Between sense and spirit

Paulo Reis

Cabelo (book) | 2010

Thought is only interesting when it is dangerous.

Michel Maffesoli1

Since classical Antiquity, poets have been assigned the role of the outsider. Expelled from Plato´s Republic, they have forever been branded an inopportune myth, seen as dangerous individuals capable of making society vulnerable with their transgressive ability to contaminate. The fringes have been the refuge of poets, visionaries and even madmen. From the philosopher Diogenes to the outcast poets of the 19th century – especially the Saturnine Paul Verlaine and his pupil Arthur Rimbaud – the art of transgression became the epithet of creative freedom. This is precisely the task of philosophy in the 19th century that, led by Friedrich Nietzsche, is based on nihilism – moulded into visceral anti-Platonism and injected with the corresponding intelligence and freedom. Nietzsche’s Dionysian machinery is inseparably bound to transgression in acts of creation. In formulating the Apollonian and Dionysian concepts,2 the philosopher postulated that the Apollonian is the principle of becoming an individual in which the creative process is achieved through experience in the measure that self awareness is attained. Apollo is the god that offers us the image in the form of appearance and the Apollonian is the search for knowledge using the principle of “know thyself.” Dionysus, as seen by the maenads, promotes orgiastic parades and collective trances, resulting in the experience of man and nature reconciling and through which universal harmony and a mystical feeling of unity is found. The Dionysian experience is the possibility of escaping from division and individuality, merging into the “one” where the part is integrated into the totality.

The Apollonian and Dionysian forces are fully unleashed in the encounter between mankind, self and nature; or, in other words, with the “primordial one”. To intensify the aesthetic antagonism between these two forces, Nietzsche moves from making aesthetic metaphors to the psychological opposition of the dream or drunkenness, and so, based on mankind’s aesthetic instinct, he arrives at the two metaphysical principles of the world and interprets art as a cosmic event. However, in a tragic world there is no redemption, just the inexorable law of decline whose aesthetic phenomena justify the existence of the world. In other words, Nietzsche preaches transcendence through the comprehension of the spirit of ancient Greek tragedy and of its decline, explaining the cause of decadence in Western culture and supplying us with an odd axiological viewpoint that is the work’s ethical vector. For Nietzsche, Western culture is the ultimate manifestation of the inevitable and irreversible decadent state established by three founding pillars: the first is religion and its values, which repress mankind; next is morality, which restricts our way of being and way of life – what the philosopher calls anti-natural; and finally, reason, established in science through the positivist stratification of being and subsequent pre-rejection of the instinctive and biological.

When I think of Cabelo’s work, I am forcibly struck by the realization that he is an heir of Nietzsche’s school of thinking. Gifted with dithyrambic powers, Cabelo appeals to Apollonian beauty in the most Dionysian style. His actions are a collective catharsis that draw on the ritualistic and the states of anthropophagic possession of myths, bandits, heroes, gods and demigods created by mankind to confront the mystery of life. We cannot call Cabelo’s actions a performance because this term does not do justice to the true essence of his actions, in which music and the spoken word serve as the basis for the artist to create integrated artistic systems (his tropical form of gesamtkunstwerk?). Cabelo conjugates the surrealist poetry of the unconscious flow with the social violence present in the various layers of human history. With enchantment – and a fake lack of control – Cabelo disturbs the audience with actions in which he employs primordial elements such as fire and water, with prehistoric animals and scatology. The violence referenced is what Glauber Rocha announced as mankind’s biggest cultural legacy. In Cefalópode Heptópode, which took place as part of the exhibition “Antártica Artes com a Folha” (1996), Cabelo was already displaying the mediums that would guide his work by employing an aquarium with live fish, dental floss, fishing weights and hooks and hooded actors seated around a table. The dental floss was sewn to the hoods at eye level and had fishing hooks and lead weights at the ends that led to the aquarium. In this performance, the artist uses soybean oil and alcohol to set fire to the aquarium while walking in a trance and quoting poems and phrases regarding the status of the artist. This same action would be repeated in a more complex version, in 1997, when he participated in documenta X, in Kassel. He once again set fire to the assemblage, this time in the city’s old train station, invoking the wrath of German ecologists. Cabelo laughed about how a country that had millions of humans on fire could get hysterically concerned about a fish: something served up on tables everywhere, on a daily basis. “Democracy is very funny (Democratie ist lustig)” thought Joseph Beuys on being expelled from university. That’s how things are, thought Cabelo.

