Rodrigo Matheus in Conversation with Philip Monk (2016/2018)
Rodrigo Matheus (Rio de Janeiro: Cobogó, 2018), 94-103, with Portuguese translation.
Rodrigo Matheus in Conversation with Philip Monk
January 4, 2016
I first met you in São Paulo in fall 2006 and have visited you almost every year since then there or subsequently in London or Paris. I’d like to talk to you about some of the consistent (indeed constituent) elements of your works: their composition, syntax, and references, and how these relate to and inform each other. But first I want to ask you about transition and translation—about the movement from one country to another, from one continent and hemisphere to another, and, why not say it, from a one-time colonial hinterland to still dominant imperial centres. In some way the latter perhaps has influenced the look of your work—but that may be only because of someone coming to it initially, like me from North America, for whom Brazil is “exotic.” I say this because in some way the richness of your work is its contextuality. Any exhibition of yours always subtly refers to its context, whether it is the shop nature of a commercial gallery (with its commercial display ultimately no different from a store: hence the concentration of display apparatus in your work), or its environmental context: its surrounding landscape, whether it be natural or urban. The point is that the natural already is cultural. This is the (contrary) image of Brazil you display in your early works.
These early works, and their exhibition (since the exhibition context is crucial to the works’ interpretation), were scenarios—constructed scenes or artificial landscapes—composed of commonplace and readily available display devices. They had the shorthand efficiency, yet evocativeness, of Marcel Broodthaers’ installations. Yet it wasn’t only a luxuriant image put on display but a relation between the natural and the cultural: both manmade and natural objects composed the scene. And it just wasn’t Brazil only, it was the manmade environment of the tropical city of São Paulo and all its security paranoia that were part of this display, too, making up its elements as well. So my first question to you is whether you feel all these years absent from São Paulo and residing first in London and then Paris have changed your work in its very nature or only in its appearance, since the influential determining context has changed.
Hollywood (2010) is the title of a solo show I did in Rio de Janeiro six months before my move to London. In this show I developed sculptures made of industrial replicas of elements of the Portuguese colonial architecture introduced in Rio de Janeiro by the time the Royal court of Portugal moved to Brazil. These Neoclassical/Baroque buildings punctuating the 19th century Carioca landscape not only affirmed the power of the Portuguese Empire but, above all, they represented a civilizing attempt to domesticate that wild tropical environment, which I should say has not yet been fully civilized.
Back in 2010, Brazil was experiencing the highest point of its international prestige: Historical record of federal tax revenue collection (right in the middle of the international crises), the promise to house the World Cup (2014), Olympics Games (2016), etc. Within this context Hollywood discussed the gap between the image that Brazil projected internationally (based on its economic numbers) and the reality on the streets of Rio de Janeiro: the country’s post card image whose social dynamic still reflects the social divisions of its colonial heritage.
Being in Europe in 2011 gave me the opportunity to observe a fictional Brazil from a place this fiction was addressed to. So I think the biggest change due to my move has been that my perspective has been “recontextualized.”
Early when I arrived in London, one of the things that drove my attention the most was the amount of vintage post cards, pictures and souvenirs from Rio de Janeiro that I found in flea markets. I also discovered a large collection of documents dating from the early 20th century that recorded commercial transactions between Brazil and England from where is clear to note that Brazil’s current economic boom is still based on the same kind of commodities that the country used to export. These finds along with others resulted in new series of works that consequently have a different look, a different sense of time and temperature.
