Immersive, large-scale installations resembling organic structures – be it distorted tree trunks and branches or seemingly inflated walls, all made of plywood –, Henrique Oliveira’s work has travelled the world since he was first nominated for PIPA Prize, in 2010. His pieces have been showcased in institutions such as the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, and the Boulder Art Museum, and he recently won the main prize at the IX Enku Grand Award, in Gifu, Japan. Here, Oliveira talks to Luiz Camillo Osorio about the different media in which his works are born and the “ecological dystopia” and “ethic of the precarious” seen in his poetics, amongst other subjects.
Luiz Camillo Osorio in conversation with Henrique Oliveira
Are you a painter by training?
Before going to college as an Arts student, I had a job in drawing after two years of painting practice, with moments of self-taught experimentation with materials and techniques. After that, while still in college, I pursued a BA in painting and attended sculpture classes. My work became three-dimensional through pictorial research linked to collage, which gradually became three-dimensional.
I remember an exhibition of yours held at Funarte about ten years ago in which the wall pounced on the visitors as if it drove out accumulated time and materiality. In a case in point, viewers could still see the wall as a prop. Afterwards, your pieces began to interfere with the architectural space and to be penetrated and crossed by the visitors. How did this process achieve architectural scale?
I held two exhibitions at Funarte, in Rio de Janeiro – the first one in 2004, and the second one in 2006. I believe you refer to the second. If I’m not mistaken, we were introduced on this second occasion. In any case, those exhibitions happened on two distinct points of the development of the same sequence of work done with the waste plywood from construction. In 2004, the work was still quite flat; it virtually coated the wall of the last room. In 2006, it already pointed to one of the directions I would follow. Back then, the idea of installation referring to a type of pictorial matter as spatial volume had already occurred to me. While at the beginning of the research what attracted me and guided my choices was the material aspect of wood – its textures, colours, marks that time “painted” on those surfaces, at a certain point I found myself between experimenting with materials and keeping the frame format, or directing the material I was using for spatial development. From then on, if the walls served as support and shape, the relationship with architecture became essential. Plywood, when used as a building unit, also speaks to the architectural scale. At first, the same material was recycled in different installations, and I came to conceive the work as a single matter that took different shapes according to the situation in which it was assembled. In fact, the final shape of these works was a direct result of the architectural situation – where there was a column, it formed a wave, where there was a wedged ceiling, it opened in a crack. When I came across a curved wall, I wanted to create a convex rebatment and then used the plywood flexibility to create a slightly rounded shape at the Mariantonia University Center in 2005. A few months later, I built rounded surfaces on all the walls of a small room. This time, with the use of PVC pipes, the work acquired unexpected plasticity, in which tension was taken to an unexpected degree, and suggested a liquid quality in an extremely dry and brittle material.
This combination of opposite directions was important, as well, for the future developments that were foreshadowed in my Funarte 2006 exhibition. There arose the idea of a third pictorial dimension that would be obtained not only by the natural properties of the material such as the texture, the color and the broken shapes of the splinters, but also by the sculptural form that had as reference topographies of oil paint textures, as if we could enlarge small paint impastos into large sculptural forms, suggesting the sensation of a viscous paste in a dry matter. An expressive gesture obtained by methodical construction, a canonical form of modern art made of a marginalized substance of the cities. I separate these works into a specific strand of my own work because they go back to the wall in the frame format (or wall carving, embossed, as you prefer to call it), while the works built directly into the architecture have had several developments. The latter, sometimes acting as an extension of structural elements of buildings, on other occasions bursting from walls and ceilings as if what we saw in the gallery was just a small piece of a much larger living being. Others still become, themselves, places in which one can enter and walk, where the work speaks to the senses beyond vision, destabilizing the soil, generating noises and smells from its matter and mode of construction.
What is strange about such installations, from the standpoint of an organic precariousness that introduces itself to the world and advances on us, is somewhat relegated in your paintings. Your paintings are better behaved. How do you see the dialogue between these two media? What is the need of painting for your poetics?
I believe what happens is that my paintings are often compared to sculptures, using the same parameters. Although closely interconnected, they are two distinct languages. The paintings are made to be paintings, neither better nor worse than the three-dimensional production, just different. And the time their making requires is also much longer; while the three-dimensional works, especially the installations, arrive and present themselves at once, the paintings would be the equivalent of those people you need to live with for a long time to get to know.
