Body and the City

Three Brazilian artists respond to crisis and transformation in their country through works focused within and around their own bodies

By Silas Martí

Igor Vidor, Rio Olympics 2016 (still), 2016, HD video, 15 min. Courtesy the artist Igor Vidor, Corra Como Se o Sol Pudesse Alcançar Você (Run as if the Sun Could Catch You), 2016, HD video, 4 min 13 sec. Courtesy the artist Virginia de Medeiros, Cais do Corpo, 2015, video, 7 min 3 sec. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, São Paulo Virginia de Medeiros, Sérgio e Simone #2 (still), 2007–14, video, 9 min 55 sec. Courtesy the artist and Galeria Nara Roesler, São Paulo Rafael Menôva, Piscina, 2013, mineral pigment print on cotton paper, 70 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artist

In the wake of the bulldozers that ravaged Rio de Janeiro in preparation for last summer’s Olympic Games, and in the aftermath of an impeachment process that many consider a coup d’état, Brazil and its cities have been likened to masses of scar tissue still recovering from reckless transformation. As politicians fight for power and struggle to calm the state of revolt now rampant all across the country, artists here have responded by placing their bodies in the line of combat, pursuing physical transformations as metaphors for a nation convulsed by political and economic turmoil. Bodybuilding and hormones have become staples of politically charged performances as a new wave of artists attempt to reflect on violent change in the flesh.

Igor Vidor, who is at the forefront of this scene, started this line of work after an accident. He was surfing off the coast of Bahia, in north-eastern Brazil, when he was swept away by the waves, nearly drowning before struggling ashore and collapsing in the sand. Though he’d been training to brave the open sea on a surfboard, he realised he’d pushed himself a little too far this time. This former athlete, used to the gruelling routine of football matches, had already become an artist by the time he tried to carve a performance out of confronting Bahia’s biggest waves. Vidor is interested in the sublime, a return to a Romantic vision of man’s surrender to the elements. With a tropical twist, his performance is an updated version of Caspar David Friedrich’s smartly dressed gentleman contemplating the edge of a precipice, the abyss portrayed at once as an insurmountable chasm and the most magnetic of death traps.

Death, or the violence that can provoke it, foregrounds Vidor’s work. But it is society, rather than nature, that seems to deal the most forceful blows.

Less than a year after the artist’s brush with death, another episode left its mark. Vidor was driving on the highway with his father when a car swerved and crashed head-on into theirs. The woman behind the wheel of the oncoming vehicle died on the spot. Vidor didn’t suffer a scratch, owing his life to an airbag. “This really moves you. Those last 30 seconds before I thought I was going to die were the closest I’ve been to the idea of the sublime,” he told me on a call from Seoul, where he’s currently an artist-in-residence. “Up until then I had been researching the idea of the sublime, but always thinking about it as something radical. This near-death experience made it all a lot clearer.”

Death, or the violence that can provoke it, foregrounds Vidor’s work. But it is society, rather than nature, that seems to deal the most forceful blows. This young artist’s practice, always anchored in the way a body reacts to its surroundings, has been equally shaped by the transformation of Rio de Janeiro in preparation for the Olympics. Brazil’s postcard city went through drastic cosmetic surgery before the biggest sporting event descended on its shores last summer; entire neighbourhoods were razed, communities were uprooted and glitzy monuments seemed to drop from the sky during the makeover frenzy. The gentrification efforts, which left the police on edge, also exacerbated racism and discrimination (by virtue of the fact that more often than not it tended to be black and indigenous areas that were being gentrified), detonating a wave of measures to whitewash and tame the unruly contours of Rio.

Vidor’s artworks are created through physical transformations. He reacted to the forced removal of nearly 3,000 people from Vila Autódromo, a poor neighbourhood that lay in the path of the Olympics’ westward expansion, by learning how to lift weights professionally. Timing his own transformation to match the pace at which the favela was being demolished (a site where the Olympic athletes’ apartments now stand), he engaged in a full-fledged process to increase his muscle power, changing his diet and following a heavy exercise routine. In Rio Olympics 2016 (2016), he is seen lifting a barbell amidst the rubble of the houses. For each dwelling, Vidor raised the combined weight of its former inhabitants. “I wanted to create some kind of noise in that context,” says the artist. “Even my presence, the figure of a white, bourgeois man, worked as a symbol of the demolition of that place.”

