Carla Zaccagnini


While she was signing my copy of her insert for Bravo! magazine, Carmela remembered that afternoon’s class with a smile, between accomplice and provocative, playing on her lips: It had been good, right? A few hours before, the presentation of my project had been received in class with exclamations of “I won’t swallow that!”.
The class had indeed been good. Because of what was discussed, having that project as an excuse: the limits of art and the role of an artist, the social places of the one and the other, the boundaries that define and delimit them and embrace other issues of the same caliber or fundament. And we were even debating stands that had a great deal to negotiate before they found a common language through which nominate discordances; this forced us all to re-elaborate thoughts that had already solidified and to find new ways of expressing them.
And, largely, that was what the matter (this word is preferable to the term discipline if we compare their collateral meanings) was about. On the first class, Desenho, desenhos (Drawing, drawings), we had been presented with not so much a contents plan, but a Carmela plan designed to make us work slowly, step by step. A proposal of dissection of the conception and development process of a work, in order to see it and treat it frame by frame. The idea was fairly simple: each person would propose a project and commit her/himself to develop it throughout the semester. The condition was the time: the dilated time. We would not have any time frame to attain any result, as it usually happens, a condition that make us feel time flying by since the beginning until the moment when it is over – we would have, however and differently, to slowly elaborate each phase and clarify decisions we took in each fork of the road we encountered. And, every time the project seemed to get to its end before the course was over, we would have to disassemble it and reassemble it again by starting with a different piece, tackling it from another side, giving it a spin.
That course resulted, she explained, from her concern relative to her impression (repeated, as it happens with other impressions) that the works she saw in exhibitions were not ready, or had been finished in a hurry. As if there had not been enough time to mature, to exercise, to experiment. As if, between the first idea and the final form, distilling stages were missing; sometimes ebullition; other times, condensation; in the worst of instances, both. And her course resulted also from a bet or a will to prove that by thickening the process, the visible result would be modified.
There is no doubt that exposing the process while it is in progress alters it. Thoughts and actions are transformed beforehand, in order to be shared with sense through discourse; and they change again, back again, responding to issues that emerge when we speak and listen. However, what was at play was, also, how much comings and goings and circular paths that compose a dilated path end up impressed, maybe in an invisible or unspeakable manner, but always present, in what results from them.[1]
If, on the one hand, the issue was to dilate the elaboration time of a project as a strategy to make it thicker; on the other hand, it was interesting to think about coherence between process construction and work conception (or however you want to recombine these four words). To investigate how the structure of the result finds itself impressed in the procedures that lead to it and vice-versa; how the process reflects and informs its consequences, how paths taken announce and echo the place of arrival. How, lastly, a work defines and redefines itself in each moment of its construction, departing from the same desires and the same obsessions, from the same symptoms, from the same questions; in a word, from the same position.
If we widen our thinking, it was also about finding a certain coherence (I mean it as a relative coherence) that, with any luck, echoes in each concretion of an artist’s discourse: in his/her works of different scales and supports, in each phase of the process that constitute them, in his/her speech for different viewers, in his/her choices, in his/her writings, in his/her courses (regarding the various meanings of this term).

This is why, I gather, the bibliography for Desenho, desenhos was composed by writings by artists describing their process of work. I remember particularly Akira Kurosawa’s autobiography and Gustave Flaubert’s letters. It was most revealing to find in these texts similar metaphors regarding the first’s films, or a descriptive rigor characteristically detailing the second’s books; to perceive a way of seeing and of narrating, that we can identify in the finished works, taking form throughout both these narrations. This realization was probably responsible for my interest in this genre and for the fact that I started a collection of artists’ writings about art, which takes a whole bookcase, on the eyes’ level, in my library.
I am currently reading a collection of essays by George Orwell[2] and I just read a text entitled Why I Write, originally published in 1946. Taking aside his need for survival, Orwell distinguishes four great motives for his activity, which cohabit, in different degrees and oscillating proportions according to context, in every and all writers (I believe the term can be expanded to artists, with a few parallel adjustments in the text). They are, as follows:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you on childhood etc. etc.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4.  4.Political purpose – using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.

Except the third item, which is summed-up like this, each one of these motives have their descriptions followed by clarifications about their forms of manifestation, which I excluded from this account without exempting myself from recommending the reading of the whole essay, where we can see the author’s quest in seeing his four motives fulfilled in form and content.
What is interesting here, I feel, is to think about these desires of different orders and about their many combinations, all of them impure. How can one mix this desire for revenge that is almost loving with a desire to provoke an aesthetic experience such that it is able to recreate our excitement before something beautiful; how can one mix both of them to the desire of recording facts, events, episodes or habits for posterior analysis that will be able to rewrite history; how can one combine these to a desire of altering the political consciousness of others and therefore their will and their actions? How do the mixing of these desires, sometimes manifest, other times latent, results in a movement that condenses itself sometimes in work, sometimes in text, sometimes in lecture? And how does each one of these desires can be more or less fierce, on the same artist, in different moments?
In a supposed confession with a touch of false testimony, Orwell says that by nature, and he understands “nature” to be state you have attained when you are first adult, the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. “Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War etc.” and, from 1936 on, each line he wrote was against totalitarianism.