I can understand the critical component of this work that is partly derived from your then critical distance from Brazil—the work you talk about here based on Brazilian postcards, shipping bill of ladings, and commercial transactions, such as Island, Vista da Capital, and Carta Aberta Composição 2. When I first saw some of this work while visiting you in London in 2012, I felt that this was your means of maintaining contact with your Brazilian subject matter (context again) while at a distance from your homeland. Now I wonder if this work already represented a premonitory nostalgia. Of course, there is a quality of nostalgia inherent to this class of flea market material, which is still detritus of sorts and not archival yet. But it is almost as if in this work there is a sense of no return, that the temporal is as well the spatial, as if you departed on one of those boats to the Old World with a one-way ticket in your pocket. Because in some way this work represents for me an adieu, a way of detaching yourself from your Brazilian subject matter. These old papers are now documents of a new transaction you’ve enacted in your work of displacement and detachment—even though this might not be apparent to everyone who now sees your art in another context without the experience of your past work. I felt this absence very strongly in your new work that you exhibited in October 2015 in the gallery Ibid.London. But at the same time I recognized how this detachment allowed your work to perform (I use this word consciously) differently, with a new sense of freedom and association.
But before I get into this detachment that now informs your work, and what it might mean, I want you to talk, since you mentioned your 2010 Rio de Janeiro exhibition, about how “architecture” functions in your work, because architecture is a handy way to talk about some of your works’ principles, which is a type of bricolage. The look of architecture allows a scenario to unfold, but a scenario that accommodates specific types of composition. On the one hand, this look allows the scenario’s referential function, which is based on the capacity of differently scaled common objects when joined together to mimic buildings. On the other hand, these objects—readily available common commodities manufactured for different purposes—are put together in specific ways. The normal use of these objects is suspended in a new reference, combined in the new context or grouping they make. Re-purposed, the “buildings” are “built” by piling and stacking, and the scenario is linked by other forms of connection we can talk about later. These compositional principles seem consistent within your work, whether “architecture” is there or not.
Most of my works somehow reveals its own project; thus I consider that projecting is both process and result of the pieces. This projective character of my pieces avoids solutions that are made to measure or designed by me; instead I count on industrial coincidences between the parts to pile up or put together different kinds of objects in a single body. Behind this “compositional principle” there is a sharp observation of architecture and its accessories, how they work together and in what they be could turned out of their original context, free from its function. Behind every little object around us there is a project whose primary intention is to act in the world. My sculptures embody a range of elements to create structures that support unusual functions for everyday objects. Separate, these objects might be nothing beyond their function; assembled, they gained an ambiguous sense of scale given by the structure that keeps them together. That said, architecture is a strong reference that embraces the various micro dialogues established by a precise combination of materials that allows a scenario to unfold. If architecture is what rules and organizes our routine in public and private space, as well as gives us a scale and shows us what the limits are, these assemblages, in an alternative way, promote a kind of deviation of technical knowledge.
You say that the projective character of your work is a process and result. Commonplace objects are projected into a new role, given a storyline to enact, so to speak. In time, this diverse collection arrives at a scenario; a narrative of sorts plays out. Allowing a scenario to unfold means following a certain concatenation: elements are put together so that, in the end, they add up to an event. The event is in the balance, in how the elements hang or hold together. Over the time of this concatenation, elements unfold to arrive at a scenario where they are refolded back into a coalesced scene, into an associative shape, which happens once they take on a different appearance than individually they started as. The end works are, as you say, projective, a combination of both process and result, in their making and their reading.
When I say that an event is in the balance, in how the elements hang or hold together, I mean both your technique of stacking that stabilizes elements in an architectural reference but also the device of hanging common to much of your work. Complementing one another, both devices are evident in your 2015 exhibition Atração in São Paulo and in your participation in the 2015 Biennale de Lyon .
This directional aspect is essential to your work—in its construction (the means by which they hold together) and in our reading (where we draw a new association from the construction of the elements). By directional, I really do mean their coordinates: the way the works are built up or built down, so to speak, that is from the floor up and from the ceiling down: stacking and hanging. The “architectural” works are built up this way, from the floor up, but I am thinking more particularly of the columnar pieces like Flute, 2015, and Monument to Style, 2010, which maintain reference to a symbolic function of verticality, of lifting up something of value. Both these works function symbolically to elevate something, set it very obviously on a pedestal, but the latter interestingly is composed of elements—columns—that are meant individually to functionally fit from floor to ceiling. (Another work, # 1 Unfinished / in Progress, 2011 , made of piled empty artwork crates, fulfills this floor-to-ceiling function, while doing much else besides, i.e., pointing out its context’s symbolic function.)
