São Paulo

Paul Ramírez Jonas, The Commons, 2010, wood, cork, mixed media, 11' 1 3/4“ x 8' 1” x 2' 6".

Paul Ramírez Jonas, The Commons, 2010, wood, cork, mixed media, 11' 1 3/4“ x 8' 1” x 2' 6".

Paul Ramírez Jonas

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Presented in the Octagon project space at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, The Commons, 2010, is further example of Paul Ramírez Jonas’s investigations of art’s social contingency. Foregrounding the different ways in which art becomes public as it enters various zones of social contact, Ramírez Jonas typically deploys objects, sculptural installations, and “public works” to explore agency and meaning. For the 2005 “inSite_05” exhibition in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, for instance, the artist produced a situational, research-based project, Mi Casa, Su Casa (My House, Your House), which took the form of public talks on the social, spatial, and political frictions of the contested Mexico-US border—focusing on the real and symbolic function of keys, locks, and doors. Audience members were invited to provide a copy of their own house key in exchange for a key designed by the artist, an artifact of social exchange. For the 2008 São Paulo Bienal, Ramírez Jonas produced Talisman, wherein, upon signing a contract, visitors could exchange a key of their own for a key to the Bienal exhibition space after hours.

The most direct precursor for The Commons may, however, be Publicar (which means “to publish” or “to make public”), produced in 2009 for the Seventh Bienal do Mercosul in Brazil: In place of a plaque, the artist affixed a corkboard with pushpins on the face of a large granite stone, generating an anti-monument that memorialized, so to speak, the active participation of the public, who used the board to post messages. The Commons (originally presented at Alexander Gray Associates in New York) is likewise fabricated from cork, but it alludes to another kind of monument, an ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, whose original is displayed in the Palazzo Nuovo in Rome; a replica stands outdoors in the Piazza del Campidoglio nearby, and another has been erected at Brown University, which the artist attended as an undergraduate. Ramírez Jonas subtracts the human figure, presenting a rider-less horse, subtly inviting public engagement. A cork pedestal with pushpins invites visitors to attach written messages (as with Publicar), and the accumulated items were sent to the artist by the museum after the show ended.

Within the context of the Pinacoteca’s project space—whose programming is organized by the institution’s chief curator, Ivo Mesquita—The Commons took on a new kind of (public) life. High ceilings, natural light, and multiple viewing levels made for a welcoming gathering place (the Octagon is the architectonic core of this place), one quite different from its gallery installation. Furthermore, the work’s reference to Roman antiquity resonated in a city that still shows the influence of the many Italian immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century, and its questioning of the normative ideological-historical force of traditional civic monuments was amplified by the Pinacoteca’s status as the official museum of the state of São Paulo. The work here reflected the ways in which any museum is at once public and private, and that the people who visit these institutions are audiences, constituencies, and cultural tourists, among others—publics and counterpublics, to invoke Michael Warner’s terms. By inviting visitors to post messages, Ramírez Jonas generated a temporary, mutating, polyvalent constellation of distinct subjectivities and symbolic coauthorship and playfully tested the extent to which a state institution can function as a commons. When I visited, the pedestal was brimming with notes; perhaps this project is fundamentally about exploring the characteristics of the kind of participation that can take place within the museum (a particular sort of cultural commons, where social participation is governed by and contingent upon permission, both artistic and institutional), which may be discoverable only upon reading the visitors’ public inscriptions.

Joshua Decter