In 2008, at the international contemporary art fair ARCOmadrid, the artist conceived the action O Marujo Mascate [The Peddling Sailor] (of the “Shepherd of the Shadows” series), a homage to the history of the shipwrecks containing a maritime tale that was very controversial. “He roamed through the space in a rickety wooden cart decorated with plastic snake skins, empty bottles, dolls and urucum powder, Cabelo appears as the preacher of an unlikely procession, dragged by two ‘beings’. That is what the artist termed the men who lay on skateboards with their faces covered and their lower bodies wrapped in plastic bags, dragging themselves along the floor like snakes. Along the route, Cabelo recited verses in English, Spanish and Portuguese, of a supposed sect, proclaiming himself as preacher of the shadows. The playful tone, the improvisation and the mistakes along the route all clashed with the fair’s sterile and heavily sober atmosphere. On arriving at the performance area, another ‘being’ (a dwarf) joined the other two ‘beings’. At this point, Cabelo proceeded with his declamation whilst the ‘beings’ opened a box with urucum and blue plastic pieces that formed a quote by Spanish writer María Zambrano (1904-1996): ‘No hay infierno que no sea la entraña de algún cielo’ [There is no hell that is not the bowels of some heaven]. And so, with the ambivalences of both these worlds, we continue, Cabelo notes”.3

In the action Marujo Mascate, o retorno, na Foz da língua da Serpente, that took place at the 7th Bienal do Mercosul (2009), the artist evokes the plural and absurd character present in his work. Here, Cabelo and the dwarf dig in the sand of an “arqueoh!lnãológico” [archeoh!notlogical] site that is the area in the desert of the “absurd sea” that has become wilderness and where the Mascate Sailor has set up the La Mer Prospection and Delivery Camp. From the small hut on top of the miniscule hill, they leave in search of “arqueoh!nãológico” treasures with mummies issuing forth words that form oracular sentences, such as, LIQUID MULES GLASS MONKEYS MARBLE MAMMOTHS IVORY MORAYS. On the set, the image of a large spinning disc, with the round label resembling a large sun, is projected. The sound is from Debussy’s La Mer and, as the record plays, it suffers interference. We hear noises as it slows, stops, spins backwards… and blends with the sound of the other sun, (could it be the same one?), a red, crepuscular half-sun playing a different part of La Mer, but which is also full of interference. It is projected on top of a ramp, where a cart with skateboard wheels points into the sun and the driver is a Buddha. Strings come out of the Buddha’s eyes, with seagulls attached to the ends (‘gaivolhos’ [seagulleyes]). These are the animals that pull the cart: one is gliding, the other, dive-bombing the excavation site …”4

In the “instauração” No Jardim dos jardins ambulantes (Garden of the Drifting Gardens) at Carpe Diem Arte e Pesquisa, in Lisbon, the artist invited three rappers for the performance. In the Palace’s historic gardens, he placed Buddhas on precarious skate boards made of drawers, old wood, and stones from the garden that were then pulled by swallows, snails and turtles – ancestral beings commonly used by the artist in his drawings and installations. Through music (“the bases”, as he referred to them on the opening night), poetry and fire, the artist “purified” the site, returning it to the condition of a sacred place of creation. In this action, which disturbed the audience who knew nothing about his work and the shamanic power of his performances, a catharsis was generated amidst fear, perplexity and euphoria. With the apparent passivity of the Buddhas that surrounded the audience, Cabelo gave rise to Dionysian senses by rubbing together yin and yang: the forces that govern life; given an audience educated in the civilized values of the well behaved, distributing the book Civilization and its Discontents5 would have all that was needed to complete the action. In the book, Freud explores the human paradox that in order for Man to have created a civilized society, it was necessary for him to repress his violent instincts. For the author, these impulses that cannot be satisfied end up generating neuroses and unhappiness. There is nothing more illustrative of the thought of this iconoclast artist who is governed by the symbol of fire and constant renewal.

The medium may change – from performances to actions, drawings to installations, videos to concerts – but Cabelo´s signature is always present in a delirium inducing and inspired fiction composed of natural and spiritual beings. “The truth is that the drawings on stone make the drawings on fabric seem overly static, because the surface of the latter is too flat and comprehensible in a single glance. Stone has its own veins that the artist explores skilfully, either to mimic the back of a meditative being or resemble the face of an enigmatic (divine?) figure, as well as its organic shape, which Cabelo uses to model a snake’s writhing or the smoke rising from a joint – which could equally be a river gushing from Shiva´s head. Yes, Buddhism and Hinduism, amongst other sources of vital energy and Zen feeling, nourish the artist’s creative processes.

