Location: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 701 Mission Street San Francisco, CA 94103
Dates: November 5, 2009 - January 31, 2010
The very first time that this exhibition, When Lives Become Form: Contemporary Brazilian Art, 1960s to the Present, was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in October 2008, it was a peculiar time for the relationship that Brazil and Japan had shared over the past hundred years; one marked by a very complex negotiation with identity and nationalism. As Brazil celebrated the centennial of Japanese immigrants arriving in São Paulo in 1908, the celebration that was going on in Japan was shrouded by dark clouds of betrayal by the Japanese government who ushered in the largest exodus of people in the twenty-first century; deporting 400,000 Japanese Brazilians that had been living and working in Japan since the 80s back to Brazil. Many had started families, and bought homes in Japan. Many had children while living in Japan, and now these children were being displaced to a "homeland" of which they had never set foot. Brazil–home to the largest Japanese community outside of Japan, with numbers ranging over a million–would be receiving the Brazilian born Japanese back into the fold. Some of those Japanese Brazilians, born in Brazil and speaking Portuguese as their first language went to Japan for work and the chance to be acknowledged as actually being Brazilian; something that proved hard to do in Brazil where often the Brazilian born first, second and third generation Japanese were marginalized and never quite excepted into the idealized multi-cultural "utopia" of the Tropicálist motif.
By the time that the exhibition traveled to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), the attention paid to these issues of transnational identity politics would go unrecognized, despite the fact that it was held in the Bay Area, home to the largest Japanese population in the mainland US. Curator Yuko Hasegawa – I would like to believe – took this into consideration while looking for a new venue for this exhibition. Startling was that the Japanese-Brazilian artists that dominated the show with some of the most compelling works would out do the famous heavy hitters of the nostalgic Tropicália milieu like Cildo Meireles's classic Zero Dollar (1978-84), Zero Centavo (1974-78) and Zero Cruzeiro (1974-78) which greet you across from Beatriz Milhazes framed collage paintings when you first walk into Gallery One. As Meireles's small conceptual works – depicting re-fashined currency – by placing Uncle Sam on an American dollar – and emptying it of all value by making it worth nothing, nil, zero, while Milhazes's use of colorful package designs embedded in a floral kaleidoscopic diffusion of the same agents of capitalism, i.e., the consumable snack food packaging that one might purchase with their Zero Centavo on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, were a delightful contrast.
Probably the most famous artists to emerge out of Brazil in the 1960s would be Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape and the legendary Hélio Oiticica. Despite my fondness for all of the important names included in with the 25 artists and collectives that participated in this exhibition, the works that were chosen were interesting to say the least. Lygia Clark's Bichos (Animals) series from the 1960s, a group of interactive naked metal sculptures, with thin pieces of metal sheets in the shapes of triangles and half-circles and put together with creatively placed hinges–one of which was displayed on a table and not in a vitrine so that patrons could play with it–were quite elegant as I thought that they were reminiscent of origami cranes, with collapsable triangular parts that seemed to only frustrate me as I tried to manipulate it into an uninteresting shape. Using perhaps the most famous image associated with Oiticica, the photograph of Tropicália troubadour, Caetano Veloso wearing one of Hélio's fabulous Parangolé capes from 1964 was an unnecessary inclusion in a show that already had a hundred works displayed. However, the elusive Quasi-cinemas installation of his collaboration with filmmaker Neville D'Almeida – Cosmococa 1: Trashiscapes (1973) was an exciting choice by Yuko Hasegawa, since it is a rarely shone work that was done while Hélio was in exile in New York City during the 70s. Positioned in a dark room, with mattresses laid out and slide projections on either wall, the Trashiscape soundtrack of Hendrix and other well known musicians from the 60s and 70s drug culture went well with the temporary drawings that Hélio was making on the covers of magazines and album covers with thin lines of cocaine captured by D'Almeida's camera. Lygia Pape's circle of bowls on the floor that were filled with colored and flavored water gave off an aroma that sweetened the horrible clustering of these three artists that all share roots in the Neo-Concretist movement.
More contemporary works, like Assume Vivid Astro Focus and their "tropical punk" style bored me. The only thing I found interesting about it was how poorly the vinyl was applied, with huge sections buckling and bubbling off the walls. The work of the singularly named Marepe must have been a favorite of the curator, with multiple works that included sculpture, photography, installation, and drawings. The photograph that accompanied the large metal sculpture that resembled a popcorn popper from the 80s – but was actually some kind of headgear that would amplify sound – begged for you to find it compelling, which it wasn't. The photograph of a dark skinned beach-goer wearing yellow swim trunks and flip-flops at the horizon of a cobble stoned walkway, a clear sky and a calm ocean appeared to be an attempt to mimic Hélio Oiticica's series of photographs of favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro wearing his Samba inspired Parangolés from the 60s, where instead of wearing billowing fabric that was blowing in the wind, the figures head was encased in the odd circular sculpture; erasing identity. The only works of Marepe that truly stood out to me were his whimsical drawings on colored paper. Like Hélio's drawings done with thin lines of cocaine, here Marepe just simply applied glitter to cartoonish lines drawn in glue. The hybrid forms of machine and animal remind me of the subject of mecha in Japanese pop cultural entities like manga and anime.
