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Jacobus Capone’s performance art often finds him undertaking feats of endurance, such as his trans-Australia walk carrying a jar of water from one coast to the other. For his latest work, he found inspiration in the melancholy of Portuguese fado music. By Steve Dow.

Artist Jacobus Capone and his fado project

Amid scaffolding, a ladder, an electric fan and power cords, seven large landscape-shaped screens occupy the centres of four adjoining rooms. Here at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, four female and three male singers are each projected onto a canvas.

Over seven consecutive dawns, they each sang in the traditional Portuguese style known as fado – which means fate or destiny – their solos floating into the ether along the Lisbon coast, although here in the gallery their words rise as far as netting strung across the ceiling.

Wearing a white T-shirt that hangs loose over his thin frame, Perth-born artist Jacobus Capone has a torchlight on an elastic band around his forehead, to see his way through the detritus of his multiscreen installation, which connects to his past, extraordinary durational performance art of walking, seeing and ways of being.

In Lisbon on an artist residency last year, the 30-year-old Capone began a ritual of walking at dawn, with words he’d written in a fado style taped to his chest, translated and shaped into lyrics for him by Lisbon writer Tiago Torres da Silva. Fado recording artist Rodrigo Costa Felix helped Capone source other fado singers to perform in his high-definition multichannel video work.

The result, Forgiving Night for Day, shows the influence of Lisbon-born poet Fernando Pessoa on Capone, as well as saudade, a feeling of longing and nostalgia that is said to define the Portuguese temperament. The gallery blurb says the installation is an “evocative prayer to an awakening city”, embracing what may go unnoticed in an ordinary day and “liberating such instances from the psychological confines of regret”.

Is this new work intended as cathartic, for the viewer or for himself?

“I saw it as being – you’re right – a cathartic process,” he says. “It was something I felt I really needed to deal with – it sounds selfish, but personally – in order to move on, into different areas.” Was there a specific cause of this psychological weight? “No, it was just how succinct an idea can be encapsulated and how it was embracing a culture that so perfectly lives with it, on a day-to-day basis.

Saudade is not an outward, reaching longing – it’s what you hold dear to your heart and you cherish it, and that’s what I see in my work as well, where a lot of it can be melancholic or nostalgic, and there’s this longing or sadness that’s there. But I always try to be real about it, and not be as clichéd … that things are not as poetic as they seem – they’re very everyday and mundane.”

Capone might have become a mountaineer as much as an artist. He completed a climbing course in the New Zealand Southern Alps, just outside the town of Wanaka, with one of his sisters. He often spends months in Iceland, and has just returned from Greenland, admitting a lack of a strong sense of connection to Perth, “other than friends and family”.

Is he attracted to the melancholy of the polar world? “It’s more a ferocity that I like … this feeling that you’re absolutely nothing at all and a hurricane wind could come very quickly and – yeah, it just makes life seem very thin and small.”

It’s 10 years now since Capone walked from one side of Australia to the other, in 2007. His elder sister, Gemma, was along for support and typically each day drove her car several kilometres ahead to scout out and set up a campsite. Capone would begin his trek each morning about 5.30 or 6, and continue until sundown, at which time he and Gemma would begin their nightly ritual of collecting firewood together.

Each day, Capone carried a small suitcase, in which sat a sealed glass jar containing water he had collected from the Indian Ocean, which 147 days later, on the eastern side of the continent, he finally tipped into the Pacific. He called this performance work To Love, and while the siblings’ journey and the minute gesture of the water relocation sounds poetic, this walking along major highway routes broke down the romanticism, with its constant signs demarcating the distance to the next town, before finally breaking the artist himself. “At the end of it, it was almost like a trauma, or a hallucination that didn’t happen,” says Capone.

He watched his body transform. “I’ll never forget seeing the muscles in my legs very pronounced all of a sudden.” For two years after finishing To Love, he had no interest in making art.

“Following up that work was really daunting, because the breadth of it is really big. I showed components of it in the [university] graduation show, but there was so much work that came out of it that is still in storage that I really don’t know how to deal with. They’re better just left as artefacts. The story of it is a lot nicer than seeing the installations or images – it stands better as just a sentence or two.”

The desire to make art returned in 2009 with a work called disquiet, in which Capone, then turning 23, spent a week in a small Perth art gallery called Kurb, unpicking each strand from a large haystack and arranging them one by one on the gallery floor.

Capone got lots of notes from different people about Disquiet. One was from an artist, Amy Perejuan, who wrote about her response to the work and, at the bottom asked: “Do you know about [performance artist] Mike Parr?”

“I got really irritated,” says Capone. “I was like, ‘Of course I know about Mike Parr.’ ” Perejuan left her email address, and they began a correspondence.

Capone and Perejuan today keep a small apartment in Fremantle, but they travel each year, most often to Iceland, where they married in the small town of Blönduós in 2013. “It feels like a second home. I first went there when I was at university, and I knew nothing about it; I just had this sense of homeliness there.”

Writing in Griffith Review of the difficulty West Australian artists face to gain even national attention, critic Ted Snell notes “the tyranny of myopia continues to skew the chronicle of Australian art history ... art ends at the 129th meridian”.

