Rio de Janeiro

Sonia Andrade, Naufrágio (Shipwreck) (detail), 2019, mixed media, 70 7⁄8 × 47 5⁄8 × 24".

Sonia Andrade, Naufrágio (Shipwreck) (detail), 2019, mixed media, 70 7⁄8 × 47 5⁄8 × 24".

Sonia Andrade

Galeria Athena

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1935, Sonia Andrade was part of the first generation of Brazilian video artists. Under the country’s military dictatorship, these artists worked with limited means and congregated around the practice and theoretical training of Anna Bella Geiger, whose own ambitious retrospective at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo coincided with this succinct but powerful survey of nearly five decades of Andrade’s work. Together, the two shows provided a more complete picture of the creative production within a cohort of artists who developed their work in close collaboration. (Incidentally, one of Andrade’s videos from the ’80s on display at Galeria Athena had been filmed with the same equipment, and even on the same day, as one of Geiger’s works.)

Titled “O lugar a que se volta é sempre outro” (The Place of Return Is Always Some Other Place), this exhibition was also a testament to Andrade’s ongoing creative vitality, with a new installation, Naufrágio (Shipwreck), 2019, presented in the large and otherwise empty main hall. A dramatically lit standing vitrine resembling an aquarium offered a selection of old Japanese porcelain tableware that belonged to the artist’s family. Whole, fragmented or recomposed, the porcelain seemed to float—maybe emerging, or maybe about to sink—on a sea of small glass shards. The title of the exhibition, taken from a poem by Álvaro de Campos, one of the many “heteronyms” of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, provides clues as to how one might interpret the piece, picking up on several key ideas in Andrade’s work: the survival of memory, art’s ability to fix or rewrite the past, the possibilities for even the most banal of everyday objects to embody a kind of biographical record that is at once very personal and nonetheless resonates with the spectator’s own experience.

In that sense, Naufrágio relates thematically and formally with . . . às contas ( . . . The Bills), 2019, another new installation, not on view here, that debuted last summer at the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro. The artist collected utility bills from the past five decades and hung them from strings under similarly theatrical lighting, so that they appeared suspended in an otherwise empty space. Functioning partly as markers of time, tracing the continued survival of the body and mind, and partly as delicate memento mori, both these recent works explore the same desire to register one’s existence that could be perceived in the series of vignettes presented in the video A morte do horror (The Death of Horror), 1981, on view in Galeria Athena. Here Andrade uses different artifacts and props to illustrate ideas such as “action,” “silence,” or “illumination” in ways that simultaneously underscore and resist the fragility and impermanence of the female body itself.

Now, nearly forty years later, in Naufrágio and . . . às contas, Andrade obscures her physical presence, or, rather, hides it behind objects (family heirlooms, impersonal bills) that speak of the human condition but nevertheless bear witness to the continuous and coherent autobiographical character of her work, leaving no doubt that Andrade is still very much among the living.