PRINT September 2006


ENTERING SERGIO VEGA’S Tropicalounge, 2002–2005, is like walking into a diorama. Designer furniture, potted exotic plants, a harmonious color code, and the sounds of smooth bossa nova create a cordial ambience that is augmented by the scent of potpourri and by the ensemble’s many interactive objects and spaces. The vivid manner in which Vega’s sculptural installation engages a visitor’s senses recalls the Tropicália of Hélio Oiticica and its legacies in the work of artists such as Cildo Meireles and Artur Barrio. But Tropicalounge is also oddly incongruous. What is one to make of the cockeyed placement of the ramshackle shanty next to the comfortable salon, or of the way in which the dilapidated dwelling evokes a magical sanctuary in an enchanted forest, or of the interpolation of the observer as colonizer aloofly surveying the social contradictions that enable the surrounding comforts? Vega’s strategy of display, especially the complex, double-edged function of everyday objects and the positioning of the spectator as both active protagonist and detached viewer, summons some of the most ambitious sculptural projects of the late twentieth century. Indeed, the distance between the structure of Tropicalounge (which was first shown at the 2005 Venice Biennale and goes on view this month in an expanded version at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston) and Martha Rosler’s Gourmet Experience, 1973, Marcel Broodthaers’s Winter Garden, 1974, or even Renée Green’s Seen, 1990, is not as great as it may at first seem, although the historical and geopolitical context that Vega addresses differs markedly from these earlier projects. Mobilizing the tactile, olfactory, auditory, and visual senses with a reflection on the social inequities that continue unabated in many parts of the globe, Vega’s Tropicalounge is at once fully participatory and poignant in its critique of modernity and of the class structure that modernity has naturalized in so many ways. —ALEXANDER ALBERRO

TROPICALOUNGE is based on a passage from my travel diary written in the late ’90s: I was walking through a shantytown in Cuiabá, Brazil, camera in hand; rocks were being thrown at me and I was followed by ferocious dogs. Basically, my attempt to document the “other” wasn’t very successful. As I made my way out of the favela toward a residential area higher on the hill, I crossed class boundaries. Suddenly, I found myself on a wide avenue of colorful high-rise buildings. The way they were arranged resembled a carnival parade. Instead of dancing to the deep beat of African drums, however, these edifices seemed to swing to the cool sound of bossa nova. Hybridity is a defining feature of the sites for my work—I’m particularly interested in the shape the universalist canon of modernism took when cannibalized by the cultures of the third world. Here I was struck not only by how the monumental presence of these structures announced the triumph of modernity in the jungle but also by the manner in which this kind of architecture employs shamanistic strategies of cross-dressing to impersonate animals or plants in order to contend with nature.

But Tropicalounge is ultimately related to an astonishing book I found in 1995 in a library at Yale, where I was a student in the MFA program. I was looking for something else altogether when I came across Paradise in the New World, written in 1650 by Antonio de León Pinelo, which theorizes that the Garden of Eden was located in South America. This tome combines theology, natural science, and myth with maps, drawings, and descriptions of paradise. It reads like magic realism passed off as scientific research—which I found particularly hilarious. Fascinated, I committed myself to a search for the actual location, which led me to the Mato Grosso state of Brazil. I’ve traveled there a number of times in the decade since. And when I’m there I write down, photograph, and videotape my experiences as I look for signs of paradise. I find these everywhere, not only in the history and in nature, but also in the culture.

In its current form, Tropicalounge is an expansion of a section of the project I presented in Venice; it also includes a piece exhibited in my show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris earlier this year, an installation of lily-pad-shaped cushions called Monet’s Piranha Soup, 2006. The overall design employs mural photography, objects, models, furniture, dioramas, and colored patterns on the walls—an ironic overlapping of nature documentary, tropical architecture, and shantytowns. Within the ensemble, there are many microsites that I pretty much leave to the viewer to discover—such as the sinuously shaped bench that allows those who sit on it to face each other as they interact, or the delightful objects and images within the vitrines. These have to do with things that happen very fast, or very slow, and which are archaic or contemporary. My hope is that viewers won’t just look but will also physically discover new possibilities in the space.

I exhibit what I find at the sites I visit—not just the objects but also what my eye captures. If a lot of what I display is kitsch, well, kitsch is something I like to re-create, even though it’s often absurd and banal, because in many cultures it functions as a form of resistance. Sometimes the vernacular in culture manifests itself through kitsch—like the readymade parrot-shaped telephone booths in Tropicalounge.

Then, too, there’s the irony inherent in these kinds of objects. Irony is one of my favorite aspects of art, and it’s central to my work in obvious ways. What’s more, there’s a dark side to this humor, because installations such as Tropicalounge grapple with otherness at the same time that they double back on the viewers as colonizers. Hopefully, the paradox of lounging on Le Corbusier–type chairs and listening to bossa nova next to the shanty with the chickens and debris won’t be lost on many viewers.

The title of the work invokes both Tropicalism and Tropicália, but it’s important to make the distinction between them. Tropicalism has a much longer history than Tropicália. It’s parallel in many ways to what Edward Said described as Orientalism, and it was pretty much a tool of colonization. Of course, constructed myths like Pinelo’s also provided an excuse to colonize and exploit these regions. From the moment Europeans arrived in the Americas, stories circulated of a new Eden waiting to be found. Many notions of this kind of promised land posit the harmony of humans with one another and with the natural environment, and—however foreign this idea seems to us today—we can learn much by interrogating the ways in which culture emerges in interpretations of nature. I’ve also been concerned for some time with the methods colonizers have used to cast the other in ways that justify the latter’s expulsion. Why do the cultures of the third world continue to be exoticized, folklorized, and presented as inferior to those in the North? To what extent and in what ways is this phenomenon supported by elements of the local population? My installations provide me with a venue in which to explore these questions, and to reflect on the social and political conditions that have brought them about.