PIPA Prize 2012 finalist and winner of PIPA Popular Vote Exhibition (category in which the public votes for their favourite artist during the finalists exhibition at MAM-Rio), Rodrigo Braga was born in Manaus and grew up in the city of Recife, Pernambuco, in the Northeast region of Brazil. In part due to this early experience – which, he says, has become mythical in his imaginary –, in part due to his family context (his parents and sister are environmentalists), his poetic often addresses the relationship between man and nature. This is one of the main topics discussed in this exclusive interview with Luiz Camillo Osorio, PIPA Institute Curator, which also features the artist’s relation with photography and video, his artistic training, and the international reception of his work, which has been exhibited in Institutions such as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and MoMA PS1 in New York.
RODRIGO BRAGA IN CONVERSATION WITH LUIZ CAMILLO OSORIO
1 – Tell me about you background as an artist. When exactly did you realize that Art was a point of no return for you?
I can say that my initiation in Art occurred at a very early age because of my interest in drawing. As a child of 7 or 10 years old, I was absolutely in love with drawing, especially in drawing the universe I absorbed through my parents, who were biologists and environmentalists. I would draw not only the major animal and plant kingdoms that I saw in books, laboratories and Nature, but also architectural forms, scenes of violence and the various hybrid monsters to whom I attributed names. Then, after my mother detected my interest, I was enrolled in a drawing and sculpture workshop given by artist Cavani Rosas, in Recife. There I was, at the age of 10, the mascot of an adult art class. I ended up being invited by the teacher to do an internship that lasted 4 years. This was my initiation in Art, by the hands of a professional artist, learning not only the techniques but, above all, experiencing highly sensitive and imaginative ways of being in the world. Afterwards, during my teen years, I took several other courses, including painting; I finally reached my technical limits in figurative oil on canvas, and then turned to the abstract, when I was about 20.
It was not until the age of 23 that I was confident enough to choose a program in Visual Arts, where I started my professional path. At about the same time, I also started to see myself as an individual, eliminating and understanding my own fears, and realizing that I had reached a point of no return. In college, I took part in my first exhibition and ended up winning the Pernambucano New Talent Award, granted by MAC PE in 1999.
2 – What is the role of the Amazon and the environmental debate in your poetic construction?
I was born in Manaus by chance. My parents are from Recife, Pernambuco (Northeast of Brazil), but did their Master’s degree in Ecology in Manaus. It was the 1970s, and they lived in the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) dorms, my first home until the age of 2, when the four of us – my parents, my sister, and I – moved back to Pernambuco. However, as I was growing up, this early childhood experience allowed me to develop, supported by detailed Amazonian reports, photographs and objects, the notion of belonging to a place that didn’t belong to me. So, the more I advanced in my path as an artist, the bigger became the need to return to my origins, by then already mythical in my imaginary. For lack of family financial resources, this wouldn’t happen until my adult years.
In fact, it was’t until much later – in 2010 – that I got closer to the Amazon again. It happened when I won the Marc Ferrez Photography Award granted by Funarte involving the region. From then on, several successive trips took me back there; as of today, my emotional, physical, and professional connections with the immense Amazonian region remain very much alive.
Despite all the obvious influences of scientific issues derived from my experiences in several different Brazilian biomes – from my background to my first accomplishments as an artist – I didn’t really pursue a career as an environmentalist as did my sister Maíra, for example. And there is more – perhaps because I was weary of such a universe, into which I plunged every day, I ended up doing my work in some sort of realm of contrasts between inherited ethical beliefs and the clash with the ghosts of the overwhelming “human hand”. Today, I realize that there is no clear evidence of the defense of Nature in my work – as overtly advocated by my closest relatives – but it is probably there, inside out, leading to reflections about issues that are very dear to the development of Humanity in its daily utilitarian use of natural resources. That is, after criticizing me for being a sort of “evil-doer” towards Nature, many end up paying attention to major issues involving their own contradictory actions. As it turns out, the very systems for extraction and handling Nature created by men are important subjects of my work.
3 – What is the role of photography in your work? Do you try to develop it as an artistic language, with its own value, or do you see it as documentation for specific actions or situations?
It’s interesting to note that a large part of my production occurs through photography, another part in video; however, the role of the camera in my work is even more complex than that. I would dare say that it is both artistic language and record at the same time. For me – as for many others of my generation – photography no longer has a Bressonian frame of mind, but rather the characteristics of image building. Therefore, since I started using the camera as an artistic tool – around the year 2000 – I realized its wonderful power to “create worlds”, paradoxically, from the device’s technical specificities and its classic connection with recording reality. Then I started to forge situations under the guise of truth, since the indexical connection with the referent remains in photography – which does not occur with painting, once everything in this universe is representation or invention. When I realized this potential, I immediately backed off painting on canvas once and forever, but I do acknowledge that I took its references (chromatisms, picture composition, texture, etc.) to photography; so, I usually say that “I photograph as a painter, and make videos as a photographer.” In fact, one language will overlap another in sequence, as links in a chain. My images are considered very aesthetic, for example; perhaps a bit pictorial. The same applies to sculpture, installation art or even to the performic intent of my images. I have no doubt that my studies in sculpture led me to compose physically in space, often using raw matter, transformed by action. I have often designed true sculptures or outdoor installations for no specific audience, and there they remained, until taken back by the natural environment. Is whatever is left as a residue of it a mere photographic record? I don’t think so, since my sculptures or installations are geared towards a single eyepiece: the lens of the camera, which, in some measure, will ultimately be the look I encourage the viewer to have; observers will only access a part of the experience, and even so, based on my choice and mediated by a device. The device acts as the interface between my physical elaborations in the field and the spectator. Curiously enough, the only people who usually can see my installations or on-site performances are fishermen, cattlemen, children, passers-by who, motivated by curiosity, sometimes stop and talk.
