Where the Living Ain’t Easy
Interview with Adriano Costa by Kiki Mazzucchelli
The physical harshness of São Paulo’s urban fabric forms the basis of an investigation into materiality and its conditions
Tapetes series, 2009/2012
sewing, fabric, acrylic and silkscreen on cloth 165 x 130 cm
Kiki Mazzucchelli: Let’s start by talking about the relationship of your work with the city of São Paulo.
Adriano Costa: Living in São Paulo is not easy. There are lots of advantages, but it is very hard to get around. It is a very tense, chaotic city, and my work often reflects that. Even when I use light materials, such as textiles, there is a sense of violence: they are worn out. I work with fabrics that have been used for cleaning, such as bath towels, which also have a direct relationship to the body. And this has to do with the city.
AC: I believe there is always a dichotomy, not only in the city of São Paulo, but also in Brazil as a whole. On the surface, there is an image of euphoria and happiness, but people suffer all kinds of violence here. São Paulo, in particular, is quite cosmopolitan. There is a lot of communication between this city and ‘great centres’ of the world (although the idea of ‘centre’ is questionable), such as New York, London and Berlin. But at the same time, we are very distant. In São Paulo you have this paradoxical feeling of being far and close at the same time.
KM: When your work started to be shown here, the kind of art presented at galleries and museums was largely very ‘clean’ and well finished. You brought a certain ‘dirty’ aesthetic from the São Paulo streets into the gallery space. This is also present in the work of other Brazilian artists, from different generations, such as Ivens Machado.
AC: Sure, I recently saw a group show at Pinacoteca that included some of his works. He is a great artist, but not easily commercialised, not so celebrated, and maybe this is why. It seems that in Brazil there is a need to identify artworks with well-made products, which is something I am not very interested in. Maybe it is because our art system is fairly new.
KM: But there are some recent examples of a more welcoming attitude towards this type of practice, for instance the ‘rediscovery’ of Lina Bo Bardi’s work in the past few years. Her projects, particularly after her experience in the northeast of Brazil, were very different from the sensual, beautiful architectures produced by other Brazilian practitioners at the time, and she often referred to her projects as ‘ugly’.
AC: And she also emphasised the human side of architecture: how people actually use buildings. Projects like SESC Pompeia or MASP truly integrate with their surroundings. It is quite interesting to think about that in a city like São Paulo, where there are very few places designed to bring people together in a harmonious manner. At the University of São Paulo (USP), for instance, the college buildings are located very far from each other. I’ve been told that the campus was designed this way because the university started to grow during the dictatorship, so it was an attempt to keep people apart. And São Paulo is still very much like that. The communication between the centre, where we are now, and the periphery, where I was born, is very difficult. This is somehow present in my work. I’ve always felt the need to move from one place to the other; I grew up realising that it’s not easy.
KM: Is this something you incorporate deliberately in your work or is it more intuitive?
AC: I think it has always been a necessity. It is not something I chose. When I did my BA at USP I spent two-and-a-half hours every day on public transport to get there in time for classes. I had to cross the whole city, and this sort of experience stays with you. I never work with a predetermined project. Rather, it is a certain material or colour that determines my direction, and when other elements are incorporated, one thing starts to relate to another, some problems emerge, and I try to solve them. Sometimes, there is no solution, so I have to deal with that too. This procedure has a lot to do with being in São Paulo: there is a feeling of impotence from being in this place and my work reflects that. The reason behind that is not so important – the physical impossibility of crossing the city or whatever – but this impossibility appears in the work and it is often not solved. This is something I have to make very clear. For instance, when I show my fabric works, it is always an issue: will the public destroy them? Am I going to do something about this? In fact, I prefer to let it happen, and often they are destroyed. When I presented this work at the Astrup Fearnley Museum exhibition (Imagine Brazil, 2013), the curators asked me if we should isolate the area and I said no. I told them: the work will be destroyed anyway, and one of them replied: “not in this country”. So two hours into the opening, the work was completely different. I wouldn’t even say ‘destroyed’, but it was different. It was transformed by the actions of the public. Instead of thinking about ways to stop this, I’d rather think about how people receive my work, and what happens in their interactions with it. This is more interesting than trying to control a situation. São Paulo is an uncontrollable city. If you look around, you see that all the buildings are different. There is a chaos, a lack of unity, which feeds my work instead of making me anxious.
KM: During a group show in Paris your fabric piece ended up in the bin…
AC: This makes me think about some things that interest me. I like art. I really think art is very important, and I maintain a position of reverence towards artworks. But I’m interested in thinking about the extent to which art is something that needs to be revered. Or, on the contrary, how art can be left within the reach of the public to see how they deal with it – whether they will maintain this reverence. Maybe this is why most of my works are on the floor. If you go to a museum or a gallery, it is obvious that the works are often placed at eye level or above. By putting them on the floor, you can ask why they are presented in this manner.
KM: São Paulo is home to a large community of artists. You studied at ECA, you are from my generation, a generation formed in the 1990s when the art system started to consolidate. Do you take part in a dialogue with other generations?
AC: There is a dialogue with artists and with the art circuit, but the artwork should not stay only in this ghetto. When we think about dialogue, we should ask: what is the percentage of the population that comes into a gallery or a museum? It is a very small percentage, so there is no real dialogue with the collective body. São Paulo imposes very strong social divisions. I guess it has to do with the way the city has grown, as if the physical barriers we have created have led to other types of barriers and certain types of behaviours.
KM: Going back to your work, this kind of ‘dirty’ aesthetic, to use a very generic term, is something that has only been accepted or incorporated into the local art circuit very recently. There are some parallels between your work and that of someone like Fernanda Gomes, for instance, who is from the previous generation and who has only gained more exposure recently, for her improvised, performative approach towards the occupation of space.
AC: Yes, she is a very clear example of this. My work is very physical, so is hers, and in both there is a clear sense of the action of the artist making something, even though the work doesn’t include our physical presence in the space. I think we share the concern that the work in the space is undoubtedly important, but sometimes the space between the works is even more important.
Keep in mind it’s just an easy game, 2013, bronze, Alpaca Andina, 10 x 70 x 66 cm
KM: In relation to the materials you use, sometimes you have things made for you.
AC: I quite like both heavy materials, such as concrete, bronze or metal, as well as soft materials. By working with heavy materials you rely on machines or specialised labour, so you have to look for people who can actually make these things. With soft materials or drawings, I can find these in my own environment, so they are very close to me. I like mixing the two: it’s like building a bridge between the world and myself.
KM: What has changed in São Paulo since last year’s protests began? It seems the period of euphoria about Brazil is slowing down.
AC: Apparently the protests will feature a lot in the next São Paulo Biennial, and this can be complicated. I am from São Paulo, and I went to lots of demonstrations. Then I had lots of arguments with people I know and respect, because at some point the whole thing became incomprehensible to me. I think the protests started in one way and then there was a kind of hysteria to go against everything without any kind of critical analysis. And perhaps we go back to the question we mentioned earlier: that Brazilians have been conditioned to be unable to live together as a group. This may have to do with the legacy of the dictatorship or colonisation: when a foreign element comes into your territory and destroys any sense of community so it becomes easier to control.
KM: Now that the country’s art system is expanding, what does this mean?
AC: We don’t have a common voice, and perhaps we don’t need to find one. However, it would be good to make a joint effort to create a more inclusive and developed art system. To date, we still cannot deal with each other.
Tête de Femme, 2013, crowbar, hatchet and concrete, 128 x 20 x 10 cm