Biennials can sometimes be a slog: with that in mind, it is perhaps understandable that a slick and seductive 15-minute videowork – with a banging soundtrack – by Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca might stand out. Estás vendo coisas (You are seeing things, 2016), which I saw premiered at the Bienal de São Paulo in 2016, is a music video/musical/abstract documentary about the popular Brega music scene in the Brazilian city of Recife. Told through the characters of Porck, a hairdresser and aspiring MC – all facial tattoos and intricately shaved hair – and Dayana, a firefighter and twerk-loving singer in tiny shorts; the simplicity of the film belies astute observations on class and money, capitalism and culture. To the kind of favela funk beat that makes me gag in recollection of nights filled with too much cheap cachaça, Porck rhymes in Portuguese that “The girls go crazy when they smell my scent / Covered in tattoos I’m here to make trouble / They may badmouth me but I’m moving on up”. The machismo of the lyrics is undercut by the fluorescent pink of his vest, while the humour in the artists’ portrait is balanced with a fierce affection for their subjects.
The latest work by Wagner, who is Brazilian, and de Burca, her German partner (who as ArtReview went to press were announced as Brazil’s representatives to this year’s Venice Biennale), continues to defy easy categorisation. Set on the empty, supernaturally pristine Toronto subway system, RISE (2018), which I saw last year at Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel in São Paulo, cuts or tracks between the few passengers that are present as they communicate with each other through poetry, either verbally or via voiceover (therefore seemingly telepathically). There is the same sense of dislocation at play here as in the earlier work, as the subjects, who are all Canadians of African or Caribbean descent, explore personal regrets and hopes in rhymes that echo up escalators and through the desolate platforms and ticket halls. Wagner & de Burca are musicologists of a sort, the anthropological nature of the work posing questions of performed identity and how subcultures give ballast to an alienating world.
Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca are based in Recife. In 2018 they had solo exhibitions at Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo; Residency Unlimited, New York; EAV Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro, and The Box, Wexner Centre for the Arts, Columbus. They featured in Skulptur Projekte, Münster, in 2017 and the São Paulo Bienal in 2016. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include Museo Tamayo, Mexico City; Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Oliver Basciano is Editor (International) at ArtReview
From the January and February 2019 issue of ArtReview, in association with K11 Art Foundation. This article has been amended to correct the date of the Bienal de São Paulo in which the artists exhibited Estás vendo coisas and de Burca’s nationality.