The revolution must be made little by little | Part 2: The Squaring of the Circle
(An Exhibition in Four Stages)
Nuno Souza Vieira
In his User’s Guide to Détournement, Guy Debord argues that one of the most efficient strategies for social insubordination is the appropriation, or détournement, of extraneous phrases and concepts for revolutionary purposes. Debord identified various types of détournements, among them the minor détournement, in which appropriate words or phrases possess no importance of their own, acquiring it, instead, by virtue of the new context in which they are used, and especially the deceptive détournement, in which the appropriate concept is intrinsically meaningful but takes on a different dimension and a value according to the new context into which it flows. The phrase that lends its name to the exhibition evidently belongs to the latter type: taken from a recent interview with [Brazilian architect] Paulo Mendes da Rocha, in its original context it referred to the need for a revolution in the methodologies of civil construction and, metonymically speaking, in cities and in society as a whole. Within the new context, the phrase retains its fascination while taking on other meanings pointing, first of all, to an art gallery’s constant need for transforming itself, for keeping in touch with the ongoing changes in artistic production and (one might also speak here of metonymy, or even of premonition) of society itself. Evidently, the greater and more prestigious the gallery’s history, the more pressing and arduous such a task becomes...
The architect says that revolution must be made little by little. Initially organized in smaller and more conceptually cohesive groups, then finally rearranged according to other criteria in the final reprise, the works gathered here indeed suggest a prolonged revolution, of the sort that does not make it into the history books, perhaps not even into the art history books, for the simple reason that they do not begin or end – they merely happen. And, in fact, the choice of subject matter for the first three stages of the exhibition responds precisely to the desire to regard a single universe from several distinct albeit complementary perspectives. It is also no accident that the majority of the works might fit perfectly into yet another one of these curatorial landmarks: the revolution is magmatic, fluid, like a river that is never the same and that, nonetheless, never changes. On the other hand, the decision to divide the exhibition into stages responds to a desire to disengage from convention, such as the one that dictates, to a gallery, the need to exhibit only “its” own artists, or of not repeating the same work in two consecutive exhibitions, or even of not attempting to construct a narrative that dares to expand beyond the few weeks’ duration of a conventional show. Finally, to disengage from preconceptions that might prevent the revolution from taking place, the first of which, naturally, is the convention that a revolution must be swift, surprising and violent when, in fact, it ought to happen incrementally, taking whatever time may be necessary time in order to occupy and change the world while no one is looking.
The Squaring of the Circle
The Greek geometers were the first to deal with the impossibility of “squaring” the circle, that is to say, of building a square with the same area as a given circle by using only a ruler and compass. At first, the terms of the problem might appear to be unique: one takes the area of a circle, calculates the length of the side of the square and arrives at the same area. But there is something wrong about the calculation, as if the circle’s measurements, accustomed to coexisting with its infinite curve, did not accept being transformed into something as rigid and inflexible as a square. Regarded from afar, sans ruler or compass, what is fascinating about this problem is the metaphorical reading it suggests, the idea of an inconclusive, fatally approximative dialogue, destined to an eternal opening between the right angle and the circle to which it is opposed. For many centuries, the history of art – which so often touches upon that of geometry – has fed itself on analogous, apparently paradoxical and yet extremely fertile encounters. According to Charles Baudelaire’s famous definition (in The Painter of Modern Life), for instance, “modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent, it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable”. Fusing the transitory and the eternal – that which is contingent, ephemeral, intimate, unique and personal with that which is eternal, public and universal – is the impossible challenge, the squaring of the circle proposed by the works that make up the second part of the exhibition The Revolution Must be Made Little by Little. Here, the starting point is always a situation, an event or an accessory or personal fact that is oftentimes apparently insignificant but which, upon being incorporated to the work, becomes “eternal and immovable”.
Francesco Arena, for example, uses a tombstone to immortalize the names of all the Brazilian members of the Italian Masonic lodge P2 [Propaganda Two] which covertly and illegally – albeit quite efficaciously – controlled Italian political life throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The tombstone’s supposedly celebratory value is, nevertheless, merely illusory, and the work becomes a gesture of scorn: the letters of each one of the names are there but they have been scrambled, and the names remain hidden, forgotten in a delirious text that does not speak of them and which, therefore, appears to be making an effort to erase memory rather than to preserve it. In turn, Nuno Sousa Vieira presents new developments in the series of works made from his very workplace – a factory warehouse in which the artist’s father worked for many years and from which he draws the raw materials for his sculptures. Ephemeral and yet immortalized on video, the drawing made by Carla Chaim on the gallery wall is a mirror that reflects the artist’s body: the diameter of the circle and, therefore, the size of the work, could not be otherwise, the apparently accessory fact of the artist’s measurements is what makes it become precisely what it is and ultimately, renders it eternal. As is what leads it to dialogue with a series of works on paper made over twenty years ago by Célia Euvaldo, the forms of which were also defined by the extension of the artist’s arm, that is, by the gesture that her body permitted. Finally, it is also over time that a dialogue is established by the work of Felix Gmelin, whose paintings attempt to capture, on canvas, the essence of an enigmatic video made many years earlier by his father. Inherited and discovered by the artist after his father’s death, the video suggests a relationship to the history of painting (and, also, of fashion), although it deals primarily with a father and son relationship – a subject that is invisible and submerged in other works by the German artist such as Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II, which was included in the first part of this exhibition.
Jacopo Crivelli Visconti