Beauty and horror

Transformations of a poetic trip: Order in delirium

David Barro

Cabelo (book) | 2010

“It was the first animal I saw, after almost thirty hours on the raft. A shark’s fin strikes terror in us because we know it belongs to a voracious creature. But, in fact, nothing looks more harmless than a shark fin. It looks like nothing that belongs to an animal, much less a beast. It is green and rough, like tree bark. When I saw it cruising around the edges, I got the impression that it would have a fresh and somewhat bitter taste, like the rind of a vegetable. It was gone five o’clock. The sea was serene as the afternoon drew to a close. Other sharks approached the raft patiently and circled it until night had fully fallen. There were no lights, but I could feel them moving around me, tearing the calm surface with the edge of their fins.”

Translated excerpt from Relato de un náufrago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1970)

I cannot think of a better metaphor to describe Cabelo’s work than a shark. Its mere presence suggests and evokes mortal danger. The intensity of the moment, that light yet relentless drawing closer is also a strong feature of the work of this artist who is constantly concerned with death and transformation and, in a way, with the fragment resulting from that gap or schism and that is distilled in the kind of shamanic journey undertaken by the artist in each of his works.

Adorno made this point with brilliant accuracy: “The most demanding of the arts tend to go beyond the form as a whole, until it arrives at the fragmentary aspect”.1 And on that journey toward the fragment, temporality plays an important role by leaving time suspended. Cabelo’s creations incite one to explore, to discover, and in that sense they are works that always remain unfinished, as if they wanted to visualise the uncertainty of life. Therefore everything in Cabelo seems disordered, because, as Maurice Blanchot argued, it is the fragmentary element, rather than instability (non-fixation) that promises confusion and disorder.2

This can be clearly seen in his drawings, in which sentences dance and words intertwine with incomplete images. His images are erased and seem to evaporate before we can find a meaning for them, and his works precisely function when we manage to enter this abyss. They are slimmed down images; even when they are formed by a thick line the figure is toned down, acquiring the same lightness as the colourful canvases that carry Cabelo’s suspended narrative. Cabelo’s art has the texture of meditation and poetry, and thus its result is soft, fragile, naked and fluid.

But, as we have noted, the anarchic potential originating from disorder is one of the main attractions in Cabelo’s work. The expansion of the uncertain that hides within each action generates a rich and powerful tension. As in Jacques Derrida’s la différance, this space is explained by deviation, as in that ephemeral gesture of continuous change of Hélio Oiticica’s Parangolés, which represent so well the fragmented space-time construction process typical of shanty towns, where the dwellings remain forever unfinished and never seem to consolidate into a fixed form.

As has been observed with artists such as Hélio Oiticica in the past, Cabelo intends to emotionally rescue what has been lived – an un-transferable state capable of collectively revealing individual experience. In the case of Cabelo, he projects the chaos, the perceptive fissures that depart from logic, filtering them from the delirious in a gesture similar to surrealist automatic writing. How else could we describe a man sitting on a chair, bound by a mask trailing dental floss with hooks on the ends and submerged in glass vases also containing fish that sometimes explode? Cabelo constantly defends transformation and aesthetic marginality as the remains of the vernacular and his own history. And he manages to bring the spectator into this primeval or original, mysteriously unchartered world.

And so it is not strange for his drawings, installations, actions or performances, or whatever we wish to call them, to be characterised by the convulsive and by repetitive compulsion, by a stroll through certain iconoclastic gestures and acts that conform the poetry of the shapeless, the anarchic and radical, lyrical and agonizing, spiritual and sensitive. The set develops slowly in clear polysemy and is thus violated, penetrating its incommensurable reality in search of its true expression. I believe that this is without doubt a hyperbolic space that can only be understood from the point of view of strangeness, from a sort of apostasy in the form of a process. Cabelo develops a passion for transition, starting from excess and the limitless, from an eternal undoing, an abyssal detachment.

In a certain way his transformations remind me of Piranesi’s images of prisons, described by Aldous Huxley as metaphysical prisons.3 Indeed, both realities have a great deal of the metaphysical about them, with walls and buildings rising up out of nightmares, out of Kafkaesque anxiety. For Huxley, prisons are variations of a single symbol ‘that moves towards the reality that exists in the physical and metaphysical depths of the human soul to apathy and to confusion, to the nightmare and to angst, to incomprehension and panic’.4 Like in Piranesi, Cabelo’s actions draw incomprehensible flights from unlikely gestures bordering the whole through fragments that make up an architectural shape, seen in its most obvious case in Mi casa, su casa. Beauty and terror cross and overlap in an endless, tempting and impenetrable transformation, like Oiticica’s and Lygia Clark’s worlds.

