In 1951, modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer designed a residence for his family in Barra da Tijuca, on the slope of a hill overlooking the bay of Rio de Janeiro. In the home, which is called Casa das Canoas, large glass windows provide an unhindered view through the curvilinear house and into the gardens. The flat roof protrudes from the building itself and casts shadows that invite its inhabitants to spend those hot carioca afternoons by the pool. The setting is a perfect projected surface for tropical fantasies of glamorous events held by the Brazilian upper middle class, and forms both the backdrop and the theme of Tamar Guimarães’s work Canoas (2010). The 16mm film follows a party – from preparations to end – at the modernist estate, inspired by, among other things, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967), in which the French filmmaker depicts a night coming undone: from elegance to entropy.
In the time leading up to the 2010 Bienal de São Paulo, where Canoas was first exhibited, Guimarães invited a group of friends, politicians and professional actors – some of whom turned up, some of whom didn’t – to spend an evening at the house. Different eras, from the 1950s to today, appear to merge via clues provided by the clothing, the music and the topics of debate. Guimarães asked her guests to repeat things she had overheard themselves and others say in conversations prior to the evening. The focus was primarily on architectural Modernism in Brazil, which, unlike in other places, served less to supply housing for the masses and more to offer luxury accommodation for the wealthy. Other themes ranged from the military dictatorship and nervous breakdowns to comments on the allegedly poor quality of Brazilian champagne, as delivered in an improvisation by the (actual) French cultural attaché in Rio at the time. Dialogues are followed by scenes of dancing and silence. At the end of the night, a group of black servants leaves the building as the sun begins to rise again.
Canoas confronts the characterisation of Brazil as an erotic paradise in which desire transcends stratifications of class and race
Canoas confronts anthropologist Gilberto Freyre’s mythic characterisation of Brazil as an erotic paradise in which desire transcends stratifications of class and race with a critique of precisely that structure upon which the country’s middle and upper classes have relied since long before the 1950s, and continue to rely today. However, it would be too easy to categorise Canoas as merely a critique of class and race relations represented through the setting of the house. The film also calls into question the role of the political Left – and pays tribute to the tangible attraction of the building.
Simultaneous critique and fascination are characteristic of Guimarães’s work. When we meet in Denmark, where she has lived since 2002, she explains how she finds inspiration in apparent contradictions. Guimarães was born in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, in the ‘interior’ of Brazil. The state is known for its baroque churches, and lacking a coastline of sandy beaches, it is not what foreigners typically imagine when they think of Brazil. Perhaps this fact, combined with her having lived abroad since 1987 – first on a kibbutz in Israel, later in Jerusalem, then Basel, London, Copenhagen, New York and again Copenhagen – allows Guimarães to confront subjects linked to her native country from a position of distance.
Guimarães repeatedly encircles her subjects via the use of different perspectives in order to look at how artefacts and anecdotes travel through time. She lets a multitude of voices speak, contradict each other and mutate
Guimarães hardly finishes sentences when she speaks. Her narrations spin off numerous ramifications, weaving a net of parallel stories only to eventually come back full circle and go down the next path. Her way of speaking reminds me of the parallel intersecting stories in Canoas, and of the Amerindian cosmology that anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls ‘perspectivism’. This thinking considers what nonhuman-centred viewpoints might be, and conceives of knowledge as unstable and constantly in flux. There are no stationary positions, but only dynamic relations of mutual transformation. Similarly, Guimarães repeatedly encircles her subjects via the use of different perspectives in order to look at how artefacts and anecdotes travel through time. She lets a multitude of voices speak, contradict each other and mutate. She tells me: “I’m not so interested in history per se, or in historical records as such. But I’m very interested in the variables: in how any given thing, person or event will be perceived differently from a different perspective – and time passing is one of the key ‘perspectival modifiers’.”
A similar critique of the kind of dualistic Western thinking that divides humans from nonhumans and culture from nature runs through the video and installation The Parrot’s Tail (2015), which Guimarães produced together with her frequent collaborator, the Danish artist Kasper Akhøj, following a commission for the Belgian Pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale.
A Man Called Love, 2007–8, slide projection with voiceover, 20 min. Courtesy Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo
It was one of my personal highlights of the exhibition. The sequence of short fables is an allegorical treatment of the meeting between Western avant-gardes and non-Western cultures, and refers to Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma (1928), a magical realist novel representing pan-Brazilian culture and written in a combination of Portuguese and indigenous languages. De Andrade’s story is centred around a ‘hero without a character’, who was born in the jungle and possesses the ability to shape-shift. In short, that hero, Macunaíma, departs for São Paulo to retrieve a lost amulet, and after an adventure-filled trip, returns to the forest.
Guimarães and Akhøj’s bichrome video consists of a black background on which white text and geometric patterns appear in an ebb and flow. The abstract lines extend to the wall installation, resembling a stylised garden in which faces, animals and trees overlap. It is accompanied by clay vessels placed on the ground. Formally, the video reminds me of João César Monteiro’s film Snow White (2000), which evolves entirely on a black screen. Whereas Monteiro’s movie is completely deprived of visual imagery and accompanied by a dense and associative audio track, in The Parrot’s Tail there is no sound, only moving patterns and text. The writing hints at anthropologists such as Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who have contributed to shaping our image of Brazil. In describing flowers eaten raw and cooked, the fable points to the irreconcilable binary oppositions of which Lévi-Strauss thought both myth and the structure of the human mind are made up. Other lines allude to artists like South African-born Ernest Mancoba, a founding but largely forgotten member of the avant-garde European painting movement CoBrA (1948–51).
