Via Brasil!: Wexner Center shifts focus to contemporary Brazilian art and culture

Jesse Tigges, Columbus Alive

The Wexner Center for the Arts' latest project "Via Brasil" was quite the undertaking. More than $780,000 was invested (through a grant from The Mellon Foundation). Curators logged nearly 100,000 miles from Columbus to Brazil and throughout the Latin American nation. And hundreds of hours of research and on-the-ground experience went into the project.

The end result? "Via Brasil" surveys modern Brazilian art with more breadth and depth than any project in North America. It does so by holding an extensive exhibition featuring 35 contemporary artists and a contemporary documentary series, a wide array of accompanying performing arts events and the first English-language translation of influential film critic and historian Paulo Emílio Sales.

And it had to be this way. Brazil is a culturally complex and diverse country with radically different regions and societies. Everything from Brazil's colonial legacy, agricultural landscape and slavery past combine with its mid-20th Century military dictatorship, newly emerging economic advancements and burgeoning middle class. These combinations created a society equally rife with potential and problems. It's capturing this complexity and diversity (whether culturally or artistically) that's most impressive about "Via Brasil."

"Brazil is simultaneously gorgeous, beautiful, ugly and problematic; perfect in [some] ways, but challenging and frustrating, [yet] totally full of possibility, hope and surprises," said co-curator Jennifer Lange, who focused on the art of "Cruzamentos." "I'm hoping that, not in explicit or literal ways, will translate into the exhibition itself."

The Journey

Bringing the sprawling landscape that is Brazilian art to Columbus was a years-long process. Lange spent eight weeks over two years traversing a handful of regions, both urban and bucolic, investigating and experiencing the artists, their work and lives for "Cruzamentos." Chris Stults, the co-curator directing the documentary side, spent six weeks in Brazil doing the same. It began with a whirlwind trip by Lange, because timing was imperative.

"One of our advisors from Brazil … said come down right now," Lange said during an interview last week in her office that's covered with color photocopies of Brazilian art and a map of the country. "Because that's the only way you're really going to understand this place. We were having conversations - 'How do we meet people?' 'How do we infiltrate?' - and the only way you're going to do it properly is [being in] Brazil."

After that first trip, which was only to Sao Paulo, an established center for the arts, Lange returned excited - and a bit overwhelmed - by the potential scope of the project.

"I returned really enthusiastic and already falling in love. And realizing I needed to go back because whatever I had seen was just the tip of the iceberg," Lange said.

With the project gaining momentum, Lange and Stults spent a year planning the next trip, a more intensive experience.

"We planned this really elaborate trip … [going] to six cities in two weeks," Stults said. "We were flying somewhere or taking buses across the country almost every day."

It was this trip that helped concentrate the focus in the art and film aspects. Lange and Stults initially thought about doing a more historical retrospective and how that shaped contemporary works. That quickly changed.

"I thought I would do the whole history of documentary, from the first people exploring the amazon with cameras, encountering indigenous people, the first Carnivale footage, but then I realized what's so exciting is Brazil right now," Stults said. "I need to do contemporary documentary and just that - go deep on that."

"We're a contemporary art center and part of our mission is to engage with new artists, create new work, commission new work and be this laboratory," Lange said. "Contextualizing contemporary artists with historical work didn't feel as fresh or true as the experiences we were having down there."

Sharpening the focus to contemporary art and film wasn't the only surprising amendment. Moving outside the traditional art centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo proved crucial to capturing the front-lines of the developing art movement. Recife (on the Northeast coast) and Belo Horizonte (an inland area Northwest of Rio de Janeiro) were emerging with captivating works and artists.

After weeks of entrenched research, Lange and Stults came to a realization; one word represented how this project morphed, expanded and merged, and how Brazilian art should be characterized - cruzamentos. The Portuguese word literally translates to "crossroads" or "intersections," but is a metaphor for the diverse cultural heritage that makes Brazil so distinct. For the Wex's American co-curators, cruzamentos had an added meaning that represented their experiences and how that translated to the exhibitions.

"I don't know what picture there is to present and I'm just going to let the work help build the picture. That's why the title is 'Cruzamentos,' which gets at the exchange, crossing of north and south between artists and curators. It gets at the artists themselves and their practices being so diverse," Lange said.

The Art

Trying to encapsulate the contemporary art side of "Cruzamentos" in a general idea, theme or description would be impossible. Besides featuring numerous mediums (paintings, sculptures, installations, photography, video art and more), the exhibit has immensely varied perspectives.

To fully express what's exciting about "Cruzamentos," the best approach is to focus on artists.

Adriana Varejao is one of Brazil's most renowned artists, with an international reputation as one of the most exciting individuals working today. Her works have been exhibited in Paris, London, Tokyo and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Varejao, like many of her Brazilian contemporaries, works in a litany of mediums including painting, sculpture, installation and photography. Her work often navigates the cultural histories of colonial Brazil in conjunction with the histories of painting, exactly what will be on display at the Wex.

Varejao's "Polvo" series, which means "octopus" in Portuguese, has never been exhibited in the United States. It serves as a reflection of Brazil's complex melting pot using classical 18th Century Spanish Casta paintings.

