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Archive Fictions: Art in the Library of Mistakes

Mônica Zielinsky

“We have chosen to follow the imbroglios wherever they take us”.
Bruno Latour

A library rises upwards, containing large, subtly illustrated books. There is even a small set of steps for reaching the volumes on the higher or furthest shelves. A pervading aura of mystery seems to envelope the gems stored inside the vitrines, permanently awaiting their moment of surprise discovery, similar to what happens in those famous cabinets of curiosity of the past, suggested by many of Walmor Corrêa’s works.

This work evokes a dual response, on the one hand as a library, inviting you into the subjective interventions of the body and its different movements, and on the other encouraging questions about the content of the books. Unexpected connections are soon established between kinaesthesia and cognition, vision and information, imagination and understanding, experience and knowledge. It is a proposal that goes beyond the simple materialisation of art as object and instead expands the possibilities of its reception, by questioning the visual and intellectual practices contained inside in the books. It demonstrates the epistemological experience of an artist who sees art as a way of investigating understanding of the world itself, an investigation intertwined with doubts and uncertainties related to the perception of the facts of nature, science and cultures.

This work raises valuable issues for understanding the nature of the field of art today, permeated by social and anthropological implications. Walmor Corrêa brings these into his own choices by blurring the boundaries between art and science, fields of knowledge, records of nature, biological research and aspects from the social sciences. Through this interdisciplinary rotation , the artist is questioning a situation of knowledge, which takes on a really important poetic dimension in this work and leads fundamentally to inquiry about the nature of art itself.

Latencies (in time)
Looking briefly at the past, one can recognise the artist’s undeniable passion for nature from the outset, compulsively collecting countless insects and birds since childhood. An insatiable curiosity for human and animal anatomy began to flourish while still at school, along with discoveries of natural history, immediately recorded in quick sketches to be worked up later. Coloured pencils and small notebooks became essential objects of his everyday life, which was transformed into a world of daily amazement and fantasy.

Early excursions into the Santa Catarina countryside with his father are also events that became part of the archetypal content of his work, and would echo strongly in his future output. A disposition for insatiable discoveries of nature, interwoven with his beliefs, truths and fictions permeates each of these works, mixing together the essence of knowledge. The surfaces of his pictures, his drawings and found objects are filled with these inquiries, producing countless fantastic hybrid creatures which are impossible and unfamiliar in relation to their sources in nature. Those distant expeditions with his father, with their inquiries and swift notations have come down through the years and been amazingly updated, forming today a kind of pulsating questioning structured into extensive archives that Walmor considers differently from the fixed structures of stored knowledge; as resources for active organisation of present knowledge in new relationships of time, giving form to the knowledge of the past associated with the active present and the future. The study objects of the scientist are revived in the work of the artist, yet removed from their initial story, now continuously and anachronistically involving principles about illusions of truth to nature. Those images described in the past are projected into the present and their future by the imagination. Kant reminds us that, unlike perception, imagination is a faculty that can bring satisfaction even without the effective presence of the object , which occurs both in the descriptions of the German scholar and in the mock images of Walmor Corrêa. Here the images shift between the real and all the possibilities that emanate from them.

Archives about archives
The German naturalist Hermann Von Ihering produced highly detailed descriptions of Brazilian fauna and flora in the form of carefully catalogued archives of scientific reports about birds and mammals found particularly in southeastern Brazil. Arranged in descriptive archives, his observations are re-workings of data described by other scientists who preceded him, in a chain of new observations, exclusions and additions in relation to their objects of study, now adopted as a fundamental source for these works by Walmor Corrêa. Hermann Von Ihering obsessively “corrects” the mistakes of other scientists, a customary practice through the modern development of the history of science. Looking at the local nature, the scholar formed his own collection of studies, structured with perceptions, observations and corrections of truths that are always put to the test. “A dialectic tension between the poles of disorder and order” governs the form of collected records, and to the eyes of the artist takes the form of doubt and questioning.

Lyotard’s famous The Postmodern Condition reminds us that scientific knowledge is a kind of discourse, positioning invention as something that occurs precisely in the divergence from perceived and reported facts, which is prematurely adopted by Von Ihering. His scientific reading of biological reality is a discourse made up of descriptions, which in their apparent neutrality raise questions about the truth and faults in the reports of earlier scientists. His own precious archives are constructed over those discoveries and questions, and when carefully read blend the scientific aspects of his study objects with the poetic agility of the narration, interspersed with correct conjectures and some of his own mistakes. Those fictions and realities, fables and science form the underlying roots of Walmor Corrêa’s creative practice.
Von Ihering and Corrêa both engage in the deepest investigations of knowledge, each driven by their own particular aspirations. Through his own art production the artist goes beyond the original references of the German scientist to produce an artwork, creating 25 large volumes bound like scientific books, which disturb the boundaries and cross-contaminate the different forms of knowledge indicated within them.

