A parallel universe, another reality, a change in one’s landscape of certainties. That’s how curator Renata Azambuja describes the work of Antônio Carlos Elias. In this text, written for the catalogue of the exhibition “Uromelus, bunnies and chimeras: recent works by Antônio Carlos Elias”, on view at Brasília, Brazil, until September, the three-times member of the PIPA Prize Nominating Committee remembers Elias’ trajectory from the beginning, comparing his recent works to the Freudian notion of “strange” or “disturbing” and to the concept of entropy, borrowed from Thermodynamics. Whatever the metaphor, one thing is certain: “Once one takes a look at the things Antônio Carlos Elias makes, there is no turning back.”
Locus suspectus: On the exhibition “Uromelus, bunnies, and chimeras: recent works by Antônio Carlos Elias”
“He looked up guiltily, and his eyes met mine. Forthwith he scrambled to his feet and stood wiping his clumsy hand across his mouth and regarding me. His legs were scarcely half the length of his body. So, staring one another out of countenance, we remained for perhaps the space of a minute. Then, stopping to look back once or twice, he slunk off among the bushes to the right of me, and I heard the swish of the fronds grow faint in the distance and die away. Long after he had disappeared, I remained sitting up staring in the direction of his retreat.”
H.G. Wells. The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Once one takes a look at the things Antônio Carlos Elias makes, something changes in one’s landscape of certainties. There is no turning back. It is as if something left our usual perception and got into an anachronistic space, launching us towards a parallel universe, towards another reality. Perhaps those works incite feelings akin to those we experience as a child – as told by Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero in their Book of Imaginary Beings – when in our first visit to a zoo we see animals we had never seen before and, instead of being struck with the terror such a weird place might arouse, the child likes it, making the authors of the story, which connects the real and the fantastic, ask the following question: how can one explain this at once common and mysterious phenomenon?
This exhibition displays a set of works made since 2015. The curators have chosen to show ten of the many installations the artist keeps in his studio with a topography which is very similar to that of a thematic room in a museum or to a large laboratory. They are ready to be discovered by those who have the chance to enter that room.
The arrangement of this exhibit was designed to try to highlight the language of the installations, driven not only by the fact that the works are thus organized, but also because that is the language which has been progressively researched and recreated by Elias. The installations, made up of paintings, sculptures, and objects, were transposed from their original environment to the gallery, with some changes based on the new space, and to accommodate the possibilities of this exhibition, making up what we call ‘installation niches’.
We are faced with an event brought about by the change in the artist’s production, which is very relevant to those who wish to investigate the new paths taken by Elias since the 1980s.
However, in order to follow his history and draw our own conclusions, it is essential to recount a bit of the artist’s trajectory so far.
At first glance, one might say that what is displayed is totally at odds with Elias’ body of work so far, and miles away from the usual way in which the artist thinks, makes and organizes his favorite poetic elements. Then something unusual and very special happens: even if the way his work is structured – installed objects – is the same, there is now a significantly different spin in the design of his works and his themes, which impacts and reconfigures the current poetic set, placing his production once again in a region with no record, as pointed out by some art critics who wrote about his work a few years ago.
Elias began his career in the 1980s, attuned to a generation of artists who, unhappy with the myth of originality and great narratives, and amidst a political and social time when old models were collapsing, allowed the steady injection of “[…] objects, signs, messages, ideologies, pleasure […]” in their works – as Baudrillard (1990) described. In this scenario, the artist seeks to capture most of the world. As a typical turn of phrase in his critical essays, Baudrillard (1990) wrote: “The artistic world has a strange condition. It is as if there is an art and inspiration stasis. […] Stasis of the living of art and, at the same time, proliferation, tumultuous overlap, multiple variations over all previous forms (life, moving by itself, from what is dead). All of this is logical: where there is stasis, there is metastasis.”
Ideas on proliferation, contamination, appropriation were in the air, which was not ignored by Elias. A few critics often linked words such as impulsivity and expressionism to his works, mostly paintings at that time. He was interested in theatre plays and magazine news. The body and soul of the scene; the scene itself; the news and the event. All together they were mixed to bring forward the real timbre of reality: that of being a great illusion.
In his first essay on the artist’s paintings in 1986, historian and art critic João Evangelista highlighted the uniqueness of his paintings, pointing out their expressionist qualities, which can be seen in his following works in varying proportions and undertones. His way of dealing with daily affairs already hinted his distancing from patterns found in the poetic forms of the Brazilian Central-West art circuit at that time.
