Emergency Confluences: From the Experimental in the 1960-70s to Contemporary Living Memory
5 May 2020, 10:37 am
And only now he realizes, within those fractions of time and space, how much of a fragile being his daughter was. K had never imagined that photographs could unearth such strong feelings. Some of them seemed to want to tell a story. For him, only the likes of Pushkin or Sholem Aleichem were able to do that through the power of words.
Consistent links between different generations of Brazilian artists can be historically delineated. We see, for example, a clear confluence of artistic strategies and approaches to work between the experimental and visual practices that flourished in the 1960s – and were consolidated in all their complexity throughout the 1970s – and the generation of contemporary artists that emerged in the last two decades. In the beginning of the 2000s, a number of collectives and artists deployed political tactics and methods within the public sphere, which were similar to the approaches adopted by the “barricade generation” during the harshest phase of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the so-called “lead years”. Meanwhile, the artists that have surfaced in the second decade of the 21st century have also been revisiting the memories and traumas of those years (1964-85), producing a visual and discursive landscape that represents a new strength: their art permeates the construction of new historical narratives, finding new paths for the debate around the national political crisis that has intensified since 2013.
In this sense, beyond a figurative repertoire that may resemble past practices, or that manifests a denunciatory and activist desire, the aim of this essay is to establish historical-poetic links between artworks that were experimentally produced in those turbulent years and artworks that are springing up – with a sense of emergency – in the present era of uncertainty and crisis. The current concept of crisis, and what it engenders, takes on several facets: from the environmental and climate experience of the Anthropocene to the landscape of democratic deterioration that is spreading across the world.
The series of “Zeros” produced by the artist Cildo Meireles is perhaps a good initial example of approximation and renewal of past experiences in the same work. If in the 1970s, he created Zero Cruzeiro (1974-1978): a note with a value and symbol reduced to zero on which the figure of the indigenous person is placed on one side and the figure of a psychiatric hospital intern on the other. More recently, he made the same gesture by putting Zero Real (2013) into circulation, where these two still marginalized figures remain highlighted. In an interval of almost four decades, the artist once again points out to us the precarious condition of social groups left on the sidelines and requalifies the public debate to the urgencies of today.
Well, the current context this essay focuses on is specific to the Brazilian political and cultural history that culminated in the collapse of the New Republic (from the Citizens’ Constitution of 1988 to the presidential elections of 2018). Whilst in the 1960s artists were responding to the symptoms of a state of exception underpinned by the Institutional Act #5, the current generation is fighting against concerted efforts to erase the memory of those years. A number of these artists have felt particularly motivated by the democratic transparency of the previous governments, which opened up the archives for public scrutiny, established the National Commission of Truth, and created the first communication channels with civil society.
These artists have sought to produce images and texts that re-qualify the national past in an attempt to build new possibilities for the future.
Showing a great level of bravery, these artists have sought to produce images and texts that re-qualify the national past in an attempt to build new possibilities for the future. For the purpose of this text – taking into consideration the confluences that we wish to reveal in the strategies adopted by Brazilian contemporary artists – three different routes deserve a dedicated analysis: the configuration of a territorial awareness rooted in the dynamics of occupation and construction of land and place; the unveiling of stories and cosmogonies from those who have always been at the margin of the civilizing project; and the formulation of new images inserted into a new popular imagery within Brazilian social history. These three axes form the basis of the links between past and present that we draw here.
