Sergio Vega, Modernismo Chamánico (Cathedral-Pineapple-Bossa Nova), 2016, digital print on paper, paint, record player, vinyl. Installation view. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

Sergio Vega, Modernismo Chamánico (Cathedral-Pineapple-Bossa Nova), 2016, digital print on paper, paint, record player, vinyl. Installation view. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

Sergio Vega

Sergio Vega, Modernismo Chamánico (Cathedral-Pineapple-Bossa Nova), 2016, digital print on paper, paint, record player, vinyl. Installation view. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

For his third solo exhibition at Galleria Umberto Di Marino, Sergio Vega created a complex network of incongruous elements that was already suggested by the show’s title: “Shamanic Modernism: Parrots, Bossanova and Architecture.” The gallery was transformed into a unique environmental installation comprised of images, sounds, architecture, and elements of nature. In recent years, Vega—working with ruthless irony—has retraced a particular paradisiacal mythology that emerged during South America’s colonization. Many early European explorers interpreted the book of Genesis to suggest that the region was a manifestation of the Garden of Eden, a thesis corroborated by the extraordinarily lush nature of these balmy zones.

This theory also served as the inspiration for El Paraíso en el Nuevo Mundo (The Paradise of the New World), 1656, written by Antonio de León Pinelo, a Spanish explorer and historian of the West Indies. In 1999, Vega organized a trip to retrace the journey into the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso described in the book. Vega, in turn, kept his own detailed travel diary, in which he recorded his observations on the region’s history. Using these musings as a point of departure, the artist wove his reflections on art together with thoughts about urban planning and architecture in a South American reality that perennially hovers on the thresholds of present and past, sublime and modern, form and function, reality and artifice.

In doing so, Vega pushed beyond the reassuring appearance of a colorful and captivating surface and focused on the lacerations and contradictions that afflict an entire continent, a clashing web of tribal legacies and technological accelerations, favelas and poorly planned megalopolises. Throughout the show, Vega completely sidestepped an aesthetic approach to planning. In his text “Modernismo Tropical,” written in 2000, the artist described this strategy as producing a neo-Baroque and folkloric version of Western rationalism through which architecture, always searching for new trends, can embrace shamanic strategies: “In the near future we may come to see a bizarre array of organic buildings that acquire the status of natural specimens. Parrot color-chart architecture, banana-shaped institutional buildings, pineapple churches, crocodilian houses, snake promenades, toucan theaters, orchid subway stations, etc.” Vega thus conveys varying approaches in a polysemic project whose “paradisiacal” dimension, though European in origin, also encounters the typically Brazilian spiritual practices of shamanism. This isn’t all. The searing short circuit between the capitalist maneuverings of a modernist program imposed by a centralized power and the crumbling drift of the peripheral zones is marked by an endemic functional anarchy, tied to the cannibalistic and anarchic reuse of what existed there before.

The pivotal work in the show was Modernismo Chamánico (Cathedral-Pineapple-Bossa Nova), 2016 (an earlier version of which was exhibited at the Museu de Arte do Rio in 2013). Propped against the gallery walls—and painted gaudy shades of yellow reminiscent of the Brazilian flag—album covers of bossa nova records (a genre rooted in the cariocan tradition) alternated with black-and-white photographs of modernist architecture and a series of detail shots of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Brasília, whose characteristic hyperboloid form was designed by Brazil’s most famous modernist, Oscar Niemeyer. A three-dimensional scale model of the building, attached to the turntable of a record player, spun continuously.

The coexistence of chaos and order became a clear theme, exemplified in “Social Landscape,” 2016–, a series of black-and-white photographs overlapped by colored cardboard rectangles in various sizes. Depending on the dimensions, the cardboard sometimes obscured the underlying images, almost as if Vega were trying to negate them. In some of these works one could just make out favelas; in others, the chaos of the shacks was mitigated by the orderliness of the cardboard’s abstract geometries, such as in Social Landscape (Tutti-Frutti), 2016. Finally, in “Interventions on a Book,” 2016, a series of collages utilizing the same strategy, the artist intervened on the ready-made pages of the classic tome Brazil’s Modern Architecture with superimposed objects, photos, drawings, and applications of paint creating dissonant and unexpected thematic and figural associations.

Eugenio Viola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.