Bard Center for Curatorial Studies

As a loop of 16-mm film winds like a haunted model train around a darkened room and through a projector, the projected image shows an endless journey through a curved tunnel outside of Rio de Janeiro. It was fitting that this installation, Ão, 1981, opened the first North American retrospective of work by Tunga, because it merges seamlessly with the intricate, punning narrative that spirals through the Brazilian artist’s oeuvre. A fictional accident inside the tunnel seen in the film, for example, is woven into the network of fantastic events in one of the artist’s published texts.

Despite the importance of language in Tunga’s universe, his objects often demonstrate an aggressive materiality. Palíndromo Incesto (Palindrome incest, 199o), one of several major installations included in the show, comprises huge cups covered with garish copper leaf, circular magnets encrusted with sporelike iron filings, and loops of copper wire resembling inhumanly tough, brilliant hair. In Lagarte III (Lezarte III, 1989), metal combs direct braided or loose streams of iron and copper “hair,” which in turn reappear in ink drawings on sheets of silk intended to signify dreams. These mysterious works resemble machines for processing the human unconscious. At times, Tunga’s art also suggests a vivid embodiment of antropofagia, the Brazilian poet Oswalde de Andrade’s theory of cultural absorption. The mammoth iron bells, funnels, and goblets slathered with gel medium in Cadentes Lácteos (Milky fallings, 1994)—objects seemingly drawn together through what Tunga likes to call “mutual contagion”—might be a Morandi still life that has emerged, in transfigured form, from the belly of a giant, as if art-historical memory has been devoured and regurgitated. Other works incorporate such motifs as snakes consuming frogs, or torus-shaped bones like serpents biting their own tails.

These and other objects, especially the “Tacapes” (Clubs) and “Pentes” (Scalps), suggest the residue of mysterious acts of violence. Like the crime fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and G.K. Chesterton, Tunga’s project is marked by an obsession with the transformation of the visible into the invisible, and vice versa. Jorge Luis Borges used to maintain that the detective story belongs to the genre of fantastic literature, and in Tunga’s work the irrational, even diabolical undercurrent Borges recognized is privileged and the rational framework radically diminished. One of several performances shown here on videotape, An Experiment on Keen and Subtle Physics, 1996, uses a classic mystery device to recreate the Chernobyl disaster—a “crime against humanity resulting,” Tunga stressed in an interview, “from the logic of science.” Seven white-clad men carrying suitcases in intersecting paths down a SoHo street repeatedly collide, causing the concealed atrocity to erupt into visibility when the baggage bursts, vomiting gelatin-covered body parts.

The “Eixos Exóginus” (Exogenous axis, 1986–87) recall Surrealist objects as well as Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries.” These phallic wood-and-metal columns, which transform air into solid mass by tracing the bodily profiles of seven of the artist’s female acquaintances, point as much to the troubling status of women in Tunga’s universe as to his unorthodox approach to the art object. Among the rubber, leather, and felt works from the ’70s on display was Vê-nus, 1976, a vagina dentata–like wall-piece at once reminiscent of and radically unlike Lygia Clark’s loop-shaped nibber “Borrachas” (Rubber grubs) of the ’60s.

Tunga’s approach echoes Neoconcrete objects and performances in that it is intuitive, rooted in bodily experience, and preoccupied with endlessness and empty space. In his catalogue essay, Carlos Basualdo, the curator of this elegantly conceived show, also draws intriguing parallels to the writings of Raymond Roussel and the art of Beuys and Klein, among others. In the end, however, Tunga’s visceral, even lurid cosmology—with its baroque language games, exaggerated tropical inflection (manifested especially in the snakes that appear in various forms), and absurd logic—is a world in itself. When his labyrinthine project mirrors our own universe, the reflection is profoundly unsettling.

Kristin M. Jones