Passengers: 1.2 Alexandre da Cunha
Alexandre da Cunha recycles discarded objects and defunct consumer items—everything from old furniture to beach towels and car wheel hubs—to create his sculptures and installations. These cheap, throwaway materials often take on a functional appearance. In a sense, Da Cunha improvises on the concept of the readymade by reusing everyday objects in ways that reflect on those objects' specific histories and aesthetics. The artist is concerned with issues of formalism, such as shape, technique, and materiality, but his practice also has an essential playfulness and humor. Moreover, it expresses a wider concern with the human condition, in particular a critique of the distribution of wealth in his native Brazil.
Born in 1969 in Rio de Janeiro, da Cunha now lives and works in London. He has had solo exhibitions at the Pacos das Artes, São Paulo (2005) and the Museu de Arte da Pampulha, Belo Horizonte (2005), while his work has been included in the Prague Biennial (2005) and the Venice Biennial (2003).
Poor Materials with Rich Meaning
Alexandre da Cunha in conversation with Jens Hoffmann
Jens Hoffmann (JH): How do you choose the objects that you alter?
Alexandre da Cunha (AC): I am attracted to them either because of what they signify in society or because of their specific forms, colors, and materials. I decontextualize them, modify them, and create artworks that often mimic modernist sculptures. Yet, when one looks more carefully, these modernist forms turn out to originate in everyday life. Often they are inexpensive or perhaps defunct consumer items.
JH: What do you think of the idea of your works as contemporary reinterpretations of Arte Povera?
AC: Obviously Arte Povera was very specific to the Italian context in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I think some of my works could be regarded along similar lines. In the end it is all much less complicated, though. I started using "poor" materials when I was studying art simply because I could not afford to buy anything expensive. Later I realized that my choice was not based on how much money I could invest in my process, but on the challenge of making viewers appreciate something that is made of materials whose monetary value is negligible. It is neither the technique nor the beauty of the material itself that is special, seductive, or valuable for me. It is the challenge of turning something "poor" into something rich in meaning.
JH: Let us talk about some of your works. Maybe you can speak a little bit about the series of sculptures that incorporate old skateboards and look like large ceiling fans?
AC: Those pieces are made of found skateboards, household utensils, and fittings. Their titles are based on either the brand names of the boards or writing that had been added to them. One I made in 2006 is titled Greasy, which was written under the board. The idea of making a ceiling fan also relates to tropical places such as Brazil, my home country, where such fans are common household objects. These works offer an approach to appropriation that goes beyond the plain use of the object itself. The found boards have scratches and stickers that tell a story, a sort of personal narrative of the former user, and they refer to a lifestyle that is very familiar to many but in this case not something I can very much relate to. They are abandoned trophies or, to me, fragments of found secrets that have been exposed. They are also about forcing together objects that belong to completely different spheres of culture.
JH: The first work of yours that I saw was They Really Work for Me (2001) at the 50th Venice Biennale. I liked the idea of artworks as crutches very much. I also remember that it was unclear whether they were intended to be used.
AC: That work was part of a series of sculptures that looked like homemade crutches. I continued doing them until about 2003. They are made of isolated volumes of used, soft clothing and cleaning materials such as sponges that form padded elements, which are fixed with adhesive tape to broomsticks of various colors and sizes. Upside down, they suggest odd, improvised orthopedic devices.
JH: Sometimes you make direct references to well-known artworks such as the stripe paintings of Daniel Buren or the columns of Constantin Brancusi, two icons of twentieth-century art. Can you elaborate on this?
AC: The first work in my ongoing series titled Deck Paintings (begun 2005) started in London, where I saw canvas deck chairs with stripes of the same width and colors as in some of Buren's paintings. All I did was take the canvas off the chairs and put it onto stretchers. The column series you mention is titled Platinum, also begun in 2005. Those pieces are made of mass-produced metal bowls and ice buckets, arranged to mimic modernist sculpture. I was interested in the fact that Buren and Brancusi often worked in series, following a strict set of rules. I think my pieces talk about the playfulness that might be hidden behind the severe look of those historic, iconic works. I also wanted to explore questions of authenticity, authorship, and uniqueness. Those issues run through all of my work.
JH: Terracotta Ebony (2006) is also an interesting piece to talk about. It is another sculptural work that, upon first glance, looks like a minimalist sculpture.
AC: Terracotta Ebony is also part of a series, which I made by combining the heads of different-colored toilet plungers to form abstract geometric sculptures. I was intrigued by the colors and shapes of the plunger heads, but also by the metaphor of art as a plunger of some sort.
JH: Your practice seems to combine a Latin American artistic sensibility, particularly with respect to your alteration of found objects, with a Neo-Formalist style that has emerged specifically in Europe over the last five years. Would you say that this observation is accurate?
