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WALMOR CORRÊA: THE ENLIGHTENMENT AND ITS SHADOWS

Fernando Cocchiarale

 

BETWEEN FIELDS

Walmor Corrêa’s work draws its visual-poetic raw material from several different fields of western human knowledge. Biology, natural history, archaeology, palaeontology, botany and mythology all converge into the artist’s processes of invention and production. Underlying the visually interdisciplinary texture of his work (resembling those images drawn, painted or assembled by biological draughtsmen) are verbal descriptions that are indispensible for the speculative-sensory contemplation stimulated by contemporary art production.

The pure or self-referential visual language characteristic of modernist work is countered by the semantic content, that is, the verbal meaning inherent to every image, always requiring immediate correlation of what is seen in it with what we know (or have seen), through the means of words, beyond the realm of its strict appearance. Images always suggest their visual referents, that is, the external realities that the composition represents or symbolises.

Consequently, the meaning and creative strategy common to all of Walmor Corrêa’s work can be found primarily in a meeting between the elements portrayed in his paintings, prints, objects, assemblages, taxidermy and installations (art), and the iconic methods of classification (science) developed by a new type of European traveller that emerged in the 18th century: the naturalist researcher and biologist involved in classifying the flora, fauna, geology, geography and racial and ethnic groups of the entire planet.

 

IMAGINARY BIOLOGY

Walmor’s Imaginary Biology is presented in such a way as to deliberately resemble classifications of nature produced under the auspices of enlightenment thinking in the context of the industrial and scientific revolutions from the 18th to 20th centuries.

This resemblance can be seen in the way in which the artist’s invented species are displayed in space as fictional inventories (arranged on white backgrounds, assembled from a mixture of skeletons or from different parts of stuffed animals as in the diorama displays of natural history museums). But the similarities of these two systems are not confined solely to the sphere of the image. Many of the names of Corrêa’s works and series reinforce the artist’s aim of relating his system to that of the naturalist taxonomies of scientific disciplines established during the Age of Enlightenment.

More than just titles, these names function as clarifications that have run through his working process for more than two decades –– Natureza perversa (2003), Apêndice – Mostruário entomológico (2004), Unheimlich (2005), Metamorfoses e Heterogonias (2007), Atlas de Anatomia (2007), Bibliotecas dos Enganos (2009), Diorama Cartesiano (2010), Híbridos (2011), Dioramas (2012) and Sítio Arqueológico (2012), for example. Some of these series manage to condense the strategy and poetic meaning common to the artist’s work as a whole.

In a written statement about A expedição brasileira de Thomas Ender reconsiderada, Walmor Corrêa notes:

In 2004, I was invited by the São Paulo Biennial Foundation to take part in a project organised by the Foundation in partnership with the Vienna Fine Arts Academy. The project involved a recreation of the Austro-Bavarian artistic expedition of 1817 organised on the occasion of the marriage of the Archduchess Princess Leopoldina, with Prince Dom Pedro […]. It brought together German and Austrian artists, two Brazilians and the American Mark Dion. Each artist assumed the role of one of the participants in the original mission, one might say. And I was the botanist. Equipped maps and notes from the period, we went to the same regions in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais that Thomas Ender would have visited. Our trip was always based on research and comparison: we’d take a reproduction of an Ender landscape and visit those places looking for the same landscape in the contemporary nature, or the nearest possible. And when we found it that was where we would base our work.

Walmor’s interest in scientific expeditions, particularly those visiting Brazil, did not begin with that invitation, however. He was only called to retrace Ender’s route with artists from other countries because his previous work provided him with undeniable credentials for joining the project.

The reconstruction of Ender’s original expedition allowed its new participants to chart geographic and socio-economic similarities, and particularly differences, which updated the expedition completed 187 years previously in an historical context quite different from that of the first occasion.

In the specific case of Walmor’s work, this reconstruction allowed him to connect visual-creative issues of his imaginary biology with the concrete experience, albeit of short duration, of a working routine similar to that of the travelling naturalists his work relates to – subsequently, he began to shift the field of his iconographic repertoire towards history.

Corrêa’s images therefore construct semantic bridges that connect the inner logic of his work with the outside world. The clear affinity between the images of biology and the images of imaginary taxonomy suggested by the artist, and between this and the classificatory-morphological repertoires of pre-Darwinian biology – in which travelling scientists played a key role – allows the narrow field of images produced by the artist to enter the realm of the word.

