Tunga, Xifópagas capilares (Capillary Siamese Twins), 1984. Performance view, Kanaal Art Foundation, Kortrijk, Belgium, 1989. Photo: Gilles Hutchinson.

LEGEND HAS IT that the Brazilian modernist master Alberto da Veiga Guignard was a guest in the house of an eminent Rio de Janeiro politician when he produced one of his best-known works, a large portrait of his host’s twin daughters, As gêmeas (The Twins), 1940. The painting is an enigmatic study in likeness and difference: The sisters wear identical dresses and similar hairdos, yet their faces remain distinct. They are linked most of all by the ornate colonial settee on which they are perched, its carved wooden swirls merging with their curls. It is an uncanny image, all the more so with the retrospective knowledge that one of the sitters was the future mother of the groundbreaking artist Tunga (full name: Antonio José de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão), whose recurrent motif of prepubescent twins connected by their hair—most famously explored in the performance Xifópagas capilares (Capillary Siamese Twins), 1984—catalyzes a series of visual, material, and fictional slippages that run through his multifaceted oeuvre. Tunga was reportedly wary of the anecdote, fearing that it might provide an all-too-easy interpretive crutch for his seductively hermetic work. Yet what if we conceive of Guignard’s painting not as a point of origin or primal scene, but as a screen or a diversion against originality per se, in which the search for meaning might be detourned rather than satisfied?

Indeed, for more than four decades, Tunga consistently worked to undermine any single interpretation of his practice by following a strikingly antidisciplinary approach, one that pulled together and reoriented diverse fields of knowledge—from the scientific to the philosophical to the mystical. By generating a string of virtuoso mythopoeic displacements, the artist explored affinities between varied strands of thought that run utterly counter to the safe manipulation of knowledge by “legitimate” specialists such as scholars, even those who claim to be experts in interdisciplinarity itself. If Tunga repeatedly appears in his own works, it is not as an authority figure or Beuysian spiritual leader but, as curator Carlos Basualdo neatly put it, as a “philosophic clown, the master of ceremonies in a circus of incarnate ideas.” Nothing could be further from the post-Conceptual tendency to turn artistic production into quasi-academic research: Although ostensibly critically oriented, the works that result from such processes are often deeply conservative in their reliance on the authority of disciplinary knowledge, presenting viewers with safely packaged and largely predetermined meaning. Tunga, by contrast, immobilizes and disconcerts viewers who cannot bear to face his works without unpacking them first.

Laminadas almas (Laminated Souls),2004, for example, might be read as an exuberant parody of scientism. In one version of the performance, the conjoined sisters of his earlier works gave way to twin male scientists, their roles performed by artists Thiago and Matheus Rocha Pitta. These researchers sat at lab benches and carefully studied fly maggots under microscopes, surrounded by the hubbub of thousands of adult flies, as nude dancers performed a dance meant to evoke the process of a larva metamorphosing into an adult insect. The brothers’ secluded position amid this chaos felt ambivalent: Did it imply scientific detachment or demiurgic transcendence? Such visions of excess are common in Tunga’s oeuvre, but so is the concision of works such as Ão, 1981, a mixed-media installation that includes a film shot in a curved section of a tunnel in Rio and then edited into a continuous loop. This endless cycle is redoubled by the actual film strip, which, after exiting the projector, runs through rollers scattered around the room, encircling viewers before feeding into the projector once again. In its spatial engagement with the mechanics of projection itself, Ão may recall structural film. But it is rather an imaginative, mathematically inflected meditation on the relationship between the film and the site of its production, with the loop of celluloid suggesting a torus-shaped hollow carved out from a twin-peaked Rio mountain fittingly named Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers). As the artist’s longtime friend and critical champion Paulo Sérgio Duarte argued, this work is the utmost example of the singularity of Tunga’s “inside out” sculptural logic, with forms that precipitate out of vertiginous relays between narrative and image. References to Brazilian Baroque art and architecture, to Lygia Clark’s “phantasmatic of the body,” and to Lacanian topologies all come to mind, and yet the work remains steadfastly resistant to the sway of influence.

Tunga’s untimely death this past June sent shock waves across Brazil and abroad, which are bound to resonate through the realm of contemporary art history as well. How the field will begin accounting for an oeuvre that is as central as it is eccentric remains to be seen. Tunga’s defiant voice may have faded, but the challenge posed by his work to the insularity of disciplinary thought remains as urgent as ever.

Sérgio B. Martins is a professor in the history department of the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro and the author of Constructing an Avant-Garde: Art in Brazil, 1949–1979 (MIT Press, 2013).