A sculpture's journey

It's all finished sculpture, as one can see at the former stables in Parque Lage, Rio de Janeiro. Sixty-eight steel beams measuring seventy-five metres in height, almost touching the roof, erected at regular one-metre-forty-centimetre intervals, occupy the length and breadth of the two large rooms. Meanwhile, a nine-tonne ring of Carrara marble measuring two metres in diameter descends, bending four of these beams, until it settles (and unsettles) about one metre off the ground near the middle of the high-ceilinged room. The ring breaks the linear sequence of vertical beams, offsetting them with its circular form and ill-defined, not to say precarious, position. And it offsets the crude, commonplace appearance of the beams with its sensitive, historically-imbued material. The sculpture takes shape between precise calculation and circumstantial data, between a long-prepared formal process and something more akin to the worksite.

By definition, any sculptural experiment must draw on two basic factors from the world of life: the transitory and the permanent. As it takes over the stable buildings, seeking to incorporate them into its form, the sculpture also gives the impression that it has just shown up. And that in due course it will leave. And so a paradox is revealed: this complete sculpture, this unique thing, is but an occurrence, a happening that cannot outlive its presentation. It can only lay claim to its wholeness because it has absorbed heterogeneous time, the disparate moments from its production process. And because it holds out against the false security of the future and its deceptive appeal. Indeed, it reserves just one response for the future: a different version of itself.

It's all finished sculpture and yet it cannot be separated from a physical and mental course, a series of poetic moves (let's settle for "moves" for the time being) which prepare it, or rather, respond to it by anticipation. Moves that fortuitously but irrepressibly lead the artist to five predetermined points on the planet. Cavalariças  – and herein lies its unmatched status – marks the end of the cycle, finishing the undertaking. All the troubling transport, all the worry and joy that came with it, is brought together in the final, albeit open, prospective, form of the sculpture. And it has to be said straightaway, even at the risk of talking nonsense: its independence, its artistic autonomy, depends precisely on the imaginative movements that preceded it. But only because grammatical restrictions prevent it from being said otherwise. If one were to detach it from logic, to hover in a mystical sphere beyond the reach of the verb, one would do it no more justice; and a psychological interpretation might be inferred, which it flatly denies.

First, by an inverse route. A sculptural experiment is neither a planned action, a project, nor an eye-catching digression; nor, indeed, is it ascesis, some kind of spiritual practice designed to lead upwards towards a work's culmination. Granted, of all these elements it has a little, but it is also quite the opposite. In contemporary times, a sculptural experiment is first and foremost a sober undertaking. Everything must be done not so much in the shadows as following the strict course by which the rationale of the sculpture's future is set, under the effect of its anticipatory force of attraction. Sobriety could be the provisional name for an operational ethic that pursues a perfect equivalence between a work's imaginary movement and its compelling, concrete form. The artist's comings and goings, at first sight inexplicable, constituted movements that were pertinent to the sculpture, moved strictly by the pressure of its immobility.

The more we experience it, as it is installed in the former stables at Parque Lage, the more we feel that there is something in its serial, repetitive movement that cannot be dissociated from circularity. It could even be seen as a long-lasting short-circuit, if such a thing were possible. One thing is for sure: the beams, in their practically infinite progression, are driven into the cement floor, not just erected on it, let alone resting on the earth. And if the ring picks up this progression, making the sculpture turn around itself and start again, the way it does so is not without its own issues, for it did not slip in amongst the beams, but quite literally took over space for itself right in amongst them in a delicate, resolute move of great deftness and concentration. And also involved a degree of unpredictability: the exact point where the downward-moving ring finally settled.

We walk again around this open object, which is part of its environment and assimilates it, and come full circle. Yet its great length invites us, nay demands us, to do it again, and again. No view can frame the whole: it escapes us because of its length, it takes us round in circles because of the massive ring. We are being drawn in to experience a sculpture in action. And it is precisely because this is a purposeless, gratuitous, poetic action that it is left all responsibility for coming into being. If a work is to deserve being called a sculpture, it must meet its fate unequivocally.

From the outsider's viewpoint, the process of constructing the work, from Camiri to Cavalariças, could not seem more baffling. For a start, there are the different planes it moves in, mixing behaviour and thought, chance and determination, anxious waiting and serene contemplation. Ultimately, overlapping art and life. From the viewpoint of the sculpture's abstract time, everything was actually moved by the impetus of its form: the artist was left, primarily, with the exacting task of staying aware, on kilter, in creative contact with its development. Which, in a word, meant work, as evidenced, unsophistically, by the restless drawings produced while Camiri was in the process of being assembled, at a time when Nelson Felix was already under the influence of the future sculpture. Hurried, sharp, lucid, yet in turmoil, these drawings search for the form of the sculpture and drive the artist towards it. But they also work the other way round, holding it back, keeping it on paper, stopping it from taking form prematurely.