Up and down really is only one coordinate: the vertical. Your work is made of the up, down, and across. The horizontal coordinate is equally important as a constructive axis. The scenographic space of your work thus is also a planimetric one. This became very evident to me in your October 2015 exhibition at Ibid Gallery London—or at least the exhibition suggested to me, not a new direction—because your general operational principles are unchanged—but a new adherence. Every new adherence, though, means giving up something.
Both the scenographic and the planimetric are abstract spaces of construction and the principles operant within them are the same. That is, the connective space between elements is where the constructive operations take place. This is not so much behind the work as within it, but it is an abstract space, nonetheless, or a space that can be abstracted as the operations of the work. Coincidentally, this space aligns to that of the gallery, to the display character of a gallery, which usually is abstracted out of it in the presentation of artworks, transparently hidden behind them. (This is something to which you always have been sensitive, for instance, in # 1 Unfinished / in Progress or your 2010 Handle with Care, Galpão Fortes Vilaça exhibition in São Paulo, which took place in the preparation and “back-stage” storage spaces of the gallery.) While it was not immediately evident, Border made the gallery into a stage, with the artwork performers.
Of course, someone like me, who is at heart an old-fashioned structuralist, sees this constructive, scenographic, or planimetric space as composed of a metonymic and a metaphoric axis, the former corresponding to the horizontal, syntagmatic axis and the latter to the vertical, associative one. Still, I think this is an apt model, linguistic as it might be, to look at your work, and Border in particular.
Border’s adherence to the wall was cleverly pre-figured in Hug, the site-specific work you made for the stairwell of Galeria Fortes Vilaça of leaves of artificial tropical plants [In 11/19/2016, the Galeria Fortes Vilaça changed its name to Galeria Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel ]. As in Hug, the found flea market or hardware store objects adhere to the wall but now are set off by a bracketed aluminum pipe snaking around the space of two walls, and that looks much like a ballet barre. Here in this little ballet object trouvé, unassuming common objects of natural or manufactured derivation are given their moment to shine, but only momentarily and in association with things that are alike or different, or different as alike. The surreal quality of these set-off objects gives way to an assembly line tracking movement as we walk their length and discover, in this temporal performance, the syntagmatic relations and metaphoric associations that develop between the members of this cast of characters. I felt an obvious poetic working here that seemed to cherish these found objects, but at the same time I felt that their particularization had been generalized to a degree that … what can I say, marked a full detachment from your Brazilian origins as an artist. While you use the same operations, you seem a different artist here.
I am quite confident to imagine that, when you are working with an artist at the Art Gallery of York University, the gallery’s 3D model should be a very handy tool to begin discussions around projects to be installed.
Solo presentations are a great chance to take total control of a specific site and 3D models are fantastic means to study how to work within the space coordinates. When displayed, the different axes that my works establish in the space aim to activate the architecture with variations that punctuate its planimetric in different directions. As a result, the physical features of the room are now an element of the final composition—being at the same time content and container.
Most of the objects that compose my sculptures have their correspondent representation as 3D virtual objects that can be easily downloaded from the Internet straight into a model, adjusted to the right scale, and assembled together in an infinite range of possibilities. Flute, to mention one, was entirely conceived this way: right inside the space where it was to be presented.
Of course, when it comes to reality, things don’t work that well and adjustments are necessary: there is always some fragile plasterboard covering a pipe in the wall right on the surface I want to use or a spot light in the middle of the way. This is the point where improvisation takes place and where I have to find a different association, or adapt a device to some use other than what it was designed for; it’s here that the solution for the work is derived. These productive detours end up bringing a lot to the final exhibited form as well, as they are responsible for new adherences, as you said. This is the moment when I am not really in control and unforeseen contents force their way in.
