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FORMS OF WONDER

Clarissa Diniz

Walmor Corrêa’s intervention at the Museu Emílio Goeldi (Belém, 2008 involved the placing of signs indicating animal species that could be seen in the gardens (wild fauna), and was in a sense setting the stage for the re-enactment of one of the elements of wonder in the process of the occupation of Brazil. If the Jesuits discovered a biodiversity here that could cast doubt on creationism, the invention of species suggested by art in turn raises echoes of distrust in science. Situated somewhere between doubt and distrust, wonder occurs at the precise moment when we come across something that requires us to take a position again: do we believe what we see?

Walmor Corrêa’s intervention challenges the conflict between belief and evidence, however – assuming for the sake of argument that they can be distinguished, and considering them respectively equivalent to religion and science – by addressing systems of representation. The artist’s accurate perception of the roles played by systems of representation (and hence the constitution of meaning and value) means that his invented fauna does not (except in mimesis) seek to camouflage itself completely in the means of representation of the science museum: so that it might not lie, fiction is constructed from the elaboration of other intelligible structures. His signs do not therefore reflect the Museum’s image policies and so indicate animals through drawings rather than photographs. The graphic world of Walmor Corrêa – running through his entire career – ensures not the capacity of art to “be taken as” truth (alluded to through science) but instead its right of symmetrically proposing ways of thinking about the world from another standpoint. Other truths. This is not making an equivalent but instead guaranteeing the legitimacy of difference.

Walmor Corrêa’s representational approach to his free fauna involves a drawing of an unfamiliar yet believable animal on a photographic background, articulating layers of reality and fiction as a way of making them symmetrical. Reality and fictionalisation cross-contaminate each other, complicit here in the same policy of construction of truth, to occupy this and others of the artist’s works. In addition to setting up a re-enactment of the wonder of (dis)belief, they are also a presentification of an early scene that (bio)graphically occupies his career.

For 40 years Walmor has looked back to the scene of an owl entering a hole – probably in pursuit of a hare – which he witnessed as a child in the countryside. His father owned a house in the country and invented little myths about the existence of fantastic animals that could only be seen by spending hours of silence in the middle of the countryside. Walmor enthusiastically camped by himself some distance from his father while he worked, and it would have been on one of those occasions that the violent and fascinating scene left its mark on the artist.

Not long Walmor and I were talking about his references and looking through old works and books, when he came across a scene depicted many years ago on a page of the Tesouro da Juventude encyclopaedia, which he had had since childhood. In the chapter about animals, a dotted line formed a cross section through a landscape to show that while an owl could be seen on the ground from a distance, a hare was hiding in an underground nest below the surface. The artist’s amazement at coming across that image plays its own part in the ambiguous relationship between belief and evidence. Walmor’s biography effectively appears through drawing.

While learning from the famous graphic encyclopaedias of his childhood and youth – all a long way from the logic of photography that redesigned such publications in the 1990s –, Walmor Corrêa was growing up in Florianopolis, the city of the legendary figure of Meyer Filho (1919–1991). Filho’s work, which he often called cosmic or surrealist, used drawing to put art in a different position in relation to the real. In the 1950s the artist would create hybrid beings existing somewhere between the human and the animal, invented species and an extensive re-creation of nature. References to indigenous cosmologies and popular legends or manifestations (like the boi-de-mamão) established a space of freedom that might stimulate the imagination of a child like Walmor, feeding a delight in the face of the unknown and captivating him as its mysteries expanded.
Other pages, drawings and cross sections also played a key role in developing the artist’s sensibility: like the topological cross-section in the image of the owl and the hare, the transparent Barsa pages superimposed on a drawing of the human figure, which revealed the organs hidden by the skin; his sister’s medical book, with cross-sections of human anatomy; the school laboratory and museum with creatures and parts of animals and humans stored in jars of formaldehyde. Manipulation of those bodies and the resulting graphic experience together established a fertile territory that could already be seen in Walmor’s work in the 1980s, featuring injured, cut and scarred women and at the same time containing references of different cultures (like H. Stern jewellery and indigenous ornament), with texts connected to the image that did not necessarily interpret it but which eminently acted as a sign.
Using a clear and synthetic graphic language that can be related both to the visual repertoire of encyclopaedia imagery and to Walmor Corrêa’s training in advertising and architecture, these works also point to some of the interests that would emerge in his work over the next decade: drawing as a field of reordering the real and fiction (which is where the relation between art and science comes from); the meeting between a traditional mode of representation and a hybrid repertoire which mixes together indigenous references, the history of science and the repertoire of pop; the close relationship between image and writing, exploring the levels of truth attributed to text and to figuration; and then to investigation of two elements in the process of Brazil’s appearance in the world – colonisation and globalisation.

