Since early September, a large sign has welcomed visitors to São Paulo’s main Ibirapuera Park. It is both curious and enigmatic, deploying a language that appears familiar, but offers no obviously intelligible message. It seems open to interpretation, but remains a graphic combination of triangles and primary colours that looks flat from a distance, but more complex as one approaches, before finally revealing itself to be a relief formed by overlapping wooden boards. Is this some kind of code? A message from aliens? An advertisement trying to sell something? Or nothing? And it’s not just the image that is intriguing, it’s the presence of this particular medium as well: a municipal law – the ‘Clean City’ Act – passed in 2006 banned this type of advertising, which had cluttered São Paulo’s urban landscape for decades.
A caption on the back of the board informs the visitor that this is part of the Outdoors project, spread across the park and developed by Wlademir Dias-Pino between 2015 and 2016 in the context of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial; they are 20 synthetic graphic representations of landscape in Cuiabá. About to celebrate his 90th birthday, and still active, this prolific artist has a vast but little-known oeuvre that’s recently become the subject of renewed interest. In addition to his strong presence in the biennial, The Infinite Poem of Wlademir Dias-Pino, the artist’s first comprehensive survey show, was mounted this past March at the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR). So why has the artworld been so slow to fully embrace the work of Dias-Pino? The answer to that lies in the very title of that retrospective: for much of his career, Dias-Pino has been primarily regarded as a poet and graphic designer.
Dias-Pino operates in his own world; talking to him, one gets the impression that his ideas circulate in an almost hermetic sphere. For the viewer, there are as many possible approaches to his production as there are readings of one of his ‘dismountable’ poems – collections of detached pages that contain fragments of poems that the reader can arrange in infinite ways. This artist’s complex biography, living between two cities, Rio de Janeiro and Cuiabá (in the central-west part of Brazil), and his inherently novel production techniques further contributed to the fact that although he was actively involved in some of the key moments in Brazilian art and culture of the past 50 years, he spent much of this time as an outsider.
It was in Cuiabá, in 1948, that Dias-Pino founded the literary avant-garde movement Intensivista (instensivism), which intensified the experience of the poetic image by bypassing the written word’s status as the only possible deliverer of messages in a poem. This marked one of the rare moments in Brazilian cultural history when the discussion of poetry was extended beyond the typical Rio–São Paulo axis of cultural production. Despite not being fully aligned with concrete poetry, which was in the making at the same time in São Paulo, Dias-Pino’s work was acknowledged by the group, and he took part – alongside poets Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Décio Pignatari and Ferreira Gullar – in the seminal National Exhibition of Concrete Art at the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM) in São Paulo in 1956. The exhibition came not long after the first international art exhibition at the São Paulo Biennial in 1951, and besides representing a key moment in Brazilian avant-garde culture, it gave significant visibility to cutting-edge productions of local Concrete art and poetry.
From a tactile intimacy with typefaces and rotating printers, Dias-Pino proposes a new sort of language, beyond the written and spoken word
Dias-Pino’s production over-lays syntagmas and disintegrates alphabets and mediums in order to dilate and recreate existing codes and systems. The artist/poet has always considered himself first and foremost a graphic artist, which is to say that he treats both words and images as objects on a page: “I have always put my hands on the words and on the paper,” he says. The son of a typographer, he was familiar with the techniques and trades of graphic production from a young age, and from this tactile intimacy with typefaces and rotating printers, Dias-Pino proposes a new sort of language, beyond the written and spoken word. Most of the time he just “lets the words happen” in a way that meaning is not the direct result of a word combination. Sometimes there are no words; sometimes the words are just graphic signs such as lines or dots. According to him, man invented writing, but not reading, and if every narrative is colonising (in that alphabets and grammar force you to behave, or decode things, in a certain way), then the role of the poet is precisely to invent new forms of inscribing and visualising semantic codes, in order to remain free and open up new ways of communication.
Since the 1950s, Dias-Pino’s projects have featured themes central to the discourse surrounding contemporary art: among them the issue of authorship; the interaction with spectators/readers in a way that encourages their active engagement with the work of art/poem; the use of digital logic (connecting subjects to each other through open links, providing an operational system for someone else to use, develop or expand) as a tool for the ‘democratisation’ of the artistic process; and the spontaneous and free reproduction of his creations. His poems are made to be ‘acted out’, the meaning revealed when there’s interaction; and they offer an experience akin to being inside a live maze that reconfigures itself at every turn.
An emblematic example of Dias-Pino’s work is his first book-poem, A Ave (The Bird), published in 1956, in a limited edition of 300 handmade copies. The poem, which was his contribution to the National Exhibition of Concrete Art, was conceived as a total object, exploring all the possibilities and properties of the graphic space and of each element employed in the manufacture of the book: paper, serigraphy, folds, lines, etc. In the poem, the closed alphabet is replaced by a free-reading scheme, no copy is identical and words and graphics overlap through combinations of perforated transparent paper. In A Ave, the medium is no longer subordinated to the content; it becomes the driver of the message. To this end, Dias-Pino codified the word in materials and signs, choosing a type of communication that dispenses with any conventional repertoire, thus removing the territorial reference from language.
