As we all know, the art of Brazil has become a space where over-excitement, negotiations and manipulations of sorts have been increasingly happening. With so much money pouring into the vernacular art world from the new rich and the State on its way to the World Cup and the Olympics, the level of the art has suffered due to the lack of time to properly and organically develop. This is why, what we could call, the elite of the contemporary art world has been flying over those nexts of modernist heritage that could help them create the necessary synergy to spark, at least the perception that there is something interesting happening. I believe this is the reason why that generation of modernist architecture has increasingly been deployed as the foil (and also, the context) for the current developments of contemporary art.
During the past 10 years, museums and galleries have increasingly pay attention to Lina Bo Bardi, the Italian-born architect whose buildings include the Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo (1957-8) -a glass box suspended on two gigantic red pillars on Paulista Avenue- which has emerged as, according to Frieze’s Silas Marti, ‘the symbol of a heroic past that needs to be preserved’. I cannot help but seeing Bo Bardi as a Brazilian version of the Mexican Carlos Barragán, whose modernism contrasted with the overwhelming poverty and that has transformed in ‘heroic’ agents of avant-garde elitism in Latinamerica. In fact, Silas Marti refers to the Brazilian work as ‘art, sculptures planted in the gritty soil of the city’. ‘Gritty soil’? Not nice!
The truth is that Bo Bardi’s buildings are a humanised version of Brazilian modernism. Even though they have things in common with João Vilanova Artigas and Paulo Mendes da Rocha, the giants of Brazilian brutalism, Bo Bardi has always had an eye for the cultural and urban original setting. Her buildings seem organic. In fact, she once declared she preferred art made in the streets, or works born of happenstance, to objects arrayed in museum displays. Her buildings reflect that.
When she built the Museu de Arte, she made sure to raise it up on pillars, to preserve the site’s original view of old downtown. She also used the same kind of stones the Portuguese conquistadores employed in the construction of the city’s pavements and public squares to cover the museum’s floors, recognising the country’s colonial past in a building which simultaneously served as a manifesto for times to come, modernity reinterpreted from a tropical perspective. However that tropicalism was inserted as a conceptual load of information only known but those who either owned the house or built it. It is the sort of modernism that not only depends on form but also on information. This is not the only similarity with the mechanics of the art world elitism. As a matter of fact, the art world has seen in her work an extension of the aesthetics of the white cube. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that a barbarian like Hans Ulrich Obrist decided to curate a show in her former residence, the Casa de Vidrio, where he decided to blend the work of Olafur Eliasson, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster and Cildo Meireles as pieces of interior design. From this point of view the work of Bo Bard was manipulated and twisted as a ‘clean’ and ‘morally justified’ (because of the fact that it is in Brazil) way to highlight a particular form of presentation of contemporary art. The problem with this has to do with how the perception of the architect’s work has changed since then. She passed from being a wonderful example of that ‘melancholic brutalism’ that characterises Brazilian (and Mexican) modernism into a detached sign of pseudo-MOMA minimalist elegance. It is subtle but it alters the original meaning and in the process it alters the meaning of Latinamerican heritage.
Two years ago, I happened to listen to Hans Ulrich Obrist talking about Mexico’s Carlos Barragan and to my surprise, he has done exactly the same kind of exhibition that he had done with Bo Bardi’s house. In other words, he helped narrowing the distance between urban architecture and the exhibition of art by destroying that very functionality that had transformed them into the the most amazing examples of Latinamerican architectural modernism. Just a thought.