Once I had exhausted the big names and the obvious favorites of the curator, I found myself most excited by those artists that I knew nothing about. Rogério Degaki, one of the younger artists in the show–born in São Paulo of Japanese decent–had two oil paintings, Rabbit with Pumpkin-colored Ears (2007) and Vicky (2006) which were described by the wall label as "...a new generation’s interpretation of Japanese otaku culture—obsessive fandom related to anime and manga.", yet I couldn't make that leap. Unfamiliar with his sculptural work, I was more interested in his method here, where he uses oil paint to mimic the knitted images of crocheted animal faces seen on throw rugs for children's bedrooms which were popular in the 1970s. Here, the idea of appearing as being one thing at a glance, but really being an entirely different thing at closer examination was more of a commentary on the conditions of Japanese-Brazilian subjectivity; appearing Japanese, but in actuality being a born and bred Brazilian.
Upstairs had some interesting works, notably Vik Muniz's Sugar Children Series (1996). Portraits of children he had met while visiting a sugar plantation in the West Indies. Ephemeral drawings made with sugar against a dark background of negative space and then photographed were visually deceptive; looking almost like charcoal drawings. The connections made between sugar and coffee–two of the great capitalist exports of Latin America–reminded me of the reason why Japanese emigrants decided to go work in the plantations in São Paulo a hundred years earlier. Also, again I'm reminded of how influential Hélio Oiticica was on the generation of artists that came after him; making contrasts between Muniz's photographs of sugar and the cocaine drawings tracing the faces on the covers of magazines. Another favorite of mine, architect Ruy Ohtake (son of another artist in the show, Tomie Ohtake) represented that first generation of Brazilian born Japonese, Nikkei*. Born in 1938 in São Paulo, his archetectural practice is know for bold forms and vibrant colors that are reminiscent of his mother's paintings. The social practice of re-fashioning São Paulo’s Heliópolis favela that began in 2004 was an exciting project that again, reminded me of Hélio Oiticica's work that engaged with the eclectic life of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the seminal piece that coined a whole movement, the immersive penetrable work that was titled Tropicália; featured in the legendary 1967 collective exhibition Nova Objectividade Brasileira (New Brazilian Objectivity) held in the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro and emulating life in a favela. The installation of Ruy Ohtake's project, presented with photographs and a short 6 minute video playing on a small monitor with head phones, showing the process of how the project emerged. Employing local masons and carpenters from the Heliópolis favela to do all of the work–which was much needed in a place with so many people out of a job–the goal to beautify as well as activate the community were effective and ultimately a visual and emotional success. Sadly, this great piece was some what lost, shoved to the back of the long walk that had to be made on the mezzanine past the lifeless architectural works of Lina Bo Bardi and the paintings by street art duo, Osgemeos (which seem to have more in common with Otaku aesthetics than Rogério Degaki). However, as I started to head back down stairs, I had a better view of Ernesto Neto's Simple and light as a dream…the gravity don’t lie…just loves the time (2006), a large spectacle-like soft sculpture of bulbous and organic forms made out of foam and lycra and precariously balancing from the ceiling of YBCA's main lobby. Beautiful, playful and ultimately making me think of the balancing act one must do to experience the performative identity of Brazilians following the complicated 1960s.
*Nikkei: A person of Japanese descent born overseas.
Many other interesting choices were made in the selection of artists. Fashion and its relationship to the wearable, performative and participatory work of the 60's that seemed experimental and avant-garde back then had appeared naturalized by younger contemporary artists like Jum Nakao and Ronaldo Fraga; both born during the colorful and turbulent 60's.
Ultimately, the exhibition was a disappointment. Some of the work looked a little worse for wear (slightly damaged from being installed so many times perhaps), but the real downer is the location. The YBCA seemed ill equipped for this exhibition. With the high ceilings and extremely bad lighting, works in the main gallery were left to be viewed in a muted overcast haze. Colors struggled to pop off the walls when they so desperately needed to. Also, one of the slide projectors in Hélio Oiticica & Neville D'Almeida's Trashiscapes installation had a burnt out bulb and was not working. When I asked someone about it, they just shrugged and stated that it had been like that for days. However, the bad lighting did serve Rivane Neuenschwander's great stop-motion film, a one minute 16mm loop of beef carpaccio on a white dinner plate in the cartographic image of the continents of the world coming together and deconstructing over and over again. Hopefully the YBCA will do a better job installing the next exhibition – Renée Green: Endless Dreams and Time-Based Streams – which opens February 20th and might work better in the odd space provided.