PRINT September 2013


Carlito Carvalhosa’s Waiting Room

Carlito Carvalhosa, Sala de Espera (Waiting Room), 2013, telephone poles, steel bolts. Installation view, Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo.

AT FIRST GLANCE, it looked as if something terrible had happened: an environmental disaster, a result of global discombobulation. As if a whole forest of trees had been uprooted by the force of winds and dropped pell-mell into the newly renovated building, which would therefore require another round of reconstruction. As if Mother Nature, in her fury, had submitted Father Culture to the wrecking ball, delivering a reply to arrogant Architecture thus: If you model the columns of your hall on the trees of my forest, I will use those trees against you and level your hall with them; if you think you can do me one better with your mastery, I shall do you one better with my anarchy. I will show you that I am more powerful than you are; I shall bring down your white-walled temple of Art.

But wait. Those trees are not trees, at least not anymore; they are, or were, telephone and electrical poles that used to connect place to place. Though they lie every which way, none of them upright, neither roof nor wall has caved in; ceiling, floor, and load-bearing columns remain intact. Instead, the discarded poles, made of eucalyptus trees stripped of their bark, have been salvaged by Brazilian artist Carlito Carvalhosa, hauled to the original annex of the current site of the University of São Paulo’s Museu de Arte Contemporânea (MAC), and installed there via forklift. Holes have been cut in the pristine white walls of the new gallery space to accommodate some of those poles, in the meantime showing those interior partitions to be of flimsy plaster and drywall. And those poles have been knotted together and tied with rope to some of the white plaster pillars of that gallery space, then fixed in place with heavy-duty, clearly visible screws, bolts, and metal cord—all on the basis of careful designing by way of drawings and an architect’s model. And all for the inauguration of a new gallery space at MAC, in a landmark building originally designed in the 1950s by Brazil’s premier modernist architect, Oscar Niemeyer, as an agriculture pavilion in Ibirapuera Park (São Paulo’s Central Park). For most of its life, until it reopened as a museum in 2012, this structure was the home of DETRAN, the state transit department. Sharing space (upstairs, as one looks down upon it) with Mauro Restiffe’s haunting series of large black-and-white photographs showing the annex in the process of being renovated, the installation is called Sala de Espera, or Waiting Room.

So what are we waiting for? For the next urban-transit train to stop in this in-transit space? For Niemeyer’s building to reopen, which it has just done? And what happened here, exactly? Was it a Happening that happened? Is it a work of site-specificity according to terms North Americans might recognize? Or is it a kind of non-site, à la Robert Smithson? Is it “sculpture in the expanded field”? Indeed, the piece bears a passing family resemblance not only to Brazilian Neo-concretism but also to work as diverse as that of Giuseppe Penone, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra (other Carvalhosa installations, such as the airy “nontissue tissue” Sum of Days, installed in the central atrium of the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2011, or the sensuous Shift, shown at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery in 2012, could be dubbed “soft” Serras, feminine “torqued ellipses”), Dan Flavin (those same earlier installations featured fluorescent light tubes), Christo, and even Gego (though in this case a very large and heavy—not to mention masculine—Reticulárea indeed). Other Carvalhosa works share a distant kinship with Rachel Whiteread’s inversions of buildings and spaces. And a performance will have happened here, as it often does in Carvalhosa’s installations—perhaps that is what we are waiting for—so does that mean that it’s an example of performance art, and that the process of installing the installation was itself part of the performance? Is it Conceptual art? (There clearly are some concepts at work here, having to do with deforestation and urban space.) Is it institutional critique? After all, it speaks to the institutions of modernist architecture, art museums, renovations, and openings.

Of course, it is clearly a work of installation art, which will be dismantled after the exhibition is over. (So it may very well be that what we are waiting for is its dismantling, and for the next installation to take place: The title of the work speaks to its temporariness.) What the installation accomplishes, however, is something a little different from the usual logic of site-specificity. Its timing is site-specific, yes, but the features of its site that it opens up for consideration are general in all their phenomenal particularities: namely the experiential interactions between light and shadow; space, time, and materiality; perspective and movement; tactile detail and optical view; presence and absence. Then there is the disparity between the literal and the allusive, to say nothing of the elision of such categories as load and support, inside and outside, process and product, nature and culture, the white cube and its contents.

