Antonio Dias (1944–2018)

Antonio Dias, Sun Photo as Self-Portrait, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 59 x 59”.

THE MORNING AFTER the opening of Antonio Dias’s 2009 retrospective at Daros, Zurich, the news broke that a fire in Rio had consumed the vast majority of Hélio Oiticica’s work. My second visit to the exhibition, one day later, was shot-through with a vivid sense of uneasiness and urgency. Dias and Oiticica were peers in one of the most defining moments of twentieth-century Brazilian art—the mid 1960s avant-garde that coalesced apropos of exhibitions such as “Opinião 65” and “Nova Objetividade Brasileira.” Yet no one knew what exactly had been lost forever to the flames. It was as if history was simultaneously collapsing and being made, as Dias’s show, outstanding as it was, had only just begun to redress his belated reception outside of Brazil and parts of Europe.

During the opening, I had clumsily asked Dias, whom I barely knew at the time, for a “signature” on the catalogue rather than an autograph. He wryly responded to my awkward choice of words by scribbling “with a signature to Sergio Martins: Antonio Dias.” Following a colon, the signature in that ironic dedicatory now strikes me as yet another of his self-portraits—an impromptu gift, indeed. Dias was always the ironist, and this is perhaps what makes his work so elusive to some. By definition, the meaning of irony is hard to pin down, which is true also from a historical perspective: Shall we think of it as the preferred trope of Romantic philosopher-poets at the dawn of modernism, as part of Dada’s iconoclastic arsenal or, more negatively, as a widespread cultural symptom of contemporary nihilism? I think yet again of Dias’s Sun Photo as Self-Portrait, 1968. Its liaison between language and image thwarts tautological thinking, documental strategies, and even technological positivism (after all, this is a tongue-in-cheek painting of photography)—all characteristic traits of then-emerging conceptual art and conceptualism.

Alternatively, take Anywhere is my land, also from 1968. Could this really be a candid embrace of internationalism by an artist who had just been expelled from France after the May uprisings? Not quite: in works like these, Dias’s English becomes the lingua franca of irony, as it were, and the dialect of a missed encounter. A language upon which various cultural, visual, and verbal idioms converge, while simultaneously failing to translate into one another. Transnationality may be yet another buzzword these days, but Dias’s trajectory and work cast the term in sharper relief due to the insistent poetic marginality he cultivated vis-à-vis the very artistic tendencies hasty critics sometimes thought he adhered to, be it Pop, Conceptual Art, or Arte Povera. I hesitate in calling it “resistance” for how hackneyed the word sounds, and yet I believe it is at the core of the striking overall coherence and cogency of such a formally varied oeuvre.