Rio de Janeiro

Artur Barrio

Centro Cultural Banco Do Brasil

Although this recent retrospective of work by Artur Barrio occupied a relatively small gallery, the scale of the space did not reflect the magnitude of the work, but its nature. For the art of this Portuguese-born, Rio de Janeiro–based artist is quite difficult to showcase, spanning over a quarter of a century and consisting mostly of ephemeral works: performance pieces, installations, and public interventions. “Situacões: ARTUR BARRIO: Registro” (Situations: Artur Barrio: record), curated by local critic Marcio Doctors, comprised mainly projects and documentation of works: approximately three hundred slides, thirty minutes of video footage, thirty-five artist’s books, ten sketchbooks, five drawings, and a catalogue.

One could say that Barrio’s project shares particular concerns with the ’60s avant-garde, which questioned both art and its objecthood. But, although the work might at first be associated with North American and European Conceptual art, as well as Italian arte povera, it is in fact ingrained in a specific trajectory of Brazilian contemporary art—more particularly from Rio de Janeiro. The generation to which Barrio is often linked (Antônio Manuel, Cildo Meireles, Tunga, and Waltércio Caldas, among others) is in many ways indebted to the powerful impact of the Neo-Concrete experiments of Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica. My insistence on calling attention to such connections is not merely to trace stylistic and thematic influences, but to alert the foreign reader to the existence of other conceptual art traditions.

It is perhaps from this perspective that we may begin to understand how Barrio’s seemingly harsh, strict conceptual strategies become heavily corporeal, sensual, and visceral. Take Trouxas ensanguentadas (Bloody bundles, 1960–70), of which we are now offered only documentation. The T. E., as the artist refers to them in an ironic technical abbreviation, consisted of detritus wrapped in cloth stained with bloodlike ink. The pieces, scattered in public spaces, looked very much like packed and mutilated body parts. In a similar project from the same period Barrio scattered 500 plastic bags filled with excrement, bodily fluids, and other organic material throughout Rio de Janeiro. The background for these pieces was the early ’70s—a period during which Brazil witnessed the military dictatorship’s scariest moments. Such interventions could very well be seen as reflecting the terrorism and torture common at that time.

Following the path traced by the curator, one found Barrio experimenting time and again with other organic materials: fat, fish, meat, bread, potatoes. In the exhibition catalogue, the artist states that in his work “things are not indicated (represented); they are lived.” This is a crucial statement that defines not only the visceral quality of the artist’s experiments, but also his debt to Clark and Oiticica’s concept of “living experience.” In this sense, Livro de carne (Book of flesh/meat/beef, 1979) is quintessential. The piece, as its title indicates, is a book made of red meat, only a few pages long. In its conciseness, it evokes the complex intangibility of corporeal knowledge, which only art can mark, something at once beyond reason and textual writing, and open to numerous bodily readings. Yet the unsettling illogicality behind the soon-to-be-rotten Livro de carne, and the knowledge to which Barrio’s work repeatedly points, is that it can never in fact be read, or interpreted, let alone published—only lived.

Adriano Pedrosa