A conversation with Carmela Gross

Douglas de Freitas


The following text transcribes a conversation I had with the artist in June 2017.
The conversation, born of a previous script, revolved around some decisive ideas about the work – the function of drawing and the relationship with the city, for example – as well as comments on some specific works and situations.
The dialogue reverberates with many other conversations and memories of other encounters during almost a year of work and coexistence.
We concluded that the strict, sometimes mechanical question-and-answer game would, in fact, seem limited in terms of the dialogue we built, which was open and occurred at different times. So we opted for the dramatic feature of leaving the questions outside the scene – highlighting the artist’s voice and movements, although in a fragmented way. The discontinuity seemed more suited to the artist’s work processes.

If you observe, it seems to me that the works sometimes do not come together, do not stick together – one contradicts the other. After I did the PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SKY (1981), I wanted to do QUASARS (1983). I named a set of offset engravings QUASARS, and the name referred to celestial phenomena. Note that these engravings have a completely inverted visual as compared to the PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SKY; they are black marks on a white field, which is a negative of the other. It’s as if I tried to have one nullify, rather than reinforce, the other. The intention was to deliberately undo the enchantment of a sky made with crayons. QUASARS are photomechanical reproductions without manual intervention and thus contradict everything that was affirmed in PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SKY. The works are tools and gears for the constitution of what one wants as thought, critical action, sensitive activity in the world.

The real world appears as the motor and operator of a situation, but the result of this is of another order. I think this holds true for any work of art. Damien Hirst with the diamond skull. Picasso and the war. Picasso, for example, began with the report on the tragedy of Guernica. He draws based on the news, directly… and then resolves the scale, the drawing, the fragments, the brushstrokes. All of this is the reconstruction of Guernica on the plane of human consciousness. It does not reproduce the event; it transmutes the event into its negative, as a historical consciousness.
That is why BARREL (1968), for example, is a metaphor reduced to the minimum. Almost a non-metaphor, because it brings to the scene the very object of torture used in DOI-CODI (The Department of Information Operations – Center for Internal Defense Operations). The work is not there as an object of torture. Its exhibition convenes the sensitive powers and the observer’s thought. The work proposes reflection on a historical moment. If it were not so, it would not be worth anything.
We can think of a condensation operation, which transmutes the elements of the real to a condition that is intended to be more acute… to be able to speak to more people… to reveal a process, to amplify the sound of that object. The operation is based on the real world, but it takes the world apart, to then put it back together on another plane. It’s like taking apart a toy to see what’s inside and, upon reassembling it, inventing another. And since there is no mastery of this machine/ world, the work is done by approximations. It searches for possible meanings, some meanings, scratching the world.

The works don’t reiterate from one to another. Therefore, the process brings cracks, fractures, negations; it develops as fragmentation. It develops in pieces, in parts. I just don’t know; they are explosions.
I do not think this can be seen as an attack, but it is a negative operation. They are operations that criticise and de-crystallize these processes. This is so that the work itself can sprout in another way. If it is to de-stratify, to dismantle the known and established in the world, I also have to look at my own work for this same key. It is not only to do work and continue to do and to do… but it is to look back and see how it was done and think about how to make it be operative again, turn into another…

The city is the material that runs through my work. It is the material and also the critical reason. Why work with fluorescent or neon lights, for example? The light of the bakery, the light of the bar, of the cheap hotel, the colored light that dyes a corner blue at night. That is interesting. Note how these red, pink, yellow lights, multiplied in many ways in the cracks of the city, come with the more degraded conditions of city life. It is almost always the most fragile that appear associated with them. It is often the dangerous, the perverse… that’s why the colored lights enchant, as a synthesis of the multiplicity of human experiences.
Quite far from the light-design, the light-chic of the hotel lobby, the light-fashion of the showcase, do you see? They are very different light parameters. This neon light, this tubular fluorescent light, comes from very simple, sometimes precarious, degraded environments. That’s what I’m talking about; that’s what interests me in the light.

People are part of the urban theater. The city is a construction site. Everyone who works knows the operations that must be done. The raw material becomes the construction and constitution of this social body. In this way, my production also composes itself of these elements, from the simplest, the most banal of our life in the city and also… of immigrants, passersby, extras, the Dolores, Darlenes, Olivias and Auroras… My job is one more among many other jobs.

When a work is made of materials “picked up” from the street, there is an approximation with the other, there is familiarity or intimacy… In the case of light, I think the person will feel much more than understand, will perceive physically. It is not of the order of the intelligible, of logic, of knowledge. The light attracts, but it’s not just the luminous sensation that interests me… Readability comes after that…
Of course, this does not happen with every work. Some are silent. Some are more inward-looking, such as HOLES (1994), sunk in the excavated ground. And COMPACTS (1991)… in these, there is a swelling of matter, a chromatic mass in fermentation, working from the inside… That is perhaps why they are hardly accessible through discourse, through text… Maybe they are closer to QUASARS…

In the case of THE BLACK WOMAN (1997), that black spongy mass is supported by a cart, a small platform with wheels and a metal rod that serves as a handle to move it from one place to another. Among other issues (but let’s not talk about them now), there is the cart… It’s amazing that people do not see it as a cart. And that cart is a kind of quote from the hand cart of the delivery person, the door-to-door salesperson, the paper collector. It is an allusion to a type of street work, untrained, or rather, it is the very face of precarious work. No one speaks of this, of this manual cart coupled with THE BLACK WOMAN, because it is not of interest to formal aesthetic discourse. They only speak of the great veil, of the great set of overlays of fluid matter, of a negative of the bride, of the widow… It’s impressive… If that work were supported directly on the ground, it would lose much of its power…
This work was done for the street, but even now in the museum, the rod and handle are present. They point to the cart, to the machine. And even if on another scale, there is still an allegorical car residue, an extraordinary monument on wheels, in the parades of the samba schools – a social machine, a collective work, simple and complex at the same time.

