Agnaldo Farias

Essay on the work of Artur Barrio for the 29th São Paulo Bienal, 2010

For when there are no more fish in the sea

According to security guards and sector monitors working near Artur Barrio's installation at the 29th São Paulo Biennial, some visitors - not many, but enough to call attention – emerged from the work feeling seasick. Besides the strong smell of salted fish, cod to be precise, that hung in the air, the trapezoidal room seemed to sway this way and that, slinking to one side (an effect conjured by the irregular floor plan and staggered ceiling), apparently narrowing toward the back and tipping left to right, surging toward a large sunken triangle in the ceiling that jutted from a narrow base on the left toward an apex formed by the opposite wall and the back of the room. Closed with white, elastic fabric, this triangular slice filtered a diffuse light, both controlled and homogeneous, in stark contrast with the radiance pouring through the glass walls of the second floor of the Bienal pavilion, overlooking the tree canopy of Ibirapuera Park. As such, the light was toned from a warm clarity to variations of halflight declining in intensity from right to left, thanks to the different wall heights, until reaching a second, softer, lower source of light, sinking into the room from behind the elastic sheet. 

The entrance was narrowed by a horizontal board that ran along the top, lending entry to the hall the subtle sensation of submergence. Added to this was the difference in the flooring, with a switch from the grey linoleum outside the room to the light brown plywood inside. Without any attempt to hide the joints, the plywood sheets, organized diagonally, countered the perspective suggested by the refracted ceiling, with the rim of the triangle drawing the visitor's eye along its rightward slink. Later, once exploring the interior of the room, the visitor sees that these crossing diagonal lines evoke the coordinates on maps and nautical charts. Entering the room, advancing further within, the visitor finds himself dodging the shallow open crates strewn about the floor, arranged like jetsam from a sunken ship, littering the ocean bed with packages of dried, salted cod, the contents of which, one quickly learns, are the source of the pungent smell, perhaps the main culprit behind visitor discomfort: full, gutted codfish, or cod's heads, drying on mounds of rock salt. The whole thing is like sailing on rough seas, tempestuous and unpredictable, the kind of swell that sees the horizon tossed in dips and lifts, as we heave on the broken backs of broad waves, disarranging our susceptible verticality and the stability of our innards.

In this dynamic, however, one cannot overlook the role of the “tropeços” (pitfalls), the name Barrio gives to the discreet and intriguing “traps” scattered about the floor, tiny barriers of taut elastic bands, strung between nails driven into the plywood boards.

Allusions to the sea are everywhere. Besides the stench of cod, which hangs on the air as a familiar yet indiscernible smell until you suddenly stumble across one of the fish crates open on the floor, at the very entrance to the room, a cross-shaped sentence written on the joints between sheets of plywood flooring, reads:



The line resounds throughout the somber, premonitory scene, underscoring the shipwreck and the coffin-like crates. Ambling about, the visitor comes across other inscriptions and scrawls, phrases and fragmentary schemas, derived from variable logics. Starting with the artist's own name, which appears above what seems to be a record of the time he spent producing the work, beginning with 13/09/2010 12:45 and ending with 18/09/2010 12:00 17:00 hours, practically the eve of the Bienal's 21 September inauguration.

Of all the words and phrases, some more intriguing than others, but all deliberately opaque, reserving their right to mean nothing, to refuse to deliver themselves immediately to understanding – or, more fittingly, to the other's certainty –, as a line from Novalis reads in one of the artist's CadernosLivros, “Speech for the sake of speech is a liberating formula”, the phrase that draws most attention, for its sheer scale, is that written on the back of the horizontal plane fixed above the entrance to the room, and which can only be read when the visitor stands looking from the inside out:


The line above, at the same time as it comments on the theme of the 29th Bienal, chosen by myself and my colleague Moacir dos Anjos, the curators, namely the relationship between politics and art as suggested by a line of verse from the poet Jorge de Lima, “Há sempre um copo de mar para um homem navegar” [“There is always a cup of sea to sail in”], highlights the nature of the artist's dialectical thought, his way of viewing the world without claustrophobic inroads into an Aristotelian mindset that abides in layers of identity and its refusal to draw support from supposedly exterior terms.

On this aspect, demonstrating the intentional belonging-together of the sea and the city, their ontological interdependence, the artist writes:

Sea. In the distance we heard the sounds of the city, beating like a monstrous heart, and when we went closer, we saw it through the mustard-colored, dome-shaped pall, polluting the surroundings with dejecta that would later return to the womb of the city, as toxic fish.

For ...............when there are no more fish in the sea.1

As anyone who has had access to Artur Barrio's CadernosLivros will know, or indeed his manifestos or interviews - in which he delivers carefully crafted answers in writing, as if wary of the malleability of the spoken word, the ease with which it can spin out of control, veering off in unintended directions - , the artist makes liberal use of sequential dots, as if to underscore the care and precision with which he chooses his words and assembles his sentences; as if girding them with silence. Sequential dots are often associated with imprecision and indecision, but not in his case. The pause and silence reinforce what is said/written, preventing its dilution by the redundant word and pre-empting any descent into rhetoric.