The exhibition’s more representational works are not those in the shape of turtles or Buddhas. The denser works are the less sculpted ones; ones that preserve, in their raw form, the mysteries of Cabelo’s delirious narrative: when coming across the inscriptions on the stones, the path through the exhibition becomes more syncopated. We can read “stone age”, light age”, “here and now”, “tomorrow yesterday”, “from here onwards”. Is the artist talking of enlightenment or of darkness? Of transcendence or finitude? In Cabelo´s vocabulary, the conjunction “or” seems non-existent. Stone and fabric and art and rubbish and carry on.6

There is a constant reference to death in his work, and there is a historical reason for this. “When I was twelve, my father was murdered. Death proportions a transformation. That is part of my story. My contact with the unconscious is very intense, lacking censorship. I let both the ugly and the beautiful come to light. I like sharks, I like animals, and the shark evokes both beauty and terror at the same time. Transformation is another frequent topic in my discourse”.7 Further to the (instaura) ações – a term said to have been created by Tunga, one of his most important influences along with Hélio Oiticica, Artur Barrio and Cildo Meireles –Joseph Beuys also comes to mind (who would, in fact, influence any artist worth his salt), as does Arthur Bispo do Rosário, because of the way in which he creates his own cosmogony. In addition to these artists, Cabelo states that his influences, what he calls “hamper of cats”, include the footballer Mané Garrincha, composer Luís Gonzaga, and poet Paulo Leminsky. Cabelo´s actions take place in huts, grottos, and labyrinthine spaces that he leads us to explore through threads – and could these all be the red thread from the romantic Goethe’s story?

His spaces evoke, in the way they fill our eyes with a lightness that proportions the feeling of floating in the cosmos, as well as with terror, due to a seeming lack of control and possession, both fantasy and phantasmagoria, allegories and myths, trembling and terror. In his work Mi casa su casa, one of the many mystical labyrinths he produces from torn fabric, we can enter as if in a sacred space of revelation. Within, we are taken by Dionysus, who “gallops” in the artist’s spirit, giddy with the magic of the forms that adorn the space. Here, Cabelo writes mystic and poetic truths, existential elegies in the form of aphorisms, mixing drawings of animals, people, trees, rivers, seas, houses, gods and constellations, thus creating his own melancholic cosmogony that seems to announce its disappearance. I believe this melancholy is a common inheritance amongst authors who think like Cabelo. It is not just Beuys who can be read as an introduction to current actions, if we want to find others, conceptually, if not so formally, despite the similarities, we need only look to Thomas Hirschhorn, Damien Hirst, Costa Vece, Marcia X and Cabelo himself. These artists, like Beuys, operate between the truth demanded by the work and their own individual truths. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Anschool constitutes a learning process about the transformative power of culture and its socio-political implications; this line is also present in the Costa Vece’s actions and installations, using the simplest of materials. However, the results are environments that generate thought on the social role of art. The scientific school of the search for the truth of the body, that fabulous energy-generating organism, sees Damien Hirst and his Theories, Models, Method, Approaches, Assumptions, Results and Findings enter the Beuysian arena and speculating about the physicality of death – which for Beuys himself comes in his Wirtschaftswerte (1980). If the search for the spiritual led Beuys to Pan-Germanic mythology in a kind of gesamtkunstwerk search, for mestizo-turned-saint Cabelo, his actions (Cavalo do cavalo) seek to extract the shamanism that can radiate from art in Afro-Brazilian rites.8

Miguel von Hafe Pérez notes that Cabelo shares, “with the Brazilian avant-gardes of the sixties and seventies, including Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, as well as still-active companions from previous generations, such as Artur Barrio or Tunga, the same libertarian feeling regarding the conditioners of a hierarchized legitimising system for the arts that is structured on putative, commercial or institutional ‘success stories’. Abstaining from the utopic visions that proclaimed the end of the ‘white cube’, he knows that it is in the transition between the street and the museum that he can best communicate and, in this sense, appeal to aesthetic experiences as if sensorial surveys of everyday life were translated into more, or less, ephemeral works of art.

The idea of transition, of travel, of kaleidoscopic mobility between different forms of expression lies in the artist’s desire to make an environment where space and time converge and appear from improbable coordinates: from references to the creative chaos of the improvised constructions in Brazil’s shanty towns, to the cultured appropriation of Baudelaire’s poems for his band’s songs – music that mixes rock, funk and Brazilian popular music –, to reminiscences of his work as a worm breeder that are the origin of the erictónios – crawling, hooded beings bound from the waist down in improbably long, black, plastic strips –, to his fluid and solar drawing and to his improvised poetry; it all comes together in a perpetual past-present that is the time of fruition, the time of participation.

The environment created by Cabelo in this white cube does not represent: it invites you to dive into another reality. With rare exceptions, you penetrate into a sombre, crepuscular and visceral universe where the organic and the shapeless ramify in discrete segments: from video images taken of fungicides hitting water, to the presence of the erictónios that punctuated the opening of this aptly titled piece: Imediações de Monte Basura.

