Cadu in conversation with Luiz Camillo Osorio

Cadu, PIPA Prize 2013 winner, takes his proposals to the extreme. Known for his unconventional methods, Cadu’s practice deals with the creation of systems: machines, installations, paintings, drawings and sculptures, often incorporating elements of nature and, while pushing the boundaries between man and landscape, involving his own personal experiences. “Seasons”, for example, partly shown at the PIPA Prize 2013 exhibition at MAM-Rio, was based on his 272-days stay at an isolated cabin in the woods, from the beginning of winter until the last day of summer. In this exclusive talk with the Curator of PIPA Institute, Luiz Camillo Osorio, the artist discusses his creative process, influences, techniques, motivations and Cadu’s most recent projects. Whether working on oil paintings or unexpected gadgets, Cadu lives the art he creates.

Read below the exclusive interview here on PIPA’s website:

“You can’t be wise and in love at the same time” – Bob Dylan

What is the role of the university and art schools in your training as an artist?

I have the distinct impression that I belong to a generation of artists who invested heavily in academic training. This is probably a consequence, among others, of the basic economic stabilization that came about with the adoption of the Brazilian Real (as a currency) at the end of the 1990s. The galleries were reopening and the Carioca (Rio-based) collectives were in full swing. But, nevertheless, you couldn’t say that people were relaxed about the future. Mildly optimistic, perhaps. Not knowing how my artistic career would develop, I always had “Plan Bs” (and Cs, Ds, and Es … like any Brazilian), and teaching seemed to be an honest way of working within the field, even if in a more low-key manner.
I began my studies at the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts (Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage) when I was very young, 12 years of age. When I entered university, at 18 years of age, I opted for the painting course at the Fine Arts School of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Escola de Belas Artes da UFRJ); the free, horizontal training at EAV was balanced by the traditional, artisanal work at the “Fundão”. Much of my efforts were focused on drawing, the area where I identify my practice – even though it encompasses many other disciplines – having developed some graphic ability while still a youth. It provided with the opportunity to give some tentative classes and to pass on the little knowledge that I had acquired. With the passing of the years, I began to understand that my temperament was more inclined towards learning. A teacher teaches what he wishes to learn, what challenges him and what he perhaps finds great difficulty in being or putting into practice. I am like any other human being: lazy, vain, corrupt. However, on demanding, in a classroom, that the students be ethical, honest and dedicated, I find a way, through them, of helping myself, through their vigilance, to be what I couldn’t be on my own.
But this aspect, becoming a supervisor, was a consequence of having had the good fortune to have formed relationships with very generous teachers and colleagues, who were as committed as I was to the field of creation. This experience made it a natural choice for me to remain in the field of education. It contained individuals and knowledge that forced me to develop. Looking back, I have spent more time accommodated within these institutions than outside them, a perception that clarifies the humble search for the naivety of the child, whilst no longer being a naive child.

The intense relationship between intentionality and chance informs your artistic philosophy; it’s almost a procedural engine. From those works where you devised a contraption and used the movement of a car as a means of drawing, to more recent things where you combine composition and free gesture, a kind of automatic writing where you dismantle and allow the composition to get out of control (for the good). This kind of dialectics reminded me of a passage from one of the Russian formalists from the turn of the (last) century, Chklovski, who said that “poetry is born from the imperfection of the human language”. How do you see this?

Can I adopt those words as a new personal mantra? Thanks. The restricted regimes in which I immerse myself, whether premises of the work itself or scenarios that I impose on myself, are not intended to invoke fantasies of control; they are simply strategies for keeping the attention focused. Being disciplined and alert allows me to incorporate the contributions of chance into my process. Normally, it’s in the flaws in my systems that I find the surprises and where the works emerge. Over the years, I have learnt, through the rigour and practices of the extreme endurance of my early works, to sustain uncertain and improbable attitudes until they gain density by themselves, or to sabotage my natural tendencies toward control. Remaining between this nomadism and sedentariness, between safety and vulnerability, keeps me flexible enough to perceive when there is a fork in the path which is worth an uncertain deviation, or when I need to push myself to stay on the original course.