Walmor Corrêa’s 2012 work Diorama consists of a tower of butterflies supporting two birds at the top, whose beaks are the proboscis “tongues” of butterflies. The profusion of bright blues and yellows of the delicate insect wings seems to grow into the yellow and green feathers of the birds, whose beak-tongues retain evidence of a process of metamorphosis: could the birds somehow have evolved from butterflies? The Jesuit priest Fernão Cardim (1549–1625) believed that humming birds could be born from eggs like other birds, or from butterflies, for example: “[…] it is something to see a butterfly beginning to change into this bird, for it is both butterfly and bird, and so it keeps changing until it becomes this splendid bird”.

Padre Anchieta (1534–1597) also noted that butterflies and humming birds metamorphosed into each other, suggesting the idea of heterogeny , through which one species is transformed into another in a process of “perpetual metamorphosis”. If Brazilian biodiversity raised critical questions about creationism, the hypothesis of metamorphosis between species would in turn extend beyond a “logical explanation” of the problem raised throughout the process of colonisation. For besides creating narratives for the coexistence of infinitely varied biodiversities, the Jesuit attempt to find a key for the meaning of those creatures would in turn find an echo in the “inconsistency” of Amerindian culture which, particularly during the process of converting Brazilian Indians to Christianity, was both obstacle and resistance: native Brazilian peoples were “receptive to any figure, but impossible to configure”. Just as they showed they had been converted, they then disbelieved in the God they had recently venerated – as Padre Antônio Vieira (1608–1697) noted, “[…] other pagans are unbelievers until they believe; the brazils, are unbelievers even after believing”. The problem was not “different dogma” but instead what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls “[…] an indifference to dogma, a rejection of choice” that was connected to the absence of subjection, to a culture that does not recognise sovereign power (King, Law, State, God, Nature, Science, etc.).

For while we are multicultural – a univocal regime whose variations are interpretive and representational (relativism) – Amerindian culture is founded on multi-naturalism: there are many natures. As Eduardo Viveiros de Castro points out, faced with natural pluralism a single culture of humankind emerges: “the common reference for all creatures in nature is not man as a species but humanity as a condition”. If all beings feel human from their own standpoints, one can never be sure about who is human : “underlying humanity makes the form of humanity problematic” , so despite being the original condition of all beings, humanity remains a daily challenge – “it is necessary to become human”:

[…] You are not a real human if your body is not differentiated; the human body as such is too generic. […] When a child is born the first thing that those around want to see is whether it is human or not. […] Then every care must be taken so that it can clearly be defined as human. The hair must be shaved, it must be painted, pierced and moulded to become human like us. Everything is connected: therefore one has to differentiate, one has to distinguish.

Since it is only possible to distinguish based on externality, all ontology has therefore to be relational.

But without the initial dividing line of humanity, which differentiates us from all the rest, the relational character of this ontology amounts not to relativism but to perspectivism. In the absence of a unique and separate Nature around which everything is relativised , and faced with a background common to all – the culture of humanity – which as such distinguishes nothing, perspectivism emphatically reorganises the modes of these relations. Without a dividing line of nature or humanity, the relationships established between different creatures are symmetrical and changeable, perspectives with no hierarchical order which, with no original distinctions between them, constantly metamorphose as a way of creating differentiation and subjectivity. The starting point for this continuous process of change will in turn be what singularises (through the plurality of its forms and emotions) underlying humanity – the body, the habitat of viewpoint:

[…] if the soul is formally identical between species […],difference is then caused by the specificity of bodies. […] Not differences of physiology […], but feelings, emotions or capacities that singularise each kind of body: what it eats, how it moves, how it communicates, where it lives, whether it is gregarious or solitary […] as set of manners or ways of being that constitute a habitus. […] The body […] is the origin of perspectives. Far from being the spiritual essentialism of relativism, perspectivism is corporeal mannerism”.

Humanity therefore becomes a formal issue related to use: not as anthropocentrism but as anthropomorphism , the realm where several of Walmor Corrêa’s works can be found.