The fact that there are figures that are only possible in text is curious; they build themselves as they mold language, they outline paragraphs and trigger conclusions or new assumptions traced within their logic, temporary and tenuous, which is created by one word followed by another and reopened with each new phrase that, at the same time, allows and asks for it. Each written affirmation results from a field prepared by those that came before it and redefines them, limiting possibilities of what can be said after, allowing ideas that could not become material before. Drawing, drawings, drawings, drawings etc.
When I started this text with accounts from those classes, I did not know it was going to end up with Orwell’s book; even less that through it I would get to a Spanish Civil War song I started to listen to as a distraction and which now presents itself as key to understanding the work to which this writing is dedicated, which had been discussing other things up until now.
Maybe this happened because I saw before, without realizing it, the Chansons de la guerre d’Espagne LP, with Guernica on the cover and red letters, propped as a decoration piece in the almost empty library in this apartment someone let me borrow. Of course the memory of the song was present because of the echoing name: Carmela. I researched to find out who that character praised on the song of combat and resistance was, but apparently no one knows. Or it does not matter.
To evoke a first name, in this repeated and rhythmic lament, seems to have a function here: it reminds us of daily relationships and resizes the war in this manner. They sing about dread for bombardments (“Ay Carmela!”), they sing about the power of their troops (“Ay Carmela!”), they sing about recent victories and the next battles (“Ay Carmela! Ay Carmela!”). It is Carmela for some reason that did not become history. It is Carmela, but it could be either Pilar or Dolores.