Varejao became fascinated by a 1976 Brazilian census that offered citizens the opportunity to describe their skin color instead of simply checking a box. The answers were unconventional and poetic: peach white, coffee with milk, cashew, burnt yellow, deep red color of a blood orange.

Varejao wanted to express these descriptions so she created an entire line of paints representing these words. She then commissioned an artist to paint her portrait in the Casta style and toned 11 portraits using the paint line. The series and the paints are titled "Polvo" because an octopus' ink contains melanin, the primary determinant of skin color in humans.

Another experienced and well-respected artist is installation specialist Lucia Koch, who has two works (three counting a video installation in The Box ending Jan. 31) in "Cruzamentos." Koch's installations are inspired by architecture, and she found the Wex to be "provocative" and "teasing" architecturally after experiencing it firsthand. Thus, she installed a mirror-centric installation in the lower lobby/cafe area that disorients and transforms the space in unexpected ways. (It will make the March 8 Off the Grid event even more of a visual spectacle.)

Koch's other piece is "Rustichella," which will be the first work seen in the gallery. Situated atop a ramp, the massive photo-installation, also specifically made for the building's architecture, entices the viewer's eye by merging with the window line, making the wall feel translucent.

Installation artist Marcelo Cidade brought a poignant aspect of Brazilian lifestyle to the exhibit. Cidade constructed the crude security system most lower class citizens have: bricks filled with concrete and broken glass lining the tops of the walls around residences. Literally fitting with the cruzamentos theme, Cidade used local bricks and recycled glass, and conceptually with intent.

"What is the value of protection? When I appropriated this kind of system to a white cube, I create disturbance in protection. A white cube is a kind of protected situation for the question of art," Cidade said.

The Film

If the art component of "Cruzamentos" is abstract and diverse in its execution and presentation, presenting more questions than answers and focusing on the process more than the result, the documentary side offers slightly more tangible statements. Still, the collection - which will go on a national tour after the Wex run - is rooted in avant-garde approaches rarely seen anywhere else in the world.

"This series is clearly about Brazil and says something about Brazil, but also about documentary filmmaking [as a whole]," said Stults of the films' innovative nature. "I looked for films that do both of those things."

Jonathas de Andrade's short film "The Uprising" comprises the conceptual processes of Brazilian art with sociological and political aspects common in the documentaries. The Recife native staged a horse race with a couple goals in mind.

First, Recife has outlawed horses because it wants to present itself as an urban center, forgoing its agricultural heritage. But Lange and Stults attest horses still exist on the streets as an everyday part of life.

So de Andrade proposed the race as a film project to the city to get approval, while energizing the horse-riders with the idea of a competition. The city exploded with energy for the race, and the resulting film (which already screened for the documentary series, but will be on a loop in the gallery with materials and photos from the event) layers the bureaucratic fabrication and genuine enthusiasm with the artist/filmmaker's process.

Some of the more powerful societal documentaries look at the crime in Rio's urban areas. "News From a Personal War" shows how the on-going war between drug lords and police has affected those living in the slums. It was the basis for the acclaimed "City of God," with a co-director working on both films. "News" plays as a Feb. 7 double-feature with "Bus 174," from Jose Padilha (director of the "RoboCop" reboot), which examines a teenager taking a bus hostage. By the end, a kid transformed into a monster by the media may actually be a victim.

The films Stults cites as most exciting involve the filmmaker stepping aside, a concept rarely seen outside Brazil (similar to 2012's award-winning documentary "Leviathan").

"Housemaids" (screening Feb. 21) is an example of the filmmaker getting a perspective that only could be achieved by asking subjects to become filmmakers. Director Gabriel Mascaro had seven adolescents film their housemaids for an intimacy only they could capture. The film also directly addresses one of Brazil's complex issues relating to its colonial past, while finding a human element; the adolescents have a parental-like bond with the housemaids, but also an employer-level of power over them.

The Destination

"Cruzamentos" is such an expansively researched and comprehensive expression of the many components in contemporary Brazilian art and film that the only way to try and understand it is through experience, like Lange and Stults had to do. It's a collection that's as unconventional artistically as it is intrinsically formed by an emerging, complicated and diverse nation. A connection between the works may not be overt, but the necessity for conversation about the work is evident.

"In this global arts scene, Brazil is playing an important role because Brazil has more of a contemporary art tradition [that's] very unique and you won't find in much more places around the world," said Paulo Venancio Filho, a Brazilian native and contemporary art authority working as a co-curator.

As the eyes of the world turn to Brazil in the coming years for the Olympics and the World Cup, the art world is too. While "Cruzamentos" is, at its simplest definition, about the crossroads of Brazil and Columbus, it's also the intersection of a flourishing contemporary art scene and a transforming culture.

"The whole project shows what's happening in contemporary culture in Brazil right now," Venancio Filho said. "There's something going on in Brazil that's making it more complex or widespread; the cultural manifestations in Brazil."

"Via Brasil"

Through April 20

Exhibition Preview and Celebration

7-11 p.m., Jan. 31

Wexner Center for the Arts

1871 N. High St., Campus