As a result, I see both a value of documentation of an event, and an investigation of languages and values through technical images.
4 – My next question is related to the previous one, but the now focus is shifted from ends to means: I would like to deal here with the status of the image in your work. Does it work for you as presence or as displacement? When it comes to your relationship with Nature, a theme so recurrent in your photographs and videos, what are you most interested in – approaching and giving visibility to the loss of a closer relationship with the Planet or exploring the possibility of another becoming-nature for man? I can see these two alternating movements in your work, but would like to hear a little more about it.
For obvious reasons, I often hear that I’m an artist who “works with nature.” Yes, this is how I present myself and, for understandable reasons, could not be otherwise. But underlying my interventions in Nature is the human being, perhaps even as a metaphor or symbol of myself, once in the images I’m obviously the acting individual, the agent of symbolic and physical changes to the environment. A few years ago, one of my exhibitions and a book of mine were entitled Altered Cycles (Ciclos alterados). This idea of intervention in an established system is what human rationality has always done and will always do, and that’s the entropy I often mirror with my ideas.
Thus, there is an often-contentious relationship from a deliberate gesture towards Nature, a kind of measuring forces between human action and natural reaction, as in Provision (2009), where paradoxically I bury a tree to protect it, hypothetically saving it for a post-disaster future. Another interpretation would be the human hand and reasoning “accelerating” natural life and death cyclical processes to suit their circumstances. It turns out that we’re inevitably in the same cycles and, within the natural environment, we change ourselves, with all causes and effects of our interventions.
Yes, you’re right, there’s a “becoming-nature of man” acting here. I like to think that my work happens in the interface, where there is human action – be it exploitation or creation.
5 – In at least two recent exhibitions – in Casa França-Brasil, in Rio, and the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris – we’ve seen installation emerging as a possibility, taking on a new monumental scale that deals with the energy of materials. In a way, it looks like you shifted the gravity center of your poetry towards the raw and quiet materiality of Nature. How do you see those two exhibitions in your trajectory as an artist?
It’s true, my early works are comparatively quite noisy, and reaching the silence of rocks or felled trees, for example, would represent a new type of behavior before bodies or natural beings.
But, ultimately, there are two preferences of mine that I would never let go: the matter, with its archetypal and symbolic densities, and action, or even better, the gesture of the transformation perpetrated by the artist. This is basically the Duchampian strategy I won’t give up, but rather bring to my own reality and my wish to change the world within my reach.
The works you mentioned, as well as Abrigo de Passagem/Veículo de Passagem (São Paulo, 2015), and Florão da América (2016), in fact have different scales, because of the size of these large cities where I worked. So, historical issues dealing with the natural and the urban worlds are also included in these four recent works.
Still, it’s worth noticing that my installations contain a great deal of composition, sculpture and even photography. To my surprise, I’ve heard people say: “I felt as if I was walking into one of your photographs!” In fact, I have produced in institutions what I’ve always done alone in the field, except that now the public has direct access to it, rather than through pictures or videos.
6 – You have increasingly participated of art residencies programs and exhibitions in other countries. Do you see different forms of reception of you work and/or untranslatable elements of our cultural singularity that cannot be expressed abroad?
That’s a good question, because ever since I started to travel to institutions abroad, I´ve inevitably tended to make comparisons on the art currently produced here and in every country that I’ve have a chance to watch closely. The way I see it, the balance is very positive for Brazilians. Broadly speaking, our Contemporary Art is of the highest quality – from aesthetic constructions to discursive and critical creations, being generally freer of academic abstruseness and mannerisms that I see so often in other countries, such as France or Germany, for example. Or else, I do not see Brazilian art resembling a “fireworks show” that is often contained in the overrated young Asian art.
I can´t speak for other fellow Brazilians artists, but there are caveats about the circulation of my works of abroad; as a rule, is not easy. The same happens here, as well.
But yes, I can say there is in fact a different reception abroad, especially in European countries, where, oddly enough, I notice some difficulty interpreting codes in my production that are perhaps too Brazilian, so I occasionally see perplexed silence, uncomfortable amazement, something between sharp curiosity and lack of words. There are few – and therefore, special – critics or curators to whom I spoke in European countries who can deepen the vision and interpretation. In Asia, beyond curiosity and a sharp interest, there is enormous respect for the artist discourse; the Japanese, particularly, listen to and are touched by our talk. In the United States, I’ve had a very gratifying experience regarding the reception of my work. As a rule, you don´t need talk much to be understood. In fact, some of the best quotes about my work came from American curators – some of whom do research on Brazilian art and know quite a lot about it.
Outside the scope of art connoisseur, a good part of my production is often superficially dealt with, even rejected, in Brazil or in any country of the world. This explains how difficult it is to show my work in international fairs, because of severe criticism on the part of the public.
But even if there are some “untranslatable singularities”, it is interesting to note that the major underlying issues in my production capture the audience´s attention for what is most subjective, archetypal, or even surprising.
7 – What new projects are you working on?
Unfortunately, the crisis that hit our country eliminated a lot of possibilities for those who work with Culture. Thus, unlike before, this year brings more possibilities than certainties. Yet, there are referrals to research I should carry out in the first semester, in Sertão do Cariri, a dry hinterland, at Geopark Araripe, an area of fossils located between Ceará and Pernambuco, in the Brazilian Northeast. For the second half of the year, there is a project based on an expedition to Fordilândia, Amazon, with the collective Suspended Spaces, formed by European artists and scientists.
See below some of Braga’s artworks cited during the interview:
Read more critical texts by the Curator of PIPA Institute, Luiz Camillo Osorio, by accessing Camillo’s monthly column.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.