He started his installations in the years between 1987 and 1996, when he was involved in academic research in Dentistry (his main professional activity). From then on installations were his favourite bedrock for sculptures and objects. The impulse that flourished in his paintings gave place to darker works linked to great human dramas. There was a renewal in his themes and shapes: he kept his ‘base investigation’, whose focus is human existence (pressures and repressions people suffer with in the world), while gestures and colours disappeared.
In the 1990s, even though Elias was aware of new approaches born from the interplay between science and art techniques, he developed concepts and methods not by using advanced technologies, or by using concepts from cybernetics, or digital art. His thinking was much more focused on the development of a particular technology for images that “[…] can only be understood if seen from the point of view of symbolic actions […]”, as Belting (2014) put it when examining the mental and physical production of images. Belting (2014) goes on to say: “The production of images itself is a symbolic act and as such requires us to look at them in an equally symbolic way which is distinct from our everyday visual perception.”
His constructions, at that time, were built from iron structures, light panels, objects made of plaster and other materials used in dentistry. The artist built his own laboratories for this poetic experiments, conjuring up large-scale installations where he placed artificial acrylic resin teeth, light panels, medicines, stuffed animals, mirrors, paraffin candles, pipettes. He went on to search for the indescribable, where axes do not meet and where, if there is science, there is, on the other hand, inscience. His themes are religion, myths, sex, finitude, science, life and death.
In 2015, Elias began a new series of works. I believe it is worth thinking of this new phase using the concept of entropy, stated in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This concept is often put forth when addressing changes in the production of contemporary art, which is largely aimed at disturbing the equilibrium of systems. The concept of entropy also serves as a measure for the artist himself when, by looking back at his past art production, he pinpoints something in his poetics whose meaning has changed, and he sees another future for his own production. This entropic character, which sees things through to the end, is accompanied by self-regulating mechanisms that bring new meaning to poetic forms.
Getting closer to these installations is both a phenomenon and a noumenon: there is something unintelligible behind what we see. I dare say they trigger senses that Freud (2013) has dubbed “disturbing” or “strange”, in which something may seem at once familiar and frightening: a unique landscape which reaches our eyes and strikes our senses. However, it does not seem to be the strangeness felt when faced with exact duplicates of original models, such as those of “[…] wax figures, dolls and ingeniously built automata […]”, or by wax figures aimed at making a “[…] perishable organism […]” last, such as votive statues.
Elias has no intention of replicating what is real. His three-dimensional figures in white plaster are reproductions of characters who live in scenes of hyper-coloured screens. The sculptures seem unfinished, as if they are immaterial models that yearn to remain in the world of ideas, reinforced by the images of their places of origin, which are paintings (another fictional world). The paintings themselves do not aim at being pure mimesis of reality either: sculptures detach from the pictorial territory to share our space and time. Even those objects added to the sculptures and to the installation niches – boxing gloves, wigs, toys – do not add a hint of truthfulness to anything, on the contrary: they instigate us to reflect on our dimension of reality.
Trying to precisely define where the strangeness feeling comes from when confronted with these installations seems unnecessary and in vain, for it is the uncertainty about what we see that keeps the vibrant energy of those works alive. They seem to form a fantastic microcosm. They are like tableaux vivants, but with no human beings playing any situation or linked (linking themselves) to any specific time. In this microcosm detached from a clear narrative, the colourful and vibrant paintings, populated by various images, look as if they are tossing, out of their two-dimensional space, white Paris-plaster sculptures (a recurrent material for Elias) which, turned into matter by our senses, remind us that reality is closer to the supernatural than we can dream of.
If there are representation crises, there they are. These installation niches are like fragments of a standstill scene, or like episodes of fantastic narratives, such as Ernst Hoffmann’s The Sandman – the basis for Freud’s analysis on the disquieting – and The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H. G. Wells, where it is not an automaton that shakes us, but instead a hybrid of human and beast. Would it be appropriate to say those installations are bestiaries as pointed out by Julio Cortázar in a book of the same name? “Before going to sleep he had a moment of horror when he imagined he could be dreaming” (CORTÁZAR, 1986, p.130). Are these works a consequence of a surreal political situation? Or are they part of the reflections of a man of science that strolls through the world of spiritual fiction?
About the author
Renata Azambuja is a researcher, independent curator, art critic and art-educator. Her main themes of research are the relationship between art and politics, Brazilian art, and contemporary photography. She graduated in Fine Arts at Universidade de Brasília (UnB) and holds an MA in Theory and History of Modern and Contemporary Art from the City College of New York. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theory and History of Art at Universidade de Brasília (UnB).