1 – Let’s begin by talking about your early years as an artist. You have an academic background, earning a master’s from UNICAMP 15 years ago, but in your trajectory you have expanded the field of art out towards archaeology, the natural sciences, landscape and environmental activism. How did you go about incorporating these different layers? How did this shift from art to this broader investigation of natural processes come about?
MM – I think it was my relationship with more isolated spaces that led me to this transdisciplinary interest. I’ve always seen art and its processes as a great toolkit for knowledge, perhaps even an excuse to bring together apparently incongruous things. Because art processes don’t follow a rulebook and that’s what gives us so much freedom to imagine connections that aren’t normally made.
So, going out into the landscape to investigate frontiers, invisible boundaries, awakens a need to understand these places better. As I’ve always investigated these topics through the perspective of memory and overlaying, it seems natural for me to dig deeper into the fields of archaeology and the natural sciences. Actually, I’ve always appreciated the way these so-called “exact” sciences view the world, how they organize and reconfigure life into a pseudo-truth, which most of us take as an unassailable certainty about the universe. I’m not denying science, far from it!! But the idea of the precision of the scientific view of life is something I see as a poetic too, albeit in terms that are cold and distanced.
I grew up looking at the world through a microscope. My father was a scientist, working in botany. I would always notice the exceptions to the rule, the anomalies that happened in the natural world and which made it far more interesting when offset against the perfect equilibrium by which natural history was organized. I can look at these artifices of knowledge construction and understand that they can also be poetic. I enjoy dealing with the aesthetics of science far more, meaning the way a museum of geology is organized, its arrangements of showcases and shelves. It’s so fascinating! And that’s why I’ve been interested in working more closely with archaeologists and anthropologists, who understand these visual relationships and work to enable this convergence.
So I’d say that it’s the object of study – within the bigger idea of landscape and its broader meaning – which brings me these clues, these fertile diversions, these serendipitous encounters, which make more sense when they’re seen as a whole and not fragmented, broken up into specialities and segments.
When I began transiting through these inhospitable landscapes, I felt like I was returning to the origins of the human species. It’s impossible not to think about form and function, purpose and desire, when you’re deliberately exposing yourself to sub-zero temperatures, being rained on in some barren land, hanging off a rock face with no mobile phone or GPS coverage in the middle of the desert in the Altiplano. These extreme conditions tell me a lot about how fragile I am and guide me back to this more fundamental purpose of existence. And within all this I can see some really clear similarities between art and science, both of which are methods for explaining the world.
2 – The tradition of the travelling artist dates back to the nineteenth century at least, when it played an important role alongside colonial expansion. In a way, it seems to me that if those artists portrayed the unknown, what they’re interested in now is the forgotten, looking for fragments of non-human time, which is being devastated by the crisis of the Anthropocene, by the reduction of all times to the accelerated time of humans; the travelling artist in search of the lost time of the land swallowed up by civilization. How do you see this task of the travelling artist in your poetic?
MM – I think just the way you do! There’s almost nothing left that’s not known. There’s almost no part of the earth that hasn’t already been found, discovered. I think we’ve gone from the notion of agents of discovery of the world to agents of transformation of this same world. And that has a brutal impact on the way we “use” this world. As I said, the way I approach the landscape is through memory, which often comes through archaeology, fragments that portray specific events, images, postcards that function almost as a portal to that place in the past.
The idea of the travelling artist is really still a romantic idea, a desire to live in a virgin land that offers itself up to be explored, contemplated. Sublime, imposing, unspoilt nature. All concepts that seem to make no sense today, when the speed of connectivity, historical revisionism, decolonialization and climate threat are the big issues which are putting the myth of the eternal return and the noble savage in jeopardy.
I think that my role today is more political and critical than it was 15, 16 years ago when I started to make my way as an artist. My sphere of action remains this palimpsest of memories connected to places and territories, cultures that moved rocks and lent them transcendental meanings, but I think that today you just can’t address a topic like invisible frontiers between contiguous territories without considering the exodus of migrants across the planet and the social impacts by which this same landscape is transformed. I think my issues are moving towards debates around larger-scale transformations of a given territory. While before I was interested more in a more contemplative way of looking at space, now what interests me more is what we’re doing to this place that we inhabit and deform.
