Two cities

by Felipe Scovino

The street is one of the most powerful driving forces in the work of Raul Mourão. It is a theme, symbol and motto in many of his pieces. By selecting a series of works, in this case GRADES (Fences), and reflecting on the time it appeared, Mourão emphatically highlights a dialogue between art and politics. In the 1980/90s, the largest Brazilian cities saw a rise in violence. Fear and suspicion towards the ‘other’ gradually gained forms symbolised by the city itself. In a totalitarian manner, the private space absorbed the public space. An example of this was the rapid proliferation of fences and security paraphernalia, invading pavements and demarcating the space belonging to buildings. Another example was the use of shards of glass and spikes on walls. GRADES is a product of this era. Mourão sharply exposes what was happening on the streets and criticises a sort of collective spirit that misrepresents or misunderstands the meaning of territory, property and public space. Reflecting on the city, subjectivity and space, Mourão’s work belongs to a broader and better-placed spectrum in the history of Brazilian art. Without ignoring its specificities, we can place Mourão’s work in a brief timeline beginning with Flávio de Carvalho’s Experiência n.3, when the artist took to the streets of São Paulo in 1956 wearing a skirt – which he called his summer outfit or New Look; including the works of artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape, who during the military dictatorship used the city as a means of proposing public actions that celebrated the idea of individual will and freedom that were smothered by the government; and ultimately reaching the present moment when contemporary artists explore themes such as the gentrification, violence, impoverishment and social exclusion that arise from what the authorities call the ‘modernisation of cities’. In this sense, all these works, including Mourão’s, point to two issues that seem highly relevant: for which citizens are cities being built? How does art deal with or review these new parameters?

Mourão is definitively an artist who is aware of the particularities that the city reveals. He is not a João do Rio and does not necessarily wander aimlessly around the city, but he has a very attentive and peculiar look at those details that we probably perceive as nothing, as mere parts of routine. This is the case of fences and the stray dog that roams the streets of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro in a combination of perdition and survival. In Cão/leão (2002), a camera uninterruptedly follows a stray dog on the streets for 12 hours, from dawn to dusk. Without any cuts, we gain access to our reality and the surroundings that are alive and call our attention without us even realising it. Violence and social-economic exclusion are themes for debate. Mourão is concerned with studying and sharing how certain attitudes, people, gestures, animals, architecture, urban furnishings and everything else that determines and resides in the city affect and are affected by our ethic and moral behaviour. It is not an accusation by an activist artist but an attempt to make our gaze and mind more sensitive to our surroundings.

This same motivation took him to the top of a building in Lapa in 2009 to document photographically, over 12 hours, the pulsation and vibration of that neighbourhood, in Lapa do Alto. The artist’s idea was to record, with a stationary camera, the largest possible number of images so they could be joined together to form a narrative about an extremely diverse neighbourhood. The photos create a hallucinating panel that looks more like a film: a sequence of lights going on and off. As the day goes by, the neighbourhood gains more vitality until late night ignites the island of contradictions, pleasures and revulsions that Lapa embodies. Prostitutes, tourists, junkies, drunks, beggars, the poor, the rich, foreigners and playboys, all together, loving or hating each other but sharing the same space. It is interesting to note that the poetry/narrative of writers such as Chacal and Fausto Fawcett, the Rock’n’Roll and chaos of the neighbourhood generate the perfect syntax with the work of Raul Seixas. The sequence of images documented by the artist is pulsating, compulsive, obsessive and almost hypnotic.

In the dawn of 31 October 2009, after finishing taking the pictures of Lapa do Alto, the artist entered a lift in a multi-storey car park. With a certain unpretentiousness that becomes a powerful aesthetic event, the artist places a video camera on the lift that hoists the cars. The work’s title Plano/Acaso (Plane/Chance) derives from not knowing what the camera will find on the floor below. This random method – which was already present in Cão/leão – is the leitmotif of the video, which does not go through any post-production. Slowly descending, the camera captures an extraordinary silence and emptiness as the viewer doesn’t see any cars; it is as if the lift was there to show us something hidden. Two central characters then emerge in the video: a pair of pigeons. According to the artist: “without the pigeons, the video would simply be a plane of geometric composition, photography and abstraction. The pigeons assert life, chaos”.

Contrary to the description of Lapa as a frenetic place, bursting with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, faiths and convictions, the neighbourhood revealed in the video is the opposite of everything that had been written previously. To the right of the screen we see the imposing Petrobras building. It is the other side of Lapa and Rio’s city centre, which we can now access: it is organised, part of an important financial centre and also the site of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Concentrating all sorts of powers, the Lapa shown in Plano/Acaso is calm, tamed, banal and silent. It is gradually revealed and nothing major happens. It is the pigeons, however, that do not let us forget the true, dirty, urban and violent nature of Lapa or of any other international large urban centre. As if the pigeons were the dust or the indelible stamp of the differences and paradoxes that surround us, and for some reason their presence means that we cannot forget that.

The video gains the everyday rhythm of our lives. It has no grand finale, but only the expectation that something should happen. It is the waiting for something that never materialises because it is already happening. There is suspense and we expect something grandiose, but the only thing uncovered is its imminence. This is where the two Lapas, the two Rios or the two worlds meet. What Mourão is doing – in his GRADES, photos or Plano/Acaso – is subverting the order of things.

Felipe Scovino
Felipe Scovino

Felipe Scovino is an art critic, a curator and professor at the School of Fine Arts of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He taught at the School of Visual Arts of Parque Lage (2011 – 2013) and took part at the Residency Unlimited in New York (2014).