Isaac Julien: Lina Bo Bardi - A Marvellous Entanglement
Victoria Miro - Wharf Road, London
On until 27th July 2019 (FREE)
I came across the British artist Isaac Julien while researching the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi.
Lina Bo Bardi was born in Rome in 1914 and emigrated to São Paulo when she was 32 years old as a consequence of the Second World War. She is considered one of Brazil's most significant architects (she is probably high-fiving Oscar Niemeyer in heaven) and actively promoted the social aspect of architecture. She was also a writer, a curator, a scenographer and a researcher deeply interested in the intricacies of Brazilian culture. To me she was a thinker ahead of her time.
"...true freedom can only be collective."
Isaac Julien discovered Lina Bo Bardi's work over twenty years ago in Salvador. A decade and a half later - while working with architect André Vainer on Julien's show Geopoetics at SESC Pompéia - he saw Vainer use techniques developed by Bo Bardi. That instigated Isaac's interest in her and influenced his practice. This interest culminated in Lina Bo Bardi – A Marvellous Entanglement - a nine-screen film installation at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road (the one close to Old Street station - I think they have three different locations in London).
On the same day I went to Victoria Miro I also went to Tate Britain to see another of Julien’s work: Looking for Langston. This is a 44-minute, 16mm, black and white film the artist made in the 1980s about the life of Black artists who were part of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. The film is a mixture of dream and reality permeated by sexual desire. At first glance this work seemed quite different from the film about Bo Bardi but the more I reflected the more I found the thread that connected the two: visual poetry, dance, the interest in the non-linearity of time.
A Marvellous Entanglement portrays an older Lina - played by the very famous and well respected Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro - and a younger Lina played by Montenegro's daughter Fernanda Torres (another major name of the Brazilian cinema). The 39-minute film starts with Lina Bo Bardi staring out of a window of the, now abandoned, Coaty Restaurant. The site is given life through performance while Fernanda Montenegro recites my favourite quote of the entire film: "The freedom of the artist has always been individual, but true freedom can only be collective. A freedom aware of social responsibility, which overturns the frontiers of aesthetics, the concentration camp of Western civilisation." To me this quote sums up the backbone of what Bo Bardi stood for.
Another six structures designed by Bo Bardi are brought to light in the film. The iconic staircase of the Museu de Arte Moderna da Bahia is the centre of a magnificent performance by the Balé Folclórico da Bahia. From Bahia we travel to São Paulo and back in time through archival footage of Lina's visit to the then drum factory that would become SESC Pompéia. Once in the São Paulo of today the film explores two of the best known designs of Bo Bardi: SESC Pompéia and MASP - Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. Beautiful footage of the Pompéia building dances across the nine screens in a well rehearsed choreography that made me feel like I was inside the film. Despite the many differences between the two buildings the similarities of the architects' concepts can be appreciated. "The holes allow a permanent cross ventilation", Lina Bo Bardi speaks of the abstract-shaped, glassless windows, "I am as horrified by air-conditioning as I am by carpets". At MASP the younger and older Lina walk in between the glass easels designed by the architect while emphasising the didactic role of the museum. We are then taken back to Salvador where the Afro-Brazilian culture is represented in culturally rich Candomblé procession scenes, dances and rituals.
"A freedom aware of social responsibility, which overturns the frontiers of aesthetics"
The film comes to a close with an endearing rehearsal scene of Fernanda Montenegro with Brazilian playwright and director Zé Celso. The actress is asked to repeat several times the quote that inspired the title of the film: "Linear time is a western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end".
The film is outstanding, not only for its content but the way the entire installation is set up even if in a rather small space for nine, 6ft-tall screens. It invokes Bo Bardi from the cubical blocks on which four of the screens are supported to the scenes of Candomblé procession on the Ladeira da Misericórdia (Mercy Slope) in Salvador. It gives a great perspective of the more intangible aspects of Lina Bo Bardi's practice. Don't think you will come out of there an expert in all things Bo Bardi. It is not the point of the installation after all. Julien, however, is successful in his goal "to communicate the architecture, the movement and the dynamism" of Bo Bardi's work.
What I really enjoyed about the installation was the invitation to interact with it, to move around the show as the footage plays across the screens and to almost feel part of the film. I was rather disappointed to see that stools were not only provided but used by most visitors. I also loved how the film brought me closer to Brazil and its culture.
"Linear time is a western invention; time is not linear, it is a marvellous entanglement, where at any moment points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning or end".
I left the exhibition curious as to whether Isaac had participated in the film as one of the actors. So I googled him (I didn't know what he looked like). He wasn't in the film. But boy am I glad I found his picture! As luck would have it I stopped at the restaurant next door to the gallery for lunch and who arrived right after me? Isaac Julien! The groupie in me couldn't help but introduce herself and we had a little chat. If I didn't know I would have thought he was Brazilian.