If the space is deconstructed by the ephemeral aspect of the structures built on the site, like a kind of dwelling/cocoon built from the simplest of materials, one element imposes itself as a recurrent, protecting figure: the small “warriors” created by Cabelo using the image of a child guerrilla fighter from Myanmar (previously Burma). The cut and mirrored face of the young warrior, who together with his twin brother led one of the most feared guerrilla groups in his country, is juxtaposed with a broad variety of bottles of alcoholic drinks wrapped in plastic sheets. These “warriors” emerge from the post-industrial dump and occupy the space with a threatening presence. Here, we should also talk about the transition of sensations: between a kind of libertarian, shamanic energy and the brutal rawness of the reality that surrounds us. It is not about glamourizing the street or poverty, something that Hélio Oiticica predicted from the reception some of his projects received. On the contrary, we can understand that the leap into the abyss is a leap into the unknown – both for the audience and for the artist. From this leap, Cabelo creates the possibility of art that is indifferent to categories, where instead of finding “solutions”, it is in the process that, like an archaeologist, the artist patiently digs in the memory of a primordial art where the verb and the action confuse themselves in an intoxicating continuum.

But life is not like that. Or is it?”9

In Myanmar Miroir (the corridor), “a labyrinthine installation that confronts us with the tragic aspect of contemporary existence, Cabelo, creates a considerable construction employing a variety of media, including photography, drawing and video that compels the body to twist and dance in order to pass. Moving through the installation, images touch the body and are grafted onto our retinas like tattoos. The starting point for Myanmar Miroir was a photograph published in newspapers across the world that show twins Johnny and Luther Htoo, who, at the age of twelve were considered gifted with special powers and became famous for leading a Christian guerrilla army (The Army of God), against the dictatorship in then Burma, now Myanmar. When Cabelo saw the powerful image of these brothers – Johnny’s angelic, feminine face in contrast with Luther’s more adult image, partially bald, smoking a cigar – he became obsessed with the creative possibilities it offered and began incorporating not just the photograph in his work, but also some of its most intimate meanings: the question of the double, the mirror effect, resistance and messianic powers. As he writes in one of the works that composes the installation, “Here is from the end onward/It is the work through diversion/Throes of light/Lightning rod of the Paraclete/Egg-Bomb/Expand…/Big-Bang/Bang”.10 Apollo is the god of beauty but also the lord of war. This rejection of the Apollonian is made to remind us that in times of war, only art can be used as collective conscience. Maffesoli states that “life is made of destruction and construction. Nor does thought escape from this logic, because it needs to reveal the futility of the analyses of these ‘experts’ in perfectly predictable discourse in which startling conformism is only equalled by their ignorance of daily existence… Here, we have the epistemological and ethical focal point of a strong line of thinking that is coherent with its time. Thus, it is lucid, stimulating and amoral. Before criticism and before action, it is necessary to celebrate the world as it is, for what it is. And so forget the angry criticism by unhappy souls. Not through disdain (for we know we need to be thrifty with this sentiment), but through the simple fact that it is by breaking with an opinion, especially when categorized, that we can pay tribute to a line of thinking that is aligned with its time… Thinking the singular metamorphosis of life in its unfolding, promoting the return or the re-updating of what always was… The shifting between knowledge and the quotidian, between spirit and sense”,11 this is Cabelo’s intent.

  1. Maffesoli, Michel, O ritmo da vida: variações sobre o imaginário pós-moderno (Le rythme de la vie); translation by Clóvis Marques. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2007.
  2. Nietzsche, Friedrich; A Origem da Tragédia. Proveniente do espirito da música, translation by Erwin Theodor -São Paulo: Cupolo Ed., 1948.
  4. The artist’s writings on the performance.
  5. Freud, Sigmund; Futuro de uma ilusão / Mal-estar na civilização e outros trabalhos; São Paulo: Imago, 2006.
  6. Monachesi, Juliana, De pedra a pano, in Bravo! Nº 107, July 2006.
  7. Prata, Isabela interview with the artist.
  8. Reis, Paulo; O último trágico do século XX, Dardo Magazine nº 1; Santiago de Compostela: Dardo ds, 2006.
  9. Pérez, Miguel von Hafe, Traficante de emoções, ou o arqueólogo da poesia primeira, Exhibition brochure for the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona.
  10. Reis, Paulo, Exhibition brochure for Cabelo /Mianmar miroir in 3+1 Arte Contemporânea, Lisboa, February de 2007 (
  11. Maffesoli, Michel, O ritmo da vida: variações sobre o imaginário pós-moderno (Le rythme de la vie); translation by Clóvis Marques. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2007.