Essay Kiki Mazzucchelli, 2009

Alexandre da Cunha / BMX

I believe in myself, I believe in myself… The sentence, monotonous and hypnotically repeated, accompanies the looped video showing an athletic youth executing a sequence of elaborate maneuvers with dexterity in a display of male exhibitionism amidst an urban landscape. BMX is characterized by a certain formal crudeness and immediateness or, more specifically, a lack of concern with technical execution. Image editing andmanipulation are kept to a bare minimum, as the overlighting and the trembling framing suggest a video shot without premeditation, an amateur camera in hand; it is as though the cameraman had stumbled onto this event by chance and decided to capture it without the previous knowledge of the pilot/performer.

The video was produced in 2002, when Alexandre da Cunha’s art was much more directlylinked to performance. Now he works mostly with objects, sculpture, and installation, which comprise his best-known output. His recent work is strongly marked by an idea of construction and tridimensionality, as well as by appropriation of shapes and objects from everyday life. Thus, an approach seeking to identify only formal relations between BMX and more recent work by the artist would presume a radical change in direction. However, this is not about discussing solely formal issues, and a slightly more attentive analysis of this work reveals a host of concerns and procedures that were already present in the video, and have been unfolding in different ways in his oeuvre over the last few years.

In the essay “Economias do desejo”*, produced on the occasion of Da Cunha’s solo exhibition at the Paço das Artes, in 2006, Rodrigo Moura points precisely to this urgency in execution and lack of attention to technical aspects that are already present in BMX, linking these features to punk, “do-it-yourself” aesthetics:

In terms of the economy of media and process, I reckon that in his work there is also some of the do-it-yourself from the punk movement and other underground cultures: an artisanal character, a making-sculptures-as-you-would-a-fanzine, but always keeping an eye on the international erudite repertoire. There is a certain detachment; he never (or very seldom) seeks external means in executing his work, as if everything that can be done in terms of physical effort should necessarily be within the reach of the hands.

Here, in addition to underscoring the artist’s lack of interest in technical virtuosity and his preference for using finished, virtually unaltered raw materials (readymade), Moura also brings another datum that is no doubt crucial to his production: the procedure of collage, in the sense of bringing together objects, materials, and references culled from traditionally distinct ranges and categories, often causing a short-circuitin hierarchies of value. Even though Moura alludes to a punk ethos regarding the idea of collage, it seems to me that in the case of Da Cunha the parallel is even closer to postpunk. Let us consider the experimentalism of bands that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as The Fall, Talking Heads, and Wire, and their bold eclectic incorporation of musical rhythms and styles as diverse as minimalism, funk, dub, and Africanrhythms, among many others. Those were bands that learned from the deconstruction proposed by the punk movement and applied the do-it-yourself attitude to sound and image creation (from the images created to illustrate the album covers to the choice of clothing, makeup, and sceneries), utilizing a multiplicity of elements taken from different sources.

>In a similar way, BMX is also the result of a collage of two raw materials that were found: audio from a self-help CD and video footage shot by the author of what can be considered a “found performance,” promoting the superimposition of two records that do not usually meet. By bringing together these two elements, taken from the universe of self-help and street culture, to create the video, Da Cunha carries out yet another operation, namely to bring this product into the art universe, raising issues pertaining tovalue, circulation, intentionality, among others, but also a certain critical humor or,better yet, self-critical, regarding the art system in itself, an approach that becomesincreasingly evident in his recent works.

The reference to street culture appears once again in the Fan Series (2004), a series of works in which he builds sculptures shaped after ceiling fans using skateboard decks,broomsticks, and metal household appliances. Da Cunha seems to recognize the formal potential of certain objects from everyday life that belong in his visual vocabulary, and he appropriates them, using them as elements to build up new shapes that are reminiscent of existing objects, and yet removed from their original purpose of becoming objects of art. This association of shapes and the construction through addition are key features of his work. The impression one gets is that the artist stumbled upon a certain object at a given moment—for instance a skateboard deck left in the street while walking home—and that in another moment not long thereafter, he looked at ceiling fans in a restaurant in a tropical country and intuitively established a relation between these two objects that culminates in a problem of formal resolution. Of course, the work resulting from this operation does not boil down to a formal discussion, because it brings with it the entire symbolic meaning of each of these objects, and the relations that are established based on the junction of those meanings.