Hug and Border both have no definitive configuration; they will always be submitted to the architecture they inhabit and therefore the works reside in the idea of adherence: on their potential to embrace whatever room they are confronted with. Growing or diminishing, their elasticity permits them to edit, compress or absorb new components without being a new version of themselves.
Border goes further and works also as a device that allows a range of elements to perform horizontally in a time line (given by the metal bar and its variations) that sets the rhythm of the narrative. The items in this community of objects displayed on the structure are not together by any kind of affinity but rather because the circumstance they inhabit establishes a relation of dependency among them. They borrow each other meanings only to have them immediately replaced by another signification in an ambiguous wording that (let’s say poetically) gives complexity to their original banality.
Actually, I never work with a model but visualize an installation in my head, only to sketch by hand the placement of works on a paper plan. Perhaps this is why I “see,” imagine, or abstract the schema “behind” artwork (actually operating through it), here yours in particular. You’re saying that you start with the abstract schematics of a model, then materialize the work in a particular space (with its own architectural dimensions), only to realize that the unforeseen accidents of the space (that is, because one starts with a model) change the nature of the work. At this point, once installed, another schema imposes itself, which is that of meaning, with its own abstract axes of signification in operation (which, as a “structuralist,” I “see” as well in play within your work). Actually, the accidents of the space ally themselves to a poetics of circumstances that enable the work and make it communicate. There definitely is a poetics operating in your work, where each object performs in association with every other. You can only control association so far, however; it’s up to the viewer ultimately to make sense of the work. You set up parameters for its experience and understanding. And that’s something else that interested me about the recent work in your Ibid Gallery London exhibition, beyond the planimetric schema we’ve been talking about. And that’s a new dimension, a new thematics, really, that may not go beyond this exhibition, however, but nonetheless I’m tempted to say that it has its own schema, an oppositional one, of course (similar to that of the physical planimetric horizontal and vertical axes or of the systematic and syntagmatic ones). I’m speaking namely of the “opposition” between the particular and the indiscriminate. I would speculate that the particular is “represented” by Border and the indiscriminate by One – Entre – in the Middle, perhaps the two major pieces in the exhibition if One – Entre – in the Middle didn’t disguise itself as netting below the industrial skylight.
We’ve talked of Border and the performance of the objects within it, a performance, owing to the way each object is set off, a manner that particularizes each one in all its details, preening—for however brief a moment in time—until we move onto the next object or association. One – Entre – in the Middle operates differently, indifferent to us: it’s not putting on a show. It is almost like pigeon netting up there in the ceiling, which however has caught some objects in its wire grid. Some rest on top, some slip through. I’m in mind of the traps on the Thames River that catch flotsam and jetsam floating on the surface of the water: plastic bottles and the like. Here it is much the same, with no discrimination as to what flows through and what is caught. There are no associations, poetic or otherwise, between its indiscriminate objects. This work is completely diametrical to Border where new objects are re-purposed from purchase and discarded objects retrieved to a new purpose. If there is a poetics of objects, there is also a pathos of objects as well and One – Entre – in the Middle speaks to, or rather, speaks for, the latter. Perhaps this really is a new dimension in your work, a new poetic so to speak.
Definitely the two pieces were installed in a way to create a dialogue. On the wall, Border holds each of the parts of its horizontal body in specific positions, pretty much like a musical score where the objects are the notes that set the tone. One – Entre – in the Middle filters its components through its grid-like field, where some parts are retained while others trespass the limits of its layout. It is atmospheric, and also offers a filter through which the viewer may see the other pieces. Its indifference reminds us that everything that has been brought to the context of the exhibition somehow is submitted to a cycle of being produced, used, and afterwards disposed. Therefore I would say that with its metric, Border composes a visual music while One – Entre – in the Middle sets a visual noise that takes over the entire room, haunting the characters (and its particularization) performed by the objects presented in the show