So out of the apparent inertia of an almost obscure reference library arises the unstable and fertile climate of inquiry, dynamically radiating the comparative and relational nature of its content. Past and present, reality and fiction, truth and falsehood, nature and culture open the mysteries of the old archives stored in the new configurations of Walmor Corrêa’s illustrated creatures. These works stimulate new ways of perceiving the world, restructuring thought and feeling in which, as Domènec reminds us, “[…] the old and the new are interrelated and make way for a process of restructuring the distinct elements that compose each sphere […]”, triggering a heuristic approach as these historical archives encounter the large books in the created library, as pretexts for mobilising other forms of considering the relationships between nature, science, art and culture. The artist’s work challenges the scientific bases behind the enriching narrative archives of Von Ihering by revealing the power of the mistake. Recognising the errors of the German scholar in his perception and recording of nature allows other ways of thinking about the natural and cultural world, in a continuous process of reconfiguring a system, like a network of contrapositions and a simultaneous comparative permeability at the same time.

The configuration of these archives of Walmor’s might suggest resonances in the thinking of Michel Foucault; instead of unifying knowledge, allowing discovery of the differences of the differences as they specify the details, together with reconstruction of past episodes as if they were present . Walmor’s work offers an updating of Von Ihering’s careful identifications of Brazilian flora and fauna. They are actions firstly of preserving the memory of those historical reports, as a way of preventing them being forgotten and destroyed. But these works go beyond this idea of the archive by rejecting the logic of memoranda and standing as a way of knowing knowledge, through the deepest concerns and enigmas spreading from the content of these books.

Works of art are known to have their own contextual implications, despite seeming to be autonomous objects that follow only their own constitutive rules, which according to the German historian Benjamin Buchloh, is a “[…] fact that is considered to be fraudulent, incoherent and lacking in historical logic”. The Biblioteca dos Enganos appears in the context of the 7th Mercosul Biennial , which was concerned with discussing the place of artists and creation in the intermediation of the exhibition itself. The event discussed its own production by the traditional art system, usually taken up by historians, curators or art critics, and handed over curatorship, the education programme and even publicity to the artists. Walmor Corrêa’s work appeared in the exhibition according to the logic of some imaginary project that created a tension between two different registers – the real and the fictional – by discussing how fictional construction allows clarification of the facts of reality.

The proposal sits almost as a counterpoint to the recognised visibility of the institutional strategies and the agile public policies of a biennial, as if seeking slowly and profoundly to transcend the inherent spectacle of this kind of event. Distant from any kind of illustration of social, political or even philosophical ideas, the work fixes on the essence of creation and associates it with different areas of knowledge. Walmor uses a process of “existential singularisation” to convey his wishes as a passionate and obsessive experience of knowledge, put to the test in the practice of art. As an innate researcher he dissects birds, animals and insects. He uses taxidermy to reflect on biology and science itself, but also, as he makes his art, on life and death.

The relationships between art and science are a well known phenomenon in art history. But they appeared more strongly from the 1990s onwards:

Contemporary art has taken up the complex relationship between at and science through the use of controversial technologies, such as those developed by genetic engineering and new forms of art, like transgenic art and bioart, coming from science laboratories.

Artists such as Eduardo Kac, Joe Davis, Marta de Menezes, in collaboration with the Dutch scientist Paul Brakefield and many others have engaged with the topic and revealed the interactions between the realms of science and art in collaborative works, and have even developed “centres created especially for this purpose”.

The same viewpoint can also be seen in several exhibitions, such as Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale, curated by Mark Bessire and Raechell Smith in 2006 at Bates College Museum of Art and H& R Block Artplace, Kansas City Art Institute (USA). This was a key exhibition on the topic, raising the issue of hybridisation between art and science, in which Walmor Corrêa exhibited alongside artists such as Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera, Rachel Berwick, Mark Dion. As the curators put it: “Perhaps the most complex challenge embedded in the project was the attempt to foster a dialogue and ultimately a collaboration between multiple divergent elements […] many disciplines and widely different experiences, qualifications and expertise.”