An experienced sailor, the artist has always had contact with the sea, with the isolation it proffers and the silence so characteristic of this particular form of exile, either directly, while aboard ship, or indirectly, in his apartment in Copacabana, a block away from the beach. Barrio has pursued and lived with the sea, the permanent source of his interest in “the being that it is, unpredictable, chaotic, placid, un-submissive, while the city, by nature, is the product of man/society's agglomerative process, conditioning the law-lines of this same socio-pyramidal process”.2

The interdependence between these terms pervades the oeuvre of this artist, who, for many reasons, is due recognition as the first to circulate freely between poetry and the visual arts. If today there is general agreement as to the benefits of dissolving clear boundaries not only between different forms of artistic expression but also between art and other human practices, from science to ancestral rites, Barrio, in this aspect aligned with people like Flávio de Carvalho and Lygia Clark, tops the list of pioneers. Over all these years (four decades, to be precise), poetry, understood as an implacable exercise in flaying things, restoring them to a raw, skinless state – a recurrent process in Barrio's career, but most concisely and bruisingly present in his 1979 work Livro de carne [Meat Book] –, not allowing words and situations to resolve themselves like scars that abide for what they offer in terms of appeasement and deceit, has been the true motor of his work, its coursing vigor. Hence the vacuity of the task I undertake here, in trying to retain something of this polysemic, polymorphic and – in a word - indomitable nature. 

A reversibility of situations and diversity of gestures and materials runs through Barrio's work, making the transformation of institutional venues into workspaces, into his studio, as was the case at the Bienal, one of his most evident strategies. As such, as the artist himself argues, his work is never exhibited in the spaces offered for his use, but rather affronts them in a progressive occupation that begins with abrupt gestures – scraping the paint off the walls, piercing them with nails or studding them with other objects. To think that Barrio's work nestles into a given space would be tantamount to saying that a heavyweight literary narrative settles onto the lines of a page. Both seize what is given in order to make new spaces bloom. In this sense, Barrio's work never occupies a space; it is the space.

Artur Barrio's reflections/actions mangle the given structure, a structure that is not just physical, but also psychological, economic, social, etc., after all, of how many spheres is space made? They put the venue at risk, so much so that his fellow-exhibitors and/or curators and other hosts have occasionally felt moved to complain, as happened at the documenta in Kassel in 2002, when the sacks full of coffee powder he used to cover the floor not only filled the place with a pungent odor, but was walked and blown all over the exhibition, invading corridors and neighboring rooms.

Against all forms of predictability, the artist – with his external sidekick the city, invents, inside, a sea. A sea that, to judge by the clutter of flotsam and jetsam, is also an island, a cave, a city. The sea, the source of all things, including the city itself, is a creator, as the crossed words on the floor maintain, that is being slowly murdered by its own creation. Stuck to the walls, anchored by a desk/bench, a rustic piece of furniture above which a dim bulb glows from a rod, comes a misaligned series of color photos of home aquariums, combined with some genuine underwater shots. Does it really matter where they come from? The swimming-pool blue, near-strident in that deep and partial light, teems with tiny fishes and the little ornaments that adorn these portable, domestic oceans, incontestably proving our nostalgia for a world we celebrate from afar as we slowly kill it. And the proof is right there, in the lie and nature of the surrounding objects.

The photos, mostly rectangular, run left to right at mid-wall, preserving regular intervals, delimiting a low-slung, oscillating horizon, a rhythm that is summarily broken by the second-last picture, which, near the corner with the back wall, is hung differently, at a tilt, as if resting on one of its corners. The sequence continues along the rear wall, the one directly facing the visitors as they enter, and marks a high horizon, except for the last photo, which dips below the others, accompanying the slope of the ceiling, down to its lowest point. Reaching the wall on the right, the sequence descends toward a broken line drawn directly onto the wall in long slashes, conjuring the sensation of a fixed horizon pitting itself against the heights of the final photos that loom above and engulf it. The sequence ends in a drawing, a staggered downward diagonal, like a three-step ladder, each of which contributes to a tripartite phrase:

A rock from the bed

                         Of dream

                                  w / water

The images wash up on the background, like stones paradoxically sourced from the bottom of a dream. The transitiveness of the materials, the states, the elements. Which does not mean to say, affirms the artist, beating close to the paradox, that each thing does not safeguard its own condition, its irreducibility to anything else, when he completes the swell with a sequence of statements, beginning with:

A piece of:

Stone [is stone. Whatever the fragment of stone]

Repeating the same notion for carbon-iron, aluminum, steel and copper, only to then retract, as if he has thought better of the matter, or concluded that every conclusion contains its own negation.

There is agony and death in the cup of sea proposed by Barrio. Naturally, there is also solitude. The visitor circulates among crates of curing cod, with drops of fish blood caked on the floor, testifying to the fact that the gutting had been done on-site. Then there is the bloodied paper used to swaddle the rod/mast that holds the bulb. Dominating the whole final third of the room, this object stands erect, vertically tensioning the triangle of white, translucent elastic sheeting that doubles for a stretch of ceiling, forming a sort of tent. It also evokes a bellied sail, an unreal sail, as it seems to swell from below not with wind (which would be strange enough) but some improbable punctual force.

On the right, at a diagonal to the wall, and therefore in accordance with the indication written directly above it, sits a makeshift piece of furniture somewhere between a desk and a bench, a place on which to sit and be, rest and lose oneself in thought. Above it hangs a weak bulb, illuminating the tangle of nautical materials; a mull of lead weights, retainer cables – twisted and stretched –, rings, pegs, bolts, ropes of all sorts, tensioners and other objects; all useless, bundled together, just like the idle rulers, set-squares, protractors and other tools invented so that we might navigate the flooded realm of the seas, but here reduced to their material dimension, abandoned, like the fish that float there, as food adrift, condemned to suffer a second death.


1. “No hemisfério sul”, interview published in Arte & Ensaios, magazine by post-graduates in the visual arts at EBA – UFRJ, ano XV, n. 17, Dec. 2008, p. 7.

2. Idem.