Analogies can be established here between his imaginary images and historical-social tensions that, although invisible in the works, are indirectly alluded to: the interrelationship between the knowledge of the scientist-travellers (of which Darwin perhaps the best example) and the imperialist expansion of capital; the role of knowledge in the relation between centre and periphery, and finally the construction of a gigantic planetary overview contrasting with the shadow from the light shone onto the world by European domination.

Woven out of the economic conquest and political and spiritual domination of the New World, the fibres of this web were woven by conquistadores, natives, slaves, adventurers, privateers, settlers, traders, soldiers, sailors, prostitutes, religious figures, craftspeople, architects, artists, actors, singers, thieves, dressmakers, musicians, immigrants, writers, travellers, naturalists, scientists and every kind of person transplanted by colonialism.

The overflowing nature of Walmor Corrêa’s work is not dispersed into some generic reference to the socio-historical context of European expansion, however. Instead it indicates that capitalist geopolitics and their methods of visual classification prevailing since the Enlightenment are complementary, contradicting naïve or conservative arguments that believe in the scientific neutrality of method without managing to recognise its profound connection with the operational logic that Foucault called disciplinary society.

On the other hand, the notion of the traveller – which is what connects Corrêa’s invented biology with the historical period that contextualises it – is too broad. We should not lose sight of the inaccuracy of a term that covers widely different practices, both functionally and socially.

In line with the economic, political, symbolic, religious and scientific changes taking place over the past eight centuries, the role of the traveller has to encompass aims as diverse as those of Marco Polo (13th century), Vasco da Gama (15th century) and Christopher Columbus (15th century), Pedro Álvares Cabral (16th century), Hernán Cortez (16th century), Francisco Pizarro (16th century) and Charles Darwin (19th century).

Extra-visual information like that mentioned above has always been instrumental to Walmor Corrêa’s methods of invention and production. So it is information that is essential, although inferred, in the poetic meaning of his Imaginary Biology; information that reveals the existence of a semantic field supported by the objective language of the works. Consequently, it is necessary to address the verbal meaning embedded in the artist’s visual-poetic system.

His invented images (the essential imagery of his works) intentionally evoke the figure of the travelling scientist, and therefore the Eurocentric nature of the methodology of classification of the animal, vegetable and ethnic species of the whole planet, proposed by European biologists and anthropologists alike – a dimension that is only absorbed in the knowledge of the historical construction of this power, in which the travellers played a key role.

 

TRAVELLERS, CONQUISTADORES, NATURALISTS AND EUROPEAN HEGEMONY

Permanent contact between West and East was initially permeated by fantasies of immeasurable wealth, mysterious cities, exotic cultures and information that expressed the contrast between valuing human experience through adventure and the life-or-death commitment to Christianity adopted by the crusades. One of the first travellers to record their experiences and adventures in writing was Marco Polo.

The interesting feature of the Book of Wonders is the flavour of invention in what wishes to be taken truth. There seems to be no concern for the documentary fidelity of the travellers on scientific expeditions organised around 500 years later, at the height of the enlightenment – a fidelity that Walmor Corrêa’s works parodies from a critical standpoint.

These were not the motivations of the Spanish, which 200 years later led to the conquest of Tenochtitlan (the capital of the Aztec empire) and Cusco (the Inca capital), whose destruction deprived the world of the only genuinely American metropolitan experiences. The conquest of the Americas no longer sought trade with local communities, but instead the looting of precious metals through territorial occupation and administration of the regions in which they were abundant.

The spirit that drove Marco Polo to contact with other cultures, more adventurous and fictional, was broken by the great voyages, colonial expansion, religious indoctrination and finally the scientific expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The missionary pilgrimages, fabulous journeys or the conquistadores, such as Hernán Cortés – which in fact never completely ceased to exist – were replaced by travelling scientists and their assistants (draughtsmen etc.). Scientific missions and expeditions organised from Europe spread to almost every corner of the Earth. Their primarily scientific aim was to chart the different natural regions of the planet and classify the diversity of their animal and vegetables species, together with mineralogical research. But despite the changing expectations of European travellers (and in the 20th century, North American ones) the common denominator of their relationships with other peoples and cultures was permanent disqualification of the other, seen as different and inferior.

