The Performa 15 biennial (November 1-22, 2015 in New York City) features more artists from Brazil than ever before. Founded in 2004, Performa is a leader in commissioning artists whose works have shaped a new chapter in the multi-century legacy of visual artists working in live performance. The selected participants from Brazil, Jonathas de Andrade, Eleonora Fabião, and Laura Lima, especially commissioned works provide intriguing insights on the history of performance, its unique capacity to illuminate complexities in society, culture, economics, and politics, and its profound shift as not only live art but also as a multi-disciplinary, conceptual mode of artmaking in the twenty-first century in Brazil and internationally. Nothing seemed more apt to describe the range and coincidence of their artistic propositions than the term “Babylon”, in its ability to encapsulate a sense of excessive luxury, corruption, and sensuality, as well as espouse a revolutionary sensibility.
In the case of the latter, the rebellious spirit is imbued in Eleonora Fabião’s intimate and poignant twist on the long-standing history of Brazilian artists who use public arenas for their performances, including Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Pape, Artur Barrio, and Ronald Duarte, to name a few. Of course, Oiticica made Babylonests, non-repressive leisure spaces, while he was living in New York City’s East Village in the 1970s, and the remarkable influence of the Mangueira samba troupe on his work is well known, radically transforming his relationship to art, its institutions, and society as evinced in his Parangolés (1964-79). Coincidentally, the Mangueira community from which this fabled samba group hails, located in the hills of Rio de Janeiro overlooking its most famous beaches, neighbors Babylonia, the location where the film “Black Orpheus” (1959) was made, which, for better or worse, indelibly imprinted in minds the world over a sense of Brazilian mystique.
This is where Fabião creates art – in the streets of Rio de Janeiro; up until now, she has done so alone or with one other person. For Performa 15, Fabião makes group experimental performances in the Things That Must Be Done Series. Over five days, the collective, comprised of an intergenerational group of participants ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, stage actions on Wall Street and in the surrounding area, manipulating twelve-foot bamboo rods and color fields differently altered each day to explore the relation between geometry, political potential, and abstraction through radically precarious assemblages. The performances are “urban acupuncture”, meditations on verticality, possibility, instability, and vulnerability in capitalist societies, openly displaying the tensions between profit and gratuity, efficiency and experimentation, and capital orientation and political imagination.
As a staging ground for collective assembly, the streetscape plays an important role as a scene for culture and politics in Brazil evident in the recent protests against government corruption in 2015 and the World Cup in 2014 on the one hand and festive celebrations such as the annual Carnival and various ritual processions on the other. The street is the locale where social, economic, and political polarities have the potential to dissipate, and where art becomes a mode of desiring and the basis for realizing new possibilities. Fabião’s performances, as well as the recent protests in the public arena, bring to mind the characteristics of and conditions through which samba itself emerged. The national dance and music, an essentially West African form with European and indigenous Brazilian influences, embodies the historical struggle of plantation life. It is a form of resistance. Therefore, samba’s deeper meanings lie in the history of these locations, the earliest manifestations of the global capitalist economies.
Jonathas de Andrade uses auto-ethnography, mining aesthetic, social, political, and historical conditions, symbols, and meanings of Northeastern Brazil, where he grew up, to create new conceptual and material systems of meaning in his art. His process for creating art uses performance as a means to evolve a relation to other individuals that is sometimes fictional, always ambiguous, and necessarily culpable. All the while he points to larger questions about perception and relation, structures of Brazilian culture and society, and the ways in which they have been popularly constructed. Often animating anthropological discourse, de Andrade elicits participants to engage in the realization of his art, presenting them in abstracted forms and altered scenes situated within the context of their work and communities. He investigates universal questions such as love, desire, and modernity through the radical specificity of individual lives and local culture.
Desiring to highlight the deep and fundamental roll of performance in his artmaking, for his first live performance, de Andrade reimagines the 1952 UNESCO-commissioned report by Columbia University anthropologists entitled “Race and Class in Rural Brazil” within the local context of New York City, creating an ethnographic experiment where the audience participates as both viewers and subjects. Interweaving the audience’s qualitative and quantitative data from chance encounters and in a “photography studio”, performance as mode of artmaking is exploded, raising questions about how social constructs subsist in our everyday lives.
Laura Lima, however, eschews performance as a term to describe her work, revealing a belief in the capacity of “things”, be they ideologies, objects, animals, or humans, to act in the world on their own terms. This predilection lends her work a special valence, what I describe as luxuriant conceptualism, formally implausible, sensually playful, materially vivid, and philosophically rigorous. For Performa 15, Lima combines two earlier artworks: Gala Chickens (2004/2011) and Ball (2003-2004) into a series of semi-orchestrated events and encounters. The reimagined works reveal preparations leading up to the culminating event such as décor and floral arrangements, catering, and costumes, and ultimately the finale itself happen in collaboration with invited and impromptu participants, and are an integral part of the piece. Ornamental chickens, adorned in specially adhered lush Carnival feathers in a dazzling array of colors and housed in a sculptural installation, are co-actors and instigators of the Ball. In New York, Lima structures a work in which time is unbound, revealing the manifold spectacular qualities that underlie everyday life, and all that is taken as a given is suspended, free to be experienced and expressed based on the participant’s (human and otherwise) desire and without the confines of a fixed agenda or anticipated outcome.
Lima’s intellectual and voluptuous matter, de Andrade’s complex method of research, and Fabião’s eloquent embodiment of abstraction each reveal their Babylonian qualities in distinct ways, illuminating the profound, radical experimentation in multi-disciplinary art in Brazil today.
This article was commissioned by SeLect Magazine (Brazil) for its special issue on performance. The English version is presented here with its permission. Special thanks to Paula Alzugaray.