1. BIG WHEEL
The subtitle of this exhibition was borrowed from the new installation designed by Carmela Gross for the central span of the building that houses Farol Santander in Porto Alegre. Originally built to house a sumptuous bank branch, the building has an ambiance of large dimensions crowned by zenith stained glass windows in which we read words such as Exchange, Progress, Work and Fortune. Under these currencies that once worked simultaneously as goal and promise, Carmela now weaves an environment that, like the mesmerising big wheels, suggests movement, tension, and suspension: hundreds of strings are tied to the balustrades and columns of the upper story of the building and cross through the large span in a tangle of diagonals; each one of these strings is attached to a prosaic object, which for some reason usually go unnoticed in our daily life, caught only by a side glance that rarely notices tires, piles of books, buckets, beams and other elements that integrate the urban infra scenery. Now, connected to architecture, these objects earn the scene, taking on the role of ballast of the design, which runs through space.
Ropes and objects mark the movement of the public that enters the exhibition and runs through the lobby. The perception of space is still altered by the amber lighting the artist adds to the light that comes through the stained glass windows. The environment is familiar, but it seems out of the ordinary time-space. Is it then a virtual, imaginary space? A big wheel entertaining with its illusion of mobility, spinning and turning yet still in its place? One could argue that the entire building had already been built to give substance to abstract concepts: money and its earnings and interest, or Credit, Economy, and Justice (which are other words among the ones etched in its stained glass). It is possible to go further and remember how entire cities have become histrionic paraphernalia that challenges our attention while the substrates that actually move it remain hidden from our sight. It is possible to go further and remember how our cities have become a paraphernalia that challenges our attention while the substrates that actually move them remain hidden from our eyes. Or we can even say that global society operates as a spectacle of images and speculations in which values have lost their tangibility long ago. But one can only wonder, because, as far as an objective reality, the work is really nothing else than things and strings and weights in balance – nothing moves besides wandering thoughts that are inspired by the wandering of the body among oblique lines.
The notes on conceptual art made between 1966 and 1972 by American critic and writer Lucy Lippard synthesise the tone of a broad debate about the “dematerialisation of the work of art” within the framework of conceptual art. Lippard recorded the common points she employed in assembling her conceptual art panorama without suggesting too narrow a definition of the term:
“Conceptual Art, for me, means the work in which the Idea is sovereign, and the material form is secondary, light, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and/or ‘dematerialised’ (…) for lack of a better term I continued to refer to a process of dematerialisation, or a downgrading of its material aspects (originality, permanence, decorative attractiveness)”.
In fact, the 1960s and 1970s – during which Carmela Gross lived her studies and her first years as a teacher and artist – were permeated by initiatives aimed at unraveling the artistic value of plastic parameters rooted in the know-how of traditional painting, engraving and sculpture languages, which went on to conceive works that exist and circulate as ideas, information, communication and concept, often with precarious or ephemeral character.
To think of this art as a dematerialised expression, however, leads us to a panorama full of paradoxes and mirages. One of the problems is that, even when it does not result in durable, storable and transportable material objects, art does not cease to behave as if it were material – concepts, even when not anchored in an object body, are shaped, sculpted, saved; they exist.
Another problem, however, lies in the parallelism of the debate about the dematerialisation of art with the phenomenon of the dematerialisation of financial capital that happened throughout the twentieth century and culminated in the early 1970s, when the United States unilaterally broke the Bretton Woods agreement on international economic management, ending the convertibility of the dollar to gold and thereby ridding the currencies of their final concrete ballast freeing them to the frenzied territory of financial speculation. Dematerialisation of art may seem like a minor detail or even an involuntary side effect before the immeasurable impacts of dematerialisation of the economy.
Nevertheless, the effects of the financialization of the economy, multiplied hundreds or thousands of times in the last 50 years, have taught us that behind the apparent demateriality there is a kind of super materiality. I’ll explain: As values are released from concrete physical ballasts, nothing else can belong exclusively to the field of ideas, abstractions or information: everything becomes as profitable, exchangeable, accumulable and speculative as a gold bar or a farm, including shares of “future oil barrels”, the potential for renewal of the ozone layer and all sorts of privileged information. The considerable vertigo in the face of the frenzied movements of a stock market – once illustrated by the distressed and robotic gaze of the operators piled on Wall Street and now abstracted by electronic impulses of billions of digital exchanges – is the perfect metaphor for a less “dematerialised” and more “super materialised” age. That is, what would seem by far a transcendence of the realm of objects and concrete raw materials reveals itself, at a closer look, as a grounding that brings to the common ground of materials what was supposed to be aerial, conceptual or abstract.