But Cabelo forms his own vital restructuring and intervention into reality by delving into the obscure, into the Babelian fissure that declines into Utopian disorder, into excess that formalizes into remainders as it stops uncontrollably. In a certain way, in each of his drawings or actions we encounter a place that is out of place, a reality that works more like a tattoo, as a mark, a trail, or specifically as a mirror that spits the realities of marginality right into our faces. Thus, Cabelo’s worlds are like the heterotopias defined by Foucault,5 divided by the mirror: “I believe that between utopias and these quite other sites, these heterotopias, there might be a sort of mixed, joint experience, which would be the mirror. The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia in so far as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy. From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there”.6

It is in this type of mirror that the idea of transition is outlined. Paulo Reis reminds us of this confluence of time and space based on improbable coordinates: from the references to the creative chaos, from the erudite appropriation of Baudelaire’s poems, from rock and funk compositions, or from the Brazilian rhythm, whether evidenced in its music or the improvised constructions of the shanty towns.7 The shanty, as in the writings of Maurice Blanchot, hosts another time, one that is not fictitious, but exists in narration. It is the time of writing, like it is of Cabelo’s actions. Time is experienced here. In Cabelo, it is the time of the unprecedented, the improvised, the obscure, or more specifically, the absence of time, of the present without presence. And so the shanty as a heterotopia works when a rupture with traditional time is brought about, as in a cemetery. But it also works as a library where time never ceases its accumulation, within an endless “mal d’archive”. So it is an interruption of reality itself, of its time and space. The break is not necessarily the rupture of its continuity. It would be more of an ellipsis or a contemporary need to crash, to break into fragments, into a peripatetic trace that crawls over the surface of his drawings and, literally, in some of his actions.

We are speaking of displacements, of memories or embodiments that have become a trace. This is the product of the leftovers that remain, that resist. Because, as Derrida points out, ‘ruin lies not before us, it is neither a show nor an object of love. It is experience itself: neither the abandoned yet monumental fragment of a totality, nor as Benjamin thought, a theme of baroque culture. It is not exactly a subject, for it ruins the theme, the position, the presentation or the representation of anything. Ruin: it is faced with this memory, open like an eye or the socket of a bony orbit, that we can see without it showing us absolutely nothing/of the whole (rien de tout). To not show us absolutely nothing/of the whole. ‘To’ not show nothing of the whole is like saying: because ruin does not show absolutely nothing/of the whole for it intends to not show absolutely nothing/of the whole. Nothing of the totality that cannot open, perforate or tear itself at once’.8

Cabelo’s work is a lost poem that pursues an emotional response from the spectator: a question, a thought or critique about the environment and his relationship with objects and with the world. That is why he does not build works as concrete answers, but rather as ambiguities to help bring out the greatest variety of interpretations. It is a statement of the impossible, typical of poetry that allows a questioning of reality and what surrounds us, leading the spectator into contradictory feelings, generating an initial expectation that is then frustrated.
Cabelo works the incomprehensible aspect of history. Like in La invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940), the characters (spectators) seem incapable of perceiving the chance events that will befall them. The horror of the vacuum diminishes in an emptiness where animal characters survive, defying all logic. That is why Cabelo pushes the portrait away from reason and, as in Kafka, Melville, Musil, or a dribbling Garrincha, seeks the enigmatic, the homage to the obscure that oscillates when viewed by a spectator who is confronted by great beauty and great tragedy. As Beckett might have it, in the works of Cabelo our eyes are forced open to disorder.

It is not at all strange that when Cabelo designed a performance for the Arco Fair in 2008, the year in which Brazil was the invited country, he took a sentence from author Maria Zambrano as the basis of his creation: “There is no hell that is not the bowels of some heaven”. For Zambrano and, I think, also for Cabelo, the story of a human being, beginning with the horror of birth, is a fight between disappointment and hope, between possible realities and impossible dreams, between restraint and delirium. That is why, in many cases, reason is delirious, and when you reach the drunkenness of delirium it is necessary to wake up again. For Zambrano, poetry is an order within delirium and I think that to take a route through the art fair in a rickety cart, bound in plastic, with plastic snake skins, empty bottles and dolls, reciting verses, with the premise of being a preacher of the shadows, that is when this delicious, improvised delirium has all the force that displaced poetry can have, fracturing the perception of those who want to allow communication.