Besides the history of travellers and the development of science, we can also position Walmor’s work in relation to the anthropomorphism of Amerindian culture, which makes him one of the few Brazilian artists to currently address other models of production of knowledge, such as the indigenous and the popular (as in the Unheimlich series, 2005). This dual approach – on the one hand crypto-zoology, studying creatures whose existence we know of only through oral tradition, in legends such as Pé Grande, Chupa-cabras, or in Walmor’s works Curupira, Capelobo, Ipupiara, Cachorra da Palmeira etc; and on the other hand the inconsistency of Amerindian relational ontology leading to metamorphosis repositions the actual modes of construction of meaning in art to activate one of its strongest political powers: that of transforming the impossible into the possible and disrupting established orders. So it is through form (and the form of art) that Walmor has contributed to this socio-sensory metamorphosis, sometimes even acting directly in the interstices of the institutions that maintain social convention and normalities – like the Museu Emílio Goeldi or a related work, Sítio arqueológico (2012), concerned with the discovery of a mermaid skeleton in Porto Alegre Botanic Gardens.

Just like the Indians, the artist creates the necessary feelings to endow that body with mermaid attributes. Beside the formation of a skeleton – a key word in Walmor’s work, which is replete with numerous skeletons, stuffed animals and dioramas, etc. – its mermaid qualities are proven by using the forces and powers needed for forming mermaids in our society, such as the attribution of temporality (context), the creation of discourse and the (retro)legitimation of this by an authority. The morphism is therefore completed in the formal reconstruction of these different instances, always combined in the artist’s work, making us complicit in the process of naming (his animals have names), historicising (their first appearances are normally explained) and classifying (they are generally presented according to scientific classification). The artist’s action thus consists of a dual morphism – on the one hand (re)forming the world’s creatures by acting on the form of their bodies; and on the other hand (trans)forming the actual modes of validating the existence of creature by acting in their traditional fields of legitimisation, such as science and the museum.

In recent years this approach has been particularly applied to the body and space. While the start of the artist’s career was marked by drawing, recently his interests have moved into three dimensions. In addition to awareness of the need for his work’s socio-political intervention ¬– action in the social space epitomised by the science museum –, a growing spatialisation of his work can also be noted, as a sculptural procedure based on the metamorphosis of bodies, exploring space as a strategy for showing the works and also establishing a different kind of relationship with the viewer-spectator.

This interest can be seen in the Dioramas (2012) – tiny landscapes concentrated in luxury objects, carefully assembled with elements of vegetation, the animal kingdom and marks of civilisation which disturb the sublime nature of these works (such as chewing gum or cigarette butts) – and also in Você que faz versos (2010), waste items and rat-birds installed in space and transformed into a response to the place, changing arrangement with each installation. In these works Walmor explores the use of taxidermy as a way of introducing metamorphoses, bringing the fictionalising strategy seen in the earlier drawings and paintings into the field of sculpture, or more broadly, into space.

By intervening directly on the bodies of birds and rats, and at the same time working with reproductions of organic elements (such as plants or plastic food), the artist’s constructions of little scenes relate dramatically to fictionalisation and morphism. The different installations of Você que faz versos, together with Diorama, address space as theatre, creating a narrative route for the viewer’s body based on the scenic arrangement of the different parts of the work. So one rat-bird seems to be chasing another, or even flying towards us. The frozen actions of these creatures invent a repertoire of gestures to retroactively recreate the space that gives them meaning. In Você que faz versos in particular, the existence of metamorphosed creatures seems to denaturalise the situation – a kind of urban rubbish dump – to underline the tragic nature of scenes like these that we come across every day.

Moreover, while Você que faz versos envelops the viewer dramatically, by occupying the surrounding space, the Dioramas work in the opposite way, presenting microcosms – or micro-natures – in small vitrines that require the audience to scrutinise them in more intimate proximity. While the creatures occupying the former work seem to be observing the audience like predators, the voyeuristic nature of the Dioramas requires us to enact the scientific urge of encapsulating the world into small samples, making it intelligible through reduced scale and now making us into the predators.

The use of taxidermy to create creatures that seem to threaten us, together with the assembly of glass-cased microcosms – apparently under our control, and for our enjoyment – reveals the pendulum movement running through the fictionalisation of Walmor Corrêa’s work: the creation of something that recreates us, in which we hunt creatures that later hunt us. The use of elements from reality – like animal bodies (or in other works the popular imagery whose social penetration ensures it a place inside the real) – is in this process essential in overcoming it. Exploitation of the real somehow constitutes common territory that allows its actual re-territorialisation, guaranteeing symmetry between relationships that differentiates the work of Walmor Corrêa from the “authoritarianism” (perhaps due to radical freedom) of some of the investigations of the surrealists, for example. In this sense, the presence of space in his work goes much further than the idea of three-dimensionality and acts at the heart of the social space.