The paintings also precede in several years my three-dimensional production. When I started working with used plywood, it was like a rupture toward a geometric abstraction (plywood is produced in rectangular plates). But as these works were being developed, such geometry was fragmenting, and the organic forms of the paintings emerged and predominated in the installations. However, if you look at the paintings carefully, you’ll notice analogue movements occurring in my three-dimensional forms. Despite the difference between the two languages, both share some common dynamics – twists, convulsions, expansions, contractions, gestures – a whole notion of movement is present. Sometimes I think that the paintings are a kind of framework for the other languages I use. While design, sculpture, and architecture are assertive, solid forms, painting is an indefinite broth, in which nothing is fixed, nothing is assumed, and everything can be suggested – a quicksand surface where ideas are boiling and from where various forms can emerge.
Insisting on the topic of the previous question, this time based on the images of your recent work, I see this EXLP series in which a kind of pictorial fungus seems to sprout from the wall as a new pictorial gesture. They are small coloured “beings” that curls as you look at them, as if accumulated strokes of the colour take shape. Would this series be a convergence of installations with painting?
This job came up half by accident. I used images of art books to build the works of the series “Xilempastos,” where (as I mentioned in the second question) the topography of oil impasto is taken as a reference for three-dimensional construction. At a certain point, however, I decided to create real impastos that would be used as models for sculptures on the wall. Then, I made a small painting with a lot of oil paint. The leftover material was used for a second painting on a papier-mache mass. Then I realized that building reliefs I could create paintings that were on the verge of becoming objects. As much as “Xilempastos” evokes the idea of paintings, the strong material presence of wood always reaffirms, ultimately, the sculptural character of the object. The temporal aspect that you´ve mentioned prevails, evoking a kind of nostalgic atmosphere, something indefinite that we perceive in polychrome wood, sometimes referring to a worn baroque, sometimes to a tree or a whitewashed fence. Something that was already there, and, as such, belongs to the past. They are senses that move away from the painting’s original reference, although they open our senses to other object perceptions of the object. In the works of the EXLP series, this does not occur; their matter leaves no doubt that it is painting, although the physical situation of this, somewhat improbable, could not be obtained only by ink on canvas.
Now, back to your question, I don’t see this work as a convergence of my three-dimensional works and my paintings. I think maybe they are positioned somewhere between them, and I admit that when I did the first one, this idea occurred to me. But as I progressed, they resisted and revealed something else. A bit like something we divide to find the average, but this average is divided again and again, ad infinitum, revealing itself an impossible task.
How do you deal with the collectors of the installations? Are they always site-specific? How do they deal with them? Have you had a good commercial response from your installations?
I never really cared if my work would sell, or, to be more specific, I always hoped it would never sell. When I started painting, I made pictures as varied as my curiosity demanded. And the first installations were designed as temporary and site-specific works. It was not until 2007 when I was able to rent a shed in São Paulo that I started making sculptures and non-temporary installations. Although more difficult to sell, many of these three-dimensional works were acquired by collectors and institutions. The few works that I actually built in specific places, which, in theory, cannot be relocated, were made abroad, in Europe and the United States, and this trend increased in recent years. They are determined collectors, who are willing to have permanent work. Now, unlike works that are already ready, when someone invites you to do something for a specific location, they have a previous work as a reference. So, it takes a whole didactic to explain to them that each work is unique, that the artist’s production has its own logic and that, therefore, it would not make sense to repeat something that you have already done.
In recent works, as in the “Parietal Passage” and “Devir”, I see a larger combination of sculpture with the installation. On the one hand, we are faced with a plastic presence that builds in space, on the other, we are obliged to experience it from within, entering and walking inside that building. How is this movement of looking at the same time from outside and from inside?
“Parietal Passage” was conceived in 2016 for an exhibition in a German museum. Eight artists were invited to occupy the rooms with spatial interventions and installations. This work – notice that this cannot be understood if you just look at the photos — changed the trajectory made by the public because it connected and eliminated two doors on the same wall, located at the bottom of this room so that people could no longer use them to go from one room to another. From the larger room, one could see just the outer of the work, which had a natural and sculptural aspect (in addition to the second-hand plywood that I usually use, I added tree barks with moss) and burst from two points of the wall, forming a bow. The inner side of the sculpture could only be accessed from the back room, from where, in turn, one could not see the outer side of the piece. Nonetheless, these two moments were divided in time-space because you had to travel through the whole museum to go from outside to the interior of the work. And they were very different parts (the inside and the outside); a less careful eye might not realize that it was actually two sides of the same thing. This separation reduced the perception of a penetrable sculpture, a notion that often appears in my work.