Without overstretching the causal nexus, it might yet be inferred that the labyrinth of these drawings, their logical web, contains the kernel of the succinct, rectangular form that marks the course to be taken. Unswerving lines from point to point, from Camiri to the Caribbean sea, then on to the China sea, then the Australian Outback. The idea, once conceived, was then developed through the study of maps to subsequently, under the impulse of a latent, invisible form, take effective action, the act of sculpting. Initially, one and just one decision had to be taken: following the classic concept of sculpture at a distance – the extraction of matter from a block of stone – the movements were subtractions, mounting exercises in abstraction. To make in order to unmake – to sublimate accumulated symbolic matter, the inert matter of life, to activate the sculpture through the healthy and effective gesture of stripping away. For instance, one assumes for a start that the two smaller marble rings seen at the Camiri assemblage nestled within the inner surface of the large ring - the same one now at Parque Lage - were to be left behind, abstracted, at specific sites on the Caribbean coast. Two snapshots record these unprepossessing yet significant events. Far from being great statements, they must be taken for what they are: steps towards the future sculpture.

 Meanwhile, the journey to Dong-Sha island, in the China sea, took place under a sense of awe: the small island, noted the artist, had the emblematic form of a ring. Which then inspired him to work an exquisite marble ring, 43 cm across and no thicker than his ring finger. Having reached the island, after navigating a seemingly endless sea of red tape, the mission was simple - to leave the precious ring on the beach. Somewhat heavy-hearted, truth be known. But freedom from attachment is the ground rule for the ethics of the work. And even more so here, for it is the structural procedure – to strip off every last excess, to release, to distil, the sculpture's material form. Which is not always so straightforward. Once, in a desert in Australia, at a loss in the midst of the vast emptiness, Nelson Felix set off walking backwards and forwards between the 22 iron rings commissioned for the occasion and the one marble ring he had taken from Brazil. But once cast away, the pieces reacted, as if awakened by the desert energy – to which the artist, in improvised response, set about organizing and reorganizing them in successive variations. Everything would suggest that the demon of minimalism – composition – was back, laying claim to its contemporary rights, leaving the sculptor no choice but to dispel it in an exhausting and ephemeral compositional experience. Finally, the programme was finished, the pieces were left to the desert, and just three or four snapshots were taken from a great distance to mark the ordeal. However, interestingly, of all these movements, it was this that revealed the heart of the question: the sculptural conflict between what is contingent and what is permanent.

If it was to bring to a close the inevitable yet arbitrary rectangle spanning the world, harking to the recurring figure of the circle, the work could not stop. It would be too easy, too symmetrical. Even at the outset the sculpture, the lines connecting the far-flung points, once extrapolated, hinted at a fifth, random, errant point, rising upwards, almost mid-air, to complement it: Hekla volcano in Iceland. It was standing before this, now quiet and pensive, that Nelson Felix looked towards Parque Lage, the future and starting point.

It's all finished sculpture, and ultimately everything counts in the process of bringing it into being. The Cavalariças experience would be autonomous, immanent, independent of the narrative of the poetic moves that preceded it. Yet they were imperative, indispensable: positive agents of the sculpture's form. As I see it, in two important senses. First, they give the work a sensible past to be incorporated. Its notorious tendency to keep on going forwards, to repeat ad infinitum, would inevitably come up against its counterpart. There can be no question, the dominant geometric figure is the circle - the seriality here obeys a cyclical order that is certainly not wending towards a supposedly peaceful infinity. Even so, what might be lacking in this sculpture is an invisible lifeblood, the eventful memory of a past to provide some tension, to give it some substance. It was this that gave rise to the tiny, crucial decisions taken along the way in the artist's unswerving effort, in his conviction, to visualize the sculpture. Everything that was made and deliberately unmade contributed to the finished form, making it perfect. By which I mean the right form for its insoluble problem.

In another sense, the poetic actions that preformulated it opened up the sculpture to the future, in that they were not from the environment in which it is presented. A work that is constructed of moving, displaced elements can take the liberty of combining them indefinitely. His rings, with their vocation for interchange, appear and reappear in different situations. And even when they do disappear, the phenomenon in question is singular. Because they actually disappear into the sculpture: in latency, they lie in wait for the next one.

