« back Art Nexus - Nr. 27/1998

Reinaldo Laddaga: Tunga      (Print/Download-Version)

A Survey (1977-1997)
A Universe of Exquisite Links

During these fifteen years, Tunga has been first and foremost a sculptor (builder of the objects included in this exhibit), a creator of performances, and an inventor of fictions.

Reinaldo Laddaga: Author and PhD at New York University. He teaches at several universities in Argentina and the U.S. He has published extensively on aesthetics, art and literature issues.

In September the first comprehensive exhibit of the work of Tunga curated by Carlos Basualdo, opened at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, located a few hours north of New York City. Tunga, who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, is the youngest member of the great generation of Brazilian artists (Cildo Meireles, José Resende, and Waltercio Caldas are a few of the others) who followed the figures of Hélio Oiticia and Lygia Clark.

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).

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.)

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.

The day of the inauguration of the show, this group of columns or portraits resonated with two other mobile groups of women: the participants in two performances. In one Xipófagas capilares (Capillary Xipophagi) from 1985, two girls were braided together by the hair as if they suffered from a relatively benign (for them) form of being Siamese twins, and simply walked back and forth. In the other performance, Sero te Amavi (Belatedly I Loved You) from 1992, three adolescent women wearing shirts, with thimbles, needles, and rings in their hands, assumed, frozen, a series of poses. In each one of the poses, each of the women, to all appearances indifferent to the others, would lean against the other two. (There was always something insufficiently erect in the figures, in the constructions they formed.) What idea regulated the composition of the poses of these three women? There is a topological figure called the Borromean knot which readers of the latest works of Lacan should be very familiar. A Borromean knot is composed of three interlocking rings such that should one of the three be broken the other two will also be freed. The same thing occurs with a braid of three strands: if any one of them is cut the other two will disperse. These three adolescents acted like a Borromean knot or a three-stranded braid: all it took was for one of them to fall for the other two to come down as well. Such that, at every moment throughout the course of the group´s performance, each adolescent made contact with the others and stuck to the others to the extent possible.

What is the origin of these beings? The inspiration for this work (and the wording of its title) comes from a passage from the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The model for this group, this conglomeration, or this braid is the Holy Trinity of Christian doctrine. But what might this artist, so little Christian to all appearances, find especially attractive in that traditional figure? What is there for Tunga that is so particularly fascinating in the Holy Trinity?

The first time I saw this performance, in New York, only a few years ago, the three adolescent women were at the far end of a long gallery. In the front part of the gallery was an acrylic box packed with paper through which three snakes slithered. What is the relation, I wondered at the time, between a bunch of snakes and three immobile adolescents representing (the word is probably inadequate) the Holy Trinity? No being appears more in the work of Tunga than snakes, in particular, intertwined snakes. One of their appearances is now a decade old. In 1987, Tunga produced the sculptures and concepts for a film directed by Arthur Omar with the title Nervo de prata (Nerves of Silver). In one sequence of the film, the camera focuses with evident delight on several snakes that are intertwining. The camera captures the rubbing of skin against skin. It is as if the snakes were being moved by a desire to make contact with one another as completely as possible even at the price of losing their own distinction in a pile or mass of indistinguishable parts. However strange the idea might seem, it is possible that Tunga finds the figure of the Holy Trinity fascinating to the extent that it reminds him of the fascinating spectacle of intertwined snakes. Is not the Holy Trinity traditionally a composite of three beings who make ecstatic and total contact with one another? In which are combined the maximum absorption on the part of each one, abandoned to the pleasure of becoming experience and the maximum communication with the other parts, equally abandoned? The reading is violent and yet, I believe, fitting. An idea of the Holy Trinity, the trio of adolescents, the braided snakes. The braids of metal that appear briefly throughout this piece are perhaps momentary appearances of a fantasy of total pleasure in the perfect absorption and of pure communication with others.