Pursuing the previous question further, it seems to me that your artistic philosophy spills over into your own life – and vice-versa – when you begin to undertake the experiences of existential “exhaustion/release”, in a radical quest for self-sufficiency with a minimum of resources. There is, simultaneously, an inner immersion and a hyper-exposure to the external, to nature, which is to say, your life is bound both to the essential and to the imponderable. It is also interesting that these poetic journeys have emerged within your doctoral thesis, where you reflected on your artistic philosophy and ended up moving towards a poetics/journey into the self. Talk about this process and how your artistic practice has been transformed since then.

There came a time when “depicting” the landscape was no longer enough. Whether it was contemplating it, or through my contraptions and interfaces. I felt an increasing desire to be in natural environments and to experience body and mind in these places. The previously cited endurance developed in new ways. There was also a tendency towards self-investigation/maintenance which coincided with a window of opportunity; I am young, there are no people who directly depend on me and there was a professional, academic and emotional environment that facilitated isolation. I am obsessed with gypsy, hermit fables and with walking. I believe that monotonous environments can put us into contact with the hidden voices of our identity, which only manage to express themselves when we listen to the silence. Rather than simply being a producer of works of “Art”, I wanted to pursue a state of “Art”, the possibility of being in contact with taboos, poetry, mysticism and the symbolic that remain inside the process of maintaining one’s life, not only when I slipped into the traditional practices of artistic production.
A lack of funds, and constant everyday planning, injected significance into everything; what I ate, how much I ate, how much water I used, how much water could be saved to wash the brushes: Should I use oil paint? Or acrylic paint? Should I use found materials? Should I load up on artistic materials or occupy space with food and clothes? There is a dynamic in this “layout” that generally imposes more logistical decisions. But from out of this scarcity was born the companion of writing, the realization that keeping the hut in order meant keeping myself in order and the insight that there are times when surviving, through contact with the essential facts of life, is a form of creativity in itself. Creating a world for oneself, a world for oneself with time displaced from other people’s time.
The curious thing is that lots of people were only interested in admiring my resignation, or seeking “faults” of modernity in my Franciscan approach, transforming my gestures into farce or mistaking this existence, on some level, for something heroic, punitive or like some documentary from the Discovery Channel. But if what I did had traces of eccentricity, this was merely a consequence of a subtle inner calling to which I responded.

Talk a bit about this recent project of yours in Mexico where you worked with a sewing cooperative. Explain a little about how this came about and the negotiation between what you wanted to do and what it was possible to do through the sharing of experiences and different perceptions regarding the meaning of doing and craftsmanship. Was it the first time that you had worked in a community and in this kind of collaboration?