“Devir,” on the other hand, does not have an external dimension, only an interior one. Conceived as a box, it is the first work of this kind that I do that can be reassembled (in general, the more a piece interacts with space, the less feasible will be the reassembly of the work). “Devir” contains its own space; it was installed only once and then taken to a warehouse. In that assembly, the whole room of a gallery was coated with the same wood of the object that it contained – a kind of tree, which dominated the central space. Or, if you prefer, we can say that the object stored in the room there is itself an extension of the storage space. Both content and recipient are the same matter that sometimes is presented as a human construct, sometimes as a plant. As if it problematizes the distinction that we commonly make between culture and nature.
Two things draw attention to me in the new works: The combination of an atmosphere of ecological dystopia and the ethics of the precarious. How do you see that?
Those are terms that I have heard enough; what I had not heard yet was the combination of them that you propose, especially “ecological dystopia.” Nearly 12 years ago, a friend, in one of the first texts written on my work, suggested the phrase “urban dystopia” to refer to my first installations using plywood. As far as the term “ecological” is concerned, I found it quite pertinent that you have used it along with “dystopia.” Many hasty analyses label my work “eco” as if the simple fact of using a discarded material would guarantee some kind of green seal.
My first installations were much closer to the context where this type of material is found, i.e., the streets of São Paulo. They were almost like modified wooden hoardings, displaced or rebuilt in museums and galleries. Maybe that’s why that dystopia was the urban type.
Over the years, this context has been abstracted in various aspects; one of them is representative of a kind of return of this material to its origin as raw material, to its natural source. That was when I started using smaller and irregular wood splinters, combined with a larger plastic domain of the material. At some point, it occurred to me that that material was once a tree, was taken from Nature and industrialized in rectangular plates, and, after being used, is disposed of. But instead of turning to dust, it recovers its original form as branches, ramifications, and trunks. A resumption that can only occur in the dystopian form of a zombie body, a kind of Frankenstein – an individual made of other individuals’ mortal remains. Perhaps the ecological dystopia that you mention is implied in this concept. A visual form that seems to be alive, but was already born dead, as a mark of the times we are living, confirming the impossibility of the modern project, of reconciliation between culture and desire, between technological/industrial development and ecological preservation.
Because of it all, I often see the notions of decay and dystopia very present in my work. The notion of precariousness, on the other hand, I believe it appears, except for a few instances, more in tow to the type of material used and the context to which it is associated. In Brazil, specifically, plywood is associated with slums and poor suburban areas, but viewers in other countries often fail to acknowledge such association. In many cases, they see only the relationship with nature in this type of wood. And maybe that’s because I’ve always been deliberately careful that my work was not associated with an aesthetics of the precarious. I´ve always made sure that the work was not just an emulation of precarious situations or of quick fixes – third world clichés that add nothing to the discussions, but that often gain an ephemeral curiosity for the way they are presented. So, at first, I struggled to emancipate them from this condition, and I think that’s why the work was able to convert some sort of power which, latent in the precarious condition, can be formalized in plastic media. In doing so, when I appropriated a visual precariousness, I sought to maintain an ethic capable of transcending the simplism of the povera aesthetic – wooden plates became layers of paint, slums shacks became organic structures, dryness became a soft mass that expands into space, garbage became nature, the abject became sensuality – the notion of movement and transformation is the only constant in these works.
And when I finally had confidence enough in what I had developed, I left aside the fear of going back to the origins of this material to reach new layers of meaning. For instance, in the “Transarquitetônica” installation (2014, Museum of Contemporary Art of São Paulo, MAC USP). In this installation, I deliberately created sections that resembled shacks, because they were necessary to confirm the dystopian trajectory of modern ideals. They were necessary structures for the spatial transformation on which the work was conceived. And, if viewed in isolation, this section probably did not support itself as work, on the other hand, it re-signified and empowered the subsequent sections – organic tunnels that branched into other branches, suggesting a single body that requested a displacement in time and space to be seen. Or rather, to be experienced and understood in its ethical, aesthetic and political dimensions.
Which artists influenced you; were they important to your trajectory as an artist? A to contemporaneous artists, with which ones do you dialogue and whose work do you like to follow? I have noticed an approximation – not in the use of materials, but rather in the effects of spatial-architectural disorientation – some sort of conversation with Anish Kapoor. Does it make sense?
