I suppose that without some sort of unifying theme, every exhibition of artworks would be titled, simply and dully: “Art Exhibition.” And so museums base their shows on a period, genre or, more recently, an intriguing turn of phrase. This I welcome, but exhibitions curated on the basis of the artists’ nationality, I generally do not. We live in an era of unprecedented cultural cross-pollination, so isn’t a show where the only link between participating artists is country of birth or residence more than a little out of date?
“Devotionalia” by Dias & Riedweg
I approached the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art’s “Brazil: Body Nostalgia,” with some apprehension. But, probably because the “Brazil-ness” of the exhibition is not at all forced, I came away feeling very satisfied. Although the show is presented by the cultural dissemination agency BrazilConnects, curator Katsuo Suzuki did not pander to stereotypes — there are no sexy samba women here, no flashy Carnival floats, not a single football.
Although billed as a contemporary art show, three of the artists represented here are deceased, but are included, it seems, to lend some historical context to the show. Most of the others are in their late 30s through mid-40s, with the senior member being photographer Miguel Rio Branco, 57, who has contributed nine pieces.
Rio Branco’s work, rich in color and texture, frequently takes as its subject the stuff of everyday life in Brazil’s poorer neighborhoods. Several of the pieces here are multiphoto compositions that effectively bring seemingly disparate objects into dialogue.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Rio Branco at the museum last weekend. “I began as a painter but in the 1970s I was working mostly in film,” he explained, “so the painter and the cinematographer are always there together in the work I make. What I try to do is create pieces that make the viewer float in relation to reality, something that perhaps cannot be distinguished but can still be very real.”
Born to a diplomat’s family in the Canary Islands, Rio Branco grew up in Portugal, Switzerland and New York before moving to Brazil in 1972. He is currently finishing work on a new 600-sq.-meter atelier outside Rio de Janeiro, where he clearly feels he belongs: “Most artists are very ambitious and want to be near the big thing, which they think is New York City. But if I look at New York today I don’t think it’s the big thing at all, I think it’s quite decadent, actually, and has a very commercial attitude toward art.”
Like Rio Branco, the artist team of Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg focus on Brazil’s poor. Their piece here is “Devotionalia,” a two-channel, 45-minute video installation. In the foreground is a rectangle measuring some 8 meters deep, filled with 1,286 human hands and feet done in white wax. These were cast from hundreds of Rio’s homeless children, who are seen working with the artists in the video projections on the far wall.
The custom of offering an ex-voto wooden carving of a stricken organ or body part to a church in the hope of a miracle cure is well-established in Brazil, and in this project the hands and feet were “offered” to a museum. Despite raising public awareness of the plight of these children, the artists report that several years after the realization of “Devotionalia,” as many as half the participants had died, victims of the hardships of life on the street.
Lest you get the impression that this show is all gloom, know that Ernesto Neto has brought a wonderful tentlike sculpture called “Nav Mir Clar,” which is hung with dozens of potpourri- filled orbs. Visitors can walk through the translucent lycra structure — a very pleasant, dreamlike experience. Also scented and interactive are the wearable objets of Lygia Clark, and further hands-on art appreciation is possible with Clark’s manipulable geometric sculptures in tin.
The “Mist Catching” video and photographs by Brigida Baltar are both amusing and uplifting, and Rivane Neuenschwander and Cao Guimaraes’ five-minute video of a large amorphous bubble floating over the countryside is just mesmerizing — I could watch it for an hour.
The show features a couple of paintings by the Surrealist- influenced Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973) who, with husband Osvald de Andrade. developed the oft-misunderstood Antropogfagismo (Anthropo- phagy) movement, which suggested Brazilian artists “devour” foreign influences and then create something new from them. We also have several of Adriana Varejao’s torn “meat” sculptures that form a biting indictment of Portuguese colonialism; and an airy room of delicate jottings on rice paper by Mira Schendel.
The exhibition’s subtitle, “Body Nostalgia,” is intended to denote the body-based sensibilities of the world’s fifth-largest nation, yet even this theme plays out in a low-key way. In all, this group exhibition is easy on the eyes, actually it looks and feels something like nine concurrent gallery shows — each possessed of its own tone yet resonating well with its neighbors.
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