Los Angeles

Rosângela Rennó

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)

Rosângela Rennó is part of a younger generation of Brazilian women artists—Adriana Varejão, Beatriz Milhazes, Jac Leirner, and Valeska Soares—who have gained international recognition over the last few years. Among these, Rennó is perhaps the one who gives the greatest emphasis to social and political issues in her work.

In her MoCA focus series exhibition “Cicatriz” (Scar), Rennó juxtaposed two series of her work. The first is a selection from her Arquivo Universal (Universal archive, 1992–96), which consists of short texts, taken from newspapers and magazines, that refer to violence in everyday life. At MoCA, these texts, in Portuguese, Spanish, and English, were inscribed in bas-relief on the gallery walls. Although the characters in these short passages remained largely anonymous, their names having been substituted by initials “X,” “Y,” or “Z,” the viewer may recognize references to a well-known divorce scandal, a Shah’s wife, or the napalming of children in Vietnam. What is so noticeable about these carved, white, transitory inscriptions is the extent to which they function as captions to absent photographs. Without the images to accompany the written fragments, the gaps between icon and word, or the illustrative function of photographs and the descriptive features of texts, are foregrounded.

The second series of works consisted of eighteen photographs of jailhouse tattoos selected and enlarged from a São Paulo state penitentiary archive of roughly 15,000 glass negatives. It is unclear how the artist arrived at the final images, yet the resulting group was undeniably powerful. Most of the tattoos bear the scarred traces revealing an amateur, in-house piercing, and as a whole the group is vaguely romantic and nostalgic: stars tattooed on a hand, a woman over a nipple, crosses on a chest, an enamored couple on an arm. Rennó’s archive offers numerous possibilities—besides the thousands of glass negatives, it gave detailed information on the prisoners (from name and nickname to religion and skin color) that would probably reveal as much about the institution and its cataloguing system as the individuals themselves. Yet here again, through Rennó’s cropping out of the inmates’ faces, the anonymity of the “characters” is reemphasized.

Rennó’s metaphorical cicatriz refers both to the scarlike qualities of tattoos and to her technique of installing texts and photographs by surgically cutting and then inserting them into the museum walls. Yet it is the artist’s play with memory—particularly given the ephemeral nature of this installation—that most poignantly evoked scarification. Rennó has tackled the issue of social amnesia elsewhere. Her work on the trauma of public and private events may at times resemble forms of research and investigation, yet it is in fact quite speculative, poetic, and melancholic. (What could be more fated to incompleteness than a “universal archive” ?) As an aide-mémoire, Cicatriz’s seemingly perennial and lapidary inscriptions on the museum walls will have lasted little over two months.

Adriano Pedrosa