Many artists influenced me, depending on the period we are talking about. At first, when I started studying art, discovering a new artist was always very exciting. Before going to college, I studied on my own, fed myself on the basics: Van Gogh, Miró, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Duchamp – The Taschen collection. I have a particular appreciation for Northern European painting, from Bosch and Bruegel, through Munch, Van Gogh, Ensor, to Kooning, the materiality of Anselm Kiefer and the abstract screens of Gerhard Richter. In the 90’s, when I started attending exhibitions in São Paulo, I circulated in a lot of galleries that were close to my house. I remember I really enjoyed an exhibition by Cristina Canale in the São Paulo Gallery (which no longer exists). Another one, entitled Lúcido Nigredo, by Tunga, which I saw at the Luisa Strina Gallery, impressed me a lot. Back in the 90’s, I went to visit a friend who had opened a multimedia agency (that’s how he called the business). Even after I left the place, I could not understand what he meant by that, but I saw a book by Nuno Ramos that aroused my curiosity. I was already experimenting with materials in painting and was impressed by the diversity of materials he used. Even today, I have these material paintings from the late 80’s and beginning of the 90’s as a reference within Brazilian art, a kind of unfolding of mid-20th-century experiments, such as John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, Alberto Burri, and many others.
Recently, in the same exhibition in Germany that we talked about in question 6, I met a Belgian artist whom I have been following for some years and who has assembled his work besides mine in the museum. I asked him if he knew Nuno Ramos’ work. Despite belonging to the same generation and using the same obvious media, he had never seen it. Peter Buggenhout works exclusively in the field of sculpture and uses various structures that he covers with dust, as well as other unusual materials such as cow’s stomach, polyurethane, blood, and Styrofoam. You look at his works and ask “what the fuck?” They are works that are positioned in a radically non-representative field, maintaining its expressive, material and imminent character. Anish Kapoor, whom you mentioned, also has, in some of his works, a strong material presence. But the impression I have is that of someone who works more as an architect, designing works that are then built by other people. There’s always a sort of distance. Well, he does manage to generate incredible effects, smoke sculptures, volumes that pop up and disappear. Some of his works are fascinating, although lately, I’ve felt certain wear and tear. I find it difficult for the artist to meet such a great demand without becoming dull. Sometimes, it looks like an assembly line; after you see the same job dozens of times, you can’t feel anything anymore. Nonetheless, he is an artist who can always surprise you.
When I was planning “Parietal passage,” I thought a lot about two of his works that deal with the inside and the outside. One of them I saw at the New York Guggenheim Museum, was called “Memory”; another one, I can’t remember the name, I know from books. It was installed in a building. From inside the building, you could only see the outside part of the work, and from the outside, you could only see the inside. He put that dilemma in a very clear way. I do not know if any other artist had done something like this before him, but when it happens, it is very difficult to do something that adds to the discussion. I think my work, in general, is quite different from his, but I do see some common points, for instance, when I create deformations on the white walls of galleries. However, for me this is just a way to naturalize a move from one environment to another, it is a construction that responds to demand for work, rather than the main subject. In the case of this installation I did in 2016, there was an inside/outside situation that directly referred to some of Kapoor’s works. But my interest concentrated on the intersection of a sculptural form (which, in this case, can be penetrated) with architecture (both of where it is installed, and the one that it establishes as an “architectural” experiment).
You’ve been living abroad for some time now. Can you tell us a little about your experience?
In fact, since 2013, because of my constant travelling and the time required to assemble my works, I have spent on average 5 or 6 months a year abroad. Those seasons, which last on average 4 to 6 weeks, are almost always situations where you have to dialogue with time to assemble a piece of work. Although they were very stimulating and there was a lot of exchange, I could not establish a more lasting experience with the place and people living there. So, I started to feel like having a permanent space abroad, where I could develop a more solid relationship with the city and local culture, to meet interesting people. Working in another country is also a way to change your point of view, and I felt the timing was perfect. After ten years in the same studio, I was getting a little too comfortable, and I was afraid that this would be reflected in work. I think it’s important to avoid falling into a comfort zone and living abroad forces you to change that. In a city with the dynamics of New York, you can also learn a lot because the exhibitions, the collections you have access to; they are very enriching, and we do not have that in Brazil, I mean, not that much. Seeing this as part of your everyday life is different from visiting art exhibitions during trips. The absorption, the point of view, the calm state of mind, all of this change the way you deal with the work of art. We may say we know this or that city or museum, but knowing, in fact, requires time and dedication. There was also a practical motivation. I felt the need to have a base outside Brazil, a place where I could store materials, produce and export works without the bureaucracy that prevails in Brazil and that has already left me in difficult times on several occasions. Now, I’ve not been in New York long enough to give you an opinion about my experience. I arrived in January 2017, in the wake of the last election. I barely leave Brooklyn, and I don’t get out much, but I think things are simpler there. I spend a lot less time solving problems than I did when I was in São Paulo, and this gives me better conditions to work and study, which I think is great. However, on the other hand, I have do not have the studio space that I have in Brazil, and I miss my friends a lot. In São Paulo, it’s two studios, side by side, and some of six or eight people come in every day. It’s so much more fun.
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. To read more exclusive texts written by Camillo, click here.