For Dias-Pino the word is always functional: like a mathematical unit. His words operate as self-enclosed structures: any trace of a word’s reference to anything external to itself dissolves into pure geometric information as you ‘read’ through the book. The use of a conventional alphabet merely enables the transition from the mechanical reading performed by the human brain to the ‘visual reading’ proposed by Dias-Pino. In this way, he suggests a complete overcoming of the self-referential structure of concrete poetry, arguing that the unfolding of processes is fundamental to the poem. His works are rendered as relations, through poetic mobilisation as a collective act and in real time. The poet creates and delegates the code to his readers, as a sort of algorithm or open-source ancestor.
Man invented writing, but not reading, and if every narrative is colonising, then the role of the poet is to remain free, to open up new ways of communication
In 1967, as a natural follow-up to his radical semiotic experiments, Dias-Pino founded the poema/processo movement, alongside a large group of poets from Rio de Janeiro and Natal. According to the artist, the alphabet is the cruellest instrument ever created by man. The movement vehemently rejected the idea of poetry as a ‘spiritual state’ and the image of the poet as an isolated creator. It proposed breaking with the linearity of Western linguistic systems and introducing seeing as a new way of reading. The poems of this era favoured found images from newspapers and other sources, and generic graphic forms over words and phonemes. Besides its contribution to Brazilian avant-garde poetry and arts, the movement played an important role in Brazil’s countercultural history. Dias-Pino’s efforts in promoting the movement – in spite of increasing government censorship and the disregard of local critics – were a form of activism, closer to the logic of consumption and mass culture than to an academic debate. That said, one other great achievement of the artist was his participation in the founding of the Universidade da Selva, the first higher education institution in Mato Grosso state, located in the arid central west of Brazil and created during the 1970s, the most oppressive years of Brazilian dictatorship. Having first been invited to design its visual identity, Dias-Pino then became engaged in the development of its educational programme. This groundbreaking educational initiative had, as its main objective, the preparing of students to deal with the most urgent problems within their own communities, always favouring practical knowledge over classic academic studies.
In conversation, Dias-Pino reveals some insights into his interior labyrinth, explaining that looking at the rocks and bends of the local river in Cuiabá was more important to his poetics than any literary reference, and that since he was a boy he has been collecting images from different sources, from manuals to newspapers and all sorts of magazines. And naturally he talks extensively about the limitations of text in comparison to the infinite possibilities of image.
Since the 1970s, under the title Enciclopédia Visual Brasileira (Brazilian Visual Encyclopaedia), Dias-Pino has compiled a collection of images in a cataloguing system that contains 1,001 volumes divided into 28 themed sections, each one containing 36 volumes of 36 pages each. Each page contains found-image collages (mostly made using Xerox machines, with only the most recent one made using image-manipulation software such as Photoshop) that evoke a plethora of themes, from rock paintings to comics, from ancient writing to computerised language. The images are manipulated and reconfigured by the artist to form entries that welcome endless interpretation and can be modified at any time. The logic behind the organising scheme is cardinal, a counterpoint to the ordinal arrangement of the alphabet, which informs the arrangement of dictionaries.
At the São Paulo Biennial, Dias-Pino selected a group of images from the Enciclopédia... to be displayed in a sophisticated spatial- graphic composition. Over a triangular room, painted graphic schemes serve as background for carefully aligned columns of images printed on simple A4 sheets. There’s no empty space in the installation: the large group of images and the painted lines cover every inch of the walls. According to Dias-Pino, the painted areas function as reading keys for the ‘entries’ in his Enciclopédia... Presenting this ongoing work in such a fashion, we gain insight into the artist’s attempt to categorise an intermittent flux of information, something that has obvious analogies to the way we lead our lives today.
Enciclopédia... is a living testimony to an artist who has spent his entire life thinking deeply about visual structures so he could subvert them. Whether creating a university programme or reinventing the book form, Dias-Pino is always searching to set up processes rather than produce objects. Even the objects he makes – open to public poetic appropriation through the creation of what he calls versions – propose open systems rather than formulas or established concepts.
Writing about Dias-Pino’s work in 1985, the Brazilian encyclopaedist Antônio Houaiss quotes a 1936 letter from James Joyce in which the Irishman tells his four-year-old grandson that the language spoken by the Devil – Bellsybabble – is evil because he makes it up as he goes along. If creativity is to be unlimited, then perhaps we should all follow – as Wlademir Dias-Pino has always done – the Devil’s method.
This article first appeared in the December 2016 issue of ArtReview