Brand New Brasilia—Ex Nihilo

“Sensitive Geometries” at Hauser and Wirth is set to close in just a few days. The landmark historical exhibition that traces three decades of post-war art in Brazil ends on October 26th.

In the 1950s all of the creative stars aligned in Brazil. It was Post World War II, and Brazil was brimming with modernistic spirit. Creative practices were all reconsidered—art, film, poetry, and architecture. A revolution of creative spirit was underway.

For the post-war Concrete Art movement of Brazil, the impulsion to place both the idea and the object into perspective is an energetic force. A crystalline vocabulary guides an experimental approach to creative practices. Doors once closed, open and Constructivist language enters the conversation with the influences of De Stijl, Neoplasticism, and the Ulm School. The movements placed themselves in direct tension with Art Theory (Le Corbusier, Max Bill, John Dewey, Theo van Doesburg), Philosophy (Phenomenology, Gestalt Theories), Politics, and Science. For the first time artists begin to gather as collectives. A resistance to the dogmatism of constructivist thinking, and geometric sensibility arises. The neo-concrete artists, whose work is also on view in the exhibition, gather around a manifesto, reestablishing humanism. The 1959 Manifesto was signed by Almicar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim, and Theon Spanudis. Lygia Pape said that “There was total freedom. Nothing was dogmatic. Everyone was willing to be creative.”


Mira Schendel Untitled 1965

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being or feeling young and inspired. There is a certain courageousness, an undaunted approach to creating. There is a necessary fearlessness, and belief in what you are doing. Yet no matter what we do, there will always be consequences. Less a matter of perfection, and more a matter of how we answer—the endeavor is always waiting for our response.

Ex nihilo “out of nothing.” Maybe physically but nothing is built out of nothing except for maybe the Big Bang. Built on flat grounds, the area was said to be a desert scarce of water, plant and animal life, and people. The construction of Brasilia was a totally new undertaking. A city or space within can physically be built out of nothing, but the people who it is made for come from very specific stories, their lives exist tangentially. As Dewey said, (human beings are divided into non-communicating) sects, races, nations, classes, and cliques; a host of inherited experiences and hang-ups. Construction of Brasilia began in 1956, but the idea was conceived way back in 1827 by Jose Bonifacio, an adviser to Emperor Pedro I. The city was fully imagined a Capital City where government things happened in a more central location in 1922. It was Brazil’s Manifest Destiny, to create a city free from its provincial past.  President Juscelino Kubitschek, who became President in 1956 invited Lucio Costa to be urban planner and Oscar Niemeyer as the architect behind the 41 month project, completed in April of 1960. Brasilia is that city, a so called utopia for some, and the saga of poverty for those others whose cultural history transplanted to places called satellite cities where mostly laborers live(d). These satellites range from proper cities to shanty towns. And on weekends Brasilia proper’s inhabitants, escape back to the coastal cities.

As it turns out, even great ideas of modernity in post-war boom periods failed to capture that mythological beast we call Utopia. The satellite cities were set to be destroyed upon Brasilia’s completion. Originally planned for 500,000 residents, today 2 million people live in Brasilia and the surrounding cities. I read somewhere that cities never end poverty, they just move it along—the satellite cities and unyielding poverty still exist. Although the conditions are said to be better outside of Brasilia for the poor, than say outside of Sao Paulo. It’s a hard life when you get to choose where you want to be poor. Satellite cities are also where, it is said, real Brazilian culture is brimming.

In his book Cidade Livre author Joao Almino, recounts the experience of growing up in a satellite city. Lots of poverty, protest, and corporate suppression of dissent, sound familiar? Like America, Brasilia’s utopia dusts around some important facts. Like the people who came to take part in and witness the birth of Brasilia—consequently birthing satellite cities—American people also possess a dream of success and wealth. And also like many other countries, even among the poor in America there is the desire to possess the objects of status, qualitatively lacking any ideas of wholeness, merely a pathway to “get that object.”

In post-war Brazil, a European influence heavily impacted the race to modernity. But who or what influences nations that at one time were sought for their cultural influence? It is not until Post-war, that we begin to deconstruct colonialism. Today we face the traditional values of the Christian Right, what constitutes moral value, and the notion of exclusivity. The consciousness of art is not blind to this. Are there artist are out there wanting-ly promoting formal social structures in America that we spent the better half of the last century dismantling? The question remains, I guess, how do we collectively take charge? In America there is so a lot of pressure, intense pressure, to figure out who will lead the way. Thanks to us realizing that hierarchy can, has, and potentially will continue to be used abusively, as a form of power to control. It pervades how we come together to do anything… even how to keep a radical counter-culture radio station alive.

One of the brightest qualities of America—the one of choice, and leading the life you choose, not chosen for you, also happens to be the challenge of collective emergence. In the world that we imagine our humanity has yet to be axis enough—as if our shared humanness isn’t a convincing fact—because we have yet to cross a particular threshold of consciousness. The world we live in, we most readily identify by our sexuality, faith, ethnicity, and class. It is interesting that just like colonialism, where structures are conceived top-down, and often to some degree accepted by those it quarantines, we take on this structure that we supposedly loathe, yet we have some sort of fear in creating our own workable structures. “Our”; a people of shared geography working collectively to perpetuate an idea into action. This is most likely because what we are coming to grips with today is the un-deniability; the readily visible relationship between Colonialism and Modernism. Modernity in its excitement to start anew, created satellites for our subconscious and the physical realness of Colonialism and Traditionalism—making us think we had transcended the mechanisms of the two.

Anna Maria Maiolino Mother/Father 1971/1999

I guess, what mathematics and physics lent to biology, and did for Geometric Art—opening up a world of possibility, as it did, shifting the vocabulary from the individual artist to mechanical notions, we can only hope that the advances in DNA Sciences will provide certain truths that will transcend the individualistic rhetoric (no matter how valiant), breaking down our ideas of at least a few things on Dewey’s list of why humans are separated into non-communicative columns. Let’s put it all on the table, make it impersonal, and map it out, just as Anna Maria Maiolino had done in her 1971 “Mother/Father” India ink on paper.

For sure we do have our collective movements emerging. You can always tell when something new is stewing, when we’re into something. The novelty gets ridiculed like hell for not being perfect—for having a structure without a strong sub-structure, so that it looks like captured energy smashing around within its encapsulation. Our humanity is our capital. We are ideas in the making, we are the idea that makes the engine. If we are waiting for something else, if we can’t get behind a movement and push, the motor sputters. We can trust that we are whole and ready. Give chaos a chance.

When Niemeyer died almost a year ago, Ricky Burdett [Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics], suggested that we give Brasilia more time before we dismiss it as a failed attempt at utopia, because after all it is only 50 years old. Yet in that waiting, our “satellites” such as global poverty continue to languish.

Post-war art of Brazil is relevant today aesthetically, and in practice not only in Brazil where younger generations speak constructivist tongue, but globally a growing disconcert with modernity. The theoretical presence of the concrete and neo-concrete movements solidified their applicability through engaging a quadratic approach—psychology and phenomenology, behavioral and physiological, cultural and worldview, ecological and social systems. These are irreducible dimensions that all humans possess. They questioned an experience, not specifically Brazilian. Their ideas captured the spirit of modernity, making them inheritable by any thinking self-aware sentience. While architecturally Brasilia was built very of the moment lacking some foresight, you need a car to get around just like American suburbs, the art is not specifically for that moment.