One recurring reference in Da Cunha’s oeuvre concerns modern and contemporary art styles and movements. In series such as Deck Paintings (since 2004), in which beach chaircanvases are stretched on a wooden chassis to create abstract “paintings” reminiscent of the elegant work of United States color field painters, or Platinum (Column) (2005), in which he creates vertical sculptures by piling up metal household utensils, evoking the simplicity and grace of Brancusi’s columns, he alludes directly to the erudite, sophisticated universe of art, and specifically to artwork of high symbolic and material value. These valuable works are then redone using industrialized everyday objects, bringing popular culture, the mundane object, and a certain urgency in creating into the high-art universe.

Lately, Da Cunha has been setting sights on the legacy of modernism in Brazil. Living and producing art in London for over ten years now, the artist often has to deal with the British (and international) audience’s expectations concerning what it means to be a contemporary Brazilian artist. As a result of the growing internationalization of a certain segment in contemporary art that is affiliated with a mostly neoconcrete tradition, in many international circuits, young Brazilian artists are expected to produce a type of work that incorporates formal and stylistic features of that output. In his essay for the Laissez-faire exhibition, held at the Camden Arts Centre, in London (2009), Jens Hoffmann criticizes the attempts at including Da Cunha’s work in the category of neoconcretism:

Even more distressing is the fact that most historical references used to describe Da Cunha’s work are the same ones that are used in order to talk about so many other Brazilian artists in his generation, even though their works and styles are so different. Was the neoconcrete movement really the cradle for the variety of Brazilian art that wesee today, or are we witnessing a form of reductionist melancholy for times past, combined with a desperate, ignorant desire to establish an artistic canon?

Aware of this desire, in the series Sunset (Flag), 2009, Da Cunha juxtaposes typical sunset photographs in paradisiacal scenarios—with all their tired, corny tropical-cliché beauty, and their vibrant gradient comprised of reds, oranges, and yellows—and the hard, geometric shapes in solid areas of black and white, reminiscent of traditional drawings of national flags. Framed and displayed in an orderly fashion on the walls of the gallery or museum, these works also become reminiscent of the shapes of Brazilian concrete art, bringing the cliché of exoticness associated with peripheral tropical countries such as Brazil closer to the cliché of the concretist root projected by the supposedly more educated and liberal international artistic and intellectual sector. It is also a good-natured comment on how artistic procedures that used to be revolutionary ended up being absorbed and co-opted in a fetishistic manner by a market-oriented system.

The Palazzo (2009) installation, presented in that same exhibition, may also be understood as a comment on the international fetish regarding Brazilian modernism. A huge wall built using hundreds of interwoven mops reproduces what resembles a curved section typical of Niemeyer’s architecture. Here, the precision and the durability of concrete are replaced by the malleability and fragility of the mop, and the intellectual procedure of the architectural plan is turned into the artisanal procedure of joining together, one by one, the items that comprise this construction. Once again, the mundane and the popular are inserted in the exclusive universe of art. There is also the twist promoted by the work’s title, reminiscent of the names given to high-end buildings increasingly seen in the Brazilian metropolises, in what may be regarded as another acid comment on how value is ascribed to the architectural or artistic object.

Maison, Château, Palazzo, all of these words borrowed from foreign languages to baptizethe homes of the national elite express a desire for an assumed European sophisticationthat materializes itself, for instance, in the architectural pastiche of the neoclassical buildings that pop up in the city of São Paulo. In what could be considered the literary counterpart of these high-class buildings, we hear the echoing voice that blindly repeats: I believe in myself…

*Rodrigo Moura, “Economias do desejo.” In Alexandre da Cunha (catalogue). São Paulo: Paço das Artes, 2006, 5.

Interview Carla Zaccagnini, 2009

1. In your sculptures, reliefs, and installations, common objects acquire a resemblance with noble or delicate materials and with classical or special objects as a result of simple actions and unexpected approximations, leading to believe that the object contained the possibility of such transformation ever since it left the factory. Morethan once, when facing one of these works, I caught myself asking the question I am going to ask you now: Do you set out looking for specific objects that may take up features of terracotta, or handkerchiefs that may look like flags, or does the opposite hold true—a blue-and-red handkerchief makes you think of a banner, and upon purchasing an object to unclog the bathtub you find that it is similar to ceramic?

I guess both of these situations happen all the time in the process of constructing my work. I collect objects that I find intriguing and at times they do not turn into any sculpture. Other times, the transformation of these everyday objects works really well, and then I start looking for similar elements and producing new items. Generally speaking, my sculpture work is based on a very personal meeting with things around me, not only objects per se but situations they are in. They may range from very commonplace things that have always been beside me to things that I find in trips or in situations and experiences that are new to me. Based on this process of collection and appropriation, I try to bring them into the space of art and propose a short circuit in this path from triteness to an eventual sophistication of the object. The economy of gestures or techniques in this intervention on a given object is a very important aspect of the process.

