Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, still from a 16-mm film transferred to color video, 13 minutes 30 seconds.

Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, still from a 16-mm film transferred to color video, 13 minutes 30 seconds.

Tamar Guimarães

Tamar Guimarães, Canoas, 2010, still from a 16-mm film transferred to color video, 13 minutes 30 seconds.

Peeking through deep green foliage, we glimpse a statue of a zaftig female figure and the cobalt-blue waters of a swimming pool near a sprawling glass-fronted building. A bikini-clad woman emerges from the pool and then languorously smokes a cigarette. The statue’s voluptuous curves contrast with the gamine figure of the protagonist, who, with her bobbed hair and deadpan face, could be a 1920s flapper. The scene shifts. Now, navy-blue-uniformed cleaning staff march around, swabbing the floors, stopping to smoke and chat. Sitting in a glass-enclosed kitchen that hums with the sounds of insects and wind-ruffled leaves are a maid and a manservant. We hear her say to him, “Let’s talk about her.” We viewers realize, with a jolt, that, like them, we have been spying.

Welcome to Canoas, 2010, Tamar Guimarães’s 16-mm film that concentrates on Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s 1953 Casa das Canoas—one of the works in the Copenhagen-based Brazilian artist’s London debut. Also shown, along with several smaller works, was the narrated slide projection A Man Called Love, 2008, and a new film, The Work of the Spirit (Parade), 2011. Guimarães’s practice, integrating film, found photographs, and elaborate research into historical archives, seeks to unearth what modernity has buried. Brazil, with its turbulent political history, has a special place in these excavations. In A Man Called Love, power, both political and celestial, mixes a strange cocktail. Black-and-white photographs (and a few in color) structure an audio documentary about the immensely popular Brazilian spirit medium Francisco Cândido Xavier. A satiny-toned voice-over explains how the psychic medium wrote more than four hundred books dictated by the dead. Convinced of his socialist principles, Xavier was nevertheless motivated by “right-wing spirits,” whose vision of an ordered Brazil, packed with rule-abiding citizens, was not dissimilar to that of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and ’70s. “Be obedient to the ones in government,” advises his chief specter, Emmanuel. Despite its poetic images, however, the piece ends up feeling like a didactic lecture from a schoolteacher.

Happily, The Work of the Spirit is more nuanced. According to accompanying text, the estate of Léonide Massine calls choreography a “work of the spirit,” but this spirit also makes monetary demands: The estate stipulates that it be involved with any restaging of the choreographer’s work. For Guimarães’s film, a sanctioned répétiteur teaches dancers from the Danish Royal Ballet in Copenhagen to perform the Ballets Russes’ 1917 work Parade—complete with stylized costumes based on Pablo Picasso’s Cubist originals. Guimarães attempts to subvert the estate’s agenda by recording the mistakes made during her reenactment, which takes place without music. Ironically, Guimarães does not pull off her seditious maneuver, because Parade’s dancers are too inelegant to be compelling. So, unfortunately, viewers are tempted to walk away before they absorb the video’s raison d’être.

Hence, on the exhibition’s opening night, I found myself returning to the seductions of Canoas, its characterization of Brazilian society uncannily familiar. We eavesdrop on a cocktail party, where well-preserved women and svelte-suited men debate, in French, the merits of Brazilian champagne (it is too sweet, they decide, and one of them thinks it too yellow), the traumas of dictatorships, and Neo-concretist Lygia Clark’s “therapeutic” installations. The glittery party dresses suggest that this scene could be taking place either in the past, sometime in the future, or right now. A garrulous, sequin-clad lady sermonizes with tipsy vigor. As she drones on, criticizing authority, we wonder at her bad faith: Is she not part of the system she is belittling? Yet, as we watch and tut-tut, sipping our own wine, we become complicit in her self-deception. Disdaining the guests at Canoas, an outsider might equally be justified in looking askance at us. This—we may feel as we put down our glasses and drift away from the opening (and the bash)—is probably just what Guimarães intends.

Zehra Jumabhoy