There’s a party at Oscar Niemeyer’s Canoas House. Guests drink around the pool, dance to some swinging music, comment on the champagne and meander around the iconic modernist villa, surrounded by the lush Brazilian forest. Contrary to what the guests’ outfits and the vintage quality of the 16mm film suggest, this is not documentary footage from the 1950s, but rather a fictional restaging of one of the many festive gatherings held at the abode, orchestrated by Tamar Guimarães for her film Canoas (2010). Through a game of transparency and reflection played out via the house’s undulating exterior glass wall, the film reveals what Niemeyer’s apparently open architecture hides: the division between the white guests and the black servants who are seen discreetly circulating around the house, picking up empty glasses or taking breaks in the kitchen. The film is interspersed with still shots of decrepit social-housing blocks, and fragments of discussion in which we overhear the guests theorising on the ideals of Modernism in Brazil, and its relationship to class and race – notably on the myth of racial democracy (the contentious idea, originating in the writings of sociologist Gilberto Freyre, that Brazil has escaped racism due to the miscegenation of its people), and which proved an instrumental argument in the construction of Brazil’s image as a modern nation. The contrast between the discourse and the reality put forward in the film points to the uncomfortable inequalities which have divided – and still divide – Brazilian society.
Canoas is one of three films presented in this joint exhibition of work by Guimarães and longtime collaborator Kasper Akhøj, alongside a series of black-and-white photographs by Akhøj. Their shared interest in Modernist architecture, fits – perhaps a bit too neatly, at risk of conflating distinct narratives – the International Style of the De La Warr Pavilion. The exhibition space, lined on one side by wall-to-wall windows offering a scenic view to the sea, is shaped by undulating pleated grey curtains – echoing the curves of Niemeyer’s house – that shapes the visitor’s path while creating temporary viewing rooms.
The two other collaborative films – Captain Gervásio’s Family (2013–14) and Studies for A Minor History of Trembling Matter (2017) – are set in Palmelo, a small town in the Brazilian state of Goiás. Half the population practice Spiritism, a movement based on the belief that humans possess immortal spirits that pass through numerous bodies and which, even when disembodied, can be accessed via mediums. Captain Gervásio’s Family, shot on black-and-white 16mm film, presents one such medium’s vision of 20 astral cities (‘like those on earth but infinitely more perfect’) that hover over actual cities in Brazil; adopting a more documentary approach, Studies for A Minor History of Trembling Matter follows members of the community as they gather for healing or communication sessions, achieved through a ‘magnetic chain’ of linked hands. Blossoming at the same time in Brazil, both Spiritism and Modernist architecture attempted to engineer social structures – one through increased rationalisation, the other through spiritualism. Making the same connection, the exhibition’s title is taken from the diaries of Arthur Spray, a popular spiritist based in Bexhill in the 1930s, when the De La Warr Pavilion (originally a centre for health and leisure) was constructed as one of the first major Modernist public buildings on British shores. Perhaps, Guimarães and Akhøj suggest, they are two sides of the same coin.
Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj: I blew on Mr Greenhill’s main joints with a very ‘hot’ breath is on view at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, through 3 June 2018
From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview