A little beyond Duchamp

by Paulo Sergio Duarte

Regarding the work 7 artists, by Raul Mourão, I will begin with a tiresome but necessary digression. Duchamp transformed a urinal, displayed upside down and signed by R. Mutt, into one of the most famous works in the history of art, a little over a hundred years ago, in 1917. It created a scandal and posed a problem for the theory of art: Where is the work? In the authorship or in the thing exhibited?

During the course of the 20th century, this question was pondered to the extreme. I believe that one of its apotheoses is found in the work of Piero Manzoni (1933-1963), an artist who explored the painting of white on white and anticipated questions of conceptual art, when he decided to produce a boutade or outburst. He presented his Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), in 1961. A tin of conserve with the label in English and Italian: Merda d’artista. Contenuto netto gr 30. Conservata al naturale. Prodotta ed inscatiolata nel maggio 1961. On the lid is the signature of the artist and serial number with any indication of the production run. There were ninety examples. Recently, an assistant of the artist has declared that he did not put shit into the tins, but rather plaster and cement. It matters little. The story stuck and all the specimens of the artist’s shit placed on the market, their 30 grams worth their weight in gold (at around US$1.12 per gram, in 1960), were sold. On October 16th 2015, tin nº 54 was sold for 182,500 pounds sterling, nowadays the equivalent of US$256,500. Their original value, in 1961, was US$37 each. The artist kept some examples for himself. I spoke with François Morellet to confirm this.

Raul Mourão always liked ready-mades, like many contemporary artists since Andy Warhol. He used the gratings that the middle classes of Rio de Janeiro use around their homes and buildings to protect themselves, and transformed them into a very strong formal study. What now forms part of the everyday agenda, the question of security in Rio de Janeiro, which everyone discusses and that concerns so many people, was at the root of the work, many years ago: the artist was concerned with the prisons that the upper and middle classes build for themselves. But he was genuinely concerned about the formal result of these gratings. For someone who knew Rio de Janeiro without gratings and walked on his own, in the early hours of the morning, from Copacabana to Laranjeiras, crossing the Túnel Novo and Pasmado, along the streets of Farani and Pinheiro Machado to General Glicério without worrying about his safety, as I did in my youth, the appearance of gratings around buildings was a sad development which became permanent. The empty, open spaces – signs of modern architecture – disappeared, transformed into urban cages. The artist understood the meaning of these new signs inscribed on the city, and constructed real cages, as in 2001, at the exhibition Outra Coisa (Something Else), at the Museum of the Vale do Rio Doce, in Vila Velha, Espírito Santo. The bourgeois cages metamorphosed into sculptural shelters which interacted with the recent past of Brazilian modern art in their concrete dimension.

Soon afterwards, he discovered, in this formal exercise based on his experience of urban everyday life, the unfolding of the grating in movement, and created our formidable contemporary mobiles, from the monumental sculptures in the Maré favela complex, in Rio de Janeiro, in 2011, at Travessias – Arte Contemporânea na Maré (Crossings – Contemporary Art at the Maré), to the more recent ones, in weathering steel, at the Instituto Casa Roberto Marinho, also in Rio de Janeiro.

But what interests us here is a particular, highly specific and interesting intelligence: a moment when Raul Mourão’s work goes a little beyond that of Duchamp. Fine, it’s an insight. It is. But it’s a beautiful insight, one of the best in recent times. At the end of the day, the history of art is a history of beautiful insights. It has to do with transforming artists into works, literally! This is not new. But the form, always the form, with which he achieves this is new. It was 1995, at the Espaço Cultural Sérgio Porto, in Rio de Janeiro. Seven artists – André Costa, Barrão, Carlos Bevilacqua, Eduardo Coimbra, Marcia Thompson, Marcos Chaves and Ricardo Basbaum – were exhibited at the gallery. They weren’t just exhibited, but were hung like works of art on the walls.1 These artists-works are well known in the repertoire of Brazilian contemporary art. André Costa lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, and Marcia Thompson, born in Rio de Janeiro, moved to London some time ago, where she lives and works. All the others live and work in Rio de Janeiro, maintaining a presence on the international scene.

Where is the poetic strength of 7 artists to be found? In the exploration of a limiting concept that is spread over different areas; a truly limiting concept. It is undoubtedly a performance. This, by definition, may or may not include an artistic performance; it may make an appeal to other artists, occur in a closed or open space, and involve the play of four elements used simultaneously: time, space, the body or bodies of the artists, the presence of a medium and the relationship with the audience. In the case of 7 artists, this is a video audience. In an immediate sense, 7 artists is another artist’s video. But is 7 artists just a filmed performance? Certainly not. It is also an installation. Now installations are strongly associated with the idea of site specific works, those which are made for a place and transform our perception of this place by their mere presence; installations are also three-dimensional works which cannot be seen as sculptures due to their very hybrid nature which combines different elements. They may be temporary or permanent, in museums, like À la lumière des deux mondes, by Tunga, from 2005, in the Pyramid of the Louvre Museum, in Paris; or even outside the city, such as environmental works or land art, like the famous Spiral Jetty, by Robert Smithson, built in 1970, at Rozel Point, on the Great Salt Lake, in Utah.

The work 7 artists, by Raul Mourão, is certainly both a performance and an installation presented in the form of a video – but a living installation where the works of art are artists, or a little more than this. Since the renaissance, with the advent of the use of canvass as a medium for painting, replacing wood, it has been possible for the painter to explore large dimensions and gain portability. This was the great revolution. Raul’s exhibition contains living paintings and goes a little beyond this. Each “work” has a past, present and future condensed into the moment of presentation: past and present connected to art because each one has a curriculum vitae that it virtually carries with itself. Every artist is a factory of creation, which produces the reality that is/are its works, as Gerhard Richter reminds us. It’s as if each of the artists bears the mark of the concept of an “extended present” developed by Einstein in his theory of special relativity2: A beautiful poetic allegory of the theory of physics. At that moment where we see them as victims of a sacrifice with which they play and laugh – in the end, it’s not much fun to be hung on a wall -, they are there because of their past biographies and as the productive poetic force of the work that they will develop in the future. This is creation in a high state of temporal condensation. 7 artists is also an allegory of the extended present. Here, the current moment contains all the “past” moments that are present in the lives of each of the exhibited artists. And that’s not all. Each moment that was seen in the video in 2018, contains all the work produced by each of the seven, in the interval from 1995 to now. It is not simply one more exploration of the body in a performance; these are entire lives dedicated to art that are hung on the wall in the persons of those who make art. 7 artists enters the history of performance and installation art, injecting tension into the space between these contemporary genres and, above all, even without intending to, presenting an allegory of this elastic present that extends through the moment to what will be past and what was future. 7 artists is a beautiful insight like that of Rafael in “School of Athens”, in the Vatican, where Plato points to the sky and Aristotle to the floor. Is it a performance, an installation, a ready-made or a video? It is all four in this exploration of the present, since each of the “works” already existed and will continue to exist in its production. 7 artists is a limiting concept which intersects with these four areas: video, performance, installation and ready-made.

Raul Mourão went beyond Duchamp. His ready-made is not a urinal, a soup can, the face of a celebrity, a soap box or the page of a comic book. It comprises living artists who are present among us: and like him, they are factories of art.

1 The video of little more than one minute’s duration about 7 artists, with cinematography by Paulo Violeta, edited by Leonardo Domingues and with the general assistance of Fabiana Egrejas
2 ROVELLI, Carlo. A realidade não é o que parece: a estrutura elementar das coisas. Translated by Silvana Cobucci Leite. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2017. p. 71-78.

Paulo Sergio Duarte
Paulo Sergio Duarte

Professor of Art History, critic and curator. He is a researcher of the Centro de Estudos Sociais Aplicados (Center of Applied Studies) (CESAP) and professor of Candido Mendes University (Rio de Janeiro). He was Undersecretary of Education for the State of Rio de Janeiro (1991-1993) and a member of the implementation group of the Estadual Norte Fluminense University – UENF (1991-1995).