Carmela Gross, EU SOU DOLORES / I AM DOLORES, 2002, project

In 2002, Carmela Gross wrote in red fluorescent bulbs, those that quickly make us think of signs used in large stores, and with all capitals: EU SOU DOLORES (I AM DOLORES). The phrase, larger that the room it occupied, went out through the window, going beyond the boundaries of the building and those existing between public and private spaces. From memory, I could say that Dolores was the name of a fortuneteller, one of those who offer services with a warranty on pamphlets distributed on the streets, delivered by hand and read at bus stops.
But the occupation of this second character probably does not matter here either. What matters is the alteration in scale and support, the transmutation between announce and enunciation, a change in communication mechanics and a transformation in the reading that operates through this change. The same Dolores who all of us are not, which we cease to be when her identity affirmation gains public view, just like that same Carmela to whom a whole army direct their laments, she has a dimension of being a bridge between irreconcilable spaces.
Public and private co-exist here, though without agreeing on a truce; but not only that: there are also references and abstractions co-habiting or defining this place with its ambivalent power that can be identified as forming this and other works by Carmela. Her QUASARES (QUASARS, 1983), for instance, or her PROJETO PARA A CONSTRUÇÃO DE UM CÉU (PROJECT FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A SKY, 1980-1981). The last is probably her work that most directly refers to relationships between the act of seeing and other actions capable of creating images.
Her PROJETO PARA A CONSTRUÇÃO DE UM CÉU is among the works that occupy my imaginary museum. I once remembered these drawings, suddenly, when I was going back home by bicycle, in a very white afternoon – as they can be in the north. My path went through a port area, with a regular horizon in which a great smokestack was highlighted in the distance, much taller and vigorous than the cranes marking the waterline. The color of the smoke, solid, slightly darker than the background sky, mimicked the clouds. I thought: “This is it, Carmela’s factory,” or something to that effect, and took a picture less clarifying than this chapter.
Not only the title, but also part of the means of representation used in this series belongs to the repertoire of technical drawing. Vertical and horizontal lines in regular intervals and notes written in black ink on the bottom of the page remind us of those drawings whose aim is to guarantee an unmistaken comprehension, with instructions that are more precise than words, so that they can direct the construction or building of a certain structure in a way that it will have the anticipated result. They can be architects’ plans, or those that come with industrial furniture to be assembled at home, safety information on flights or instructions on aircraft model kits.
On the other hand, to the notes and lines in black ink, she added areas filled in color pencil, using just a few shades. This material is associated mainly to drawing made by or for children. Children’s drawings have a relationship with the world external to the paper’s surface that is almost antagonistic to that of technical drawings. Where the last is iconic, the first is metonymic. Technical drawings get closer to what is portrayed through unmistakable abbreviations and summaries, which will forcefully derive on a given, or, better yet, preconceived consequence. Children’s drawings are generalizations, they do not portray this or that specific individual, but a group, a species, a set of individuals under the same name, focusing on some specific detail that characterizes them as symbols: the alligator’s great mouth with many teeth, the snail’s spiraled home on its back, a feather headdress on an Indian’s head.
There is also a time or, yet, a causality difference between these two styles of representation. While a child aims at recognizing and being able to give a name, on paper, to a being like others he/she has seen before, either in a zoo, in a garden, in the television or in books; an architect plans something he/she wants to see built, and with luck it will bring some kind of novelty. In the first case, it is the experience before a tiger or a tiger image that one seeks to reproduce (maybe moved by the same excitement before beauty described by Orwell); in the last, the drawing is an inaugural tool that regulates actions and causes concretions that did not exist before. In the first case, the drawing goes after its reference, it aims at getting to it, it hunts a tiger, an alligator, a snail, and an Indian (and it is likely that the snail will be the first to be captured). In the last case, a drawing is a command, a word of order.
In PROJETO PARA A CONSTRUÇÃO DE UM CÉU, her drawing is these two drawings at the same time, one together with the other. That project is portrait. Maybe it is thirty three different portraits of the sky in precise and fleeting moments. Maybe it results from an experience (repeated on a daily basis) of watching and comparing colors and diffuse forms we recognize as being the one sky, despite its variations, and thus being the representation of a sum of juxtaposed skies; a portrait of a sky told from memory. In that sense, it gets closer to a children’s drawing. However, this portrait is also a plan, just like the architect’s drawing. A plan for a (special or temporal) sky, numbered from 1 to 33, on the various boards composing the series. This construction project is a representation of skies previously seen and, at the same time, it indicates shapes and colors, still diffuse, but fierce, of subsequent skies.
It is impossible to affirm that the project has not been finished because it was built step by step, that the sky has not assumed or adopted, in thirty three posterior instants, each one of those configurations. It would be beautiful to look for and photograph thirty three skies or sky details that would reproduce those drawings. I may start to do it, even though this probably is, as many others, a plan with faults (of record and interpretation), which will result on skies slightly different from those that were expected. And, therefore, unrecognizable.
Differently form these drawings that are inserted into indefinite time, which happens before and after a concomitant reality, these supposed pictures would freeze the instant in which the clouds would assume the shape to be sought after, in which light would give them the necessary or desired colors. We have seen clouds thus frozen before. However, NUVENS (CLOUDS), from 1967, is, actually, a planned construction, each part was meticulously cut, one by one, in rigid material, with a thickness adequate for a stage set and supposedly flesh-colored in their interior.
Formed by almost regular undulations in waxed turquoise blue, these Nuvens are closer to cumulus- nimbus drawn by hand than to those announcing a storm. Their bear a certain character borrowed from children’s drawings in which clouds become a closed outline, easily identifiable, in a blue tone that jumps from the white background. An exemplary cloud, almost. Its construction is like transforming into gigantic tridimensional shapes some clouds that were drawn onto paper on a table and then they fell upright from the sheet when we shook the paper to cast off eraser bits, after erasing so many other clouds that were not approved.
