The Rough Signs

by Agnaldo Farias

Consider soccer, a sport the artist worships and practices with undaunted boldness, the anticipated joy of the ride, the ticket line, the roar of the crowd as people rush to find their seats, excited gazes converging towards the field, the players entering in Indian line, the thunderous noise, the smoke of fireworks and flashes, harsh voices broadcasting over radios glued to ears, the dispersion of warm up exercises followed by the methodical, martial pause, the referee’s whistle and the ball that finally rolls.

Consider the empty stadium, immaculately white lines demarcating the green playing field into regular portions, long straight lines that define for the combatants the exterior and interior limits of the match; the circular line that consecrates the center-field, the starting point of everything and the central region where offensive strategies are calculated carefully or recklessly; and the two penalty box arcs, two arches that distend themselves from the goalposts, perhaps because of the effect of the coordinated units that compose them – the goalies – whose movements are delimited by them. Consider the goal posts, those grave, solid rectangles rising abruptly at both extremities of the field, the materialization of lines precisely drawn across the vast green surface; finally, consider how they frame the void, two voids, two limbos, the targets and destinations of a ball that may not disappear into them only because it might get caught in the delicate webs – there are those who refer to them as veils – in the nets that shudder in order to shelter the ball sweetly, allowing it to rest for a few seconds before someone picks it up that the game may begin anew. The goal posts are the incarnation of the diagram spilled across the ground, the moment in which the idea materializes and emerges into the world, the gateway to victory which, for this very reason, justifies all the energy expended.

As with all games, there is something incomprehensible about soccer, about the way it entrances the quarrelsome, noisy little ants as though their lives depended on it; about our tacit acceptance of rules as arbitrary as they are subtle, and which translate themselves in soccer into things like offside, obstruction, and the indirect free kick. However, this charisma resides in a profound identification between us as spectators and our immanent need for rules. With its ritual, strict rules, its constraints and penalties, with the repertoire of gestures it propitiates and whose continued practice it eventually expands, like any other game soccer says something about our tendency to creating rules and living by them. We can already see how this is no different from interpersonal relationships and everything we create that is based on them – from cities to houses, from things to words. And although the subject of soccer elicits sympathy and even enthusiasm, the question of the games we create only to become entangled in them, as the artist teaches us in his oscillation from humor to perversity, is much more complex, implying, as it does, the nature of boundaries and the punishments derived from their transgression.

Raul Mourão leads the sport to a transcendent dimension. Everything is a game to him. And for better or for worse, with greater or lesser agility, we are all practicing athletes. The game begins with words, moving across everything there is to emerge in the territory of art. And his role as an artist consists in making the density of this fact noticeable by transporting it to the universe of art, likewise understood as a proponent instance of games and, therefore, prodigiously malicious and cunning. Mourão, dysfunctionalizes (so to speak) the elements that make up some of the games, starting with soccer itself, the subject of a work presented atthe third edition of the Mercosul Biennial in 2001, which consisted in the creation of a penalty box, the official dimensions of which – dividing lines, penalty box arcs, penalty spots and goal posts – were entirely executed in metallic tubes painted white. The beauty of the white geometry on the green floor is maintained except that, transformed into a captious obstacle, it prevents the fluency of the game.

Instead of behaving docilely, instead of disappearing within us impregnated and forgotten, the signs displaced by the artist and embodied in various materials take on a roughness; lose transparency, the univocal meaning that they possessed up to now. And even the most prosaic domestic utensils, as well as some of the most familiar symbols,no longer respond to the desired functionality. They sound muffled and when they do not frustrate us because they have been de-activated, they occasionally respond to our appeals with humor and, at other times, with violence. Created by us, they rebel against us and break with the domestic, subservient relationship we had established with them. Not even the romantic figure of the artist, worshipped by all and sundry as a model for individual freedom, can escape from this circuit. In a work duly titled Artistas (Artists), Raul Mourão invited his artist colleagues to don harnesses fixed to walls. Uncomfortably suspended, their movements restricted, this time it was the artists who were on display. And why, after all, should they escape? What could lead them to imagine that the rules and constraints did not apply to them? What could lead them to think the sorcerers were safe from the sorcery?