The whole experience of isolation has been balanced by an experience of strong negotiation with the human element. A balance that applies to the capabilities acquired in rural seclusion in an urban environment. The invitation from the InSite Foundation arrived a short time before my trip to the Atacama Desert. I was invited to live in the neighbourhood of Santa Maria la Ribeira, where I was to develop some programme in collaboration with the residents. This encounter took almost a year to happen, since my travelling schedule was full due to the fact that I was doing a post-doctorate that involved lots of journeys and relocations. But, finally, in January 2015, I was able to start spending time at the location.
Santa Maria la Ribeira can be compared to the Rio neighbourhood of Catumbi, a central district that has undergone little gentrification, that is composed of small commercial concerns (without big chain stores or franchises) and that has a somewhat underprivileged population. It was in this scenario that I was to establish relationships, through the mediation of the foundation. The work initiatives were to arise out of these relationships. I was constantly warned not to try to have ideas but to simply use the local population as a labour force. This commitment to the “other” made everything slower and more challenging. It was necessary to be very available, very open and to have no expectations about what I wanted. Or rather, there was no desire, but simply a mild sense of affection for the place, which was to grow and develop into actions.
During the first periods, I accompanied the team of anthropologists that studied and mapped the neighbourhood for the artists (there were 13 of us in all, including foreigners and people from various parts of Mexico, with projects at different stages of development). I identified the iconic places of the region, the historical, the spontaneously important places and those to be avoided. Santa Maria suffers from the violence of gangs who compete for control over drug sales points (sound familiar?). After this phase, I tried to get more involved: I tried working as a porter at the local market, at a restaurant and as a volunteer at an institute for the blind. But there was a lot of suspicion due to the fact that I was a foreigner and because I was disturbing a very fragile and tense relationship of local remuneration and work. I realized that inserting myself where there were economic exchanges or where any spontaneous ability in some way exposed those already inserted in these networks, would not work. That was when, in a gesture of desperation, I signed up for a dance class for elderly people at the local Cultural Centre.
Here, I got involved with a group of old ladies who have danced together, twice a week, for 15 years. They dance to traditional rhythms, such as Danzon, Bolero, Salsa, Cúmbia and other Latin and Caribbean styles, in group choreographies. I’ve been interested in dance and representation for a long time, not so much within the field of artistic performance, but as a means of quieting the mind and developing knowledge where written or spoken language become limited. So I didn’t let the opportunity slip. Having overcome the general surprise at my presence, things flowed really well. The old ladies understood that my interest in them was genuine, not unwholesome, and that I came with the logistical support of an artistic and social organisation with positive intentions. So over the course of two years I got to know this group while I learned to dance. One of the things that struck me in interviews was the group’s relationship with knitting and crochet. These old ladies embroidered in a group and danced in a group, activities that could be viewed as choreographies – one involving small muscles, the other involving large muscles – but which kept them in contact with different, if complementary aspects of their femininities. In the dances there was clearly a return or invocation of erotic energies, and in the sewing meetings, of maternal impulses, of the conservation and sharing of experiences. In conversations with the ladies, I discovered colours, stitches, objects and the importance that craftwork occupied in their routine alongside dance. One of the common denominators was that they stated they were doing something exclusively for themselves, by themselves and together.
To summarize it crudely, mandalas are considered to be structures created in groups or individually, which represent immaterial “plans” of concepts and teachings which, on being represented in concentric, architectural forms, can help someone aspiring to enlightenment to understand complex values regarding the transitory nature of existence. They’re passing totems which, after being meticulously built, must be destroyed and leave indelible traces in those who participated in their construction. Based on this principle, we decided, the ladies and I, to build a similar structure, a surface that was the encryption of the collective memory of that group and that would pay homage both to manual traditions and to sources of pleasure and history. I took the data that I had gathered in the interviews and presented some designs that reflected these intentions. We arrived at a large 6 x 5 metre crocheted work, full of colours, designs and motifs. It would not be viable for the ladies themselves to produce the work. They divide their time between their children, grandchildren, husbands, and domestic and work routines, not to mention that the work involved would be too heavy for people of 58 to 89 years of age. That was when another group of women came onto the scene.
Once we had decided to produce a mandala, in partnership with the team of curators and producers, I sought out pueblos (towns) close to Mexico City that could carry out the work. But despite the discoveries and estimable individuals encountered during these searches, we were unable to reach a satisfactory balance regarding time, pay and the understanding of the work. You can imagine that building a structure of the size we wanted was complicated in itself, but our mandala should not only exist but should contain the premise of its disappearance. If every mandala must vanish, ours must be able to be entirely unravelled. Such a feat requires a lot of very complex engineering, which the tradesmen did not want to undertake. All the more so because it made no sense. Who, in full possession of their senses, would want to invest time and money in something made to be destroyed?
Near to the head office of Casa Gallina (the name given to the foundation’s space in Santa Maria), is an opticians. A young woman was working there who was part of an organization that wove blankets for homeless people. My glasses were really bad and I was searching for craftsmen who lived close to the neighbourhood, since trying to control the development of the work in the cited pueblos massively increased the chances of things going wrong. I visited the establishment and while I was trying on frames I recounted something of my saga to the shop attendant. She immediately and very perceptively noticed that I wasn’t there just because of my myopia, but to seduce here into committing to a highly unusual process. Luckily for me, she liked the idea and together with eight other young people (men and women) they produced the work. It took 400 hours of labour to bring the mandala into existence. Young Moiras sewed for old Moiras. And so the cycle was completed.
In parallel, I rehearsed choreographies with the ladies that simulated the unravelling of the mandala and that would be reproduced in it when it was ready. To spare you a long, exhaustive description of the process of production and negotiation that involved 24 professionals, we performed the dismantling of our web in July 2016. The whole project was filmed and is currently being edited. At the end, we will have just a video and a small scale replica of the mandala, which, in a delicate way, will seek to make tangible an experience that profoundly transformed all those involved. I have undertaken numerous projects where the authorship is diluted, whether with individuals, systems or nature. But I had never undergone an experience with so many variables and such surprising results. Results that would never be achieved without a very great investment of time and without the cooperation of all those involved.

