We all have our own idea of Brazil. It is a country that is close to us and yet at the same time distant, mysterious and uncanny. In a certain way, Brazil is an imaginary country. It is a country of spectacular nature and magic, of ethnic and social diversity. In fact, it is not one country but multiple, variable, rich and overwhelming lands. There is thus no one way to sum up the nation or the country, and the same goes for its art scene.
This is why we have called our exhibition: IMAGINE BRAZIL. What you will see is a constellation of works by young artists, our view on emerging Brazilian contemporary art. We also present two further exhibitions within the exhibition: a selection of more established artists who have been invited into the show by the younger ones whom we have chosen, providing a story of recent art in Brazil, and an exhibition of artists’ books by emerging practitioners, curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Ana Luiza Fonseca. There is no attempt to tell a single truth through these selections, only to make hypotheses and propositions based on our knowledge, sensibility and experience, the personal choices of the young Brazilian artists and the expertise of the Brazilian curators. As always when confronted with a work of art, imagination is required.
Over the past ten years, the Astrup Fearnley Museet has initiated research into and organised exhibitions featuring the young contemporary art scenes in North America (The Uncertain States of America, curated by Daniel Birnbaum, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Hans Ulrich Obrist) China (China Power Station, curated by Julia Peyton-Jones, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Hans Ulrich Obrist) and India (Indian Highway, curated by Julia Peyton-Jones, Gunnar B. Kvaran and Hans Ulrich Obrist). The intriguing complexity and richness of these shows is based on an organic curatorial model where the exhibitions, once they travel, change and grow in every new venue. This time, together with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, we have chosen Brazil. For five years we explored different regions of the country in order to get acquainted with their booming artistic scenes, which are receiving more and more attention worldwide. We contacted Brazilian artists and curators whom we already knew and asked them to introduce us to the Brazilian art world, and then we met critics, independent curators, museum curators, journalists, editors of magazines, residency programme managers, academics, art lovers, gallerists and collectors, always asking the same questions on our quest to find the best of the new generation of young artists who are emerging in the Brazilian art world. While we were researching the emerging scene, which was largely without official documentation, we read, listened, watched and accumulated knowledge and documentation on the history and the art history of Brazil. It was real advantage that in Brazil there is a genuine infrastructure, an ‘art system’, with all the same ingredients that we have in the European art world. Partly because of this, our research progressed relatively quickly. We organised data and mapped the artistic situation in the country, as well as expanding our dialogues with artists and professionals in all the regions of Brazil.
Quite early on in our project we realised that our research was leading us to a new and fascinating generation of diverse young Brazilian artists who would form the corpus of our exhibition. But given our awareness of the fact that knowledge of Brazilian contemporary art in Europe and other parts of the world was quite poor, and that we could never produce an exhaustive presentation of such a complex scene in general, it became imperative at least to produce a catalogue that could reflect and represent the richness of contemporary art in Brazil.
The history of Brazilian art is well documented, especially that of Brazilian modernism, such as the Concrete, Neoconcrete and Tropicália movements, which developed independently but also in deep dialogue with different modernist trends in Europe and North America. Artists like Oscar Niemeyer, Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape and Ernesto Neto, are all part of the international modernist and artistic heritage and recognised by the general public internationally. Parallel to this great modernist tradition there is also an explicitly Brazilian conceptual art that was less dogmatic and structuralist than its counterparts in Europe and North America, but more open, more poetic and more politically engaged, as we can see in the works of Cildo Meireles.
In Brazil there is an Art History and a Legacy that can be quite overwhelming for emerging Brazilian artists to follow. But like every new generation of artists, supported by critics, curators and gallerists, they break boundaries and offer new conceptual premises, proposals and artistic visions. What particularly drew our attention was that a number of the young artists have taken a certain distance from the modernist tradition. They are no longer working within its formal and aesthetic paradigms. Instead, they are questioning and deconstructing its heritage, often with a certain irony and wit. They are inventing new codes and procedures, which are mostly conceptually based. One could call it a narrative conceptualism, with a wide range of themes, an approach used to re-examine the complex history of art, and the painful history of their country, as well as to highlight the tensions and social and economic inequalities that currently afflict it.
From Brazil’s rich and complex artistic landscape, we selected artists who are proposing a new artistic language in order to develop important and urgent subject matter. We found the most inspiring artistic production and growth among those young artists who have dived into the multitude of possibilities offered by conceptually based works. They are using a variety of languages, complex research and experimentation with words, materials and structures to embody their ideas.
We can see this in the works of Gilbert Deyson who plays with the readymade and the altered readymade, juxtaposing objects through tension, instability, random constructions and unpredictable links. In his conceptual narratives Rodrigo Matheus also uses the altered readymade, in his case to tell stories about monuments and architecture, the environment, commerce and politics, while Adriano Costa employs found objects in order to deconstruct and subvert the modernist system, introducing doubt and risk, and opening up creative reflection on the art object. Mayana Redin’s works appropriating postcards are more poetic and fragile, dealing with the subjective migration of images, memory and metamorphoses, transformations related to time and displacement. In his installations with texts and images, multiple documents and archives Jonathas de Andrade analyses and deconstructs personal, social and political systems. Each of his installations provides a moment of enlightenment. His work is a reflection on the notion of memory and amnesia, both personal and collective. Rodrigo Cass creates his politically loaded poetic scenes by navigating between everyday life, art references and his own imagination, while Paulo Nazareth takes us out into the world, but at the same time stays anchored to his own dualistic origins. Artist-ethnographer of long-duration performances, he collects on his journeys objects, stories and ideas, which he transforms into drawings, sculptures and films. As a mixed-race artist he slips and slides between different worlds and multiple ethnic traditions, mixing fiction and reality.