“Art is this: to think about building critically within language (…) to always produce a reverse side”.
Carmela Gross did not design BIG WHEEL installation because of the considerations I present. Her creative process, by the way, is rarely born out of a theoretical discourse fixed in advance. In the beginning, there is the trace, the drawing that seizes the space and throws it in a new configuration. First, there is a kind of observation drawing of the city and the surrounding society, which the artist nourishes in her constant observation of the contemporary dynamics of exchange, oppression, circulation and conflict.
Well, we need to proceed step by step.
An example. In 1968, Carmela Gross and some of the friends she made in the undergraduate course in Arts followed Professor Flávio Motta suggestion and traveled through what was then the outskirts of São Paulo, studying the paintings and manual signs made by craftsmen who spontaneously created a vernacular local pictorial language. At one point, the artist decided to intervene in a cliff created by the gradual and unplanned urbanization of the growing southeast axis of the city. She traced quickly the design of a ladder with a spray of black paint. It was a graphical redundancy that would happen as the body climbed the steps of the stepped topography of the terrain.
This scrawled line with the whole body is a drawing of observation of the city, which apprehends the outline of one of its particularities and explains it as a project applied to the urban space itself. Carmela Gross exercises observation/ projection operations in many other works from the last five decades. In some of them, such as STAIRS (1968) and I AM DOLORES (2002/2016), it is like a fold that returns to the city landscape. In others, as in THE LOAD (1968), MONUMENTS (2001), 13 PASSERS-BY (2016) and EXTRAS (2016), the cycle is completed in the exhibition space as a twofold city elaborated in the field of language.
It is in this last group of works that one can analyze the installation BIG WHEEL. The selection of the hundreds of objects that occupy the central span of the building presupposes constant attention to the city and specifically to the somewhat functional elements that integrate it, without calling attention to themselves – not monuments and billboards, but the micro infrastructures of daily life. Together, they form an unbelievable list, from suitcases to improvised pieces of concrete to prevent entry of vehicles. Together, they are a crowd. And this crowd moves through space, anchoring the massive symbolic architecture of power and stability. It is not the balusters and columns that support the objects (already firmly resting on the floor), but the objects that support the tension of the ropes that are multiplied in the air. There artist’s observation is also there, as she perceives that the whole contemporary symbolic apparatus presents itself as if it was the very thing that sustains life, nevertheless it is life itself (of objects and people) that, in fact, feeds power and its symbolisms.
The artist advances up to this point: she perceives a structuring aspect of reality when she does a projective drawing that will eventually absorb the viewer, their body, attention and fantasy. From that point on, it is up to us, the publics, to launch ourselves in the hand-to-hand connection with the work and enjoy its unique way of linking ideas and materials to reflect on what has prevented us from perceiving what Carmela Gross perceived, and see what this tells about us, about language and about the world. In my case, the proliferation of lines of force linking the old bank building to commonplace objects, under keywords of progress and in the midst of an unusual red lighting, makes me think of the transformations of materiality in the era of dematerialization of art and economy.
4. How to design a shape
At some point, after crossing the unsaturated spaces by ropes and objects arranged at the central hall of the building, the visitor flows from the installation to the lateral fringe of the space, where the ceiling height is lower and the red lighting is not as bright. That’s where we find the works produced between 1968 and 2019. The intention was to create a board of pieces that come and go between the procedures of design, project and synthesis recurrent in Carmela Gross career. Particular attention is given to the ways in which visual opacities can be constructed, producing holes, shapes, and volumes of uncertain content, alluding somewhat directly to the aspects of life and the city usually obscured and understood as cognitive debris.
In both spheres, of life and the city, everything that we can not or do not want to see may at some point emerge as an obstacle, an enigma or a threat.