2. Also regarding the ambiguity between characteristics that are either intrinsic or projected onto an object or shape, I was thinking about an answer you gave in your interview to Jens Hoffmann (see link in the Plus section). There you claim that you de-contextualize day-to-day objects to create works that often emulate modernist sculptures—in such a way that when you look at them thoroughly, these modernist shapes reveal themselves as having originated from elements of everyday life. Do you believe that this operation is also made possible by a dissemination of modernism-derived shapes andcolors that permeate the consumer goods with which we are faced every day, and which you use in order to build your sculptures?

Yes, I believe that that is one possible reading. I find that the best way to include these historical references in my work is when they are not that explicit and do not follow a strict model within the work process. I am not really interested in the reference in itself. I find it more stimulating when the work points to a reference in art history (and, in this respect, modernism is a constant) but embraces other sources that permeate other fields, such as design or architecture. I do believe there’s this dissemination derived from modernism that gets mass reproduced in day-to-day objects. Whenever I incorporate an object into my sculptures, I often emphasize this relation with design, with the utilitarian or decorative aspect that is there in the original object.

I believe, however, that the references in the artwork extend beyond modernism to establish other types of dynamics. In the pottery series (Terracotta Ebony), for instance, I combine plunger heads to make objects that look like sacred or ancestral urns, a very different visual repertoire. In more recent works, I work with wool yarn mixed with mops, establishing a link with the applied arts, popular culture, and handicraft.

3. It is important that you highlight the variety of references that your work comprises. Could you elaborate on this and maybe relate it to your initial studies in Brazil and later in the United Kingdom?

I believe that this formal economy featured in my work is perhaps the result of an aesthetics that I have assimilated ever since my initial training as an artist, which took place in Brazil. The artists who influenced me and what used to be valued then as anaesthetic standard have established a very important foundation to my artistic process.To a large extent, contemporary art in Latin America still follows this tradition and acertain tendency to seeking minimal gestures, the elegance of shapes. When I went to London to study, and distanced myself a bit from that repertoire, I became more aware of that influence, and I also began incorporating other forms of approaching art that werenot as linked to this quest for beauty, for the formal exercise. I believe that it was more productive for my process to combine these trends and incorporate more humor and irony into my work, for instance. I also began to notice the humor present in the formaldebates of artists such as Brancusi and others, who are very strong references in my work.

I guess this discussion regarding modernism has become a very recurrent issue in recent contemporary art production, and it has been discussed a lot lately, not always in the most appropriate way. There is a current trend followed by a generation of young European artists who make constant references to modernistic architecture with a nostalgic perspective that is at times over-aestheticized. On the other hand, this phenomenon inevitably disseminates important information about other places in the world, a visual repertoire that used to be less accessible before. I believe that it is important to acknowledge the presence of these possible aesthetic vices to which every artist is exposed, and to deal with them. But I believe in works of art that have a more universal discourse, in which the reference is not the end of the line, but rather a bridge to otherreadings.

4. To me, the power of much of your work resides precisely in this precarious point of balance that they establish, as if they were standing in the exact spot that allows them to be both at once: handkerchief and banner, rubber and ebony. Just like the classic optical game in which a chalice is at once two profiles, your objects and sculptures have an elastic, trembling, ambiguous existence, like an uncompleted mutation that surrenders comfortably to neither one nor the other side. This is not exactly a question, but what do you think of this reading?

I really like this idea of yours, of a mutation that is not fully completed. I am pleased whenever people refer to my sculptures by the objects of which they are made instead of the titles, for instance. I find it stimulating whenever this transformation takes place more in the imagination of viewers than strictly in the visual field. 

As an artist, I see myself as an intermediary, more than as someone who masters a given technique or a specific discourse. Even though I use economic gestures, my work features an investment and a concern with shape, with the combination of elements, the surface and color work that only becomes consistently established after much research and studio work. 

I find that this notion of a trembling existence is also linked to the idea of fantasy, of disguise, of a certain illusionism. My sculptures concern a classical repertoireof sculptural representation (busts, public sculptures, pottery, ceramics, etc.) and are, in principle, read as such. Once the material reveals itself to the eyes of the viewer, this idea is immediately undone and they become a sort of sculptural disguise. Oncethat happens, they become vulnerable and at the same time become funny, weird, and therefore relevant as an art object.

