"Secret Codes"

Fernanda Lopes

January 27, 2014
Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo
December 17, 2013–February 22, 2014

“If it does not work, I will close it next month,” Luisa Strina decided when she first opened her gallery in São Paulo in 1974. She wanted to be an artist, but soon realized she was more interested in the universe surrounding the work of art; the artists Luiz Paulo Baravelli, Carlos Fajardo, and Wesley Duke Lee, who taught at Escola Brasil, an experimental art school she attended in São Paulo, encouraged her to open a gallery. At that time, Brazil had very few commercial art spaces, Latin America was less integrated than it is now, and the Brazilian art market was virtually nonexistent. As it turned out, the “next month” never arrived and four decades later, Galeria Luisa Strina remains one of the most important contemporary art galleries in Brazil.

To celebrate its history, the gallery inaugurated the exhibition “Secret Codes” this past December. Organized by the Spanish curator Agustín Pérez Rubio, this group show is an overview of the history of Conceptual art, bringing together thirty-two artists from Brazil and abroad (only five of which are represented by the gallery) and almost forty different artworks dating from the 1960s to the present. This well-conceived exhibition pays tribute to the gallery’s continued devotion to Conceptual art, and represents the best curatorial means of celebrating a space that has opened up new possibilities for the interpretation of Brazilian art beyond the much-cited legacy of Concrete art.

Opening the exhibition is Song Sheet: Ah de ah! (1971), American feminist artist Mary Beth Edelson’s work on paper, which contains written words that gradually become illegible scribbles and then small undulations in a mountainous landscape. In this first room, called “Proto-writing,” works by such figures as Brazil’s Mira Schendel and Romania’s Geta Brătescu focus on the construction of language. In the second room labeled “Media and Culture,” words gain new, reconfigured, or suspended meanings. Here, we see the critical use that international artists like Antoni Muntadas, Dora García, and Anna Maria Maiolino make of discursive information in the context of advertising, media, literature, and poetry. For example, in The Joycean Society (2013), García’s video documenting a Finnegans Wake study group, we learn that it took eleven years to complete the first reading of James Joyce’s seminal work. Maiolino’s research, which explores the recurring themes of speech and language in books, experimental films, videos, and photographs, is impressively on display here with Secret Poem; part of her “Mind Maps” series of secret letters (1971/99), the poem cannot be read because almost all the words were erased or replaced with squares and crosses.

The other rooms include works that share such common interests as “Social Relations,” “Time,” “Messages,” and “Mathematics and Algebra.” In the “Time” room, FEB. 27, 1990 (1990), a painting from Japanese artist On Kawara’s “Today” series, is shown in Brazil for the first time ever. In “Messages,” one also encounters works like Cildo Meireles’s “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos” series (1970–76). During the years Brazil experienced an intense period of military dictatorship after 1960, many artists found their voice—unencumbered by censorship—in both conceptual and performative practices beyond the auspices of museums and state-run institutions. “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos” was one of those works, in which the artist freely circulated messages on bank notes and glass Coca-Cola bottles in order to question the practice of censorship within this political system. In recent years Meireles has reinitiated the series, printing the question, “Where is Amarildo?” on a series of bank notes, which are also on view in the exhibition. Amarildo de Souza was a man who disappeared after a police action against drug trafficking in one of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas; later, it was proven that the police had killed him.

The exhibition culminates in the “Secrets” room, bringing together works impossible to decipher due to the complexity of their codes or to their invisibility. Chief among these is an iconic work of Brazilian art: Antonio Manuel’s Urna Quente (1975). For a decade, the artist collected images and newspaper clippings in a sealed wooden box. To access to the content, the public would have to smash the box—converting an individual act of violence into a quest for freedom. Today at Galeria Luisa Strina, the box, as well as its secrets, remain sealed.

By the end of one’s visit, the “Secret Codes” exhibition has not only made a compelling argument for the diversity of Conceptual art production and its importance for the interrelation of art and politics in Brazil, but also underscores the historical significance of Galeria Luisa Strina’s trajectory throughout the years. Transforming from a small venture into a major enterprise with forty represented artists, the gallery has advanced the interests of Brazilian artists both locally and abroad in exhibitions at major national institutions and international art fairs. Strina herself has been a member of the board of Art Basel Miami Beach since 2001, and was ranked by ArtReview as one of the top 100 most influential personalities in the art world over the last couple of years. For the next twelve months, the gallery’s anniversary celebration will continue with solo exhibitions by Meireles, Marepe, Fernanda Gomes, and Renata Lucas, among others, culminating in another major group show in December, which will focus, this time, on painting.

Latin America, Language & Linguistics
Conceptual & Post-Conceptual Art, Time, Censorship

Fernanda Lopes is an art critic and curator based in Rio de Janeiro.

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Galeria Luisa Strina
January 27, 2014

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