The two works that coordinate this board (and they were not listed by chance from the beginning to integrate this selection) are THE LOAD and THE BLACK WOMAN (1997). In the first, a large gray-green canvas covers a large metal structure. In the English language, one could say that it is a “bulky” object – in Portuguese, it is necessary to add a few words: something large, spacious, that seems to be always in the way. With 2.5 meters high and 3 meters x 5 meters long, it is something larger than us but a bit low and small to be a home. It’s like a room that can only be seen from the outside, or like a waste container left behind. Another metaphor: it is the goat (the elephant) in the center of the room, which imposes its premeditated uncomfortable presence while its content remains unknown, a treasure or an indeterminable threat. On the other hand, in THE BLACK WOMAN, initially conceived as urban mobile sculpture able to circulate through the central space of Avenida Paulista, the artist covers a metallic structure of 3.3 meters in height with an abundant black tulle that configures an indistinct and irreducible silhouette in its excess. Designed to circulate among skyscrapers, automobiles, pedestrians, signs and billboards of the most famous avenue in the largest metropolis in the country, THE BLACK WOMAN does not aim to be another communicating icon desiring attention. It is an emptiness, a moving blind spot in the landscape. It is an allegory of the part of the city that cannot be grasped by statistics, surveillance devices, opinion polls, demographic profiles. A cave where what the apparatuses of power do not make a point of seeing fits, but that can abruptly surprise them.
As a constitutive thought, THE LOAD can be seen in the creation of MONUMENTS of Carmela Gross, also included in the exhibition. They are geometric schemes defined by elastic lines attached to the wall – hollow outlines of some symbolism that happens in hiatus. The concretion of THE BLACK WOMAN is anticipated by QUASARS (1983). The artist selected 11 illustrations from sales catalogs, various almanacs and encyclopedias and subjected them to multiple processes of technical reproduction of images (photocopy, photographic enlargement, off-set printing), enlarging them and blurring their outlines until they lost their readability and became constructed figures.
There is a projective thought embedded in this graphic treatment that transforms an image into a figure, which, in turn, also echoes in the shapes of X (1989) and WING (1995) – two ghostly presences infiltrating space, transforming the gestural imprecision of the shape drawn into masses of unequivocal materiality.
Carmela Gross exhibition adds other words to the key words translated by the zenithal stained glass of the building, coming from the lexicon itself. A 3-meter wide neon announces in bold letters (outlined by the artist’s trace): SOUTH. It is a geographical coordinate, but also a symbolic north, excuse me for my playing on words. The work highlights with its light the place from which the artist speaks, often treated as synonymous of economic, political and cultural dependence. The peripheral state is thus challenged by the linguistic emphasis, which is repeated in the led sign EXTRAS (2016). On this led luminous sign slide the “professions” originally enumerated by Karl Marx in the description of the lumpenproletariat (the proletariat in rags), hoarded by Napoleon III in his ridiculous mischievous revolution: decadent, degenerate heirs, social climbers, crooks, exonerated soldiers, ex-prisoners, deserters, gamblers, pick pocketers, jugglers, pimps, brothel owners, goods carriers, writers, barrel organ players, rag pickers, scissors grinders, tinkers, beggars, beggars and traffickers.
For Marx, the marginal precariousness of this multitude of unemployed Bohemians prevented the formation of their class consciousness, leaving it susceptible to reactionary mythomanias that would eventually go against their own interests. For Carmela Gross, this historical background also acts as metonymy of the portion of the cities we choose not to see, with their objects, bodies and lives been constantly ignored by all planning and progress.
In this exhibition, therefore, the luminous sign constantly refers to the human equivalent of the mass of cognitive remains gathered by BIG WHEEL. The vicissitudes of this crowd are also underlined by the animation 13 PASSERS-BY (2016), with their anonymous characters who walk, stumble and flick over a checkered mesh, while their inherent disruptive violence is evoked by the video LUZ DEL FUEGO II (2018), with its flow-from-destruction, tragedy and cataclysm.
With these works, the exhibition emphasizes the sociopolitical sense always evident in Carmela Gross production. The way is therefore open to the final act of the show two floors above.
6. TRUE FAKE PEOPLE
It is not by chance that, when they go up to the modern hall built on the historical building occupied by Farol Santander, the visitor finds the installation REAL PEOPLE/ ARE DANGEROUS, partially made in 2008 and now installed for the first time in its integral form and dimension. red lamps are articulated by the artist in this work to form two large hanging panels. Crossing the gap in the width of the hall, it is possible to complete the sentence that reminds us that real people are dangerous, or that there are dangerous real people.
