From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design

A new exhibition at Somerset House in London contextualises Brazilian contemporary art and design within the paradigm of international artistic practice.

The acronym “BRIC” was first coined in 2001 by economist Jim O’Neill to identify four emerging economies that changed their political systems in order to embrace global capitalism, and it was predicted that this process would shift global economic power away from the developed G7 economies towards the developing world. This prediction seems to have been accurate as the four countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China, are now seen as having the fastest growing economies. Following China and India’s examples, Brazil is now emerging as one of the major players within the world of contemporary art and it is within this context that Somerset House, London, is presenting From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the 21st Century.

This collection of Brazilian artworks created within the last decade features 33 emerging and established artists and designers. Each artist has been selected to represent the vibrant art scene across the country’s regions. The exhibition is part of a wider celebration of Brazilian culture aimed at promoting the country’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2016, and has been designed to coincide with this year’s major sporting event in London. From the Margin to the Edge covers contemporary art output in all its forms including installation, painting, photography, video, sculpture and design. The art historian and exhibition curator Rafael Cardoso states: “We have a dynamic art scene in Brazil, which dares to take risks and produces interesting work on the cutting edge.” The geo-political and socio-political aspects of the exhibition aim to broaden and redress any preconceived ideas that a European audience may have in relation to Brazilian art. Cardoso explains: “It has to do with the whole breakdown of the idea of centrality … of centre and periphery. It is impossible now to look at things from only one point of view.” Cardoso has chosen to platform design alongside visual art in an attempt to challenge the viewer’s expectations of what can and cannot be exhibited together. To assist in these intentions Cardoso has consciously chosen to present his selected works within three major themes, each a binary opposition: Raw/Cooked, Craftmanship/Gambiarra and Preserve/Transform.

How does one attempt to correct ingrained stereotypical associations? Cardoso suggests a response to this question in the following statement regarding his first theme. “Raw/Cooked relates to the traditional anthropological distinction between civilised and savage, and this part of the exhibition deals with preconceptions that Europeans might have in relation to Brazil. I want to call these things into question.” In the works by the artists Marcos Chaves, Emmanuel Nassar, Berna Reale, Caio Reisewitz and Eduardo Coimbra, Brazil’s cultural, racial and political identity is confronted within the context of its national heritage. In the photographic works by Chaves, the vast forest landscapes and surrounding terrain have been documented in singular frames and then the panels have been re-presented as assemblages. From this work we gain a strong sense of environmental deconstruction; we are left with the incomplete sections of a picture. Commenting on the images Arquipélago and Pontos de Fuga, Cardoso explains: “When you first look at them you think you are looking at paradise – and when you actually think about it a little bit, it’s about how unspoilt nature only exists as an imaginary view. It’s not a real landscape, it’s an imagined landscape.” The compelling and emotive stilled images of Reale’s performance entitled Quandos todos Calam (When all is Silent) display a young female lying on a table in the mouth of a harbour. In a pseudo-sacrificial offering to the gods, carrion birds swoop and circle menacingly overhead preying on fish bait that has been strategically placed on her naked body. Quandos considers profoundly the narrative between the consumption of natural resources and the depletive effect this has on the environment. The appropriation of a political symbol by the artist Emmanuel Nassar serves as a reminder of Cardoso’s concept within this grouping. The Brazilian flag, the ultimate representation of national identity, has been deconstructed and spliced back together again. In the painting Bandeira, this public icon has been re-contextualised, now devoid of its insignia Ordem E Progresso (order & progress) so that the original meaning is rendered obsolete. By transforming the flag into a personal possession, this act of intervention enables Nassar to reclaim ownership.

The Portuguese word Gambiarra means any quick-fix to solve a material or mechanical problem using whatever is at hand. It has no English equivalent. Likewise there is no equivalent term in Portuguese for Craftsmanship. Cardoso points out that these are “two opposite ideas about material culture: one is about how you quickly come up with solutions in a chaotic situation and the other one is extreme control, order, discipline and perfection.” This, he believes, is central to the discussion about what art is and what design is. He asks: “Is it about control over material, is it about technique or is it about chaos?” Artists presented under the second theme include Adriana Varejão, Amador Perez, Angelo Venosa, Cao Guimarães, David Cury, AoLeo, Laura Erber, Marcone Moreira, Maria Laet, Rochelle Costi, Ascânio MMM and Claudia Moreira Salles. The words headlining this section hold a meaning that gives a particular resonance to the works displayed. The curator’s observations seem to place the works within a framework of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, but Cardoso also wants visitors to contemplate their own inadequacy in understanding another culture completely. He suggests: “Whenever you speak about other cultures you will always talk about them from the point of view of your own preconceptions, and even misconceptions of that culture. So the second room has this untranslatability and overt tension.”

