Anna Maria Maiolino

During the five decades of Anna Maria Maiolino’s career, she has left almost no artistic medium unexplored, from sculpture to reliefs, drawing, film, and performance. Her early artistic experiments date back to the 1960s and Brazil’s artistic ferment at that time: the New Figuration movement, Neo-concretism, and New Brazilian Objectivity; she worked alongside such renowned artists as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica. Later, she was associated with various neo-avant-gardes in Europe (particularly Italy, where she was born) and the United States. Then, in 1989, after two decades of diverse work in different disciplines, Maiolino encountered clay. It was in this rough, moist material that she found her voice, which goes beyond the process-oriented and conceptual bona fides of her predecessors.

“Continuous” was the title of the exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, organized with Michael Asbury, which included a monumental site-specific installation and a careful selection of the artist’s films, all made over the past thirty years. Often featuring musicians and composers, these selected films were chosen to form connections with the work in the main gallery, their lively performances and sound counterbalancing the compulsive and repetitive organization of the clays. Several thousand pounds of raw damp clay had been hand-fashioned into hundreds of rolls and balls that were mechanically or ceremoniously classified on tables according to type. Every mold was perfectly repeated, like an entity or specimen to be studied, consumed, excreted, and showcased. Yet above all, the installation, Continuous, 2010, managed to conjure nervy mixture of chilly formal order and raw material felicity.

Even though the artist has made similar installations involving hand-produced and hand-sculpted objects in clay, as well as labor-intensive processes such as modeling and mold making, each individual project is always unique. In this case, the tabletop at the Camden Arts Centre was an exact replica reproduced from the studio of the artist, an arrangement Maiolino had not used before. She brought together a team of fifteen volunteers to help her prepare and roll the clay. The process was intense, a communal and absorbing physical endeavor, and the assistants played an integral part. As this project showed, Maiolino is a passionate advocate of opposing yet complementary categories: creation and destruction, permanence and impermanence, void and matter, ancient and modern. Over the course of the exhibition, the clay would begin to crumble, gradually desiccate, and eventually return to dust. The artist’s reflections on the transience and futility of creation were thus embodied in the clay. When I visited the show, it was permeated by an earthy fug, as though the damp clay were itself breathing. I felt as if I were visiting someone’s deathbed, knowing the body was still warm but not how much longer it would stay that way. The installation evinced an untimely conviction in the power of matter and its potential for radical change, even amid the most rigid of structures.

Cecilia Brunson