The city – locus of all games, seedbed of signs and of the imprisonment and illusions towards which they lead us – occupies an essential position. It is only natural that Raul should have moved toward it. Comprising countless hollow sculptures made out of raw iron bars, welded and filed smooth at their points of convergence, an early version of ENTONCES, an undefined number of hollow sculptures, was presented at the Tomie Ohtake Institute. ENTONCES, a work that belongs within a greater logic – the GRADES (Fences) series – involving sculpture, installations, silk screens, video and photography, was apparently born from an awareness of the advancing systems and structures of control under the body of large Brazilian cities, which occurs both through imperceptible devices like the one that is only denounced by the sign that cynically requests us to “Smile, you are on camera”, literally caging houses and small buildings in suburbs or extremely dangerous neighborhoods. While these fences formerly functioned almost as signs of security and affirmation of the private nature of a plot of land and the house located on it, only occasionally extending themselves to the windows in their façades, they have recently proliferated not only as planes but as masses, a veritable proto-architecture hollowed out of the hostility that covers every manner of service area, frontal and lateral recesses, fortifying existing enclosures, and incorporated not only by residences but also widely adopted by small businesses such as drugstores, markets, taverns and dry goods stores whose owners and employees wait on us from the other side, like prisoners under house arrest.

The visitor’s body moves slowly and cautiously through the variouslysized iron cells of ENTONCES, separated from one another by small corridors, as if he were walking through the streets of a small-scale, hostile city. Thus diminished, the buildings are immediately converted into ciphers of violence in a sort of x-ray that reveals how efficient they are at controlling the bodies of their inhabitants and at constraining those who dare to circulate through their streets. The artist has not even forgotten the lighting effects that spill onto this city of metallic traps – the sun that sets in the opaque grids spreading across the floor, the walls and the visitors. A dramatic atmosphere to better remind us of the strict boundaries of the lives we live.

But if familiarity with the work does not slowly undo the aggressiveness of the grid, it at least demonstrates its ambiguous and even amusing nature. In the dense shadow areas we recognize (or think we recognize) chairs, couches, trashcans and other objects, the echoes of familiar objects. From an abstraction, supported as it is by a certain schematic vision of cities, the agglomeration of iron sheaves takes on the contours of a narrative, a brutal landscape whose characters have disappeared. Who inhabited these vacant, silent constructions? The atmosphere contributes to a heightened sense of the absurd and the extraordinary. Homologous to the soccer field, the starting point of this text which proposes to demonstrate the artist’s special fondness for considering our ability to engender games, signs which vary from the intangibility of words to the materiality of metallic bars, ENTONCES also winds up revealing to us the vain attempt at control and order, the failure of rules that should be obeyed in order for our life in society to be a constant, organized flow but which, at least in our experience, never, not even Brasília, succeeded in being. The latent mobility of these open structures piled up against one another alludes to a city perpetually in the process of becoming – one which grows up, down and into the remains of a previous city, starting, for instance, with emphatic white lines drawn on new, black asphalt with which departments of water and power, sewer systems, telephone companies and their ilk signal the imminent construction of trenches. Details such as these make it clear enough that the existence of any one of our cities, in consonance with their precariousness will, in turn, be ephemeral. The desire for durability latent in the solidity of the material used in ENTONCES provides a contrast with the conspicuously unfinished quality of those parts of this city which, like an outsized dice game with variable configurations, would appear to exist as the work of a lesser god, one who, faced with eternity’s idle afternoons, found nothing better to do than to hurl them at random onto the territory, waiting for us to make use of them.

Agnaldo Farias
Agnaldo Farias

Agnaldo Farias is an art critic, a curator and a professor with a PhD from the Architecture and Urbanism College of University of São Paulo, where he lectures. He was the former curator at Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro (1998 – 2000) and the curator for the temporary exhibitions at Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo (1990 – 1992).