This tension extends to how artists choose to represent the world. Adriana Varejão presents both photographs and paintings of tiled swimming baths. The pools and interiors are pristine yet empty of bathers, evoking a cold, clinical feel. By choosing to present these formal structures, the artist seems to be asking the viewer directly to consider the two approaches, and to question what it is to stand before a painting depicting a scene as opposed to a photographic documentation of that scene. Costi responds in a similar way to Varejão in the haunting image entitled Zanine da serie Vende-se Tudo (Zanine series All Sold). The exterior wall of a building has been demolished, exposing a tiled mural on an interior wall. The surroundings are laid bare to the elements as nature and vandals reclaim this wasteland, however the mural alluringly resonates with intensity. In this striking image, the viewer is left with a sense that culture and disorder are in a state of conflict.

The complexity of translation is evident in the drawing series I, 2,- by Amador Perez in which he appropriates pictorial elements and reconfigures them in an endless exploration of possibility and authenticity. Sem Título by Angelo Venosa translates bone into metal in an alchemical rendering of two human skulls seemingly conversing by mirroring each other perfectly. In homage to the Argentinean poet, Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), Laura Erber’s video installation História Antiga (Ancient History) sets up a dialogue between text and image. By filming a gasping goldfish placed on Pizarnik’s words, and then projecting these onto an opened book, we cannot escape the implication that the poet conveys estrangement and crisis in her writings. In this case the image communicates to all viewers irrespective of their ability to comprehend the language of the text. Moreira constructs sculptural forms out of reclaimed wood from old boats, the distressed painted surfaces revealing their own particular story within a new narrative of formal relationships. The vestiges of time are also touched upon in Laet’s photographic series Milk on Pavement, in which she documents broken lines in slabs of dark concrete defined by the contrasting white of milk filling the fissures. These artworks, which rely to some extent on accident and abdication of complete control, are contrasted with works that display high levels of conscious planning such as Perez’s drawings and furniture by Claudia Moreira Salles, who combines simplicity of design with exacting joinery skills as evident in the pieces Armchair and Reverso table. Cao Guimarães’ photographs relate directly to the improvisation techniques and misappropriation of objects suggested by the word gambiarra. Indeed, the works displayed in the exhibition are part of an ongoing series of photographs and film that take the word as part of their title. Images from his film Mestres da Gambiarra (Masters of Gambiarra) capture eloquently the creative lengths people will go to prove the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention.”

In the section Preserve/Transform, there is a dialogue between the works rather than oppositions. Cardoso explains: ‘‘This is like trying to overcome untranslatability; trying to get over preconceptions and move on to something we can work with.” Here the artists are connected by the powerful and sensitive way in which they manipulate their materials. In this room, Cardoso sets out his argument that fine art and design are complementary rather than singular activities. Perhaps what the works share is a strong conceptual underpinning that informs each artist’s approach to their media. Raul Mourão’s sculptural pieces utilise an artistic vocabulary of visual elements in which urban forms are displaced from their usual context; among these are references to modernist structures and imprisonment, as in his caged chairs. When Laura Lima transforms three wheelchairs, the artist explores confinement of another kind. Three modernist design classics – the Eames, Bertoia and Bruer chairs – have replaced the seat of each wheelchair, and we are left wondering if the past constrains the present. The chair also plays a role in the work of Regina Silveira. Known for her amazing use of false perspective, the artist transforms shapes fluidly into new configurations; the shadows of four chairs are seemingly caught at different times of the day, revealing the transitory nature of experience.

The dialogue between the three works described above operates through direct correlation of the objects used by the artists. In other cases the connection is more ephemeral. Cardoso states: “There are three works that operate very much in conjunction.” One is a video by Rodrigo Braga entitled Provisão in which he digs a huge hole in the forest, cuts down a nearby tree so that it falls into the hole and then proceeds to bury the tree. It’s a disturbing work which powerfully captures the haunting absence created through the illogical destruction of natural resources. Whilst viewing this video the audience can choose to sit on stools made by Rodrigo Calixto. The artist is concerned about the certification of the wood he uses and set up his Oficina Ethos design company to establish an environmentally positive approach. In close proximity is another work by Marcone Moreira entitled Sacrifice – a sculpture made from recycled boat-wood. In the curator’s view this leads to a “discussion between destruction, preservation and recycling – and this is at the heart of what I want to get at in this exhibition.”

Cardoso considers: “One work that possibly sums up the whole exhibition is the video installation by Maurício Dias & Walter Riedweg: Do Universo do Baile (The Universe of the Dance). This takes the form of a three screen projection within a space that also has over 500 bathroom scales on the ground.” A black, poor and toothless transvestite reads the first Brazilian Constitution drafted after the end of military dictatorship in front of a patchwork of green and yellow bathroom scales. The colours reference the Brazilian flag, leading to questions on how Brazilian citizenship is to be measured. Cardoso’s coherent vision certainly places the participating artists’ work within a tightly structured framework, but unlike Mourão’s cages this framework does not constrain the artworks it contains. The selected artists are creating work that is informed by the same concerns of all contemporary artists: how to make sense of the dynamic changes in global relationships and at the same time retain authenticity through connection to our personal histories.

From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the 21st Century, Somerset House, London, 21 July – 8 September.

Angela Darby