Conceptual photographer Sofia Borges works like a painter, creating images of strange narrative beauty with a multitude of layers that are crystallised through a long exposure process. Still and moving images are also present in the conceptual photographs and videos of Cinthia Marcelle, who records and reacts to reality and gives form to time, sequence, action, chaos and alienation, while in her installations Sara Ramo gives form to memory distorted through changes in scale and displacement, or plays with absurdist traditions in her haunting videos. Marcellvs L takes the viewer into a new time, a different pace and duration, slowly moving our attention from the subject matter to the nature and language of film.
All of the painters in the exhibition can be described as expressionist, but deal with quite different themes and narrative structures. Gustavo Speridião from Rio de Janeiro, who also works in film and video, captures the pure energy of the city, which is transferred to the canvas in the form of texts, images and gestures. His verbally based paintings enunciate a clear sense of protest. Paulo Nimer Pjota from São Paulo began with street art but now works in the studio. He has retained the mechanisms and materials, as well as the participatory and seemingly aleatory qualities of street art, however, to make his socially engaged paintings. Equally politically motivated is his colleague from San Luis, Thiago Martins de Melo, who works with complex layered pictorial structures and violent imagery, depicting himself with his wife in a world of gods, demons and humans, political corruption and social exorcism in his local community in the Amazon region.
Once we had selected the artists for the exhibition, we discussed its structure and narrative. We agreed that it was important, in one way or another, to contextualise these young artists without creating our own historical exhibition. We decided to ask each to invite one established artist whom they thought was of importance for Brazilian contemporary art or for their own work. Their responses were diverse and highly informative with regard to their relationship with Brazilian art history. While Gustavo Speridião and Cinthia Marcelle invited the painters Carlos Zilio and Pedro Moraleida , Marcellvs L and Jonathas de Andrade did not even choose visual artists, but the singers Arrigo Barnabé and Caetano Veloso. And while some picked more historical artists who were active in the late twentieth century, such as Paulo Nazareth with the self-taught woodcarver J Borges, and Sofia Borges with the sculptor Maria Martins, others invited an older generation of artists who are currently leaders in the Brazilian art scene such as Thiago Martins de Melo and Adriano Costa with Tunga, Rodrigo Matheus with Fernanda Gomes, Mayana Redin with Milton Machado, Deyson Gilbert with Montez Magno and Sara Ramo with Cildo Meireles. A younger generation of highly influential Brazilian artists is represented by Rivane Neuenschwander picked by Rodrigo Cass, and Adriana Varejão chosen by Paulo Nimer Pjota. The result is an exhibition of emerging artists together with a fragmented vision of their backgrounds. So this is indeed an original and unique version of Brazilian art history.
Given the subjective character of the selection, we decided to produce a catalogue that would include more information and points of view on the different artistic scenes in Brazil. Because of the scale and the complexity of the project, we split the country into five regions and asked prominent critics and scholars to write about each area: Gabriella Motta on south-Brazil, Amando Queiroz on the north, Clarissa Diniz on the northeast, Mathias Monteiro on the central west, Francisca Caporali on Minas Gerais, Paulo Miyada on São Paulo and Marcelo Campos on Rio de Janeiro. The main focus of their writings is the young art scene, but they also examine the social-artistic infrastructure in the regions: museums, art galleries, critics, media and art schools. And to strengthen this mediation of Brazilian contemporary art, we invited Kiki Mazzucchelli, a Brazilian a curator and critic who has evolved over the years within both the Brazilian and the international art world, to give her particular take on Brazilian contemporary art. Each of the artists is introduced by a critical text written by a Brazilian critic or writer. In this way we aimed for more polyphony in terms of knowledge and views of contemporary art in Brazil.
During our research, we found a growing interest in and production of artists’ books. A common international contemporary art practice, the artist’s book has a long history within Brazilian art and maintains a central position for young Brazilian artists. We invited two curators who are experts in this form, Jacopo Crivelli Visconti and Ana Luiza Fonseca, to put together exhibition of artists’ books by these young Brazilians.
Our encounter with the Brazilian art world was a remarkable experience in terms of the scale, diversity and quality of the art-making. We also met an impressive number of scholars, critics, curators and intellectuals who are adding to the professionalism of the Brazilian art world. Our overall understanding of the emerging generation of artists is that they are moving away from the pure modernist tradition that has dominated the Brazilian art scene in the last decades and are more taken by the conceptual premises of art-making: art that communicates about art, about memory and self-reflexive considerations, and above all, about urgent social and political issues like discrimination, racism, the failure of the modernist utopia, urban violence, the fragility and exploitation of the Amazonian rainforest. The artists presented here address all this, however, without ever neglecting the formal aspects that give the work of art its visual impact and originality.
Gunnar B. Kvaran, director, Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Serpentine Gallery, London.
Thierry Raspail, director, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Lyon.