An Introduction to the Theory of Absolute Opposites

by Guilherme Wisnik

Is the human being a homo faber or a homo ludens? That is to say: is humanity defined by its rational capacity to construct instruments that transform nature, or, on the contrary, by its aptitude for the fanciful imagination, which allows for play, games, gratuity and art?1 Without trying to create an argument from the philosophical point of view, I would like to observe that the work of artist Raul Mourão moves very eloquently between these two poles.

Moving from drawing to sculpture, Raul initially produces works linked to a constructive matrix, which has an exchange with both the Brazilian environment and American minimalism and post-minimalism. However, at a certain point in his journey, the artist poisons this colder construction, so to speak, with a certain graceful gratuity, which causes his structures to swing unsteadily, to the touch, or even the wind. There is something about Calder there, who knew how to give synthesis to what seemed impossible: examples from Mondrian and Miró. An exponent of a generation that already knows full well that the well-intentioned commitment of a “constructive will” in art will not be able to remedy our social issues, Mourão does not cling to a single principle or current, dynamically moving, experimentally, between opposing poles. Hence, in the next step, with Bang Bang (2017), he tried to avoid the possible playful pacification of his works, contrary to the sense of delight that these swings can bring with surprising shots that hit and destroy bases on which they sit. Saints with feet of clay? Not exactly. Perhaps, better: precious bases, but which are too fragile in the face of increasing violence in the world around us.

In fact, the constructiveness of Raul’s works is not without origin in this same urban and social violence, since his models are extracted from the aggressive grids found in our cities, isolating parks and squares, shielding entrances of buildings, decorating guard posts etc. Like a third-world Sol LeWitt, Mourão combines geometric ideality with the urban obstacles he experiences, injecting a claustrophobia of the real world into the violent experience of Brazilian cities in recent decades—particularly in Rio de Janeiro—where the incarceration of everyday life behind bars and grids is increasingly more constant.

With his eye focused on the world around him, the artist also collects other stimuli from the urban landscape, such as graphic signaling codes. Making paintings from the arrows he sees in the city, Raul returns them to the city in the form of a collage, like a strong graphic pattern of red and white zigzag lines, on a blue wall in front of his studio. Since it is an impression on paper, similar to a street poster, the work suffers the wear and tear of time, both with tears and with the random addition of other collages on top of it. This is what is photographed by the artist, and returned to the world of art, that is, the gallery and the museum (Setaderua Joaquim Selva, 2017).

It so happens that this same flaneur’s gaze is what, at another time in New York, brought his attention to an American Flag fluttering on a mast, at the top of a wall, near the pier where the Armory Show took place, and led him to register it in the form of a video. What is interesting, in this case, lies in the fact that given the intensity of the wind, the flag ended up partially curling in on itself, hiding the blue rectangle with stars, and showing only the generic red and white horizontal stripes. Which, at first glance, might lead us to confuse it with flags from other countries, such as Malaysia or Liberia, for example, or even with a lost work of artist Daniel Buren. That is, the great sign of haughty American nationalism had, for a moment, lost its identity. This is what Mourão presents, in video form, with the title The New American Flag (2017).

It is curious to think about these two works together. Graphically, there is a strong relationship between the street arrows in Rio de Janeiro, with red and white stripes, and this “new” American flag found as a objet trouvé in New York. Since we are really close to the Dadaist and Surrealist imagery, in this case, we can think of this coincidence as “objective chance”. That is, like the occasional unveiling of deep connections. The classic reinventions of the American flag by Jasper Johns, painted on newspaper clippings, with a result that resembles the interferences suffered by the mural of arrows of Raul at Rua Joaquim Silva cannot be forgotten.

This suggestive revision of the American flag, in the context of a violent conservative retrogression in that country, as well as in Brazil, may have served as a poetic trigger for another intervention work on flags—in this case the Brazilian one—presented in two different forms: The New Brazilian Flag (2018) and The New Brazilian Flag #1 (2019). In a similar manner, but here as a deliberate gesture, the artist removes the central circle from the flag, leaving it bare, like a blind eye. Since, as in the case of North America, the blue sky with stars represents the national federative units, identifying, on the flag, the very unity of the Republic. Significantly, this is what disappears, both there and here, when this sinister alignment of right-wing forces, which elected Trump and Bolsonaro, with all its rancor of resentful moralism, under a cloak of fake news and post-truths, takes center stage as the formal power of the two largest countries of the American continent, formerly called the “New World”. Hence the need that the artist had to install this flag in an urban space with high circulation, violating public patrimony— Arcos of Lapa—with holes to secure the mast.

We live in a moment of great ideological, political and social division. An intolerant world, which seems to be heading for irremediable fractures. This world, however, is no longer the dualized world of the Cold War, which has dominated our “brief twentieth century,”2 but a world of blurred antagonisms where the threat is no longer confined on the other side of the wall, hatching in a fractal and unexpected form in terrorist actions next to us, and at any moment. A world in which the farce and tragicomic aspect of politics makes our feelings and reactions ambiguous, instilling in us the need for reaction through actions that act outside the binary scheme of good versus evil. Hence the ironic title of this exhibition, which resembles a fake science manual. Raul works with oppositions. But he knows they cannot be irreconcilable.

1 For a defense of the first case, see: Richard Sennett, O artífice. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2009. For a defense of the second, see: Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens: o jogo como elemento da cultura. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2008.
2 See Eric Hobsbawm. Era dos extremos: o breve século XX. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995

Guilherme Wisnik
Guilherme Wisnik

Professor at Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo da Universidade de São Paulo (FAU-USP). He was a columnist from Folha de S. Paulo (2006-07 e 2016) and is currently a member of APCA – Associação Paulista de Críticos de Arte.