Is it the insistence of this figure of pleasure which makes this piece so perturbing and fascinating? The remains of the performance can be found in Bard College in the room following the second of the rooms of small objects, opposite in the building to the Lizards room. Flexible rubber tubes extend from three corners of the room, the kind used for example in doctors´ waiting rooms or offices to encircle the arm about to receive an injection. The three sections of tubing knot together Borromeaneously in the middle of the room and on that knot are small (which is to say, normal-sized) versions of the objects magnified in Palindrome Incest: three thimbles (with a bit of red wine in each,) three thermometers, three needles that somehow manage to Borromeanously knot together. Several shirt sleeves hang from the tubing. Three enormous candles which are lit during the performance lean against one another and are bound together with additional tubing. The three shirts of the three adolescents lie on the floor, spread out in a circle and touching each other, stained with wine and bearing a few tiny fragments of red glass and rings. A mute record of the performance, the three adolescents fallen down on the floor: it is the following moment that we now witness after the inauguration in this room. The arrangement is manifestly ceremonial but is also that of the of the crime scene preserved intact. Is it the tenuous drippings as if of highly diluted wax on the walls of the room that make its atmosphere - which is a rarity in Tunga´s work - infinitely pallid? Everything in the room remains yet everything looks as if it were about to vanish. There is a text by Poe that seems to me to describe something of what takes place in this installation by Tunga. At the beginning of The Fall of the House of Usher the narrator of the story, standing in front of the old mansion mentioned in the title, is surprised by what he calls a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and the crumbling condition of the individual stones and he compares the appearance of the whole, its extensive decay to the specious totallity of old wood work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. [ 3 ] There is something at once of confinement and of desperate fragility in these fragments and something deceiving in its apparent wholeness. It is a sight of final moments.

That fragility of the vestiges of Belatedly I Loved You does nothing to prepare the viewer for the installation in the final room, altogether occupied (over-occupied, one might say) by the massive presence of Cadentes lácteos (The Milky Fallings) from 1994. The last two rooms constitute in the show a sort of brief suite to the fall. What falls in the final work of the show are several enormous metallic bells. The gigantic scale of this work is similar to that of Palindrome Incest, which is located in its corresponding room. There are five bells in the room, three hung and two tumbled on the floor. Several objects resembling vessels are stuck to their surfaces which are additionally covered with a whitish substance that reminds one of semen, and which trickles down toward the floor. In a particularly splendid passage in Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda, the poet communicates the following vision: And although I close my eyes and fully cover my heart, I see a deaf water falling in enormous deaf drops. It is like a hurricane of gelatin, like a waterfall of sperm and jellyfish. [ 4 ] Putting aside Neruda´s expressionist tone which Tunga doesn´t share, The Milky Fallings could be presented as a rather idiosyncratic illustration of the poet´s lines. The artist would probably appreciate the combination, the contrast between the literally hurricane-whipped violence of vision and the inconsistency of the materials that appear within it: gelatin, sperm, or jellyfish.

But Tunga would also find it immediately attractive that, under the title of Sexual Water (the title of the poem from which the quoted lines were taken), Neruda evokes a catastrophic state of the body. A recurring figure in the recent performances of the artist (performances that have not been included in the Bard exhibit) is a man carrying a suitcase. The suitcase suddenly opens and out of it falls a pile of selected limbs mixed with cubes of gelatin. Do these limbs belong to the disappeared adolescents in Belatedly I Loved You? We are not in a position to answer that question. But it is interesting that the Bard show would close with an image that indicates, beyond itself, some obscure disaster. It is not impossible that, at this stage in the viewing, he who has come through the exhibit might perceive that that voice that in Ão keeps falling into a stunned babbling, or the scene of a sewing room invaded by metals, or the Siamese lizards and tiny brains mixed with hair that extends itself without limit, or some bells tossed like dice and impregnated with a milky liquid, or the somnambulist collapse of a knot of adolescents, that all those figures refer to a threatened existence. (In a video which is shown at Bard in a side room, Tunga is constructing several pieces. His gestures are strange - it is as if, at the same time he is making his constructions, Tunga wishes to keep them at a distance to avoid who knows what danger.) A specific affection is capable, I believe, of producing this show: a pleasure, a euphoria, in total contact, entirely intertwined, in every one of its moments, with an uneasiness. The specific nature of this affection is, for this writer, new.


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.
3. Edgar Allan Poe, trans. D. Rolfe and J. Gómez de la Serna (Madrid: Cátedra, 1991) 169.
4. Pablo Neruda, Residencia en la tierra (Madrid: Cátedra, 1986).

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