As one enters the space of the annex, one has a kind of prospect of the whole, a massive tangle in which the dark-brown, organic roughness of wooden poles and the fabricated white smoothness of walls and columns seem to be opposed to one another. Stepping inside the installation, one senses a perspective opening up, with lines of sight fleeing orthogonally into the distance of the long hall, interrupted by a crisscrossing welter of fallen beams, which serve to underline, by contrast, the perspectival ordering of the view. And then, as one begins to move through the space and time of the installation, one starts to experience a multitude of aspects that undermine the apparent rationalism of the pure geometry of modernist architecture and of perspective itself. Time slows and attentiveness grows. One becomes aware that there are areas of density and sparseness, crowdedness and openness, that affect the rhythm of one’s looking and moving through the space. One realizes that one must duck one’s head and sidle around obstructions. One becomes conscious of the impossibility of counting the number of poles that are in the space, because of the way the poles cross over and under one another, and are enmeshed in groups that reach into each other, the very complication of the grouping and length of the poles making it difficult to keep track of where one set begins and another ends. Clumped around columns (though not all of the columns), from certain angles the poles seem to defy gravity and rational explanation as to what supports what. Up close, their details invite touch—and here touch is not forbidden, nor could it be even if the museum so wished. And then the diverse grain of the wood, its rotting and splintering and notching here and there, the rusted metal tags and labels and fixtures left as they were found, all begin to intrude upon one’s consciousness, as does a mindfulness of the practicalities of bolting things together and making holes in walls. In a sense, the visitor to this installation undergoes a process that is the reverse of the artist’s, apprehending the particular after the general effect, the fragmentary process after the finished whole product, rather than the other way around.

And then associations begin to gather: A looming protrusion of wood seen in sharp perspective suddenly recalls effects of radical foreshortening found in quattrocento painting such as Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, while the wooden poles and their original tying together (visible in photographs from the installation at its opening, before bolts replaced the ropes) begin to suggest the appurtenances of martyrdoms, even the raising and lowering of (wooden) crosses, minus the human saint or the figure of Christ. Forests of trees have been sacrificed instead, in some animistic rite. (Another compelling example of this was the 2010 Roteiro para Visitaçao [Road Map for Visitation], with its suspended indigenous pink-peppercorn tree and the same telephone poles from Waiting Room, installed in Salvador’s Palácio da Aclamação, also an in-transit space.) Indeed, some of the poles in Waiting Room seem to levitate, as if a kind of transfiguration or metamorphosis were about to occur. Upstairs, having traversed the hall, one looks down upon the whole again, this time from a variety of angles and a noli me tangere distance, and all of a sudden one feels a kind of transcendence of the materiality below and the phenomenological experience that one has just undergone. Perhaps it is this transcendence for which we have been waiting. . . .

If so, it is a different transcendence than the “presentness is grace” that Michael Fried famously applied to the Protestant modernism of the North American tradition. The associations suggested above are with Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, and the latter will be enhanced in the drumming performance that will have taken place inWaiting Room by the time this essay is published. (Live and recorded sound is often an integral part of Carvalhosa’s work, as in the accompaniment to Sum of Days in New York and its prior incarnation asA Soma dos Dias at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo in 2010, which included piano performances by Philip Glass and others as well as recorded elements.) This particular association with religiosity, which can be found in Carvalhosa’s earlier works, especially those that feature the floating white “nontissue tissue,” with its allusions to spectral winding-sheets, Veronica’s Veil, and mystical etherealization (the 2008 Apagador [Eraser] in Salvador’s Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia is the most obvious example) marks it as local to Brazil—or at least to the Southern Hemisphere, inasmuch as this sensibility is tied to hybridized religions that link Africa to South America. If there are two versions of the recent, much-touted shift toward globalization in the contemporary art world—one in which the mainstream of the European/North American tradition colonizes the rest of the globe, and the other in which a dispersed, centerless, heterogeneous, and heterochronic world has begun to displace that old single stream with its polyphony—Carvalhosa’s work represents the latter model. That is what we see in the fractured, diversified perspective of Waiting Room. And it is that for which we wait, as we wait for the next train to arrive, and for the space and place to change into something and somewhere else.

Carol Armstrong is a professor in the department of the history of art at Yale University.