Raul Mourão and the art of walking the streets

by Michael Asbury

Named Praça Tiradentes in 1890, in advance of the centenary (1892) of the execution of the independence martyr, the new name effectively erased the monarchic associations of its previous denomination, Praça da Constituição, which had celebrated the location from where D. Pedro I in 1821 swore allegiance to the Portuguese constitution from the balcony of the Real Teatro São João (current site of the Teatro São Caetano).

The renaming of the square took place within the year that followed the declaration of the republic, at one and the same time stripping off its monarchic connotation while still maintaining the reference to the nation’s independence, which had become associated with the place from 1862 with the commissioning of the equestrian statue with D. Pedro I, represented in the very act of declaring ‘independence or death’. The statue itself is not insignificant, the first to be erected in Rio de Janeiro through an international competition, won by maximiano mafra and executed in Paris by louis Rochet, amongst whose apprentices a young august Rodin could be counted.

In 1865, allegories for justice, liberty, equality and loyalty where erected around the four corners of the square. However, with the deterioration of the city centre during the course of the 20th century, the environs of the square became associated with street dwelling and prostitution. like the hypocritical protestant pastor Raimundo, in Rubem Fonseca’s short story ‘a arte de andar nas ruas do Rio de Janeiro’ (1994), whose dream was to be transferred to the South Zone of the city, it is perhaps unsurprising that such symbols of the ‘virtues of the modern nations’ where deemed more appropriate in the gentile neighbourhood of Ipanema, where they remained, at Praça Nossa Senhora da Paz, until the recent renovation of Praça Tiradentes was complete. Fonseca captures the general condition of decay and disrepair that the historic city centre found itself in during the late 20th century through the character of an aspiring writer Epifânio (who adopts the pseudonym augusto) and a host of other secondary characters who represent distinct sentiments towards the region ranging from nostalgia and melancholia to indifference. Indeed, somewhat prophetically given the forthcoming international games, Benevides, a tramp in Fonseca’s story, expresses his reluctance at being dislodged from the site as it is cleaned-up in advance of a foreign congress.

Raul Mourão’s monumental sculptural installations designed specifically for Praça Tiradentes might at first seem at odds within the square’s recently renovated neoclassical design. Initial appearances however may be misleading. Fonseca’s story comes to mind initially through the association with an earlier work by mourão, where the artist follows with a video camera a stray dog from dawn to dusk while it wonders aimlessly around the city centre (Cão/leão 2002). This Quixotean endeavour reminds one of Fonseca’s character augusto, who believes that the only means of apprehending the essence of the place within his literary endeavours is by walking its streets, immersing himself within the urban fabric and its people.

If we are to trace a genealogy for mourão’s current structures, erected temporarily in the square, we may conclude that it emerges out of the artist’s own immersion into the streets of Rio and as such, associations with the square’s own symbolic trajectory arise.

According to Paulo Herkenhoff, Mourão’s iron framed structures which he began producing around 2001 dealt ‘with the geometry of fear in a precise historical context.’ The expression was coined by Herbert Read as a means of describing how sculptures by lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler and Kenneth armitage related to the condition of post-second-world-war angst in Britain during the 1950s. Herkenhoff re-frames it within the context of mourão’s work as a juxtaposition of minimalist aesthetics and informal structures erected for the protection of property in the midst of middle class angst within Brazil’s acute social divisions.

Works such as Burraco do Vieira (2001), GRADES (2001) and ENTONCES (2004), demonstrate an evolution within the artist’s processes, from the appropriated forms of protection grills for air-conditioning units, automobiles and so forth, into structures whose principle arena of dialogue becomes that of art and its history. Recently the work progressed further still by incorporating kinetic elements and inviting the viewer to intervene, to generate motion. although still retaining a dialogue with art history, these structures distanced themselves even further from those initial connotations of containment and protection. They lost, in this sense, their relation to those objects of segregation, those dividers between outside and inside, while gaining a lightness and humour that betrays the physical weight of their materiality and the symbolic weight of their now increasingly distant formal origins.

Other than the movement inherent in the objects themselves, which gives them their transitory character, these structures are the product of a process of symbolic transformation which is still in motion, not yet exhausted. From this genealogy which includes the purposefully ironic conjunction of the socio-political, the historical and the physical characteristics invoked by the object itself, emerges a new poetic manoeuvre which gains its public scale through the introduction of new materials and processes of construction.

That is to say, the artist abandons the original process of welding and painting iron, in other to gain both scale and practicality of construction. These temporary, brute and monumental structures are constructed with the basic elements of scaffolding while maintaining the form and mechanisms of the former kinetic works. Interestingly, the new material re-establishes a relation with the building’s façade: that interface between the private and the public. However, now they refer quite overtly to the process of transformation and renovation more than that of fear and protection. within the context of the Praça Tiradentes we also find in these works a correlation with the centrifugal acceleration of the city itself. The city’s tendency to expand towards the suburbs ‘emptied’ the centre of its traditional inhabitants transforming the social configuration of the space. one could think of the Tiradentes square in very much the same way as one of mourão’s early works such as Cadeira (2004), a space that has been emptied of its past contents, yet which retains its form while it waits to assume its new identity.

The dynamic reconfiguration of the social space of the square and its surrounding properties brought by regeneration attempts to both retrieve a particular vision of the past while addressing a social question in the present. although this inevitably brings new forms and processes of segregation, it is not a new phenomenon, on the contrary, it is inescapably associated with the history of the Praça Tiradentes itself.The term ‘Scaffold’ in English has two quite distinct meanings: a temporary platform to support construction workers and one erected for the execution of prisoners, usually by hanging. although the association is lost in the Portuguese term ‘andaime’ (which appropriately too, refers to the act of walking) the coincidence is enough of an excuse to think about the conjunction of these two histories, that of a public square and that of a particular series of works, within an artist’s trajectory.

The temporary scaffold that covered the facades of the surrounding historic buildings while they were renovated re-emerges in the square as the constitutive material of mourão’s installations. Standing as a metaphor for the ruthless passing of time, with the structures swinging from side to side, their pendulous movement invokes the comings and goings of the square itself: from the interstitial space of the Rossio Grande market and the gypsy occupation in the 17th century, to the symbolic transposition of royal allegiance into republican nationalism in the 19th century through the association with the hanging of Joaquim José da Silva Xavier. Today’s restoration merely inaugurates the next stage in the square’s future like Mourão’s.

Michael Asbury
Michael Asbury

Michael Asbury is an art historian, art critic and curator. He is a faculty member at the Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon (CCW) Graduate School and Deputy Director of the Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN), both at the University of the Arts London (UAL).