To give an example: I went on a research visit to Ukraine. I photographed some spoil tips on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk. These are artificial hills some 150, 200 metres height made of tailings from the mining industry in the region. These hills punctuate the whole of the flat landscape of the Donbas region and stand out in the topography. Dating back to before the Soviet occupation, they are clear examples of a pre-Anthropocene. Just like hydropower plants and other large-scale engineering works, they have no appeal to beauty, the sublime, but raise the issue of a symbolic dispute, a clash between man and nature which has translated into the capitulation of the latter to the process of civilization. In the work I did based on this experience, which I called O Trabalho dos Dias [Daily Work], I perforated a photograph of the biggest spoil tip from Donetsk as if it was a clocking-in card, alluding to the idea of repetitive, daily work in the context of the local industry, whose impact is so great that it has permanently and indelibly manipulated the landscape and its topography. In the composition of the work, there are also clocking-in card holders placed alongside, drawing an association between industrial work and transformation of the topography on a monumental scale.
3 – Marta Mestre begins her text about your work with two really interesting citations: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe” (Saramago) and “Mud, salt crystals, rocks, water” (Smithson). In the first one we can see this effort to reconstitute a different time and a different ethic for the gaze, linked to the experience of nature, which has become completely subsumed by accelerated time and development. Observing means allowing one’s gaze however long it needs to see things that are not just utilitarian, functional, etc. Meanwhile, Smithson introduces organic elements, the life of the earth, that which exists irrespective of human beings, culture, civilization. As if your poetic strove to combine an ethics of the gaze with a different experience of nature, natural elements. Does that make sense?
MM- Absolutely, it makes complete sense. What I understand from it is that a contemplative approach to the experience of natural space is overlayed with scientific interest, trying to understand elements down to their atomic level. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition of visions and one I use a lot when I add geographical coordinates or Pantone colour codes to drawings and photographs. It’s like describing a place through the quill of a poet while at the same time looking through the lens of a satellite.
4 – In your drawings, in the way you deal with the image, there’s something in the way you bring together landscape and memory that reminds me of the work of Tacita Dean. What contemporary artists do you accompany more closely and who would you say you have any affinity with?
MM – Well, Tacita is a direct, clear reference, for sure. Another artist I always go back to is Richard Long, not just for his historical importance for having created A Line Made by Walking, in 1967, but also for his economical use of elements like stone and mud. When I think of walking and moving – questions that I’m particularly interested in at the moment – then some inescapable references would be Hamish Fulton, Francis Alÿs and the Portuguese artist Pedro Vaz, who I’m close to. Another Portuguese friend and collaborator, with whom I end up having great conversations, is Gabriela Albergaria. We even did some projects together. I’d also mention a few very thought-provoking works by Pierre Huygue, the photographs by the Spanish duo Bleda y Rosa, the Peruvian artist Elena Damiani. I love Giuseppe Penone, Robert Smithson and the whole Minimal Art crowd – I’m always revisiting and reading about them. In Brazil, some works by Cildo [Meireles] had a strong impact on me, like Southern Cross and Vertical Frontier, where he raises the elevation of Pico da Neblina [the highest point in Brazil] by 1 cm. Nelson Felix and Ana Bella Geiger also inspire me a lot to think about maps, scale and the duration of our actions. Also, I always keep a lookout for what Rodrigo Braga and Marcius Galan are up to. More recently, I’ve been reading Carlos Drummond de Andrade a lot. His relationship with the mining industry and the brutal way it changed the landscape also interest me greatly.
5 – There’s another reference I saw in the text by Alexia Tala which I found quite interesting: Patrício Guzmán and his film Nostalgia for the Light, shot in the Atacama Desert, which reworks very interestingly a contemporary idea of the sublime linked to light and the archaeological time of the desert. What interests me in this notion of the sublime is the existence of something we experience but don’t know how to represent; I mean, something we can feel but don’t know what to call, objectify, come to terms with. Some of your works deal, perhaps tangentially, with this experience of bringing things into view and stripping them of recognisable meaning: a stone in its brute opacity, for example. Does that make sense to you?