However, it is as if the other clouds, which are visible groups of minute water particles suspended on the atmosphere, had suddenly become solid and fell immediately on the ground with their increased density. And the straight base of those NUVENS must result from this fall, or from some other form of fall, with their lower face smooth against the concrete floor, which does not allow aerial fluctuations nor those that are always possible on paper. The second hypothesis, that of sudden solidification of a diffuse and transitory form, is something similar to what we see in CARIMBOS (STAMPS, 1977-1978): expressive gestures crystallized and their mechanical repetition.
The eighty stamps composing this series reproduce streaks, short lines, bent straight lines, traces, scribbles, graphisms, scrawls, doodles, hurried writings, stains, smudges, blemishes, spots, brush strokes, and I wish I could find sixty six more words to describe the various consequences of typical or unexpected gestures of someone holding a pencil or an mechanical pencil, an ink pen, a ballpoint pen en or a water-based pen, a dry or an oily pastel stick, charcoal, chalk or a brush.
Materializing these fleeting gestures on a rubber matrix with a bureaucratic character, and their exhaustively repeated impressions, side by side, as if to methodically fill a sheet of paper, present on a sole surface representation means typical of conceptual art and informal abstractionism. There is some irony in the combination of these two legacies, but there is also, again or already, the act of establishing a co-habitation of irreconcilable spaces (or historic moments) in the same potential environment.
And there is, it seems to me, a certain perception of power in abstraction, and of political power, I dare say. The repetition of graphic elements reproduced on stamps has an analogous function to that of “rumba la rumba la rumba la” in the Republican Spanish song. In that song, “rumba la rumba la rumba la” is a rhythmic and melodic punctuation that could be marked by guitars or drums; however, it is chanted in a choir, maybe because it sounds better or it is better to listen to it like this, maybe because the musicians’ hands would be busy with other instruments. However, the recurrence of this abstract element also works as inclusion mechanism, we all can sing – “rumba la rumba la rumba la” – even if we do not know the lyrics, even if we do not speak the language.
And so are the shapes of CARIMBOS: abstract, repeated, and common (at least according to two meanings of this term). It is as if the aim here was to shorten the distance between those who speak the language and those who do not; those who know the lyrics and those who do not. These drawings do not have or allude to the commandeering power of technical drawings; they remind us, at most, the limited and boring power of a bureaucrat who masters the stamps that allow or deny entry, exit and stay. On the other hand, they do not contain, either, the admiration prompted by drawings capable of taking us back to a child’s position, amazed before some representation that presents him/her with a reference in an experience that has no intermediaries.
A recognizable simplicity of forms and a technicality related to office stamps that does not present any surprises or secrets build a bridge between the person who detains the discourse and those who hear or see it. We are all capable of producing brush strokes, spots, blemishes, smudges, stains, hurried writings, doodles, scrawls, graphisms, scribbles, traces, bent straight lines, short lines, or streaks such as those. And we know that. It would be beautiful, maybe, to copy the Carimbos by hand, using the various materials and gestures each one of them refers to.
To build a transit space between the one who generates the discourse sheltered by institutions, sealed and approved by the masters of stamps, and those who go there as listeners or observers is, I believe, to inaugurate a field of political power. A territory where subjectivities must be renegotiated, where history must be reviewed; a space of awareness.
ILUMINURAS (ILLUMINATIONS, 2010), the work Carmela Gross idealized and accomplished for the exhibition this catalogue originally accompanies, transforms, with one sole gesture, the building occupied by the museum in an awareness space, by putting into ambiguous evidence everything it shelters. Be careful about what you keep and exhibit in here! But it is not only that. In this case, it regards also what this building has sheltered in the past.
ILUMINURAS consists in the installation of sixty six revolving signalization devices on the façade of the building currently occupied by Estação Pinacoteca, the same one Departamento Estadual de Ordem Pública e Social (DEOPS)[4] occupied between 1940 and 1983. The action is simple and the object is well known. We all have seen, more than once, police cars or ambulances with those lights on, accompanied by a deafening sound. However they pass by, most times, the fastest they can.
Here, the urgency is static, it does not move from where it is. Day and night the lights are on, lighting up the street and the building, the street and the building, the street and the building, while they revolve. Most visible after the sun sets and the museum closes, when, it is said, ghosts wander. However, the affirmation is permanent. And silent. The sound we are used to hear whenever we see, in town or in a movie, these and other emergency lights, does not go together with them here. It is a silent scream. Urgency without any time frame, urgency regarding the past, without any possible solution.
The yellow lights revolve and the building throbs throbs throbs “rumba la rumba la rumba la”. “…pero nada pueden bombas (rumba la rumba la rumba la) donde sobra corazón…” It is hard to believe, actually. However, songs such as this one have contributed to form and to maintain resistance actions.
“It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects. Everyone writes of them in one guise or another. It is simply a question of which side one takes and what approach one follows. And the more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s aesthetic and intellectual integrity,” Orwell wrote in 1946, and he could have written it again in 1964, in 1968, in 1984, in 1991, in 2001, tomorrow, or yesterday.


[1] Writing now about this, which I cannot say I thought before, I remembered a work I did not know and I have not yet seen up close: 1,000 hours of staring (1992-1997), by Tom Friedman. Did he stare, exactly a thousand hours, at the same blank sheet of paper? Would this regard, juxtaposed to itself during five years, be capable of marking the surface with some charge that is not already transferred by the piece’s title? And would this character, if we want to go further, if it exists, be altered by the many other thousands of hours of stares aimed at the same sheet of paper, still blank, after it was framed?
[2] George ORWELL – Why I Write, Penguin Group, London, 2004.
[3] Verse from El paso del Ebro, Republican song from the Spanish Civil War.
[4] The State Department of Public and Social Order was a government organ for political repression, whose brutal activities had their heyday during the military regime in Brazil (1964-1985).


Published in:
Carmela Gross: um corpo de ideias. São Paulo: Pinacoteca do Estado, 2011. Catálogo de exposição.

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close