 

THE ENLIGHTENMENT AND ITS SHADOWS

The Enlightenment was the basis for the economic, political and cultural ascent of the bourgeoisie; it witnessed the emergence of the first technologies – arising out of general adoption of the experimental methods of the natural sciences – and the progressive dissemination of secular, liberal ideas, whose triumph was symbolically marked by the French Revolution of 1789. The path opened by these successes also led to the blossoming of modernity and modernism, emblems of the New World, such as belief in progress, which was definitively disrupted by the ideological barbarity that led to the application of scientific knowledge to the military technology of World War II – the landmark of the anti-climax of bourgeois values founded on the Century of Enlightenment.

The new knowledge did not flourish just to meet the genuine intellectual curiosity of naturalists. Sponsored by European governments and the capital associated with scientific societies created out of the Enlightenment, these classification systems were not simply cognitive systems. Nor were they restricted to the spread into the field of theory of European imagery of exotic lands conquered by colonial processes. They were systems that at the same time served to chart the productive-mercantile possibilities of the classified material on a global scale. By compiling information about the natural resources of the places visited and their possible applications to production, the travelling scientists contributed, albeit involuntarily, to the systematisation of information vital for the expansion and consolidation of capitalism.

Charles Darwin’s voyage to South America in the first half of the 19th century, leading to modern biology, exemplified the new spirit. His diary, published as The Voyage of the Beagle, records his impressions. Darwin explains to the reader the impact caused by the landscape and exotic species he found in Brazil – similar to the sensations of other Europeans of the past who had ventured around the world, like Marco Polo and Bernal Diaz (a solder-writer in Cortés’s troops).

But this enchantment was not (like that of his predecessors) triggered by the discovery of the other, other cultures, cities or wonderful ports – and neither was it caused by immediate greed. It was confined to discovering the tropical exuberance of Brazil, and therefore filtered by the required curiosity of scientific investigation and the construction of models – as would later occur with the idea of natural selection.

Darwin saw Brazil as nothing more than a place “teeming with life” with “attractions […] so numerous, that [one] is scarcely able to walk at all”.[1] In other diary passages, on the few occasions that he refers to the life of Brazilians rather than their biosphere, such as the report of his journey into the São Paulo interior, he reveals an important aspect of the modus operandi of the arguments confirming inequality:

The hosts are most ungracious and disagreeable in their manners; their houses and their persons are often filthily dirty; the want of the accommodation of forks, knives, and spoons is common; and I am sure no cottage or hovel in England could be found in a state so utterly destitute of every comfort.[2]

His observations about the precarious hygienic conditions in the rural areas of Brazil were certainly true, but comparison with the hovels of England revealed a relationship that was already hierarchized and whose common denominator was the filter of the exotic and the disqualification of the other.

Indeed that was one of the key arguments of the conquistadores, colonisers and travellers in relation to the socio-cultural differences of the communities, nations and continents they dominated, including Brazil, since it would justify their invasive interventions as civilising actions.

Consequently, the liberal enlightenment discourse of the European powers displayed blind spots concerning the startling contradiction between egalitarian ideals that defended their peoples and the global colonial exploitation promoted by capitalism, for example. Projected by the lights of the enlightenment, these discursive shadows revealed the normative and hierarchized nature of those ideals and everything done in their name – colonialism, racism, or religious indoctrination.

The spontaneous and self-confident flow of this discourse was anchored on the supposed civilising superiority of those who could speak, particularly because they worshipped the true God and possessed scientific knowledge that the others did not (an attitude still present today in a significant number of the citizens of the Old Continent in relation to Africa, Latina America and Asia).

 

THE IMAGINARY BIOLOGY OF WALMOR CORRÊA AS POETIC-POLITICAL CONFRONTATION

Commenting on the texts of The Brazilian Expedition of Thomas Ender (2004), Walmor Corrêa, writes about the essential poetic issues of his work

[…] there are also other kinds of games in these texts, like the one that appears on one of the seed packets (with seeds from trees catalogued in The Brazilian Expedition of Thomas Ender). “[…] Water the plant with the sweat from your face so that the fruit grows with a pinkish colour…” The idea, maintaining a key characteristic of my practice, was to play with the foreigner’s image of Brazil.

The artist sees playing with this imagery as a necessary strategic choice that runs through the re-creation of similar works, not just those of travellers (in the project for The Brazilian Expedition of Thomas Ender), but also methods of research, classification and visual representation of scientific biology, to produce another biology, poetically depicted in his works.

Composite creatures – half animal, half human, or compiled according to a fictional fusion, in the drawings of different animal species, but also materialised in the mixture and assembly of small real skeletons of birds and mammals connected to musical-box mechanisms; stuffed birds arranged in dioramas like those in natural history museums – legitimise plausible creatures with poetic licence and imagination, due to their engagement with the procedures of “research” and iconic “representation” used by the taxidermy of travelling research scientists.

This interweaving of the poetic discourse of art with that of biology (produced by Walmor Corrêa to “play with the foreigner’s image of Brazil”) is not just founded on the mythical-fabulous reconstruction of the methodological-rational repertoires of the West – a reconstruction produced to reveal the blind spots of the powers exercised (or indirectly facilitated) by these discourses.

In Unheimlich (2005), and Sítio Arqueológico (2012), the disclosure of these blind spots of the “foreigner’s image of Brazil” takes a different focus from most of his other series. Corrêa writes:

In the series I have called Unheimlich [the uncanny familiarity suggested by Freud in 1919], […] I worked with popular Brazilian myths. During the time I spent in the Amazon on the banks of the Rio Negro, I often heard stories of belief in Amazon legends. […] Investigating this, I chose some specimens of hybrids of different animals or animals and humans in a single creature that still occupied our imagination. Before embarking on a painting, I made extensive and detailed studies. Researching a variety of different sources allowed me to produce these animals visually. […] Then with the aid of sketches I made several visits to veterinarians and biologists specialising in the animals making up those hybrids […] using the myth as a starting point. After that, I aimed to paint these species with the accuracy that would be expected of an Atlas of Anatomy. […] My amalgamated animals demonstrated how art and science can dialogue with one another and shed new light on the natural world or subvert those paradigms. Where does one end and the other begin?

This is where two irreducible worlds merge together: the mythical world of the Amazon Indians and the scientific one of the travellers. They are worlds that are almost opposite in cultural terms, if considered according to their everyday internal dynamics, since the former perpetuates itself through magic (ritual) and the latter, conversely, transforms itself into history based on the combination of knowledge and technique (method). But the radical differences between these modes of positioning human life in the cosmos are the same if seen from the viewpoint of their social function. Myth and technology are, each in their own way, community amalgamations, given that they form collective semantic fields indispensible to any human experience.

The equivalence between these different worlds, however, was dismissed by the conquistadores, priests and naturalists throughout colonial expansion and later during imperialist economic domination, in which mythical thinking was reduced to the level of primitive culture, explained by the supposed racial inferiority of the people who were conquered, researched and analysed.

That kind of disregard is the source of the blind spots that inform (or indirectly bring about) those hierarchical discourses laid bare on the Unheimlich panels. Unlike most of Corrêa’s other series, in which scientific objectivity is submitted to his personal fabulous imagery, this series weaves together science and myth, that is, it confronts connected systems based on the inequality introduced by European expansion.

Amazonian myths strangely familiar to the people of north Brazil, are appropriated and illustrated by Walmor and strategically elevated in Unheimlich to a scientific status they never had (and never aspired to). But another reading might counter that interpretation: repertoires constructed rationally to represent and classify species from the strict standpoint of biological science decline into myth when put to the service of visualisation and biological legitimisation of legendary creatures (described in Amazon legends). The simultaneous ascent and collapse of previously unequal poles, seems, at least in these pictures, to restore the right to cultural equivalence between the world of myth and the universe of reason broken by the permanent confrontation of Europeans (and from the 19th century, North Americans) with the people of the rest of the planet over the past 600 years.

One of his most recent projects, the 2012 Sítio Arqueológico series, opens a new field of strategy and investigation. Initially constructed from illustrations (in painting and drawing) of creatures invented by Walmor’s Imaginary Biology, the work has become more convincingly lifelike through the assemblage of real skeletons and stuffed animals belonging to different species.

The dynamic of the evolution of life is permanently marked by evolution and extinction. Natural History, the field of biological study focused on animal and vegetable extinction over hundreds of millions of years, is based above all on the fossilised evidence of vanished species unearthed by palaeontologists.

