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Reinaldo Laddaga:    Tunga ( II )
It is the shadow of the latter (along with those of Robert Morris and, more tenuously, Joseph Beuys) that colors the majority of these pieces of felt, rubber, and leather of the end of the seventies - Tunga´s first important works and those that open the show at Bard College. Remarkable as some of these pieces are - and even when they contain elements that anticipate his later work - a fairly neat break is visible in Tunga's work toward the beginning of the eighties: it is basically from this moment on that the uniqueness of his work unfolds. The fifteen-year period that follows from that moment through the middle of the current decade constitutes the core of this exhibit. During these years, Tunga is above all a sculptor (builder of the objects included in this exhibit,) a creator of performances, and an inventor of fictions (he has generally published his work in pamphlet form which complement at times some of his sculptures.) [ 1 ]

It is a triumph on the part of the artist and the curator that it would be as difficult to imagine any one of the objects displayed in the exhibit, once one has seen them together, separated from one another as it would to imagine them assembled in any other fashion. Thus, in what follows, they will be described precisely as they appeared at this site and on this specific occasion. The assembled works from 1981-1994 are spread out in a ring in six rooms. In the first room at ankle height this is a film loop in constant motion and a projector. This is a work from 1981, Ão. The image registered on the film that circulates through the semi-dark room is projected on a wall. It is film of a tunnel in Rio de Janeiro, shot from a car. The tunnel is deserted, the atmosphere nocturnal. The image advances in slow motion in a slightly burnt black and white. Since the two ends of the film have been glued together, it is as if one never manages to traverse the tunnel. Music can be heard: an old ballad, Night and Day. A voice, accompanied by a large orchestra, begins to sing in English the standard lyrics of the ballad: Night and day/day and night. But as in some of the works of Bruce Nauman from the period of Ão (Live and Let Die from 1983, for example) the discursive situation grows increasingly complicated - or rather, deteriorates - and the voice ends up singing nonsensically, Day and day/night and night as if it were unable to keep from losing coherence. Like the film image, the soundtrack repeats ad infinitum. One´s impression is that of a suspended degradation, a bit like certain novels of Maurice Blanchot (The Death Sentence or Aminadab), or even some tales by the narrator whose name Tunga mentions frequently when speaking of his education and influences: Edgar Allan Poe.

The installation is, at first, banally pleasant, and then immediately becomes enervating. The room in which it is housed is at once part cinema, part dance hall, and part torture chamber. The link between the banal (even the idiotic at times) and the frightening is constant in Tunga´s work as it is, in a different fashion in the work of the American artist Mike Kelley, his contemporary. The link reappears in the gigantic sculpture in the room that opens to the left of the Ão room - which is where the viewer would probably go as he continues his tour of the exhibit (a tour in which, it should be mentioned, one never escapes the music, the variously spliced voice, the orchestral accompaniment, the words night and day).