These interdisciplinary challenges appear as the fundamentals behind Biblioteca dos Enganos. Different areas of knowledge are involved in a flow of connections and cross contamination to shape the anatomy of the work. Von Ihering’s archives establish a crisis in the certainties of science and project their fictional dimension. The German scientist’s cultural identity, perhaps not very clear when consulting the documents, plays a key role in the idea of this work, revealing a clash of cultures – that of the scholar with the cultural origins of his training in 19th-century Germany – and of Walmor Corrêa, working in the 21st century, Brazilian and born on the luminous island of Florianópolis. The Brazilian southeast was a land distant from the home of Von Ihering, and he initially set out to discover the specific features of its botany and fauna, unlike the ambition of the artist, himself distant from the scholarly training of the German naturalist. Walmor expresses his passionate involvement in the study of science and nature from a different cultural perspective, accompanied by the anthropological amazement at the natural fantasy of the island of his home, and the world of legends and rich fables of his birthplace. Yet even from different cultures, both scientist and artist come together in the same avid pursuit of their fictional experiences, one through his scientific mistakes and the other through the act of its representation.

With its interdisciplinary nature, historical character, inherent social condition and nature as an exhibition, the work also stands as a contemporary work of art in the context of a biennial in Porto Alegre. As Buchloh mentions, with its material, physical and linguistic definition and its forms of communication as an artwork, it presents its content not just in terms of what exists within the work itself and its supposed autonomy, but also and particularly in its real historical and cultural existence .

Through the boundaries of fiction
Discovering the inconsistencies of many of Von Ihering’s approaches to nature, the artist begins to visualise them. Swallows that hibernate, short-tailed armadillos or birds with impossible anatomies begin to materialise, despite all the mistakes involved, in meticulous illustrations drawn in coloured pencil and graphite, interspersed among the manuscripts of Von Ihering delicately transcribed in a cursive hand. In the process of representing this dubious and fantastic world, Walmor Corrêa idealises the scientist’s inaccuracies and presents them in large scientific (or artistic?) books as scientific truths. This becomes the key theme of the Biblioteca dos Enganos, in representing 25 mistakes based on the German naturalist’s seductive descriptions of Brazilian fauna used for the work.

The idea confuses anyone consulting this mysterious library, however, raising a permanent doubt in the mind: what is reality after all, or what is fiction? Or might this person not just be consulting the library to unveil the truths of science, but instead a spectator, that active interpreter of books who “[…] observes, selects, compares, interprets and relates what they see in relation to what has been seen in other spheres or places,” as Rancière suggests?

From that perspective a whole chain of imaginings arises: those of Von Ihering’s mistaken perception in outlining the fictitious behaviour and anatomy of birds and animals, and those of Walmor Corrêa in imagining the mistaken descriptions of this fauna and depicting them to make them possible to the action of the spectator. The spectator can then imagine the described species and, as the artist himself says, can confirm or not the images he has created:

Clearly my selection has fallen on the more incoherent and exotic descriptions, which allow more fanciful interpretations. But I will try to be absolutely faithful to the texts in these drawings. And through reading these fragments the spectator will also have the opportunity to imagine the described species and confirm whether my images are true or not.

So the reference to Kant returns again, in defining imagination as a “faculty of fictionalisation”. Among the most fundamental activities performed by understanding, this becomes the distinction between “the possibility and the reality of things” , between what stands as real and what simply stands as possible. Within that conceptual delineation the Biblioteca dos Enganos, reveals a permanent conflict between the real and the possible, sometimes in Von Ihering’s manuscripts and sometimes in Walmor Corrêa’s drawings – both conveying all the controversies contained in these connected works, especially when considered as fictional representations. These are what form the underlying structure of this work, since fiction is recognised as a false or uncertain statement, but one which is assumed as truth – and is thus situated among the most contradictory truths and falsehoods at the heart of the creative idea behind the Biblioteca dos Enganos.

But the fiction goes beyond the work itself. Due to its inherently speculative vocation, it is also bound up with questions about the nature of art itself. The detailed illustrations in Walmor Corrêa’s work question the truth of their referents and address the meaning of the creation of these fictions. Why do they attract interest? Could it be that they emerge out of a sensation of pleasure of comparing the images with reality, in an aesthetic act?

Schaeffer states the following in this regard:
In my hypothesis fiction contains only one intrinsic function and that function is aesthetic […]. Since an artistic idea is used in a fictional mode, it is always connected with the aesthetic perspective.”

Anne Cauquelin takes a similar line to Schaeffer, specifying fiction as the task of expression, in the sense of conveying possible worlds and imagining them, “[…] the key concept of fiction is to express, to translate into intelligible language a reality that is profoundly obscure to us […] a way of coming into contact more sensitively with the mysteries of the world.” So the mistakes of the scientist and their fictional representation through the work of Walmor Corrêa together bring to light the sensitive aspects of these opened archives; the pleasure of imagination, fiction and multiple viewpoints of these works expand as we approach them.