When you undertake these more experiential / existential works in the museological space, I imagine that there is always a huge challenge regarding what can be taken to the museum, become a work and acquire plastic materiality. How is this done and what do you most take into consideration bearing in mind the relationship to be established with the public?

I really try to create a sense of an “event”. Even when I’m evoking past experiences, or presenting relics of self-imposed exiles. The intention is not just to memorialize the experience or accumulate workshop gestures of it in the exhibition space. I really try to create something with plastic autonomy which, even though it may be linked to an existential process that is not particularly objectual, must negotiate with more traditional languages. I am a draftsman and a painter, so my approach is also compositional and chromatic. I work with sculpture and installations, so I negotiate the symbolic values of the materials chosen and how the arrangement and scale of them can amplify what I’m trying to submit.
But it is an empirical process in which, in retrospect, I am aware I have not always been successful, despite trying to deal with fraternal desires. An interesting example were the installations of the 30th Biennale of São Paulo and subsequently of the 13th Biennale of Istanbul. In both, the curators wanted something in relation to my hut. In the first, as the work was about the house and being housed in it during the exhibition, I agreed to send everything I could about the process while I was experiencing it. It worked, but more due to accumulation and overflow, than intention. Dealing with lots of new things and still being able to make from them a beautiful plastic work was exhausting. So I trusted that this piling up of information and objects performed in the place offered some indications of my condition. In Turkey, on the other hand, when the curator requested that the same installation be reproduced, I disagreed, stating that the physicality of the dwelling had been exhausted and that we should find another way of sharing the experience, since I no longer wished to inhabit the field of memory. And that was when she asked me to read my diary and make the work from that. We selected passages from it and printed ten thousand copies, which sat on a table beside the model of the house and some photographs. This is the booklet that I’ve also just included in my play at the MAM (Museum of Contemporary Art) in 2013 for the finalists’ show at PIPA, and whose “event” impulses emerged from decisions relating to graphic design and quantity. Would ten thousand publications occupy the same space that my hut occupied in the real world? And would this establish some equivalence or help the public to render my gesture tangible? Questions like these passed through my head all the time. The questions of someone who was pursuing something from the past, but seeking a work with a certain independence from its origins. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I honestly tried and I’m still trying. Because I believe this kind of “healthy” problem will arise many times while I am still on my feet.

What is the role of text in your artistic philosophy? As far as I remember you’ve never worked with audio-visual media or film. Is there any specific reason for this?

Texts became my travelling companions. I use authors like life-buoys when things get tough. I find guidance and the strength to continue in them. It is natural for me to be infected by these initiatives and also to be someone that writes within the academic world, using words as a means of expression. Whenever I try to understand situations, I try to write and to build a narrative so that something becomes clearer. In jumping from the state of producer to reader and then to principal critic, I try to reveal what I am seeking without organizing it in my head. Surprisingly, these fundamentally intimate and domestic recollections were well received.
I tend to take photographs much like notation, like a mental diary of procedures or the documentation of processes. But the moving image intimidates me. For a whole variety of reasons. Despite being a great lover of photography and cinema, I’m afraid of working with it. I always trusted excessively in post-production to correct errors and a lack of technical knowledge and, allied to this timidity, is a weariness regarding how these languages are consumed. We have never filmed or photographed as much, with such sharpness and quality, nevertheless I have the sense that this obsession generates showy images whose appetite for consumption is only comparable to the speed with which they are discarded. However, recording on film is a very viable way of generating content during journeys (provided you have a means of charging your batteries). That is why I have tried to learn more about the subject and to find pertinent means of using it. The new play in Mexico and the film Psicopompo, made in Hornitos in the Atacama Desert, are more than attempts at approximation; they used video because it has themes that are pertinent to language. Perhaps my adventures in this field have been so few because I haven’t exactly found works that would justify this kind of exploration. First comes the concept and then the vehicle.

Watch the exclusive video, produced by Matrioska Filmes, where Cadu presents the cabin in which he lived for the project “Seasons”, located in the outskirts of Rio:

Access the artist’s page to watch more exclusive interviews.

Read more critical texts by the Curator of PIPA Institute, Luiz Camillo Osorio, by accessing  Camillo’s monthly column.


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.

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