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Ão, 1981
Palindromo incesto (Palindrome Incest), from 1990, is not easy to describe - nor easy to look at. Three enormous metal thimbles, one of them with its iron surface exposed, another covered by thin copper sheets, the third with filings, all with chunks of magnets attached to their surfaces here and there, lie on their sides throughout the space, connected by handfuls of copper wire on which hang equally enormous, curved and straight sewing needles. Three glass thermometers filled with mercury complete the conglomeration. The entire repertory of materials which Tunga usually employs are included in this work: magnets, iron, copper, glass. The trios, the braided triads that recur obsessively in his pieces are here as well. But there is something in Palindrome Incest that is particularly disconcerting. The referential universe of this work is conventionally feminine: it is the universe of a specific femininity. It is boudoir or sewing-room femininity, a femininity of languor, of slow and languid pleasure. (It is significant that one of the first groups of truly important sculptures by Tunga is titled Les Bijoux de Mme. de Sade (Mme. de Sade´s Jewels). But while that universe has been preserved it has also been curiously disturbed. For there is something absolutely brutal in the work and something absolutely painful. As seen in certain paintings by Balthus, an absolute violence is shown in the space of tranquil, domestic delights which culture has set aside for women. (The theme of a woman is violated is present in a more or less constant fashion in Tunga´s works.)
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Palindrome Incest, 1990
The power of the piece is linked in part to the contact - which, when seeing it is difficult not to establish - between the scene of reference, the faint world of the sewing room or the boudoir, and the massive presence of those metal forms. The very same thing occurs in the following room, which is wholly occupied by a piece from 1989 entitled Lagarte III (Lizards III). Here what we find are two standing rectangular assemblages formed of clothes irons and types of combs to which are adhered, by means of small, piled-up blocks of magnets, thick bundles of copper wire that allude to strands of hair. On the copper hair are arranged, here and there, several tiny statues of beings made of lizard halves joined together. There are tiny brains on the irons. The strands of hair weave together in two corners of the room with two garrotes covered as well in magnets. The object presents a challenge to anyone describing it as well as interpreting it in terms of profound meaning. It is useless to attempt to decipher this work - or any work of Tunga´s - as if it were a matter of allegory. The only thing that can apparently be discerned about what the artist wished to do is that he wanted to place certain things in contact with one another: copper wire like hair and magnets, brains and chimeric lizards, hypertrophied combs and garrotes. Is it this a sort of surrealist object? The answer to this question is not simple. Surrealism was a central part of Tunga´s education, but less its painting than certain surrealist works of literature, less Miró or Matta than Breton, and less even Breton than several artists who renounced the movement like Antonin Artaud or Georges Bataille, not to mention some who belong to the canon of Surrealism like Raymond Roussel, for example, or Poe himself. And nevertheless, if the composition of objects of surrealism were arranged so as to produce what Walter Benjamin called a profane illumination, a luminosity, there is nothing less surrealist than Lizards, which produces a screech more than a spark, a disgust more than a brilliance. It is a piece in which the components come into contact with one another less as do an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissection table (according to Lautréamont´s image which Bretón would quote as the exemplification of the surrealist image) as does a fingernail come into contact with the surface of a chalkboard.

Paul Valéry, in a 1932 text on Corot, says there are two great types of artists. On the one hand, there are the artists whose goal it is, to quote Valéry, to make us companions in his happy gaze on a beautiful day. Corot would exemplify precisely this group. And on the other hand, there are the Delacroixs, the Wagners, the Baudelaires, whose goal it is to procure from their environments the most energetic action upon the senses, to be preoccupied with the domination of the soul through the channel of the senses, anxious to reach and as if to possess (in the diabolical sense of the term) that weak and hidden spot of the being that exposes it and governs it entirely by the deflection of its organic depths and guts. [ 2 ] Tunga (like Nauman, like Richard Serra) clearly belong to this last category. In the large installations, the artist´s desire to make an impact on the viewer and to control his or her reactions is clear. There is something of a hypnotist (magnetist as they used to say some time back) in the artist who composed those works. That desire is less visible, however, in his smaller works which are distributed in two identical rooms in the back part of the building - in the part of the building that faces the room where Ão spreads out -joined by a somewhat narrow hallway. One part of these pieces are separate versions, in general realized earlier, as if they were sketches, of objects that make part of the composition of the installations: garrotes, rings, braids, combs, bundles of copper wire. Everything in these rooms resembles a human organ and at the same time a piece of jewelry. The combination of cruelty and luxury that appears to bear down on these two rooms imbues the works in the hallway that separates them with a strange light.

In fact, in the passageway between the two rooms one finds the most, let us say, lyrical works of the exhibit. They are a series of sculptures, made over the last ten years, since 1986, called Eixos Exóginos (Exogenous Axes). Anyone would surely remember those urns commonly used in psychology books on vision in whose outline one could pick out the profile of a human face. The same principle operates in these works. They are columns turned in such a manner that in its edges one can perceive, in each case, in the negative or in their absence, the profile of full, naked body of a woman, different every time. There are five of these works in the exhibit and as a group they make one think of an elemental and frozen dance. They are related of course to the impressions of women made on paper or fabric produced in the fifties and sixties by Robert Rauschenberg and Yves Klein. But their appearance recalls more closely certain works by the sculptor which, in conversation Tunga, curiously seems to mention most frequently: Constantin Brancusi.


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Lizard III, 1990

1. A comprehensive list of these activities can now be found in a book by the artist published this year: Barroco de lirios, (São Paulo: Kosac & Naify, 1997). The bibliography on Tunga is still limited. Fine texts written by Guy Brett, Suely Rolnik, and Carlos Basualdo, will be published in the exhibition catalogue.
2. Paul Valéry, Pieces sur l´art (Paris: N.R.F., 1936) 137-138.
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