Brazilian Dictatorship and the Bloody Bundles

In the early 1960s, Brazil’s left-leaning president João Goulart made many powerful enemies with his attempts to reduce the exploitative practices of multinational companies, in favour of improving education and labour standards for the Brazilian people. Meanwhile, the US administrations of Kennedy and Johnson were anxious to see Goulart establishing diplomatic relations with Cold War enemies such as China and Cuba, and began to consider his hardliner right-wing opponents the lesser of two evils. On 31 March 1964, with the covert backing of the US government, the Brazilian armed forces led a successful coup d’état. Within two days, a military junta had assumed control of Brazil, heralding more than two decades of brutal repression that was marked by the systemic exile or execution of political opponents and other “undesirables”.

Artur Barrio had moved from Portugal to Brazil in 1955, aged ten years old. In the early years of the dictatorship, the young man trained as an artist at the School of Fine Arts in Rio de Janeiro, and watched with concern as civil liberties were eruded. Responding to the rise of paramilitary forces, who prowled the streets, “cleansing” them of homeless adults and children, while student activists, artists and intellectuals started to “disappear”, Barrio created a series of site-specific conceptual artworks in 1969 and 1970, that remain among his best-known projects. Over the course of six months, Barrio made hundreds of “bloody bundles” (trouxas ensangüentadas), which he left in public spaces for people to interact with. The artist conceived of these unwitting individuals as participants in the artwork. Rather than transporting them out of their present reality, as art has often aimed to do, Barrio intended that his objects should open people’s eyes to their current situation, by provoking a sensorial response that would force viewers to confront the atrocities committed by the military regime.

In November 1969, Barrio created the first of his Situation (Situação) works, at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. Titled Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969, the project evolved over the course of a month, as Barrio placed around the interior of the museum white cloth bags containing concrete and crumpled newspapers to which he eventually added bloodied animal meat. The artist noted the reactions of visitors: some would add their own rubbish or even cash to these oozing piles, while others covered the bags in swear words. At the end of the exhibition, Barrio moved the bundles to the museum’s sculpture garden, where they caught the attention of the local police and were promptly disposed of as garbage.

The following April, Barrio developed this guerrilla-style artistic strategy to produce two ambitious and shockingly visceral “situations” on the streets of Brazil. Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS took place in Rio de Janeiro in the first half of April, when the artist walked around the city, leaving behind 500 plastic bags containing animal blood and bones, nails, saliva, hair, urine, feces, paper, sawdust and food waste. The creation of the work and the reactions of passersby were documented by photographer César Carneiro. On 19 and 20 April 1970, Situação T/T took place in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte. This project formed part of a four-day happening entitled From Body to Earth (Do Corpo à Terra), organised by Frederico Morais and comprising subversive actions by a number of artists. Barrio anonymously placed bloody bundles in the municipal park and the dried bed of the Arrudas river, as well as unfurling sixty toilet rolls on the banks of the river that highlighted its use as an open sewer. The bags once again contained decomposing animal meat and bones, as well as clay, foam, clothing, wires and knives. The artist intentionally removed any signs that the objects constituted an artwork, and in the current climate many members of the public mistook them for dismembered human body parts. The police force and fire department once again removed and disposed of the mysterious objects, while Carneiro secretly recorded their perplexed reactions.

Perhaps due to the artist’s awareness of the dangers of his involvement coming to the attention of the authorities, Situação T/T would mark the last of Barrio’s “situations”. As censorship and political repression in Brazil became increasingly inescapable, Barrio left for Europe in 1974, where he has continued to produce anti-establishment installation works constructed from the discarded materials of daily life that create surprising and sensory interactions with the public.

Barrio’s Situation works are discussed alongside pieces by other politically-engaged Brazilian artists working in the 1960s and ’70s in the book Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo Meireles by Claudia Calirman (Duke UP, 2012). You can read part of the book online here.

