For over a decade, Anna Maria Maiolino has produced a series of sculptural objects called Outros (Others, initiated in 2000). They are isplayed upon metal structures resembling tall, square stools topped with blocks of concrete. As one enters a gallery space and is confronted by a multitude of these blocks resting upon their identical supports, the first impression is that of sameness, of repetition. The false impression of familiarity invoked by the minimalist exhibition aesthetic soon dispels as, on closer inspection, each block reveals distinct topographies hidden within. Some contain stone-like objects that remain as witnesses to the fullness that once was; others have finger-like protuberances emerging from the inner walls, indicating a desire for that which has gone; another variation has the empty spaces re-filled as if the secret they revealed was too painful to be exposed. These strange and distinct inner landscapes are far from what one might call inviting or picturesque. On the contrary, they summon feelings of abjection. They are not exactly threatening landscapes, but in their suggestion of internal organs they appear repulsive and, precisely because of this, they implicate the viewer’s perversely voyeuristic gaze. These uncanny objects tempt one into thinking of them as autonomous enigmas to be deciphered. Their otherness invites the construction of relations with the recognizable, with the known. Outros is a loaded title that invokes a number of associations whether philosophical, psychoanalytic or as the very incarnation of a post-colonial experience. The work’s apparent hybrid character suggests a bridge between the minimalist-conceptual legacies that we have learned, perhaps too readily, to identify with American avant-gardes and our expectations of a Latin American visceral sensibility.
As convincing as such associations may seem, I would suggest that, like much of Maiolino’s work, these Outros more than any external historical legacy or theoretical premise, reveal the artist’s own self. This is not to say that they are purely subjective expressions, capricious self-indulgences of an artist, but that the formation of her “self” is inseparable from the progression of her art, and in this sense they belong to each other as the very immanence of the work and the conceptualization of a life. They form a double process of rescue wherein, as the artist herself has suggested, art appears as a form of salvation.
It has become common to describe Maiolino’s five decades as an artist as having its origins in Brazil, that her work is the product of a particular art-historical context, that it follows its specific genealogies and socio-political tragedies. Her early role within the New Figuration group during the 1960s, her participation in key exhibitions of the period such as “New Brazilian Objectivity” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro, in 1967, the proximities that she later developed with artists such as Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, tend to support such a reading. Yet Maiolino is an artist who is herself other to that context. Her work is testimony to a process of becoming rather than belonging. Her own complex relationship with her adopted country is better understood through an artistic practice whose beginning is made all the more coherent by her latest work. Maiolino’s Outros therefore carry the burden of a lifelong struggle for identification, and as such reveal more than aesthetic or morphological associations with a particular art-historical lineage. Outros is a name that unearths the artist’s own trajectory, revealing her own subjective innards perhaps. The process of molding is one that involves working with the negative in order to achieve the positive; the inside and the outside are thus inter-connected. These are works that are related through their process, their making.
Maiolino named an early series of her molded concrete works, produced in the late 1980s, Novas Paisagens (New Landscapes, 1989-1991). It is a series that strikes me as being reminiscent of Jean Fautrier’s use of matter — his work’s thick, paste-like qualities. Fautrier had employed such a technique to portray the hostages, those others that, according to art-historical mythology, the artist heard being executed by the Nazis or the Gestapo while he hid in a basement during World War II. Like Fautrier, Maiolino seems to seek to portray, through the materialness of the substance at hand, that which is unportrayable, that which is absolutely other. Not surprisingly, the theme of death runs through her work with a constancy that is only equaled by the theme of life. Life and death are, after all, the individual parenthesis in the overall continuum of humanity.
In her film Um Momento Por Favor (One Moment Please, 1999–2004), a close-up shot of a face, clearly marked by the passing of time, sings and sways to a tune with a lack of self-consciousness that enthuses from both pleasure and a nonchalance brought by age.
The source of the pleasure is an old Neapolitan song, Serenatella a na Cumpagna ‘e Scola by Roberto Murolo, that plays in the background and that the figure in close-up sings along to in a broken and slightly out-of-tune voice. Like the secrets in the landscapes of Outros, the song tells a melancholic story of retrospection and hope: “Life, wronged life / that I lost / that I left / what am I thinking? / Go and find now / that happiness / that could accompany me.” One could assume that this work portrays a longing for origins — that it is driven by nostalgia for her Italian childhood — but this would not be precise, for Murolo’s Neapolitan dialect is itself foreign to Maiolino’s Calabrese upbringing. The estrangement that the song implies — that stepping aside from oneself — could be seen to have its parallel in Maiolino’s film, with the ridding of the superficiality of appearance, with the assertion of the true self through abjection, through reduction, through the elimination of all external indicators of selfhood. As such, Um Momento Por Favor reveals more than a line of thought; it outlines a process of creation that has accompanied her for the last twenty years or so. It is an autobiographical work that describes the coming to terms with a life in exile, with a life lived as other. It gazes not at an origin but at the self.