At the end of the 1960s, Cildo Meireles (1948) produced a series of projects and actions entitled Arte física [Physical Art] (1969), where the artist proposed an in-depth reflection of a process of territorial and contextual awareness that, amongst other aspects, called into question certain geographical conventions, cartographic protocols and forms of occupation. The symbolic weight of these elements is present in Arte física: Caixas de Brasília/Clareira [Physical Art: Brasília Boxes/Clearing] (1969). Based on Brasília’s original master plan, the artist and two friends symbolically took territorial ownership of the city by demarcating a clearing in an area of the capital’s north wing, where they buried a box with residual dug-up and burnt soil. As a way of illustrating and recalling the specificities of the act, Meireles kept a map of the performance, pictures of the whole process and two extra boxes with residues. The most intriguing aspect of the action is precisely its consequences: as they carried out the project, the police, who were monitoring the city from the TV tower, arrived quickly at the scene. Brasília, which had been besieged by the military since the AI-5, had become a panopticon: Lucio Costa’s modernist project, with all its modern utopian aspirations, fitted the dictatorship’s authoritarian project like a glove. In this sense, Meireles’ gesture elucidates one issue: it brings to the surface the ambivalence of the Brazilian modern project of nation.
Through a similar process of territorial and contextual awareness, Lais Myrrha (1974) brings to light the tragedy of Gameleira, which took place in Belo Horizonte in 1971, during the construction of a public pavilion designed by Oscar Niemeyer, under the auspices of governor Israel Pinheiro. In Projeto Gameleira 1971 [Gameleira Project 1971] (2014) and Estados transitivos 1, 2 e 3 [Transitional States 1, 2, 3] (2014), the artist reveals the nuances of the devastating event, which was covered up by the authorities at the time. Resorting to different representation strategies, Myrrha evokes narratives that are still traumatic, laying bare the alliance that was formed between Brazilian modern architecture and the dictatorship. Her works tacitly reaffirm the ambiguity of the Brazilian modernist project, which at that point had already succumbed to an official status within a state of exception. Both Cildo Meireles and Lais Myrrha employ their art as a vehicle for the elucidation of the obscure zones that have come to define our territorial occupations and the use of urban spaces in those allegedly prosperous years.
The second axis outlines how, in a systematic way, Brazilian power structures tried to hide, shutdown and “ghettoize” populations, cosmogonies and imaginaries on behalf of a civilizing project, under the aspiration of expansion and development. In this sense, despite working in different periods of time, two women artists share poetical similarities in their efforts to challenge imposed forms of invisibility: Claudia Andujar (1931) and Ana Vaz (1986).
In her video Há terra! [There is Land!] (2016), Vaz turns her gaze to a territory beyond the Tordesilhas line, concealed by state policies, urging the spectator to experience an immense but completely invisible region. In turn, in the film Apiyemiyekî? [Por quê?] [Apiyemiyekî? [Why?]] (2019), the artist exposes the genocide of the Waimiri-Atroari people, which was the result of a movement of territorial expansion that took place in the 1970s and led to land invasions, the construction of the BR-174 highway and the setting-up of several mining enterprises. The film moves beyond documental cinema by using images produced by the indigenous population, placing the spectator in contact with unknown imagery.
By using the images produced by the indigenous population itself, we come into contact with an unknown imaginary.
This type of imagery is the cornerstone of Claudia Andujar’s monumental oeuvre. Here, the construction of images is seminal, as it accomplishes, simultaneously, the status of fierce accusation and visual translation of a previously unknown cosmogony, which is illustrated in the large body of work the photographer produced about the Yanomami people. In addition, the traumatic memory of the predatory occupation carried out by the military government is reflected in her series Descaminhos [Misplacements] (1974-89), which coincides with the first years of the New Republic. Both artists’ practices reveal the similarities between the political project conceived by the military terrorist regime and the political agenda of the current far-right government. Then and now, indigenous people not only have been kept at the margins of society but also have been at risk of planned extermination. In addition, and no less importantly, these artists’ outputs equally draw on the constitution of an awareness that includes the understanding of the local context and its territorial dynamics.