Leaving each year is certainly something Capone needs to do, but not for recognition; while his projects are ambitious, he says he is not ambitious in terms of career. Rather, “I need at least three to four months to be away from Perth, to have the psychological clarity.”

This sense of artistic striving may sound meditative, but during durational works, such as Disquiet, when a gallery space would be closed for the day, Capone would get passers-by yelling abuse and beating at the doors, treating him as a weirdo.

“It just seemed so ridiculous to say, ‘I’m picking strands of hay and placing them on the floor’ with this happening in the background. It thwarts any clarity happening in your head,” he says.

“I enjoy these actions because they’re so futile. Is it meditative? Do I get anything out of it? Sometimes, me personally, no I don’t, but I still want to attempt to see if it’s possible.”

 

Capone’s mother understands him well. In 2009 for the work Interlude, in Perth’s Free Range Gallery, he spent 24 hours blindfolded, fasting and stripped to the waist, imprisoned inside a steel drum, scraping a nail against its wall. Visitors could climb a ladder and peer down the 2.5-metre-high cylinder.

Present for part of the performance, Stephen Bevis, then arts editor of The West Australian, described Capone as looking like an emaciated dungeon inmate and the noise as inducing teeth grinding. Capone’s mum, Maria, was keeping vigil. “It is quite emotional after a while,” she told Bevis. “It is almost like a mantra, like rubbing the rim of a Tibetan singing bowl – though they do sound a bit nicer.”

Capone refused to speak during Interlude, shrugging his shoulders when asked questions, but that much was a cinch considering that, in 2006, while still studying at university, he completed the work énoncé, for which he ceased talking for six months, from April 23 to October 23 that year.

“Mum was the most accepting of it,” says Capone now of énoncé. “I still can’t remember how we engaged most of the time, but without words, it was amazing how much closer we got, as well.”

Surely the temptation to speak must have been unbearable? “No,” he laughs. “When I was younger, I was a lot more diligent. I started off with a whiteboard, as well, and just being able to gesture that you can’t speak. It was something I wanted to go back and explore for longer.”

Is there a spiritual side to this asceticism? “I don’t have faith in any specific religion, but I do have faith in sensation and how that sensitivity is incredibly valuable, and looking at the body system is its own religion in itself, and its interaction with other people and the environment.”

Capone is named Jacobus after his late, maternal grandfather, a butcher who raised a large family and had an adventurous spirit. He is the youngest of four children. Capone’s sisters have chosen their own adventures, too, out of wanderlust: Gemma, who accompanied him across Australia, is studying for her shipping captaincy, having worked up to second mate; younger sister, Carmel, has a small aircraft licence to fly Cessnas. Brother Simon is an electrician.

Capone drew closer to their father, Mal, through art. His abiding childhood memories of his father before the age of 11 are of him playing the piano accordion, which his dad gave up playing after a diagnosis of severe depression. The piano accordion then sat unplayed and out of tune for 18 years.

For Volta, a video work shown at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne and Perth’s Success space in the basement of an abandoned department store last year, Capone spent five-and-a-half months filming his father reacquainting himself with the piano accordion.

Then Capone filmed other family members watching the video. “For him to see the family respond to his playing was quite intense for him … He was speechless; he was really happy with it.

“It was funny, the only thing he picked up was when he misreferenced different songs in it and he forgot certain things. He was always saying he wished he could have played better. It took him some time to understand it wasn’t about him playing well – it was the journey we were undertaking together.”

Capone had coaxed his dad into playing by saying he’d always wanted to learn the piano accordion, too. Mal’s own father – his parents had been born in Sicily – had played the same instrument. “I began filming him, and because of what he went through with depression, being this gap period in both of our lives, and we weren’t really close at all, I saw this open opportunity to use the piano accordion as a medium to draw us close together again.”

What impact did his father’s depression have on Capone as a son and as an artist? “It’s one of those things as a child you don’t understand. He’d spend super long hours at work [as a draughtsman] and then you pretty much wouldn’t see him at all. It became this absence.”

Their relationship renewed, father and son would spend the weekend together. For the family, the work was “embracing what was traumatic, while cherishing what it gave us all”.

In an earlier, live-performance project, Mal and Jacobus spent a day listening to one another’s heartbeat. “It was the first time I’d heard someone cry in a gallery,” recalls the son now of an audience member’s response.

As Ted Snell has suggested in Scoop Online’s “WA Art Review”, Capone is examining the world as a series of experiences in durational time. How does Capone himself view time? “I’m always fascinated by what it could mean by attempting to be within the moment. I’ve explored the impossibility of it, because whenever we try to describe it with language, you’re already outside of the moment.

“That’s where this impinging influence from Fernando Pessoa… I always get brought back to that, the way he just tears language apart. The moment you’re within a moment and internalise it, the moment’s dead.”

Capone would like to see himself as entwined with the landscape, too. “These are things you hope for, but nothing ever is as what you want it to be.”

 

Steve Dow travelled to Perth with the assistance of the Perth International Arts Festival.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 1, 2017 as "Portugal Capone". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.