Anna Maria Maiolino - Making Love Revolutionary
Whitechapel Gallery, London
On until 12th January 2020 (£12.95 admission)
Anna Maria Maiolino is more than an artist she is a visual philosopher. Any attempt to translate that philosophy into words will inevitably fail. As the artists of the Brazilian Neo-concrete movement expressed it in their manifesto: "The lack of precise terminology for expressing a world that does not yield to objective notions has led art criticism to the indiscriminate use of words that betray the complexity of the artwork created." While trying not to fit Maiolino into a Procrustean bed I will endeavour to give the context in which her practice developed which I believe can shed some light into her works.
Anna Maria was born in Calabria, Italy in 1942. She arrived in Brazil when she was 18 years old having started her artistic education in Venezuela. Woman, artist, immigrant looking for identification with her new country, she finds Literatura de Cordel (Cordel Literature) - musical poems printed in colourful booklets with distinctive woodcut illustrations which are part of the popular culture of the Northeast of Brazil. Anna sympathised with the social and political content of Cordel and was inspired by the creativity unlocked by the lack of resources - the Northeast being one of the poorest regions in Brazil.
"They each painstakingly put surgical latex gloves on before they start to play."
In the 60s Brazil was overtaken by a dictatorship that would last some twenty years. "OF ADVERSITY WE LIVE!" declared Hélio Oiticica as the motto for the Nova Objetividade Brasileira (New Brazilian Objectivity) which Maiolino subscribed to in 1967. Hélio Oiticia and Lygia Clark had a significant influence on Maiolino, so much so that she says: "If I am here today it is because there was a Hélio Oiticica and a Lygia Clark before me." Clark's ideas about the poetry in the act of making and how the act of making is the work of art itself have remained with Maioliono throughout her practice, which went through several changes in the 70s as she abandoned figuration. Geometric drawings, paper cuts, sewing threads on paper, photography, film - works that look like they could have been produced today were made at the height of a military regime where censorship, curfew and torture were part of the arsenal used by the government to keep the Brazilian population under tight control.
In the 80s dictatorship was overthrown and in the decades that followed Maiolino's works were as diverse as ever. While drawing was a constant in her practice she continued to explore a wide range of media and subjects - from sculptures that emphasise presence through absence to photography and video exploring the symbology of the egg. The influence of Lygia Clark's ideas became evident in Maiolino's clay sculptures, where the act of making is celebrated. The focus on the artistic process drove her to discard the moulds and to use her own hands to shape her sculptures. The movements the hands make in the repetition of daily domestic tasks are reproduced in the modelling of clay which yields simple forms like spirals, spheres or loaf-of-bread-like shapes. The artist reflects on the entropy that the finished work accumulates as well as the relationship of the material to its environment, clay being earth.
Making Love Revolutionary is Maiolino's first retrospective in the UK spanning the artist's entire career from her early figurative works to her latest sculptures. The exhibition is not chronological starting with new clay sculptures made on site. Outros Ainda Mais que Estes (Others Even More Than These), 2019 - part of the series Terra Modelada (Modelled Earth) - is an arrangement of six groups of sculptures. A pile of ropes made of clay are squeezed in an opening in the wall. An assemblage of many small sculptures of five different shapes - forty pieces of just the bread-like shape - are displayed on a wooden table making it resemble a market stall. Imprints of the hands that moulded the clay can be seen in some of the shapes. In a nod to Lygia Clark Maiolino exalts manual labour and repetition. The artist also appeals to other senses with Alice, 2017, a four-and-a-half-minute audio work of a woman's voice uttering what seems like native indigenous sounds. The remainder of the large room exhibits sculptures, 3D wall hangings, paintings, drawings and sewing on paper.
Upstairs figurative drawings and highly political woodcut works inspired by Cordel are displayed. I found the explanatory wall labels lacking. One of the texts reads: "Influenced by the wood engraving tradition of the northeast of Brazil, Maiolino started working on woodcuts." To reduce Cordel to wood engraving is simply catastrophic. The connection of the artist to this art form is much deeper than the label suggests.
The show continues with works that explore the spatiality and corporeality of paper - cutting, folding, stitching, burning, ripping - followed by photographies and videos. The photographies are mostly from her series Fotopoemação (Photopoemaction) where a variety of themes such as lineage and the symbology of the egg are contemplated. Six short videos made in the 70s are shown on a loop. While the videos are imbued with political themes the links can be subdued and potentially missed. One important thing to realise is that government censorship was actively implemented at the time so any message of political resistance had to be somewhat disguised.
My favourite piece was a black and white three-and-a-half-minute Super 8 film titled + - = - (Mais Menos Igual Menos) [Plus Minus Equal Minus], 1976. It shows two men in buttoned shirts sitting across from each other at a round table covered by a tablecloth. Their clothes look a little crumpled as if they had just arrived from work. One of them wears glasses with really thick lenses, the other has longer hair and a beard and looks a bit (just a bit) cooler. They each painstakingly put surgical latex gloves on before they start to play. The game is to throw a chicken egg across the table to each other. The score of the game is kept by what looks like the display window of an old cash register (I say old but it was probably new in the 70s). They spend pretty much the entire length of the film playing. Sometimes the egg falls on the floor. We can't see if it breaks or not (my guess is: it does). The players don't care. They seem to be having fun. The tablecloth gets in the way sometimes. They don't care. They continue to play. I am not sure why this video struck me so much. There was something weird about the players putting those gloves on at the beginning. The repetition of movements during the game made me reflect on the powerful yet under-rated and, many times, undesirable role of repetition in our lives. Not-fully-developed ideas about fragility and control started to populate my head. As I write this I realise that the title of the work might also hint towards control: minus dominates plus. And to play so carelessly with something as fragile as an egg felt a little unsettling. I couldn't help but think about my own biological clock.
The nonlinearity of the development of Anna Maria Maiolino's practice and the complexity of her works make for a difficult encounter that favours the initiated viewer. I was not initiated. The exhibition for me was an unexpected experience. I didn't understand the works the first time I saw them. I didn't connect with them. It wasn't until I went to a conversation between Anna Maria Maiolino and art historian Michael Asbury and I heard her tell the story that it all started to click. Her works are intrinsically connected to her journey as an artist and that's why a historical and cultural context is so important and I am afraid that the Whitechapel Gallery did a poor job in providing that.
It has been difficult to write this text but it has helped me learn and I hope it has provided insights to the reader. It amazes me that there is an expectation to go to an exhibition once and come out having an understanding of what was seen. The best artworks need multiple encounters to be appreciated.