I think there’s a lot more we could know than what our feeble eyes can see. After I prepared the installation Dragging, which shows two shelves presenting the rocks collected on the left and right banks of the Tietê river along its 1370 km length, I received visits from some geologists at the exhibition vernissage. They looked at those rocks placed like a narrative of the course of the river and talked excitedly about the geological constitution of the different terrains it crosses, the morphological features that shaped those fragments, how they came about. They could accurately pinpoint the places where each of the fragments had been collected just from the latitude and longitude – almost abstract numbers when put that way which didn’t reveal any adjective or poetic suggestion about the specimens. I was intrigued at how excited they were to interpret the flashes of poetry those rocks sparked in their enquiring minds.
That was an incredibly strong experience for me. I had seen scientists having small epiphanies before phenomena and in encounters of this kind, but that day I saw something else. The awareness that it’s impossible to measure the sheer awe we can experience when we invest time and reverence in an object of study, even if that may be a rock collected from the banks of one of the most polluted rivers in Brazil.
6 – You’re now living in Coimbra and doing a PhD. You’ve upped sticks and moved: your family and a few suitcases. How is it working out for you? What do you expect from the PhD? Any idea what kind of research you will do?
That’s right!! Experiencing the challenge of being a foreigner in these parts, trying to experience a displaced status. As part of my research, I want to investigate the idea of not belonging to the place I’m inhabiting. Just as a foreign body moves through a landscape to try to understand its own identity, I’m going to reconfigure myself as an artist and now as a candidate for a professorship (who knows??). My research is pretty much a review of everything I’ve done so far as a visual artist along with a new proposal: I want to weave together conversations and exchanges of ideas with artists about questions like frontier, displacement, migration, intervention in the natural space, exodus, nomadism, pre-history and contemporary art in the form of dialogues-cum-walks… with all these interchanges taking place in transit throughout the Iberian Peninsula.
Living as a foreigner is very challenging. Although I’ve travelled a lot for my research and residences, I’d never lived outside Brazil before. I decided to come with my whole family in an attempt to reinvent and distance myself from everything I’d done so far. I wanted a bit of time apart to focus on just one thing, which would be impossible if I was at home, with all the normal demands of life and the studio. Here in Coimbra I have this time, and I’m developing new relationships with people and with the environment while I think about the organization of my family, my children, yearning, and what it is that makes us increasingly more (or less) Brazilian. It’s not easy; the country’s going through a terrible time of destruction of affective meanings, of respectful, multicultural relationships. So being here is also about being somewhere where I can think about my identity the whole time.
7 – Have you got in touch with any Portuguese artists or the local art scene? Tell me a bit about what it’s like for an artist who has already made a name in Brazil to set off for pastures new where you aren’t yet known. It’s a challenge that could be interesting, given the pandemic-induced hiatus, because everybody is rethinking how to position themselves in a circuit that’s yet to take shape, just hoping to put an end to that insane situation. How are you dealing with all this?
When the pandemic began, I was really tense. I couldn’t see it as a challenge to be overcome, like many of my peers. I got really down when I realised that we wouldn’t be able to go back to the way things were before. The idea of the new normal, I really hate it. I used the time in lockdown, almost two years, to resignify my life. I didn’t produce hardly anything. I decided to look back, to organize what I’d done, put my website in order, review my texts, read what I hadn’t had time to read (and I haven’t finished that yet [laughs]). Doing a PhD was a long-cherished plan and one that became more achievable under these circumstances too.
I always had a good relationship with Portugal. It was here that I began to consolidate the areas of interest that continue in my work to this day. I’ve made good friends; my wife has some distant relations here. But I didn’t have the courage to leave everything behind in Brazil and take on this adventure over here. Beginning from scratch is always a big challenge and doors are opening slowly. I already have some plans for exhibitions and submissions for funding. I’ve made a lot of friends through the College of Arts at the University of Coimbra and also the great friends I already had in the country. This network of friendships is necessary and fundamental, even more so after so many restrictions. I feel like I’m coming back to life, to cultural activities, to hugs without fear of contamination, awakening to the new, the different and the foreign. And that’s really good. I’m raring to go.