Much of Guimarães’s work applies veiling as strategy. She asserts: “At what volume do you say something? In some contexts it will feel as if you are screaming, while in others nothing much will be audible.”
Throughout the videowork’s five variations of the tale, a shadow called ‘Half’ clings to the other characters like a poststructuralist dybbuk. When Half tries to turn into a cobra – a reference to the transformations that occur in shamanistic rituals, and an aspiration of Surrealists and dissident Surrealists like CoBrA – he fails. He has traded direct experience for a set of critical tools. A character called ‘One’ in turn stands for Mancoba’s universalism and constitutes a counterpoint to Half, who cannot get out of the dualistic black-and-white thinking. In the last chapter of the video, Half meets a talking bird, a nod both to anthropologist Viveiros de Castro and to the parrot sitting on Macunaíma’s shoulder when he returns to the forest. Some of these cues may only be decipherable through contextual information. In fact, much of Guimarães’s work applies veiling as strategy. She asserts: “At what volume do you say something? In some contexts it will feel as if you are screaming, while in others nothing much will be audible.” That said, the reflections on human and nonhuman perspectives in The Parrot’s Tail are clearly perceptible. The work points to the need to renegotiate these divides to find new ways of thinking in the face of the ecological catastrophe, part of which results precisely from the Western nature–culture dualism. In their own ways, artists including Melanie Bonajo, Pedro Neves Marques, the Otolith Group, Julia Rometti & Victor Costales, Daniel Steegmann Mangrané and Angela Melitopoulos – to mention a few – as well as curators and thinkers, from Anselm Franke to Karen Barad, Jussi Parikka and Bruno Latour also work on and through these dichotomies, from positions of the much-discussed Anthropocene to object-oriented ontologies to dark ecology, or ‘ecology without nature’, as philosopher Timothy Morton calls it.
When picking her subjects, Guimarães’s choice often falls on complex characters with fissures and blank spots. She chooses them over people she admires, like her mother, who was part of the politically engaged movements during the military dictatorship, explaining: “My heroes would rot on the screen, I want to protect them.” One of these controversial characters is Francisco Cándido Xavier (1910– 2002), who worked as a civil servant and became one of the most important psychic mediums and psychographers of all time. Not only did the dead speak through him, but he spoke to a large audience, writing over 400 books and becoming a well-known TV celebrity. A Man Called Love (2007/8) comprises a slide projection with a voiceover and subsequently a publication about Xavier, whose work as a psychic medium came to greatest prominence during the 1970s, concurring with the time of the military rule in Brazil. Xavier desired, dreamt and wrote about social utopias, which were potentially aligned with the left. However, he did so as someone who doesn’t fight politically, but who attempts to arrive at paradise through astral bonuses – that is, through obedience, cooperation and deeds accruing in an ‘accounting system’, promising justice if not in this dimension, then in the next.
Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj, Captain Gervásio’s Family, 2013–14, 16mm film, 16 min. Courtesy Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo
Whether Xavier really spoke to the dead is of lesser concern to Guimarães than how he reimagined the state in a different light. Xavier acted as a messenger from the state’s benign double, which hovered nearby, informing and instructing its earthly counterpart below with wisdom from above. She calls him a “loving bureaucrat”, a description for someone who might have come straight out of a Robert Walser story. Her interest lies in the manoeuvres through which a man who was born under precarious conditions acquired a voice, and in who speaks through him – and who doesn’t.
In their black-and-white 16mm film Captain Gervásio’s Family (2013/4), Guimarães and Akhøj supply a second chapter to A Man Called Love with a portrait of a spiritist community in Palmelo, where half the inhabitants are psychic mediums. The film refers to a map drawn by a spiritist woman, outlining 20 astral cities that hover over Brazil and are infinitely more perfect than any place on earth. Guimarães considers the work ethnographic science-fiction, not because of technophile future visions, but due to the projection of other societies and spaces of living. In her understanding, spiritism is no more a collective psychosis producing fantastical projections than either capitalism or language. A Man Called Love and Captain Gervásio’s Family revisit controversial figures who ought to be seen further, beyond (or in excess of) a set of symptoms of a society in disarray.
While the structure of our conversation is following the interwoven encircling variations of themes in Guimarães’s work, we arrive at the next logical subject, which is repetition. Or as she puts it: “To be able to process something, you need a certain percentage of difference, but also of repetition, otherwise it is not recognisable.” Her interest in revisiting things, including her own work, comes from the understanding that everything said is always a temporary suggestion. During my visit, she quotes from Peter Brown’s The Cult of the Saints (1981), which she is currently rereading: ‘For a scholar, a book is far better seen not as a static monument, but as one step in a journey. All too often, when reading the books of our colleagues, we forget this. We freeze them.’ Guimar.es veils, defers and delays so as not to arrive at a result too soon. For, once a conclusion is reached, there is no further resonance.
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue.