‘Paper is dead, except for toilet paper and the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas,’ famously prophesied the godfather of video art Nam June Paik, or so the story goes, just a few years after the birth of the portable videotape recorder in 1965.
Barely a generation and a half after Paik uttered such heresy, it seems the granddaddy of electronic Dada might have been right. Video – a dominant art form today not just on the global biennial circuit but also in Brazil – is rapidly becoming the medium of choice for some of the world’s brightest young artists.
Ironically, while many contemporary artists now employ video as a medium, video artists themselves – at least in São Paulo – still remain on the mainstream fringe: respected, even admired – but, like comic books and fine cachaça, only up to a point.
But art lovers who take time to check out the rich vein of works by some of the city’s – and Brazil’s – most striking video artists may conclude, nevertheless, that the medium is giving rise to some of the country’s most provocative and unexpected art.
One of the country’s leading multimedia artists and curators, Lucas Bambozzi has had a restless and inventive two-decade career spanning video, documentaries, installation and new media art, with ideas gleaned equally, and irreverently, from philosophy, science and literature.
In one characteristic site-specific video experiment (Foucault’s Pendulum) in 2005, the artist mounted a video of São Paulo’s downtown inside a hanging pendulum and rigged up motion sensors so that the pendulum swung ever more violently, the more spectators moved about the room.
In a more recent work, Mobile Crash, audience members are invited to indulge in the sweet catharsis of ‘smashing’ cell phones by pointing at the surrounding screens to trigger lasers that, in turn, set off video loops of hammers crashing down on mobile phones. It’s at once poetic and persistent – what is ephemeral and invisible haunts this artist’s work, alongside probing investigations into otherness, politics, questions of social control and intimacy in collective spaces.
At his solo exhibition, ‘Unsustained Presences’, at Luciana Brito gallery, Bambozzi beamed in scenes from empty rooms and houses to chronicle the slow, insistent deterioration of interior space. In Puxadinho (meaning an irregular or makeshift structure) at the 'Paralela' exhibition, videos of locked windows and doors, accompanied by insistent hammering as if some unseen person were desperately trying to get out, play on a tiny shack composed of bricks and a tin roof.
‘What interests me are languages that haven’t yet been established, and frontiers – what’s at the margins,’ says Bambozzi, who can find equal inspiration from Marcel Proust as from the latest wireless technologies. ‘What is not art: that interests me, too.’
For Kika Nicolela, who studied filmmaking before turning to video art, the medium can give rise to what the 34-year old artist calls ‘the most intense human experience with the Other’. This heightened intensity, often fused with lyricism and charged with intimacy, is a classic trademark of Nicolela’s works, whether chronicling four transsexuals candidly talking in a hotel room about their innermost desires (Tropic of Capricorn) or capturing the fragility of a self-possessed young woman wandering naked through a city night (Naked).
A former artist in residence in places as diverse as Finland, Austria and South Korea, Nicolela points out an essential paradox of being a video artist in São Paulo in this day and age. Despite the centrality of the medium on the local contemporary art scene, and Brazil’s early adoption of video – one of the world’s longest running video festivals, Videobrasil, first launched here in 1983 – the local video art scene is in many ways ‘still at the beginning,’ she notes, plagued by the absence of video art distributors and the difficulty artists still have in commercialising video art works, compared to more traditional mediums.
‘Sometimes I feel a little lonely in doing what I do,’ Nicolela confesses. Her strength lies, however, as much in what she shows on film as in the obsessive rigour of what she edits away. In the mesmerising Desesmetak 2, inspired by the trance dances of Afro-Brazil’s candomblé religion, fragments of the video remain lodged in the memory like bullet shards: a disoriented eye, a gyrating head, bare palms stretched out tremblingly as if to touch the divine.
Gisela Motta and Leandro Lima
The fraught imminence of violence is a recurring theme for artistic duo Gisela Motta and Leandro Lima, who began their careers in the 1990s as video-only artists, but have recently broadened their body of precise, compressed work to include mixed media installations and other forms.
Few other artists in town display Motta and Lima’s particular brand of wit and tension, perfectly married to form. In I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device), created in 2008, a bomb shaped like a beating human heart but composed of disposable consumer items (including plastic bottles, two packets of Marlboro and a drinks can) pulses with not-so-hidden menace as the device ticks down.
The following year, the duo created the equally memorable You Stop It, a video on two screens in which a couple takes turns flinging a series of deadly kitchen knives at each other that ultimately miss, if barely at times. ‘We want to take the video out of the dark room where cinema belongs and into natural light, where other art – paintings and sculptures – exists,’ says Lima.