When I did the first STAIRS (the 1968 one), that was almost a game. The stairs were there. I could only climb up that steep slope because there were furrows in the ground, possibly made by a grader that passed through to open the avenue. And the slope was then cut with “steps.” They had already been made – and something else would be made on them, about the steps themselves, except from the conceptual point of view. It was simple, without anything else problematic, except drawing a staircase with lines on the other staircase. One reverberated in the other: stair-perception and stair-action. The first one was used by me as a real stair, which it obviously was not, and the second, the drawn stair, was made to confirm the first. What I did was just a good-natured operation about the concept of drawing. Perception and creation.

Most of my work emerges first as a project which is drawn. Then they are built in other material, in another consistency. Few works come from experimentation, in which the work is directly constituted in the making, as with KNIVES (1994). But even in this case, there was a concept that presided over the operations of doing – a knife-idea.
Sometimes the project is a mold. For example, at the XX Biennial installation,[1] there was a mold. First I made a large drawing on Kraft paper. Then I cut and pasted. I was decanting the lines of the direct contour on the wall. The HOLES were also made from molds. The starting point was a small drawing, an annotation. Then this design was enlarged and transferred to the floor with specific molds for each hole. That’s how large frescoes are made. I think floats are also made that way. Something like cutting and sewing…

It’s not monumental, it’s a square, it’s an urban thing. You can walk over it, you can walk on it. And all the space becomes a bodily experience. SCHOOL STAIRS (2016) also is not monumental. It summons the body to participate in that drawing. Contrary to what happens with ladders of light that, even being large-scale, are visual, they are almost a scripture, a luminous writing.

The word, the street talk, a certain name, a poem… a statement… they were all entering the work, but in very different ways. MILKY WAY (1979), which transcribes the homonymous poem by Olavo Bilac, is com- posed as a word game, with white letters on a starry sky of Xerox. THE DUDEZ BEAT IT (2000) is a neon that transcribes street graffiti on the wall of the museum. It is the language without erudition and, as the poet said, with “the millionaire contribution of all the errors.” I AM DOLORES (2002) comes from a poster glued to a pole in largo do Pari. AURORA (2003) was spelled out in coarse letters made of pink bulbs. It was first associated in Rio with the pink light of daybreak. Then here in São Paulo, near Aurora Street, with a woman’s name. And in Moscow, with the name of the warship, thus joining the revolutionary process. FOR SALE (2008), with the letters of Hollywood, was almost banned in 2010.

In fact, in New Zealand, it was only possible to do half the work on a walkway, the one on which REAL PEOPLE was read. The other half, ARE DANGEROUS, could not be done. It should have been done on another walkway, but the local officials considered DANGEROUS to be dangerous, indeed. Part of the work was amputated…

For me, word and street are two things that are linked. I made EXTRAS (2014) in two versions, both with street language. You could say that they are street riots. The first one was made as a luminous electronic signboard, like those at gas stations announcing products and services. Except that the services, in this case, were of the type offered by the deputies of Louis Bonaparte, described by Marx in the 18th Brumaire[2]: TRAFFICKERS, DECADENT HEIRS, PICKPOCKETS, EX-PRISONERS, CON MEN, BROTHEL OWNERS… finally, a group of statesmen, whom we know well. The second version of EXTRAS was made of metal plates, like those used to indicate street names, which celebrate names and memorable dates. They are plates enameled in fi re to be dark blue in color. In white letters is the typology studied by Marx…

EARTH (2017) is part of a conversation I had with Paulo Mendes da Rocha some time ago. He told me that we could think of doing a work on that large flat area that is the MuBE roof.[3] Something to be seen from above. I don’t know what was going through his mind, and I’m not sure what was going through mine… When an exhibition at the museum was named in his honor, I visited MuBE several times. I went up to the roof for the first time to photograph and “scope out the territory.” At that time, I was sure that nothing could be done. Viewed from the ground, the flat area has a very clean design, but from above it is full of un-flat elements – a thermal protection layer, water drainage channels, rounded edges like a tray, vents and drains… there were many occurrences… architectural, water, visual and material… all very different from the blank screen I had imagined. I left there with the certainty that I would not be able to do it…

So I thought of a kind of message to be seen from above, from a distance, from up very high, from buildings, from airplanes, from satellites, and perhaps by astronauts in spaceships… EARTH is a large luminous blue that delineates the letters of the word E-A-R-T-H. First I did small pencil drawings, and then I designed the structure, thinking of the weight, the possible materials, the installations… It is a game with the idea of a luminous announcement of the earth-ship, a homage to the dear architect friend.

An announcement not visible from the ground, which could only be seen from a certain height, from another place, which is not the museum’s exhibition space. In proposing the luminous EARTH, which no one could read directly, I wanted to work with the dis-visibility of the world, as opposed to the idea of a world saturated with visibility, via images and more images. Suddenly, you have a work that is not visible, about which only news is heard, as they say. And each has to imagine, think, suppose or wish to see… I wanted to work from the idea of undoing a world that was made positive by image. At night, when it gets dark, one can see only a blue aura on the museum surface.

[1] XX International Biennial of São Paulo, 1989.
[2] MARX, Karl. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011.
[3] Museu Brasileiro da Escultura e Ecologia (Brazilian Museum of Sculpture and Ecology), São Paulo.

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