AC: Yes, you are definitely touching on the right issues. While form is certainly important to me because I have lived in Europe for a number of years now and have seen a revival of that sort of work, my interest in Neo-Formalism also relates to my formation as an artist in Brazil, where Modernism played a crucial role in the development of the arts—not only visual art but also architecture and literature, for example. This specifically Brazilian modernist legacy has only recently been disseminated internationally, but in Brazil it has always been the core of the education of young artists. The Neo-Concrete movement, with its aim to revitalize the relationship between the individual and his or her environment, has been very important for me. Yet unlike the Neo-Concrete artists in the 1960s and 1970s, I think that many artists of my generation who are concerned with the legacy of Modernism are revisiting it with a new approach that is based more on shapes than slogans and ideologies. It is maybe a more introverted form of artistic practice, which has at its center a genuine interest in techniques and materiality—something that would have seemed rather reactionary only a few years ago but now seems pertinent. What I found in Europe and specifically in London, where I live now, is a similar interest in modernist history among artists of my generation. It is a return to a more classic notion of Formalism, and it certainly has had an influence on me.
JH: I would add, though, that in contrast to pure Formalism, context plays an important role in your case. You have a very specific way of appropriating found objects.
AC: This is correct, but let me first explain my relationship to Brazil, as I think it is relevant to your question. I have lived in London now for quite some time, and its distance from Brazil and my experiences when I go back there have made me realize a lot of things about my culture and my home country that I was not aware of before. I have begun to understand certain aspects that for the most part I simply rejected or did not even notice when I was living there.
JH: What you say is interesting, considering the fact that the gesture of the readymade is something truly European.
AC: In Brazil, as you know, the claim that we have formed parts of our cultural identity by cannibalizing other cultures is very significant. The idea of the found object, which is in itself a cannibalization, might be one of those things we have appropriated in this way. What is important to note, though, and this also relates to the idea of cannibalization, is that everything we take in is digested in a very specifically Brazilian way. I am altering most of the objects I use, so they are not readymades in the classic Duchampian sense. They are for the most part fairly universal, but they also carry the specific context of where they come from—a particular aesthetics and history. Obviously many of them are things I have seen and observed in Brazil. Maybe it is a kind of tropicalization of the concept of the readymade. I also notice how people in Brazil improvise objects in everyday life, and some of my sculptures carry that improvised quality into the gallery space. I am talking about objects that are supposed to be used for a specific purpose, but once they cannot fulfill that original function any more, people use them for other things.
JH: I know you made a piece about repurposing old car tires.
AC: The Glaze works (2005) are made of car wheels turned inside out after being cut, to make the shape of a planter. They are very common in suburban areas in Latin America, where people use them as decorative and utilitarian pots for plants. I wanted to highlight the existence of the object, applying a glossy, elaborate, painted surface with modernist echoes and then bringing it into the aura of a gallery space. The titles—for example Vegas, Savanna, Capri, or Monterey—are the names of the colors I used, and they also refer to a change of status, where the paint and its name have the power to lead you to another, perhaps imaginary, place.
JH: You work a lot in series. Has this something to do with the fact that most of your pieces are based on mass-produced objects?
AC: That might be part of it, but to be honest I never know if a first piece might originate a series or not. I only find that out when I get close to the end of making it. There are never too many works in the same series, either; I like to think of them as small families with interrelated dynamics. The other aspect of working in series has to do with realizing that there are different possibilities with respect to the physical manifestation of a work. So if I make three, four, or five variations of the same piece, each one expresses a different aspect of the overall idea.
JH: Recently your works have become more political and critical. I am thinking for example about the Velour series of 2006.
AC: Those works are made of beach towels, household materials such as curtain rods, metal fittings, ribbons, and adhesive tape to form pieces that ultimately look like flags. They play with the idea of identity, and the stereotypical iconography of tropical and exotic countries. I see them as a response to how cultures can be misunderstood and misrepresented—using an image of a tiger or a girl in a bikini, for example, as if it was an official national symbol. But I do not have the ambition to contextualize my work in a political discourse that focuses on social or cultural differences. I can raise issues through my practice that might provoke someone to have a new perception of the world, or engage in a momentary state of contemplation, and I am happy with just that. When I am transforming a toilet plunger into what looks like a rare terra-cotta pot, I am trying to deal with subjects related to status and class, the conflict between opposing forces, but there are many other meanings as well. There might be a social nuance in the context of the piece, but it is essentially about belief, illusion, and frustration, which are universal human feelings unrelated to any particular social condition.
JH: What are you planning to present in your exhibition at the Wattis Institute?
AC: Currently I am working on a series using preprinted industrial and found materials. The printed items range from beach towels to flags to banners. Some of them are intended to be used as bedsheets, curtains, or domestic partitions. The content of the printed images is often very loaded. Some of them are iconics such as Bob Marley or Mahatma Gandhi or the rainbow flag, but incorporated into a pattern, as if the ideological content is secondary to a mood or trend. I am interested in the slightly neglectful use of those images and the possible confusion among identity, consumerism, and taste. For San Francisco I am making a piece that incorporates versions of the rainbow flag, from Buddhism or Judaism, for instance, where the rainbow serves as a metaphor for inclusion, diversity, freedom, and hope.