São Paulo

View of “Artur Barrio,” 2014.

View of “Artur Barrio,” 2014.

Artur Barrio

View of “Artur Barrio,” 2014.

Nine photographs offer minute visual variations on the same location: a marshy environment inhabited by things both natural and man-made. Given the images’ tight framing, we see no horizon line, only the water’s surface, unbroken except for a boat, a pail, and ducks swimming among the reeds. Subtle shifts in framing are matched by a shift in color: The four images in the top row are black-and-white in tone (though they are color prints), while the remaining five, hung below, display a less limited range of hues. A string was stretched between the two sets of images, with the spool from which it unfurled hanging on the adjacent wall. Across from the photographs, one saw a monitor displaying a video in long shot, which reveals that this watery place abuts a stretch of barren land.

Turning the corner into the gallery’s main space, visitors encountered the title of this installation by Artur Barrio, “em algum ponto da Terra.” (Somewhere on Earth), 2014, handpainted on the wall. Apparently we were not to know where this somewhere is. The core of the exhibition included a pile of logs with an open umbrella suspended above it, fourteen photographs, two videos, and then more logs, stacked vertically, blocking the second entrance. A single final piece of timber seemed to have pierced the back wall, leaving plaster chips on the floor in its wake. The central horizontal pile included some one hundred logs, each with an end carved to a point, evoking an oversize pencil. It was as if these log-pencils were meant to write through the thick lines traced along the floor, walls, and ceiling. Far from straight, the lines curved and meandered, contrasting with the rectilinear edges of the floor’s cement and granite plates. The visual effect was of a grid run amok. All the while the suspended umbrella swiveled back and forth with the movements of the air.

Painted three times vertically toward the back entrance was the word ODAEMOFSE, which, when reversed, spells esfomeado (hungry). In 1965, filmmaker Glauber Rocha proposed an “aesthetics of hunger” as a uniquely Brazilian form of visuality in the face of dominant modes of film production. Visual artists also shared this ethos, among them Barrio, who declared his works to be “momentary situations” using “perishable materials.” Such a courting of precariousness against pristine order and refined technology also permeated this exhibition, in which the artist nevertheless deployed video and photography to frame the slight shifts of an ecosystem. The two videos on display represent the same marshland as the fourteen photographs, homing in on the birds and the shore, which glistens depending on the light and time of day, seeming at once natural and artificial. Yet what is this mise-en-scène all about, drawing attention, as it does, to the environment without naming contemporary ecological crises?

Perhaps the real clue was a passage of text painted on the wall. Despite its ellipses, brackets, and erasures, one could still read, in Portuguese, THE CANNIBAL DREAM, THE INERT VIRGINAL SHEET OF PAPER, THE TIGHTROPE WALKER, THE THREAD OF ARIADNE. Ariadne’s thread resonated both literally and conceptually in Barrio’s exhibition. The myth suggests an exhaustive problem-solving process that unfolds within a given set of available outcomes. Strewn along the floor, two threads ending in spools limned an erratic and abandoned route. The threads prompted viewers to enter the artist’s conceptual maze: Where and what is this place, this somewhere on Earth?

Kaira M. Cabañas