Images: Artur Barrio, Situação … ORHHH … ou … 5.000 … T.E … EM … N.Y. … City … 1969. Installation view at Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, 1969. Courtesy Galeria Millan, São Paulo; Artur Barrio creating Defl … Situação … +S+ … RUAS, Rio de Janeiro, 1970; Artur Barrio creating Situação T/T. Images courtesy arturbarrio-trabalhos.blogspot.com.

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Venice Biennale Highlight #3: Hope!

Considering the current conflict ravaging Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the country’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is highly policised. Within a confined glass cube on the waterfront, on the approach to the Arsenale, a host of young Ukrainian artists present works in response to the crisis. By combining them under the title of Hope!, curator Björn Geldhof announces the intention that the exhibition be viewed as aspiration for a positive and united future, with the transparent housing equally suggesting hopes for a new open and honest Ukraine following years of political intrigue and corruption.

The most eye-catching work within the cube is the performance piece Synonym for “Wait” by four-man art collective Open Group. During opening hours throughout the five and a half months of the festival, a member of the group will be sat at a desk in the centre of the room. He stares at a wall of nine monitors relaying footage from a series of security cameras installed outside the homes of young Ukrainian men who have been drafted into the army. In sympathy with the soldiers’ families, each Open Group member will be on hunger strike throughout the period of his observation, as they await the men’s return.

A number of other pieces are made up of photographs and collages constructed from newspaper contents, suggesting frustration with the media coverage of the conflict. Perhaps the most haunting of these works is Blind Spot. It comprises a series of photographs by Mykola Ridnyi, tantalisingly concealing and revealing details of urban destruction, alongside poignant verses by the celebrated countercultural poet Serhiy Zhadan, which relate injustices committed against individual Ukrainians caught up in the present turmoil.

In front of the pavilion is a smaller glass box containing the smashed and scorched concrete and metal remains of a bombed apartment block. The installation by Nikita Kadan provides a shocking reminder of the brutality of the conflict that continues to rage in these artists’ homeland, and reveals the challenges to their hope for peace in Ukraine.

Image: Top – Open Group, Synonym for “Wait”, live streaming video and performance, 2015; Bottom – Nikita Kadan, Difficulties of Profanation, 2015. Marble, steel, glass, earth, bean plant, glass and wood, 160 x 160 x 370 cm. Courtesy PinchukArtCentre.

Venice Biennale Highlight #2: Paperwork, and the Will of Capital

Among the tightly-packed displays in the cavernous main exhibition hall of the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale, Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by US artist Taryn Simon stands out as one of the most thought-provoking and carefully-crafted artworks.

Simon’s installation explores the overlooked role of flowers as a form of soft diplomacy. The artist at first appears to be presenting them as silent witnesses to the establishment of international treaties and governmental agreements. Yet her focus on these objects gradually transforms them from innocent observers to conduits of complex political meaning, both as symbols of national identity and gestures of peaceful objectives.

In a series of vitrines, Simon presents a photograph of a floral arrangement from a particular meeting and a detailed analysis of its contents alongside a pressing of replica flowers. As these floral tokens degrade, mirroring the gradual disintegration of the contracts they have represented, Simon reveals the ability of even the most innocuous objects to be coopted as forms of propaganda in the interest of political and economic gain.

Image: Installation shot from Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by Taryn Simon, 2015, in Room 2, Arsenale, 56th Venice Biennale.

Exhibitions of the Month: From Germany to Lenin

This month sees the closure of the British Museum’s chronicle of Germany, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Germany: Memories of a Nation is an ambitious retrospective, attempting to tell 600 years of history through objects in a single room. The country’s difficult Cold War history, divided between the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic and the Westernised Federal Republic of Germany, is just the latest in a series of complex and traumatic episodes in its search for nationhood.

Reviews have been decidedly mixed, but if you want to form you own opinion Germany: Memories of a Nation remains open at the British Museum until 25 January 2015. The exhibition also accompanies an eponymous 30-part BBC radio series on German history presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, which you can listen to from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re on the other side of the Atlantic this month, Yevgeniy Fiks has a new exhibition in New York, hot on the heels of his curatorial triumph in Monument to Cold War History.

