To right with a wrong
This exhibition takes the form of an imponderable combination of two quite divergent factors. First, there is a series of steel beams that rather precariously hold up two cubes and one large ring made of Carrara marble, which occupy the hall at Museu Vale do Rio Doce. Additionally, one might almost say in the absence of a suitable verb, there is the artist’s visit to Camiri, a small village in the Bolivian countryside, because of its (almost) perfect correspondence to the geographical position of the Vila Velha museum: they stand at 23 degrees from one another on the same latitude, which is the same 23 degree tilt at which the Earth spins around the Sun. The work’s open form is comprised, then, of both the very concrete sculptural operation that fills the museum space and the artist’s unpretentious yet aesthetically necessary journey to Camiri.
One of the things that makes this art criticism so notoriously difficult is its job of finding words to describe and qualify a like form that is as material as it is intangible. One’s natural inclination is to make a series of negations, to admit the incapacity of our vocabulary to deal with this kind of contemporary sculptural action. For a start, we must acknowledge, for instance, that an invisible dimension makes up an integral part of the form. And actually this is undeniably the case, otherwise the artist would not have entitled the exhibition Camiri. Yet it is also clear that the formidable action involving solid matter within the hall is designed not just to illustrate a poetic idea; it is also what it is, including all the weighty technical and aesthetic decisions involved in making it. Bearing this in mind, what might be an appropriate critical response to the artist’s trip to Camiri? It was clearly not a case of sentimental tourism, but to call it an existential adventure also seems to me a bit far fetched and anachronistic, harking to some elevated spirituality and a cry for freedom that have no place in this day and age. There is obviously something of this order imbued in the ethic of the artist’s work, but I fear that the terms adventure and existential are too culturally saturated. By the same token, a mythical solution is no answer as it is itself part of the problem. What place can personal mythologies take in the omnipotent universe of science? Even assuming that one cannot eliminate an underlying mythical dimension from human society, this still leaves intact the question of its bearing on contemporary aesthetic processes. Independent of the spiritual orientation of its author, a contemporary poetic is not distinguished by this or that mythology, or even by the greater or lesser intensity of its mythical content. After all, mythologies themselves generally end up being aesthetic choices.
Another option is to turn to Duchamp’s maxim: there is no solution because there is no problem. The sentence is good and contains a grain of truth, but it still assumes a strict, mathematical notion of problem. A critical text does not actually intend to resolve a work’s problem (which would be tantamount to sterilizing it) but rather to invigorate it, to propagate it in the stream of verbal language. The inescapable and inevitably relative task of deciphering cannot be disengaged from a given expressive strategy.
The challenge is to sustain the specific tension of this poetic enigma on the plane of critical reason while involving two such disparate moments. To try to find points of contact where they might cross or intermingle or even cut across each other’s paths. But let us see. One of the main features of the installation (reinstating for now this slightly hackneyed word) is that it almost totally prevents any free circulation in a situation where such movement would be natural and fluent. It stops it. And with the installation’s heavy elements and their mixture of the crude and the artistic, daily life and history, and despite its fragile pact with the laws of gravity, curiously enough it still makes for a very pictorial first sight. We can only contemplate it from two restricted areas and we cannot walk around it. But even so, the artist makes a journey, he takes one flight then another until he reaches the far-flung village in Bolivia. There, he takes a simple shot of what he sees before him. This photo is put together with its counterpart, also taken quite straightforwardly at a precise spot in the vicinity of the museum in Vila Velha. These two snaps complete the imaginary arch, the parabola of tilt that the work describes.
In order to avoid going on ad infinitum, let us just say for the record that the current event in Museu Vale do Rio Doce is actually part of a broader poetical plane that foretells other works that will also require the artist to travel to predestined meridians of the planet. Without wishing to raise any contention, the idea of which, in this context, is derisory from a broader social perspective, we should nonetheless note that an artistic course of this nature is inversely proportional to the phenomenon of cultural globalization; it is a discrete, fragmentary project of subjectivization, between ethics and aesthetics, employing a particular kind of behavior. Let us be clear: these days, what really makes contemporary art stand out much more than its creation of novel works or situations is the particular nature of its production experiences. And again it remains for the critic to perform the laborious task of staking out this experience without diluting it in some cultural rhetoric with a more or less politically correct tone.
Some time back, this particular production experience determined that the 23 degree tilt of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun would acquire the status of Principle of Composition for the artist. To put this dilemma in textbook terms: after Jackson Pollock’s all-over approach and the minimalist site-specific projects, ultimate, post-Cubist responses to the compositional scheme of renaissance perspective, what can be done? This artist’s felicitous solution, after starting out with the anti-illusionist serial and plane of minimalism, was to spurn them as a definitive standard. After all, everything is composition, he argues, no site is so very specific that it can abstract the rest of the planet. Under the inspiration of an ancient Persian meditation which saw the Earth’s 23 degree tilt as the reason for man’s cosmic errantry, Nelson Felix adopted a striking new random starting point ñ everything he did from then on would be predetermined by this tilt. As I see it, this is a likeable if slightly unorthodox variation on moral perfectionism: to right a wrong with a wrong.
For productive purposes, which is what counts, a surprise decision grants the artist great leeway. Everything that is unplanned, all vital and formal circumstances encounter their common denominator, a poetical catalyst. If we extrapolate this a little further, which, it would seem, is human nature, I consider the idea of this cosmic errantry a good, solid imaginary geometry: cubes and crosses, beams and rings, and the artist’s entire formal repertoire thus gain a core of reference, they start to spin in the orbit of influence of this solid errant imaginary. It was only because of this Principle, this compositional arché, that Nelson Felix could then count on his luck, that the Museu Vale do Rio Doce’s almost perfect latitude (according to the logic of generic error) virtually fell into his lap. The conceptualization of this installation then seemed to unfold effortlessly, from what I could observe. As they cut across this long, narrow hall, a sequence of parallel beams at a constant height and regular intervals (1.40 m) end up (or start, depending on your viewpoint) going through both marble cubes (90 cm) placed, one might say, in slight proximity to one another; while at the other end of the room there is another sequence of the same beams, now crossways, at a 23 degree tilt, the first of which holds up the great marble ring (2.30 m in diameter). The same force that impelled the artist to literally get his hands dirty as he turned these two marble cubes ñ one less massive than the other ñ also drove him towards Camiri. There is nothing heroic or glamorous about it ñ when one is set on fulfilling the demands of a job, this brings about a state of poetic mobilization which in turn ignites one’s spirit.
This exhibition is comprised of a substantial materiality combined with a degree of invisibility. By design, I would say, once the physical experience of the installation has been had, we are invited to journey down the imaginative space of its poetic inferences. If the aura of the word “journey” were not so clichéd, tending to invoke the pseudo-delirious or simple blunder, we might feel more at ease just to enjoy it. In actual fact, the journey to Camiri is a material albeit hidden component of the exhibition’s sculpture, another of its beams, associated to both cubes and naturally to the emblematic circular shape of the ring. The artist did actually make the journey and with a very clear purpose, but dramatizing it is not the point; it was what it was, i.e. a constituent part of the work process. If the artist had not gone to Camiri, these beams, cubes and ring might not have stayed in place. Or else they might have got stuck, become static, forgotten from the world of life. But all this only occurs to us afterwards. For as it appears in concrete terms, radiating out its presence into the museum space, this open, expansive sculpture is a stranger to nostalgia.
Published in Concerto para encanto e anel, Rio de Janeiro: Suzy Muniz Produções, 2011.