This symbolism, however, has drawn criticism to his performances, seen by some as shallow or opportunistic. Placing a sculpted body in a slum torn up for an event seen with scepticism in times of crisis could seem rather tasteless and ineffective from an artistic or aesthetic point of view. But while somewhat irregular, his actions find more solid footing in the idea of jarring contrasts, situations that go beyond the surface of a symbol to tap into the energy of bodies that clash (physically, racially or economically) with their surroundings.

After seeing a black, shirtless boy arrested as a ‘potential suspect’, he filmed Corra Como Se o Sol Pudesse Alcançar Você (2016), a command that translates roughly to ‘run as though the sun could catch you’. In the black-and-white two-channel video we see a game of tag in which Vidor and a group of black teenagers run through the streets of Flamengo, a middle-class district in Rio, screaming ‘catch’. “It caused a commotion,” says Vidor. “Just the sight of black boys running in a place dominated by whites raises suspicion, and we were in fact stopped by the police.”

Violence bred by intolerance is also at the heart of a series of works by Virginia de Medeiros that investigates the construction of gender identities in environments with inherent discrimination.

Violence bred by intolerance is also at the heart of a series of works by Virginia de Medeiros, another artist undergoing radical physical transformation, this time in order to create photographs, performances, films and installations that investigate the construction of gender identities in environments with inherent discrimination. For a year now, she has been taking testosterone boosters and oestrogen suppressors in order to undergo a female-to-male (FTM) transition. It’s what she calls a latent performance, because the transformation itself, though documented by the artist, isn’t the work. Medeiros has been using this transition as a kind of filter, to see the world from a male perspective. It isn’t clear yet how this will become a work in itself, but her latest production has been done during this process, and she feels it is guided by the physical transformations of her body. “The body changes, but so does the mind,” she told me in São Paulo. “It’s much more than a physical thing. I don’t separate my works from real life. My body is changing, my voice is changing. I’m building a character, so to speak, and perhaps this will evolve into a performance that will sum up this whole experience.”

In a way, her work is a struggle to dissect aggression (in the sense that the gay or transgender subjects of her work are often the victims of aggression) on a deeper level. Medeiros started her transition right after finishing a work that was featured at the Bienal de São Paulo two years ago. Sérgio e Simone (2007–14) shows the transformation of Simone, a transvestite living in Salvador, into Sérgio, a fanatical preacher who believes he’s the Messiah, sent by God to save humanity. As the ten-minute work nears its end, we see Sérgio returning to Simone, moving between male and female identities, and transgressing gender boundaries. This process, of course, was met with disbelief, verbal abuse and violence in the derelict working-class neighbourhood (which has a history of homophobic violence) in which he lives.

Medeiros’s next work will involve looking at the culture of voguing in New York, the haven for homosexual life that Manchester has become (with its openly gay mayor) and the fate of mothers who have lost gay sons and daughters to homophobic violence in Brazil. “I’m interested in looking at the body as a place of resistance,” says the artist. “Voguing competitions reminded me of the reality of Candomblé, almost a religious trance, much like the whole process involving Simone’s transition into Sérgio.”

Rafael Menôva, a young artist based in São Paulo, is also engaged in transformation. For the past four months he has been dieting and exercising to become a real-life version of Laocoön, the Trojan priest immortalised in a classic Greek statue now in the Vatican Museums in Rome. Since he started his practice, Menôva has reflected on today’s obsession with a perfect body in the homosexual community, questioning the struggle to shape, hone and maintain mountains of muscles while finding time to live a life of standard work and play. Before this more radical performance, which involves daily shots of hormones and rigorous control of eating and sleeping patterns, he made ceramic sculptures of whey protein cans and silicone dumbbells that seem to be melting.

While seemingly superficial, Menôva’s transformation is the performance aspect of a yearslong effort to map and occupy derelict and forgotten spaces in São Paulo with artworks and parties. Leader of a project named iScream, the artist contrasts the vision of a perfect, or perhaps excessively perfect, body with the experience of urban ruins. The freedom of roaming through destroyed movie theatres and parking lots in the city’s darkest zones is the urban negative of an addiction to the gym, the idea of a floundering metropolis contrasted with an artificially vigorous body, a synthesis of contemporary urban experience. 

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of ArtReview