PRINT September 2020


THIS PAST SUMMER, Clara Ianni was set to open a solo exhibition ahead of the postponed Thirty-First São Paulo Bienal—a show now lost to history. It is an unfortunate, if oddly appropriate, fate for the artist, whose work in sculpture, video, and performance focuses on episodes forgotten and repressed in Brazilian history. The video Forma livre (Free Form), 2013, for example, tells the story of a little-known episode in the construction of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília, when, in 1959, state police massacred a hundred striking workers. Like much of Ianni’s work, that piece reveals the intimate enmeshment of the aesthetic forms of liberal democracy—here, the modern utopian capital city—with the state violence that is its very undoing.

Her most recent work, Repetições (Repetitions), 2017–18, is a video shot in a black-box theater inhabited by a single actor. It’s an appropriate setting for Ianni, who has long had a fascination with the political entanglements of theatrical form: For an artist concerned with forgotten histories, that of theater might be the most forgotten of all, subsumed by radio, cinema, and television. Yet theater, she recognizes, is also an exceptional site of political sublimation. Through its varied history, the medium has transformed in accordance with the hidden mandates of political representation—from the royal edicts of the proscenium stage to the liberalism of theater in the round, from revolutionary Brechtian didacticism to the liberatory dreams of immersive spectacles. When Ianni’s art engages the subjects of theater, particularly those associated with liberalism and freedom, it does so skeptically. By situating her work in theater’s arena of political claims, Ianni exposes the failures of those claims, which are indicative of the contradictions inherent to liberal politics.

Clara Ianni, Repetições (Repetitions), 2017–18, HD video, color, sound, 23 minutes. Izaias Almada.

Immersion has long been said to activate audience members as participants with agency beyond mere spectatorship. In the 1960s, for instance, the yippies staged their performances in public spaces and interacted with onlookers in an attempt to merge theater and protest. Ianni’s Volumes Táticos: Objeto nº 1 (Tactical Volumes: Object no. 1), 2010, is a sculpture consisting of a wall of gray cement bricks set on a wooden dolly. Slightly taller than its width at five and a half feet high, the sculpture is roughly humanoid in its proportions. When installed, it can be freely wheeled around the exhibition space and positioned to constrict movement or block artworks, creating barriers as arbitrarily as it removes them. When it was shown in 2010 at the annual exhibition at the University of São Paulo, it sometimes obstructed the work of other students. With its convenient dolly, the sculpture also resembles a stage prop—or, metaphorically, the liberated spectator of immersive theater, who is free to walk around the performance. Yet in its freedom to do anything, Ianni’s sculpture actually does nothing: a potent reminder that some conceptions of freedom are intrinsically flawed.

Clara Ianni, Volumes táticos: objeto nº 1 (Tactical Volumes: Object no. 1), 2010, cement bricks, iron, wood, wheels, 66 7⁄8 × 59 × 23 5⁄8".

Repetitions considers the art of Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal. Active from the ’50s to the ’90s and celebrated for his attempts to develop techniques that rewire theater into an engine of political change, Boal famously developed a technique he called the Theater of the Oppressed. One of the director’s earliest pieces is Arena conta Zumbi (Arena Tells Zumbi, 1965). Staged by Boal at São Paulo’s Teatro de Arena shortly after Brazil’s 1964 military coup, the play tells the story of Quilombo dos Palmares, a society of people who had fled slavery in northeastern Brazil, and its residents’ struggle against Portuguese rule in the 1690s. The performance—intended as an allegory for the military regime—was collectively authored: The actors, all of them white, cycled among roles as narrators, formerly enslaved people, and royal Portuguese forces.

In its freedom to do anything, Ianni’s sculpture actually does nothing.

For Repetitions, Ianni invited Izaias Almada, an actor at Teatro de Arena in the ’60s, to re-create a performance of Boal’s play. The camera lingers on Almada’s hands and body, emphasizing his physicality as a reminder of the torture inflicted on Almada’s generation. Yet Ianni revisits the play’s history with ambivalence. For Almada, the play is about supposedly universal ideals of freedom: Arena Tells Zumbi draws a direct line from the violence inflicted by slavery to the repressive political violence of the Brazilian military regime. But as the white actor sings the slavery-derived songs that structured the play, something else becomes clear: The narrative overidentifies a white political stance with the historical struggle of Afro-Brazilians. Despite the radicalism of Arena Tells Zumbi, the performance reinscribes the plasticity of Blackness as a site for white reflectivity; Repetitions, in turn, ultimately discloses the racial contradictions of this supposedly radical ’60s theater of liberal protest, which relied on histories of anti-Black violence to preserve a liberal conception of freedom.

Clara Ianni, Repetições (Repetitions), 2017–18, HD video, color, sound, 23 minutes. Izaias Almada.

If Boal’s strategies of collective participation couldn’t conceal their internal contradictions, Ianni’s work also points to the ways in which simpler forms of theatrical presentation can be weaponized. The video installation Circulo (Circle), 2016, consists of footage Ianni shot in São Paulo during the 2014 protests of the egregious misuses of public funds to build new soccer stadiums for the World Cup. Ianni recorded the video, which is just over nine minutes long, with a handheld camera from within a group of demonstrators tightly encircled by police. Gradually, the police shrink their perimeter, forcing confrontations as protesters attempt to escape the enclosure before mass arrests are made.

This counterinsurgent technique is derived from a German police tactic known as the Hamburger Kessel. Shortly after its first formal deployment in Hamburg in 1986—which resulted in more than eight hundred arbitrary arrests for supposed violations of the German Assembly Act—courts ruled the Hamburger Kessel illegal. Yet this hasn’t stopped its spread as a crowd-control tactic by police worldwide. In the United States, the practice is called kettling; it was used by the New York Police Department as recently as this summer against Black Lives Matter protesters.

Clara Ianni, Círculo (Circle), 2016, still from the digital-video component (color, sound, 8 minutes 28 seconds) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising wall text and demarcation tape.

Circle is a harrowing video that telegraphs the claustrophobic panic of being kettled. It is shown on a flat-screen monitor; roughly five feet away, at optimal viewing distance, thick white tape demarcates a circle on the floor. Printed on the wall next to the monitor is text from a 1986 German police manual describing the tactic. The text is slightly too small to be legible to a viewer while standing within the circle; one must step outside the perimeter to read it. By abstracting the shape of the Hamburger Kessel into the exhibition space, Ianni emphasizes its affinity to theater in the round, which posits encircling as a form of democratic spectatorship, inviting viewers to construct individual meanings. In the Hamburger Kessel, though, the police seize the position of spectator, granting themselves the ultimate authority to determine innocence, guilt, and the limits of speech.

Repetitions was made in the aftermath of the coup that removed President Dilma Rousseff from power, which, in turn, sparked a chain reaction that has led to the current hard-right Jair Bolsonaro regime. With Brazil, and much of the West, continuing to repeat the rhetoric and effects of twentieth-century fascism, Ianni’s work offers a compelling reminder that autocracy thrives amid the failures of liberalism itself. Until our politics resolves the internal contradictions of liberal democracy and its attendant aesthetic forms, we will continue the slow slide into fascism that has inaugurated this nascent century.

Giampaolo Bianconi is a writer and curator based in New York.