Similarly, in 1993 Maiolino produced a work from molded concrete and pigment composed of 143 units, each one resembling a small loaf of bread, arranged vertically within a grid-like formation, thirteen units wide and eleven high. Only slightly different in size and/or color, each unit is placed according to horizontal lines that are similar in tone. The relationship between similarity and difference is further emphasized by the fact that within these horizontal groupings the units are placed side by side, touching each other and forming a line, while each line is slightly separated from the other neighboring horizontal lines. Although there are more units within the horizontal lines, the height is therefore greater than the width.
Maiolino has been producing molded works in concrete or plaster since the Novas Paisagens of the late 1980s and has been interested in working with grid formations for even longer. What distinguishes this particular work from other works in molded concrete is the fact that there is a clear desire to emphasize the difference between each unit or group. Such an emphasis is stressed in this particular case by the title the artist chose, Um, Nenhum, Cem Mil (One, None, One Hundred Thousand), which was borrowed from the 1926 novel by the Sicilian playwright Luigi Pirandello. The novel recounts the actions of its protagonist, Vitangelo Moscarda, who realizes that the images that others have of him are not only distinct to each other but do not correspond to his true self. What follows is a spiraling and maddening quest to erase these false masks in order to unveil that true self.
It would not constitute too much of a speculative leap to suggest that Maiolino identified with such a quest to the extent of associating one of her works with this fictional narrative. One, None, One Hundred Thousand is a work with particular significance within her creative trajectory, poised at the crux of what could be said to be the artist’s coming of age, the moment she reaches her maturity, when her art gains its own distinct identity and overall coherence, when it finds its true self. Unlike artists whose work is identified with the breakthroughs of their youth, with Maiolino it is the cumulative nature of the practice that reveals its overall sense, its poetic purpose and belongingness. As in Murolo’s song in which happiness is found in retrospect, Maiolino’s work gains coherence as it progresses. Her early works become all the more significant as new layers are placed upon them; her earliest works are revealed by her latest. Maiolino’s process of accumulation, which is physically present in many works, such as the Terra Modelada (Modeled Earth, initiated in 1994) series, is intrinsically connected with its opposite, with elimination, with the reduction of form to its bare minimum. In 1992, Maiolino wrote a short poem that perhaps best illustrates this apparent paradox:
I seize the minute
the thousandth of a thousandth of an instant
I add-subtract time
until the end
Like Pirandello’s character Moscarda, Maiolino’s lifelong search for identification has been based on a process of elimination, one of reduction of all elements that are external to the essential self that she, as both an artist and a person, has searched for. This is of course a desire that arises from the experience of displacement. Her work is associated with such diverse, divergent and sometimes outright contradictory theoretical/aesthetic/historic identities that to approach it afresh might require a peeling away of layers, or at the very least a revealing of the masks that have been placed upon a body of work so broad and diverse that it can hardly be singularly contained. There is a continuous and coherent preoccupation with questions of selfhood that invite broad statements, yet such overarching definitions fail to take into account the fact that this is a preoccupation in transit, manifested at different times and always evolving. By stripping down all that is superfluous, all that represented the image of that other to which she once wished to belong, Maiolino reveals not the legacy of Brazilian art but her own significance within it.
Michael Asbury is an art critic, curator and art historian. He is deputy director of the research centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN) at the University of the Arts London (UAL).
Anna Maria Maiolino (b. 1942, Italy) lives in São Paulo.
Selected solo shows: Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; Hauser & Wirth, New York; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley (CA); MASP, São Paulo; Malmö Kunsthalle; Fundação Antoní Tàpies, Barcelona; Camden Arts Centre, London; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan.
Selected group shows: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; KunstHalle by Deutsche Bank, Berlin; 49 Nord 6 Est – Frac Lorraine, Metz; dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel; Frac Ile-de-France – Le Plateau, Paris; MoMA, New York; 29 Bienal de São Paulo; Kunsthalle Wien.
Upcoming shows: Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan (solo).