by the action of a man counting time while facing a wall of flames, following the timeline “event-happening-execution” exposed above.

All these concepts visually approach us to the same experience, music and silence, which led the Mexican poet Octavio Paz to dedicate a series of poems to John Cage: Lectura de John Cage (On Reading John Cage) [2].

As Paz, Onofre reflects on silence, space, time and death. “There is no silence except in the mind … Music is not an idea: it is movement, sounds walking over silence” in the artist’s words: “In Tacet, my interest lies in how to treat sound and time as a subject in the moving image “.

Celebration of sound in Onofre’s work 

As Tacet, most of João works have in common the implicit celebration of sound as central element, with a persistent and rigorous use.

The concept of acousmatic sound –defined as sound one hears while the originating cause of the sound remains unseen. A sound where visual references are removed from the hearing, allows the contextualisation of Onofre’s latest audio-visual work: VOX (2015). A disturbing video filmed in sequence shot, in which a gyro stabilized camera on a helicopter visually responds to the crescendo and diminuendo of the original musical composition Eu Amo by Norberto Lobo, played by himself under a parasol on a promontory overlooking the Portuguese coast, with an electric guitar and making use of the bow to touch the strings.

In both VOX and Tacet, the sound is enriched by the environmental “noise”. As proposed by Michel Serres in Genesis [3], we must think outside the metaphysical categories. Serres wants us to hear the “noise“, the “sound” and the “anger“, which actually are in the background of every life and thought.

One of the most urgent tasks of current thinking, Serres continues, is to recognize that the multiplicity is on the agenda. Such plurality actually cannot be thought, but can be detected, felt and heard under the illusion of rational order imposed by civilization. In line with this succession of ideas, the works of the Portuguese invite to be detected, felt and heard, that is, experienced in its many facets.

VOX has also a parallel piece, Box sized DIE featuring … (2007-2015), consisting in a cube of steel of dimensions 183x183x183cm inspired by the minimalist work of Tony Smith, DIE (1962). In Box sized DIE featuring … a band of Death Metal is inserted into the box with their instruments, the door is sealed and the sound is not heard from outside. The duration of the performance is completely variable, determined by the duration of oxygen inside. The work provides an invisible and inaudible show contained in an enclosed space. Only residual sound vibrations guarantee the performance from the outside.

Following the artist’s timeline backwards, other earlier works explore the musical and the sound as a cultural heritage. This is the case of his Untitled (n’en finit plus), 2010-11, where a teenage girl sings La nuit n’en finit plus by Petula Clark a cappella and down tempo into a hole on the ground of a prairie. Or Untitled (I See a darkness), 2007, in which two children aged 11 and 12, interpret the version of Johnny Cash, I See a darkness, originally composed by Will Oldham. All these works have different levels of lecture that connect the mainstream culture –music in this case– with other different areas to reveal something new.

As a postscript, quoting João Onofre’s own words on art and culture: “the cultural scenario, despite its apparent stability, is subject to (new) decoding and recoding that alter their physiognomy. I understand the cultural sphere not as a one-way street, but as raw material to be remodelled, as a territory predisposed to re-interpretation”.

More information about the artist available on

[1] John Cage. A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings. Middletown, Connecticut: Ed. Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

[2] On reading John Cage poem belonging to: Octavio Paz. Ladera este (1962-1968). México: Ed. Joaquín Mortiz, 1969, 182 pp. English version: Thomas Ingmire, Octavio Paz, On reading John Cage . San Francisco: Ed. Scriptorium St. Francis Press, 2010.

[3] Michel Serres, Genesis. (Tr. Geneviève James y James Nielson). Michigan: ed. Michigan University Press, 1982.

Words: María Muñoz (Text first published on 15 Aug 2016)
Images: courtesy of Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art (Lisbon) and Marlborough Contemporary (London)

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