On confirming it, in the middle of the journey, a new task was already urgently demanding the artist's attention: another group of sculptures to be part of and not to be part of Cavalariças. An extension, a countermeasure. To be exhibited simultaneously at H.A.P. Galeria, which, by chance or fate, is in the vicinity of Parque Lage. The central figure here is the cube, in the company of the circle and the rectangle. As is usually the case in Nelson Felix's work, when geometry is raised up, it is also belied. Of course, it is essential for the primitive intuition of the space - the rest is decoration. But as space is not homogeneous, geometry is averse to ideal figures - they are reversible, mutually merging agents of the uncertainty and ambiguity that make up the world of life. The three Cubounidos [United Cubes] explain: the close juxtaposition of two hollowed out cubes - cut from a single block of marble, which makes all the difference - gives rise to a disparate unity, a divided whole. Immediately, the eye is caught by the subtle asymmetry between one cube and the other and is unable to stop noticing the oddness of one being inside the other, since they are both the same size: the content is the same as the container.

And then, there is the subtle presence of the Gold Rings - standard issue wedding rings - in the gaps between the cubes, where they rest on each other, preventing the marble from cracking from the friction between the surfaces; no mere technical recourse. Its effects are propagated in multiple ways, sometimes combining, other times opposing, forcing us to return to the concrete enigma of the Cubounido. At first glance, there is no reason to repress, for instance, the evocative sense of mystic agelessness of the ring and the gold and its spiritual aura. It can just be left there: in the air. Actually, it has no great significance in the material interpretation of the pieces. However, the minimal perceptive datum of the tiny circles emanating between the cubes is intrinsic to the sculptures' nervous system. Whether or not they represent bounty, the Gold Rings bring on a sense of unease and imbalance. And they are intriguing, set between the cubes, impregnating the light between the marble and the emptiness.

All of which is taken to quite another level by the intervention of the Bronze Stakes, for several reasons. First, they are not geometric figures, but just things from the world, a sculptor's work tools. Next, because of their ostensive visual presence, unlike the Rings' almost subliminal presence, offsetting the cubes' regularity. And most of all, because they have unequivocal functions: to fix, or move or tilt; ultimately, to place or remove pieces from the room. And not just as props: they make up part of the pieces in any presentation context. Essential accidents, Aristotle might say. In their way, the Stakes reiterate the artist's obsession with shifting as a principle of order: the marked or less marked tilting or shifting knocks the sculpture (and even sometimes a drawing's frame) off centre and sets its position right in the world – after all, the Earth's axis is at a 23-degree tilt in relation to the Sun. By strictly observing this phenomenon – the ellipse – for so long, Nelson Felix has made a tabula rasa of the dilemma of composition. By poetic decree, everything must respect the 23-degree tilt. But from Cavalariças onwards, the principle of the tilt has been emancipated; it has cast off its orthodoxy and can vary depending on the moment and the inspiration.

Emptied out and asymmetrical, the Cubounidos are not part of an open process; they fit entirely into the field of perception they frame. An antithesis, then, to the lengthy, sculptural operation, at once voluminous and volatile, of Cavalariças. Even if, from one perspective, their process is similar: by taking away matter, they create significant emptinesses. The work's relief fluently contains its different moments, poetic actions, drawings or sculptures, constantly merging them and setting them apart. Such that one of the cubes present at the Camiri exhibition at Museu Vale in October 2006 has now reappeared in a transfigured state as a Cubounido.  But none of this holds any secret nexus. Evidently, the works come from one another, be it as continuations or divergences, similarities or estrangements, structural affinities or oppositions. Three of the last cubic sculptures, as we have seen, react to the circle and the rectangle, casting off the Cavalariças ordeals. The fourth of them, however, Desenho no Mundo [Drawing in the World] practically sums it up. From one hollowed-out cube, two virtual rectangles appear, crossing each other, one horizontally and the other vertically. The fact is, if they are summed longitudinally, they hold the same proportion as the route round the world that gave rise to the Parque Lage sculpture. Only now, at the end of the journey, can the drawing be materialized in sculpture. A full stop, a loose end...

The connection between Cavalariças and the simultaneous exhibition nearby at H.A.P. Galeria is sealed with the luminous series of ten drawings - strictly speaking, collages - using gold leaf, and the recurring presence of the wedding rings. Sharply contrasting with the rough sketches made in biro for Camiri, and their nervous intensity – feeling out the space of the future sculpture – the recent drawings emanate composure and contemplation. Faithful to the record of sobriety, they do not speculate, nor do they extrapolate; they hold true to the course of the sculpture to which they belong and from which they now bid their farewell. Within the abstract logic of the work, they need no prior narrative: each of them sums up the disjunctive conjunction between the approximately rectangular stain in gold leaf and a standard-issue wedding ring. The stains wend their way across the paper, as if en route, but impregnate it with the enduring, dispersive gold. Meanwhile, the golden wedding rings, with their power to complete and sanctify, emerge separately; they are partially hidden from view, in contact with the rectangle, slightly off kilter.