Who are the real people? Or, who would be the liars, false or unreal people? These are questions that every visitor will have to take with them.
 LIPPARD, Lucy. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Los Angeles: California Press, 1997 (ed. or. 1973).
 Op. cit., page vii and page 5. Free translation by author.
 This passage talks about some ideas I mention previously on the essay ‘Yoko Ono: A arte das instruções na era dos algoritmos (Yoko Ono: The art of instructions in the era of algorithms)’, In: Yoko Ono: o céu ainda é azul, você sabe…/Yoko Ono: The sky is blue, you know… Curator: Gunnar B. Kvan [english translation: Julia Lima]. São Paulo: Institute Tomie Ohtake, 2017.
 Carmela Gross in a Master Class at Escola Entrópica, February 21, 2019, at Tomie Ohtake Institute.
 This undergraduate course precedes the model that was later implemented and is still current (with many adaptations) up to this day. At the time, it followed the pedagogical proposal implemented by Flávio Motta in 1956, as an adaptation of the Drawing Teachers Course, implemented at Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) in 1953.
 They are all included in this exhibition. They will be discussed more in detail further down.
 This is a subject for another occasion, but I would like to stress the importance of understanding critics and curators as part of the public, albeit in a very dedicated and specialised position. I believe the critic is a variation of the spectator, rather than a paraphrase of the artist.
 Except for the tends made straight on sidewalks, which holds a lot of meaning.
 From a historical point of view, it should be emphasised that this is a work carried out in 1968, in the imminence of Institutional Act Number 5 (Ai-5), which aggravated the repressive policy of the Brazilian military dictatorship in force since 1964. In that context, every unknown person was socially perceived as a threat to the regime, a subversive possibility and, simultaneously, as a risk of State violence.
 For a more extensive reading of THE BLACK WOMAN, see my essay “The geographer, the bad reviewer and the speleologist”, In: FREITAS, Douglas de (org.). Carmela Gross. São Paulo: Cobogó, 2018.
 In the essay quoted in the previous note, I drafted an interpretation of the title of this series of print: “Carmela Gross named them QUASARS, the largest emitters of energy in the universe, larger than stars and smaller than galaxies, whose definition was still in dispute at that time. / It seems pertinent that this powerful and mysterious cosmic fact lent its name as an introduction to the strange figures laboriously constructed by the artist. But this should not prevent a question from being asked: What actually makes these images so magnetic? It cannot be the simple absence of referentiality, after all, there are many occasional smudges and blots that have no obvious meaning and do not attract the eye for more than an instant. One hypothesis is that the centrality of the shadows on the paper, their movement (never complete) towards symmetry, and the high definition of their print, make the figure, no matter how indefinite, be identified as something constructed, produced with a purpose: drawn”.
 In addition to rhetorical arguments, art and visual poetry rely on visual emphases as transformers of the meaning of a sign. In the case of SOUTH (2019), the sum of corrugated parallel traces transposed into neon makes the word a resonance field that expands through space. In another work of 2002, Carmela Gross prints the letters S – U – L on three sheets. In them, what is seen is the result of innumerable grooves made by a dry pointed object on the metal engraving plate. The fine insistent and convulsive lines grow into thick ones that convert subtlety into power, frailty into imposition.
 In the famous essay, written in the heat of the moment, “The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (1852).
 In these two videos, the constitutive operation is done by the juxtaposition of images: in the first, as a succession of frames of simple dolls made with black adhesive tape on the pages of a notebook; in the second, as interpolation of dozens of photographs taken from printed media.
 It is important to emphasize that the linearity of the text forces a thematic and formal progression through the works on display, but all the assembly, taking advantage of the architecture of the space, privileged the concatenation of a non-linear space, one in which the pairs presented here actually occur by cross diagonals between different coordinates. That’s why it was mention previously that these works make up a “board”.
 The original proposal of this work was given in the urban art project “SCAPE” (2008), also known as “Christchurch Biennial of Art in Public Space”. The intervention would occupy two walkways, but, due to the concerns of the New Zealand organizers, only the first half of the work was made and installed.