We are now left with the question of how to classify and label Cabelo’s work. Ricardo Basbaum’s 1995 text “Escultura Carioca”, about the exhibition of the same name, points out that the discussion was not in the category of “sculpture”, but of the “object”; that before there is a category of art, there is an attitude, a stance taken by the artist apropos what it means to work with art in the here and now.9 Basbaum demonstrated how this option implies a hybrid state that allows the use of any material or space to create an installation or to give sense to a performance, or even a painting or sculpture. The challenge therefore resides in approaching the artistic without certainties or categories, which implies a distinct approach from the artist. In that exhibition we could see a series of mechanisms for spectator involvement involving the hypnotic and subliminal, which were subsequently seen in Cabelo’s work. It is not by chance that, two years later, Cabelo was included in the documenta X, in Kassel, starting fires with the same ease he displayed a few months previously at the Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa space with his action No Jardim dos Jardins Ambulantes (In the garden of the itinerant gardens).

In this Lisbon “instauration”, in a sort of purification of the place, an essential eroticism was provoked, if we follow Bataille´s conception of the erotic as the violation of the pure I, as a connection to death. As if he were drawing a line between the victim and the executioner where the latter is imbued with animal suffering, as was the case in that first performance, Cefalópe Heptópode, which took place at the “Antárctica Arte com a Folha” exhibition and would be repeated at the documenta X. Cabelo prowled like a shark in a fish bowl, reciting poems and statements about the condition of the artist. Cabelo’s works create an erotic connection with death, as in the philosophy of Bataille; a death that is paradoxically the aroma of existence.

As viewers, walking through the work Mi casa su casa, a kind of labyrinth of loose, worn out draperies covered in apparently improvised, surrealist drawings, we are also moving through a space of seduction. As in the text “O Marujo Mascate”, when descending through bifurcating galleries we encounter strange beings. Entrance into this world becomes something sacred. In the meantime, colours, figures and a series of sentences shelter us and pull us in, making greater involvement with the work possible. The same happens in the work Mianmar Miroir, where photography, drawing and video flirt with a twisting of perception; or when we are confronted with one of his broad stroke individual drawings, fluid as cigarette smoke and unstable and soft as the language of dreams. These works by Cabelo also play with the margins and fragments, with disorder and perversion, until reaching an interesting state of ‘suspension’. They resemble tragic clouds filled with painting and poetry that glide over the horizon of our eyes to talk to us about a certain impossibility of completion, of the difficulty that allows his work to continue being so fresh, because, as Jacques Derrida notes “if the Tower of Babel had been finished, architecture would not exist for only the impossibility of its conclusion made it possible for architecture, as well as many languages, to have a history.”10

Cabelo’s territories are on the verge of uprooting themselves, as if they had the potential ability to jump from one place to the other, like a tightrope walker. And always guided by a concept close to that of Nietzsche’s that when discovering an unexplored land where nobody has staked out any borders, we find a land beyond everything and a world that concentrates not only the beautiful, but also the strange and the frightful. An unattainable world. It is like walking through the Paulo Leminski poem that reminds us that this life is a voyage and that it is a shame that we are only passing through.

  1. T. W. Adorno, Teoría Estética, 1970.
  2. Maurice Blanchot, L’ecriture du desastre, Gallimard, Paris, 1980.
  3. Aldous Huxley: Prisons, Trianon Press, London, 1949.
  4. Idem.
  5. Michel Foucault, “Espacios diferentes” in Obras esenciales Vol. III. Estética, ética y hermenéutica, Editorial Paidós, Barcelona, 1999.
  6. Michel Foucault, De los espacios otros (Des espaces autres), Conference that took place at El Cercle des études architecturals, 14th of March 1967, published in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, nº 5, October 1984. Translated by Pablo Blitstein and Tadeo Lima.
  7. Paulo Reis, “Cabelo – entre o espírito e o sentido”, Dardo XS, Santiago de Compostela, 2010.
  8. Jacques Derrida, Mémoire d’aveugle, 1990. Text written in the context of the exhibition of drawings done by blind people at the Louvre Museum.
  9. Ricardo Basbaum, Escultura carioca – debate. Presented at the debate “Escultura Contemporánea”. Paço Imperial, Rio de Janeiro, 12th of November 1994. In the magazine Item, nº1. Rio de Janeiro, 1995. (Published in Spanish in Arte contemporáneo brasileño: documentos y críticas, Dardo, Santiago de Compostela, 2009.
  10. J. Derrida: “La metáfora arquitectónica” in No escribo sin luz artificial, Ed. Cuatro, Valladolid, 1999.