5. Exactly: a household disguise. Because whenever we put on a fancy dress (and in particular when the fancy dress is homemade), we might be a pirate, but we are still ourselves, and it is possible to recognize us behind the eye patch, the fake or painted mustache. With regard to BMX, a work that belongs in the Videobrasil collection, it seems to me that it also comprises an ambiguity, that the video creates a suspensionbridge between different areas of culture, and that it is a moment in between public and private, something in between a rehearsal and a screening. I would like you to talk about the process of making that video, about the juxtaposition of images filmed on the street and the audio taken from a self-help CD.

This process of collage, of juxtaposing elements is a recurring issue in my work process. In the sculptures that I did using the skateboards (Fan Series) I brought the household universe (using pans and kitchen utensils) closer to youth street culture. The idea of short-circuiting these two fields is always a motivation in my work, and I really like to put the elements to the test and see how they may be read by different audiences that are familiar with the elements used in my work to greater or lesser extents. Besides, there is the issue of appropriation, which at times extends beyond the object itself and becomes an appropriation of stories or narratives. The first time I showed the video, many people thought that I was the one riding the bike, or that I had done thevoiceover.

The way in which I incorporate video or photography into my work is always quite direct, using very low-tech editing and production mechanisms, and it is very similar to the way in which I make sculptures using objects that I have found. In the case of BMX, on my way to work, I had been watching this guy practicing everyday for some time, at around the same time. This idea of a routine, of practice, repetition, and virtuosity attracted my attention. The idea was to draw a parallel with my own work as an artist, with the lonely, repetitious work, the quest for getting better at what you do, and the notion of success and recognition.

When editing, I only cut out the moments in which he falls down, and joined all of the clips together as if he were always going from one motion to another in a very natural way. The self-help CD audio is like a dubious commentary, an affirmation of the editing trick. This relation with the idea of success and failure, and the relation with routine, also applies to other lines of work and professions, and to the contemporary world in general, which encourages a constant quest for better performance. I guess the video speaks of that and it also approaches issues of public and private, as you said. I am also interested in the aspect of making casual action, the practicing (a rehearsal),into the final event.

Comment biography Carla Zaccagnini, 2009

Alexandre da Cunha was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1969 and moved to São Paulo in 1991, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in artistic education at the Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation (locally FAAP) from 1992 to 1996. During his studies at FAAP, he attended classes taught by Nelson Leirner, whose work relates to Da Cunha’s not only for the use of household materials and references to so-called low culture, but also for the acid humor that characterizes both.

In 1998 he moved to London, where he still lives, to study at the Royal College of Art and pursue a master’s degree in the fine arts from the Chelsea College of Art and Design, in 2000. His studies in the British capital were definitive in forming the artist’s view and practice, and living abroad enabled and still enables a shift in his perspective of his country of origin’s culture and artistic tradition.

According to the artist, the formal economy in his work is a feature assimilated duringhis formative years in Brazil, and strongly present in Latin American art. In his Interview for this Dossier, he claims: “ When I went to London to study, and distanced myself a bit from that repertoire, I became more aware of that influence, and I also began incorporating other forms of approaching art that were not as linked to this quest for beauty, for the formal exercise. I believe that it was more productive for my process tocombine these trends and incorporate more humor and irony into my work, for instance.”

Recent solo exhibitions of his work included Laissez faire, Camden Arts Centre, London, 2009; an exhibition at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in San Francisco, in 2007; an exhibition at Paço das Artes, São Paulo, in 2006; and the ones held in 2008 at the galleries that represent his work (Sommer & Kohl, Berlin; Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; and Vilma Gold, London). Recent group exhibitions that featured him include Los Impoliticos, Palazzo delle Arti Napoli, Naples, 2010; Revolution of the Ordinary, Morsbroich Museum, Leverkusen, 2009; An Unruly History of the Readymade, La collection Jumex, Mexico, 2008; The View from Here – New Acquisitions, Tate Modern, London, 2006; The Structure of Survival, 50th Venice Biennale, 2003; and the Liverpool Biennial, 2002.

Bibliographical references 2009

Galeria Luisa Strina
The Luisa Strina Gallery, which represents the work of Alexandre da Cunha in Brazil, brings images of recent work and of the solo exhibitions the artist held at the gallery (in 2004 and 2008), an updated résumé and a list of bibliographical references.

Sommer & Kohl
The website of the gallery representing Alexandre da Cunha’s work in Berlin contains images and text pertaining to the Club Sandwich (Sommer & Kohl, 2008) exhibition, a résumé, and documentation of other recent works.