These are key ideas for thinking about art itself. Art is formed as fiction; it is not the real, it will always be a proposition, representation or presentation based on the real and situated in the field of culture. The pleasure that emanates from it is sensory, which etymologically is its aisthesis, but in a certain place. That is part of the constitution of art, in whatever form, time and circumstance; and also in the various social and cultural contexts of its existence or performance, as Craig Owens would say.

The rich epistemological experience contained in Biblioteca dos Enganos leads to consideration of its own position within the framework of art in Rio Grande do Sul, in its culture from an institutional position. These large illustrated volumes enclosed within library bookcases suggest, through their half-open pages, consideration of the phenomenon of art, by projecting themselves beyond what is offered by their mere materiality. Connections are drawn between the world of history and its representation, inquiringly relating the various data enriching the experience of the work. While this is happening, the fiction moving almost imperceptibly from within these books expands into the cultural fabric of the real world.

Beyond the physical configurations of the surface of the work, it also displays and addresses some of the intersections of contemporariness ; their fictional representations raise challenges to scientific, anthropological and cultural knowledge and encourage a constant questioning. This questioning becomes an excellent way for fiction to expand its aesthetic vocation by introducing an artwork with a bewildering enigmatic quality and bringing the intellect into play through the senses . Escaping the fixed structures of knowledge and cross-contaminating the real and fiction, the trigger for this curiosity is the aesthetic itself, that is to say through the “feeling that the work contains knowledge that is unknown to me”.

From this perspective, Walmor Corrêa’s Biblioteca dos Enganos, with its strange aura of mystery, opens valuable routes into knowledge of the world through art – causing a situation of knowledge, as previously suggested, through his deceptive creatures and the various tangential fields of knowledge he causes to a appear. They are routes that describe, but never underestimate, the cognitive and speculative dimension of art, wherever the imbroglios may take us.

 

[1] Cf. Walter Benjamin. In: Ursula Marx et al (ed.). Walter Benjamin’s Archive. Images, texts, signs. London: Verso, 2007.
[2] Cf. Jean-François Lyotard. La condition postmoderne. Paris: Les Éditions De Minuit, 1979, p. 8.
[3]Josep M. C. Domènec. A forma do real. Introdução aos estudos visuais. São Paulo: Summus, 2011, p. 199. The citation of this author relates to the possible establishment of relationships between the sphere of documents based on the scientific approaches of the German scholar and the artistic proposal of Walmor Corrêa in its contemporary appropriation.
[4] Cf. Michel Foucault. A Arqueologia do saber. Rio de Janeiro: Forense Universitária, 2000.
[5] Cf. Anna Maria Guasch. Arte y Archivo, 1920-2010, op.cit., p. 13.
[6] Benjamin Buchloh. “Procedimientos alegóricos: apropriación y montage en el arte contemporâneo”. Formalismo y historicidad. Modelos y métodos en el arte del siglo XX. Madrid: Akal, 2004.
[7] The 7th Mercosul Biennial took place in 2009, in Porto Alegre.
[8] Cf. Félix Guattari. “Cultura de massa e singularidade”. In: Félix Guattari et Suely Rolnik. Micropolítica. Cartografias do desejo. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2005, p. 22.
[9] Rosana Horio Monteiro. “A imagem entre a arte e a ciência”. In: Alexandre Santos and Ana Maria Albani de Carvalho (orgs.). Imagens: arte e cultura. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 2012, p. 193.
[10] Idem, p. 197.
[11] Mark H. C. Bessire and Raechell Smith. Cryptozoology: Out of Place Scale. Bates College Museum of Art, 2006, exhibition catalogue.
[12] Cf. Benjamin Buchloh, op. cit.
[13] Cf. Jacques Rancière. Le spectateur émancipé. Paris: La Fabrique Éditions, 2008, p. 19.
[14] Idem
[15] Emmanuel Kant. In: Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Pourquoi la fiction?, op. cit., p. 330.
[16] Idem, ibid
[17] See Jean-Marie Schaeffer on these reflections. Pourquoi la fiction?, op. cit.
[18] Jean-Marie Schaeffer. Pourquoi la fiction?. op.cit., p. 327.
[19] Anne Cauquelin. No ângulo dos mundos possíveis. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2011, p. 70. The author’s reference to sensory form is based on Leibniz’s letter of October 20, 1712, cited by Paul Rateau.
[20] Cf. Craig Owens. Beyond Recognition. Representation, power and culture. Berkley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1997. The author is referring to the performative view of cultural production, that is to say much less to what the works have to say and more to what they do, or rather, their performative view.
[21] Cf. Canclíni, op.cit, p. 50.
[22] Cf. Thierry De Duve. “Refexões críticas: na cama com Madonna”. Concinnitas, Revista do Instituto de Artes, UERJ, n. 7, dez. 2004.
[23] Idem, p. 37.