The third and last axis brings together the radicalism of images and prints produced in the mid-1960s and the current manipulation and subversion of forgotten images recovered by young artists. In the early 1970s, Antonio Manuel (1947), in his series Flans (1968-75), subverted discarded newspaper graphic templates to re-signify news and produce new layers of meaning for content that was often censored. In turn, Rafael Pagatini (1985) presently works with archive images using different techniques and scales, re-qualifying the power and historical value of past records, as exemplified in Retrato oficial [Official Portrait] (2017) and Bandeirantes (2018). In the first one, the artist printed the official portraits of military presidents on nails, accentuating the regime’s veiled intentions to convey the idea of a state of normality. In the second one, single enlarged images were printed on archive boxes bringing to the fore the individuals – the military, political leaders and businessmen – who took part in the opening of the Bandeirantes highway in 1978. This group of bodies illustrates the dynamics behind the maintenance of power that kept the public sphere under control.
In Tecituras (Pinacoteca) [Textures (Pinacoteca)] (2019), Pagatini uses a double-sided structure to reconstitute a specific moment in the institutional history of Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, which maintained a institutional relationship with the dictatorship. This was something recurrent amongst Brazilian institutions that were partially constrained by the government. The act of unveiling plays a fundamental role in the artwork, leading to further connections with other figurative and objectual practices of the 1960s: Pintura tátil [Tactile Painting] (1964), by Pedro Escosteguy (1916-89), and Repressão outra vez – Eis o saldo [Repression Once Again – Here’s the Balance] (1968), also by Antonio Manuel. Pintura tátil is an object-painting that marks the figurative power of a type of art associated with everyday life, which contributed, to a certain extent, to Brazilian new objectivity. In turn, in Repressão outra vez – Eis o saldo, the dichotomy between red and black, covering and uncovering, is the culmination of the contrast between making information visible and camouflaging it. In both artworks, weaving, engraving and manipulating images that represent the present are strategies that re-occur in Pagatini’s practice, reigniting and re-qualifying the debate around a past that is yet to heal.
These links, which have been briefly analyzed here, provide a summarized outline of the emergency artistic outputs that have arisen in the last few years. A fertile generation, whose members were often born during the period of democratization that followed the dictatorship, is presently looking into the official side of our violent history. They are researching archives, challenging consensuses, recovering and reinterpreting words and images, creating new images, and updating the institutional critique, amongst many other strategies.There are many Brazilian artists who, to some extent, have also tangentially addressed the concerns and/or strategies covered here: Alice Miceli, Bruno Moreschi, Cinthia Marcelle, Clara Ianni, Daniel Jablonski, Fábio Tremonte, Fernanda Pessoa, Fernando Piola, Gilvan Barreto, Graziela Kunsch, Ícaro Lira, Igor Vidor, Jaime Lauriano, Mabe Bethônico, Matheus Rocha Pitta, Romy Pocztaruk, Victor Leguy, Vitor César and many others.
Our democracy has reached its highest level of fragility and crisis, which is consistent with the current international context. It is urgent to see the images and read the words that today’s art signals us.
According to Márcio Seligmann-Silva, “a nation that has never managed to look at its own traumas and history of violence straight in the eyes is compelled to repeat the same history”. It is precisely against this status quo that contemporary art urgently seeks to redress and reflect, in a state of constant vigilance against the emergence of a new regime of censorship and control. Ongoing and still inconclusive, the research on themes and debates that involve memories and traumas inherited from the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship continues to run its course amongst artists, academics, and many different government and civil society institutions. However, given the recent political conjecture, particularly since the 2018 federal elections, it is necessary to reach a higher level of awareness and mobilize civil society to resist the new wave of conservatism, institutional dismantling and destruction, and the favoring of the private over the public sphere.
Today, in contrast to the previous decade, our democracy has reached its most critical state of vulnerability and crisis, which is mirrored by the current international context. Therefore, taking into account Bernardo Kucisnki’s viewpoint, it is a matter of urgency to be able to look at the images and read the words that the art world so sensitively turns our gaze to. Perhaps it is through art itself that we will be able to find the answers to the democratic impasses that we presently face and, consequently, respond to the cultural and ideological disputes at play. As aptly argued by Italian writer, thinker and activist Franco Berardi, it is time to look at “futurability”, that is, we must be able to see and become aware of the various possible futures inscribed in the present, maneuvering the possibilities that capitalism tries to deprive us from.