The presentation of Sítio Arqueológico uses typical classification jargon on a technical label to describe the discovery of “the almost complete skeleton of a mermaid, hitherto unknown to science”:

The discovery took place in partnership with the Rio Grande do Sul Botanic Gardens. When staff at the Botanic Gardens were preparing the ground for a small garden they found a fragment of bone. Not knowing what it was, the material was taken to the specialist Walmor Corrêa, who identified it as coming from a mermaid. The area was cordoned off and excavation began until almost the entire skeleton was found. This skeleton represents a line of mammals fully adapted to life in the water, like dolphins and whales. The skeleton displays modifications to the tail and the vertebra, the absence of pelvic girdle and lower limbs shaped as fins, which are adaptations that favour life in an aquatic environment. It remains to be established how the specimen died, but it is believed to have been captured by early settlers to Rio Grande do Sul in the region of Lake Guaíba and later buried on the site of the present Botanic Gardens.[3]

Walmor presents a zoning map of the areas of excavation organised according to prevailing archaeological patterns. He includes photographs of the area of the Botanic Gardens where the skeleton was found, photographs of it still partially buried, the sign forbidding entry of unauthorised people to the site and, finally, reassembly of the unearthed, cleaned skeleton, presented in the same way as fossils displayed in museums.

Sítio arqueológico is therefore different from the other series in that it creates a simulacrum of the necessary corroborative material for cataloguing extinct species. Made by the artist in the same imaginary realm of his other groups of works, the finding of the new specimen was carefully produced to become empirical evidence of the past existence of mermaids (buried in the earth of the Botanic Gardens, and therefore beyond the fiction of the artist), demanded by archaeological findings – evidence prior to the future recreation of the physical appearance of these extinct creatures through the means of descriptive images.

 

PURITY AND HYBRIDISATION

Classes, orders, species and subspecies, categories in which real animals are distributed and classified by biological discourse, form permanent domains guaranteed by the purity of those lineages which, although slowly evolving, exclude any form of hybridisation. Moreover, this reasoning pervades all the classification processes produced by the most diverse fields of human knowledge, both theoretical and practical. The efficacy of naturalist biological thought results from the research and codification of the classes making up the animal kingdom (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, insects, arachnids and crustaceans etc.), which in turn coherently unfold into orders, families, genres, species and subspecies.

Consequently, far from ratifying the rigorous methods of naturalist taxonomy, the inherent hybridisation of the artist’s proposed Imaginary Biology, promotes, conversely, the dismantling of its internal logic and breaks down the developments of this same discourse in the field of politics and ideology, revealing its unmentionable blind spots.

It is important here to restate that the much-vaunted neutrality of scientific thought hinders identification of the role of this thought in bringing about the prevailing  preconceptions of a particular period (such as the erroneous Darwinism of racist Nazi discourse). In this sense, racism (always imbued with the need for preserving the ethnic purity of those groups that advocate it) will find that these taxonomies provide justifications for their groundless aversion to racial mixing (hybridisation).

By editing parts of birds, mammals and human beings, Walmor therefore renders harmless the echoes of naturalist knowledge founded on purity at the heart of the discursive blind spots of European domination.

Formed of ramifications of logical and experimentally constructed animal life, the biological framework can therefore only be hybridised at the risk of total loss of its scientific rigour, its possible applications in the economy and its power of drawing up discourses that produce and preserve inequalities. The imaginary creatures produced by Walmor Corrêa run counter to this reasoning. Consequently, they are completely real in the realm of imagery, text and poetics

The Cabinets of Curiosities in vogue in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries – rooms housing collections classified as Artificialia (precious artefacts), Naturalia (little known natural phenomena), Scientifica (scientific equipment), Exotica (artefacts from newly discovered worlds) and finally Mirabilia (a compilation of enigmatic situations) – were conceived, formed and displayed according to hybrid criteria, involving both artistic-scientific curiosity and exotic appropriations from other cultures, and legends and mysteries closer to reverie than to methodical rigour.

Detached from its initial naturalistic references, the work of Walmor Corrêa approaches the hybrid encyclopaedic sentiment that preceded its normative organisation by the encyclopaedic approach of the enlightenment. So it can also be related to the conceptual irregularity of the Cabinets of Curiosities (particularly the classifications of Naturalia, Exótica and Miriabilia) which, two centuries before enlightenment thinking, still oscillated between myth and theory, mystery and knowledge, inequality and emancipation.

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush.[4]


[1] DARWIN, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle, New York: Collier & Son, 1909, p.37.
[2] Idem, p. 31.
[3] Text from the intervention, published on a sign next to the site where the “mermaid skeleton” had been found in Porto Alegre Botanic Gardens.
[4] BORGES, Jorge Luis. The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. In: BORGES, Jorge Luis. ‘Other inquisitions 1937-1952’ (University of Texas Press, 1993)