Until 17 January 2015 the James Gallery at CUNY is presenting a display of the Russian-born artist’s own paintings and installations entitled The Lenin Museum, focusing on the fascinating issue of homophobia as a Cold War weapon.

Image: Yevgeniy Fiks, Untitled (The Lenin Museum), 2014. Mixed media, 7′ 10″ x 5′ 8″ x 4′ 6″. Photo: Julia Sherman. Courtesy Yevgeniy Fiks.

Exhibition of the Month: Beyond Zero

For the rest of this month, the dreams of the Soviet space programme are alive in London. In the exhibition Beyond Zero the Calvert 22 gallery explores how Russian artists have been inspired by man’s evolving engagement with the cosmos.

The works featured in the exhibition date from the 1930s to the present day, showing how artists have continued to challenge the conventions of time and space. In immersive and site-specific installations contemporary artists comment on the poetic power of the moon and the mythical nature of sunlight and stars to deliver a series of illuminating experiences.

And at the end of the tour you can relax on beanbags while watching Pavel Klushantsev’s two sci-fi documentaries, Road to the Stars (1957) and The Moon (1965), pre-empting Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas in their utopian visions of a zero-gravity future.

Image: Pavel Klushantsev, The Moon, 1965, still. Courtesy of Gosfilmofond, St Petersburg.

What & Where: The East German Surveillance Station in Los Angeles

What: Christoph Zwiener, ADN Pfoertnerhaus (ADN Guard House)
Where: 9300 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, LA – until 2 November 2014

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, Los Angeles is the temporary home of a GDR surveillance booth. German artist Christof Zwiener has reimagined the 1970s guardhouse as an art installation, with the 2 by 1 metre space hosting a series of exhibitions.

The project began in June 2013 when Zwiener saved the ADN Pförtnerhaus from demolition. The last East German monitoring station remaining in a public space, it was originally located in the Berlin parking lot of state-run news agency ADN, from where the authorities had a good vantage point to spy on reporters. The booth has since hosted exhibitions across Germany and is now moving between the LA and OC counties before reaching its final destination, in the sculpture garden of the Wende Museum in Culver City.

ADN Pförtnerhaus began its Californian tour near a permanent installation of remnants of the Berlin Wall on LA’s Wilshire Boulevard. There it featured an exhibition by Berlin artist Sonya Schoenberger of 2,000 keys from abandoned East German police barracks. It is now situated on Culver Boulevard until 2 November 2014 and is filled with a sculpture of a giant flip-flop by LA artist Friedrich Kunath.

You can find out more about the project and see photos of previous exhibitions at the ADN Pförtnerhaus website.

Images: Top – Sculpture by Friedrich Kunath, on display in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Culver Boulevard, 2014; Bottom – Sonya Schoenberger with her exhibition Key Delivery in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Wilshire Boulevard, 2014.

Featured Artist: Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck

Venezuelan multimedia artist Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck has in recent years been bringing the Cold War back into contemporary galleries and international biennials. His eclectic installations incorporate historical documents, media sources and the work of other artists to dissect the role of power and propaganda in artistic narratives after World War II.

Balteo Yazbeck’s hybrid practice casts him at once as researcher, archivist, historian and curator. He has often teamed up with New York-based Iranian curator and art historican Media Farzin on a number of projects exploring America’s efforts to access oil reserves in Venezuela and Iran during the Cold War.

The duo’s 2009 exhibition Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect – named after a 1954 opinion piece published in the New York Times – brought together maps, photographs and replica artworks in a tale of international intrigue which placed Alexander Calder at the centre of US diplomacy in Latin America and the Middle East.

In 2013 one of Balteo Yazbeck’s latest projects, Chronoscope, was a highlight of the Cold War-themed Statue of Limitation exhibition in Dubai. This exciting and informative work proves that the Cold War remains a rich source of inspiration for contemporary artists.

Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Media Farzin. Top – Didactic Panel for Alexander Calder’s Vertical Constellation with Bomb, 1943 (detail); Bottom – Eames-Derivative (small version). From the series Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect, 2006–13. Courtesy the artists