Teiniaguá (2008–2012) is a work whose spatialisation is part of a working process that is the start of an eminently relational mode of action in Walmor’s work. Inspired by the Rio Grande do Sul legend of Salamanca do Jarau, a complex story about the miscegenated origins of its people (somewhere between Iberian immigration and its encounter with an indigenous native population) the artist follows the route suggested by the legend, going to Spain to find women who might be the “Moorish princess” who on arrival in Brazil was transformed into a salamander for protection. Talking with Spanish women who have experienced social exclusion – like Teinaguá, condemned to live alone in a cave – Walmor Corrêa traces their bodies, identifying through their pains, sickness and problems the reality of a life marked by the savage economy of labour exploitation. The stories of these women thus become individual inscriptions on the drawing of any female body, de-subjectivised. The bumps, strains, obstructions, absences and other metamorphoses of these bodies are carefully mapped to form a collective body that reveals a story of social class.

These marks become the artist’s starting point for Teiniaguá, which is painted from the front, back and sides to become less a representation of a legend than an image of time, history and the migratory flows between colonisation and globalisation. The gigantic body of Teinaguá contains the recurring injuries of those women, identified by marks, colours and contractions and accompanied by incomprehensible texts which, instead of offering some kind of explanation of what has been happening to that collective body, contrastingly underline the incommunicability surrounding the history of women and its legendary equivalent in the Cerro do Jarau. Transformed into a large-scale puzzle, the Teiniaguá series of paintings exists in this fracture that is at once historical, cosmological, morphological and cultural, adding another layer of signification and ambiguity. Walmor’s work responds to the risk of cultural “naturalisation” of the historical processes behind the order and imagery of social life by creating a supernature capable of destabilising what seemed to be an unquestionable fact, and thrusts us into a situation whose ambiguity politically activates our sense of wonder.

 

[1] The Museu Emílio Goeldi in Pará is the oldest research institution in the Amazon region. Situated in Belém (Pará) it is concerned with the scientific study of natural and cultural systems of the Amazon and dissemination of knowledge and collections related to the region.
[2] Cf. Jacques Rancière in A partilha do sensível. capítulo 4, Se é preciso concluir que a história é ficção. Dos modos da ficção. São Paulo: EXO Experimental/Editora 34, 2005.
[3] Fernão Cardim apud MIRANDA, Evaristo Eduardo. O descobrimento da biodiversidade. Ecologia de índios, jesuítas e leigos no século XVI. São Paulo: Ed. Loyola, 2004.
[4] Cf. MIRANDA, Evaristo Eduardo. O descobrimento da biodiversidade. Ecologia de índios, jesuítas e leigos no século XVI. São Paulo: Ed. Loyola, 2004.
[5] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in O mármore e a murta: sobre a inconstância da alma selvagem [1993]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 184.
[6] Padre Antônio Vieira in Sermão do Espírito Santo [1657]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 185.
[7] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in O mármore e a murta: sobre a inconstância da alma selvagem [1993]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 185.
[8] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo [1996]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 356.
[9] “Quem responde a um tu dito por um não-humano aceita a condição de ser sua “segunda pessoa”, e ao assumir, por sua vez, a posição de eu já o fará como um não-humano […]. As aparências enganam porque nunca se pode estar certo sobre qual é o ponto de vista dominante, isto é, que mundo está em vigor quando se interage com outrem. Tudo é perigoso; sobretudo quanto tudo é gente, e nós talvez não sejamos” [Anyone responding to a you said by a non-human accepts the condition of being their “second person” and by in turn assuming the position of I they will become a non-human […] Appearances are misleading because one can never be sure what is the dominant viewpoint, that is to say the world is working when it interacts with others. Everything is dangerous; especially when everything is people, and we perhaps are not”]. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro em Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo [1996]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem – e outros ensaios de antropologia. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 397.
[10] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro em Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo [1996]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 377.
[11] CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. Se tudo é humano, então tudo é perigoso. Interview with Jean-Cristophe Royoux. In: SZTUTMAN, Renato. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Coleção Encontros. Rio de Janeiro: Beco do Azougue, 2008. p. 111-112.
[12] Appearing to be more or less “real” depending on how close or distant it was to the knowledge and mastery of this nature, whose peak would be science
[13] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro em Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo [1996]. In: CASTRO, Eduardo Viveiros de. A inconstância da alma selvagem. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2011. p. 380.
[14] Idem, p. 375.
[15] Like the work made for the Museu Emilio Goeldi or the Expedição brasileira de Thomas Ender reconsiderada (2005), a project reconstructing the route of the naturalist Thomas Ender in Brazil, when Walmor adopted the role of the expedition botanist, mapping the trees that must also have been observed by the Austrian botanist more than a century before.