Target of protests by graffiti writers, journalists and animal rights activists, the work "White Flag" by Nuno Ramos, was dismantled in the 29th Bienal of São Paulo, by decision of IBAMA (Instituto Brasileño del Medio Ambiente), which had authorized it. The artist defends the legality of the work and reflects on the inherent consensus and ruptures in artistic activity.
I INTENTIONALLY ATTEMPTED to kill three vultures forcing them to starvation and thirst in the building of the São Paulo Biennial. I put there huge cans of dark paint, in order to drown them, and mirrors, so that they crash their heads as they were flying. I constructed tunnels with black sand, so that they enter without being able to get out, dying inside. And to force them to fly, I'd launch rockets against them.
CHARGES As in nightmares or lynchings, it is not possible to answer the charges in this order, which circulated on the internet and word of mouth with an insatiable force during the last three weeks, creating a breeding ground for violence and intimidation. As a result, in the midst of the Bienial, among protests asking to arrest me, my work was attacked by a graffiti painter, who evaded safety measures, tore the screen protecting the animals and damaged one of the sand sculptures.
We were surrounded, my wife and I, by environmentalists, that insulted us and yelled across the car window, their mouths in slow motion, "f-e-e-d-t-h-e-m" -which, of course, had already been done that day. Barbara Gancia, columnist for Folha de São Paulo, even demanded, using an imaginary of military repression or fascist militia, that I get pinned against a wall wearing my underwear and get subjected to a shower with fire hoses by firemen.
Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of the NGO Peta [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], in a fierce article published in the Folha on 8/10, hardly proves what she assumes from the beginning: that I want to show off (and she doesn't? Does anyone doubt that one of the subjects of the controversy is just the competition for media space?); I am (according to her words) cruel, a "bad boy" without compassion and producer of poor quality art. Since there is no arguments and the reasoning is circular, everything returns to the unblemished conscience of the writer.
The news have crossed rare borders to issues involving art (unsuspected times in all TV channels, Newspaper magazines little accustomed to culture and in various regions of the country), becoming a topic of conversation in the bar and bakery. The vultures definitely had managed to escape and, to use the verses of Augusto dos Anjos, sat on my luck.
TONE I stay in an area of culture that's far from this radioactive light, and do not want to miss the tone. I start this text, therefore, doing my homework: whatever happened, happened through the institutions. The license of IBAMA of Sergipe, which allowed the transport and exhibition of animals, was legitimate and within absolutely legal parameters, and so was the annulment by the IBAMA of Brasilia.
Along with the Biennial Foundation, which supported me in every way possible to defend my work, we asked for precautionary measures and lost. We comply with it and save the three birds, the same day the decision came out. I feel restrained, wronged and shocked by this, but I can not say I was censored. And understanding that the way that they destroyed my work by taking out the three birds is legitimate, I want to depart from it completely.
As almost no sensible information came out, I have to say the obvious first:
1) The birds I used in my work are birds born in captivity and not abducted from their natural habitat; they returned to this captivity (and they are actually there at the moment), when they were set “free” from my work;
2) They belong to the Park of the Hawks (created by conservatives and functioning under the permission of IBAMA, conducting educational and educational activities, throughout Brazil, with birds of prey), which keep them on display for the public like in a zoo;
3) In 2008 these same three birds participated in a very similar version of this work, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil in Brasilia for two months, adapting perfectly to the space and without suffering at all, with a management plan approved by the very IBAMA ;
4) The birds got used to the space of the Biennale before the show, with the presence of the veterinarian responsible for them and an attendant;
5) The attendant, the same person that takes care of them in Sergipe, stayed with them throughout the entire period of the exhibition of the birds to the public, literally opening and closing the show:
6) The birds were fed by him every morning, in quantity and frequency stipulated by the management plan;
7) The volume of the speakers was controlled to be lower than the hum of the public, in order to avoid stressing the animals;
8 ) The management plan of the birds, accepted by IBAMA of Sergipe, was revoked, amidst the controversy, by IBAMA of São Paulo but without a recommendation for annulment. What the technical report, serious and sensible by the IBAMA of Sao Paulo asked were adjustments -basically, that we disconnected one of the speakers and we installed sun bathes of ultraviolet light every morning, in order to make up for the lack of direct sunlight on the animals (although the daylight bathed the space). It also offered a license for 15 days, to be extended in accordance with the periodic evaluation of the welfare of animals. The IBAMA of Brasilia, which, under political and media pressure, arbitrarily ordered the removal of the birds in disagreement with the report of the IBAMA of Sao Paulo, got involved in what appeared to be an extensive process of collaboration between serious specialists, with knowledge about the animals and a work of art;
9) We obtained a favorable report from the Department of Parks and Green Areas of the Municipality of São Paulo;
10) When the specialists of the sector of birds of the São Paulo Zoo inspected the work, they expressed no specific criticism regarding the handling of the birds - I even learned on this visit, that the cage of the vultures was much larger than any cage at the zoo, including the cage of the condor.
EXPIATION So why so much fuss? What is being expiated here?
To begin with, and as an approximation to the problem, I would like to remind you that "White Flag" is not a work of ecology, nor am I an expert on birds of prey, like "Guernica" by Picasso is not work about the Spanish Civil War , nor Picasso is a historian. This is why I used the services of an ecological entity, the Park of the Hawks, and got an authorization for the installations in Brasilia in 2008 and in São Paulo, by the legal entity in my country for these subjects.
Or is it that the law does not apply to everyone? To treat my work as a criminal offense and me as a criminal is to do what Franco's right used to do, when they called "Guernica" a communist artwork, or the French aristocracy in the second half of the 19th century, when it threatened to shred the "Olympia" by Manet, in name of morality.
What I was denied with the criminalization of my work was the possibility of a meaning -the abduction, say, of any meaning that it could propose. It is against this, more than opposing gossip and slander, that I write today.
VALUES Art does not fit in the good nor the bad values, although it confides in them. An open sign stems from it, for this it was invented, to prevent fanaticisms, like the ones heard in these past weeks from circumscribing completely the possibility of life. Of course no one is above the law, and, again, I repeat, both the artist and the institution abode strictly by the Brazilian environmental legislation -but it is the possibility to think differently that is being criminalized here.
Extraordinary artists like Joseph Beuys (incidentally, the founder of the Green Party in Germany), Jannis Kounellis, Hélio Oiticica, Felix Nelson, Tunga, Meireles used animals in their installations. Probably the work of Beuys that includes a coyote ("I Love America and America Loves Me") is, without exaggeration, one of the most important works of 20th century art.
"Tropicalia", by Hélio Oiticica, that has living parrots in its interior (curiously, it was exhibited a few months ago, with the birds, in the building of Itaú Cultural of São Paulo, at Avenida Paulista, without arousing any controversy) is a crucial task for the understanding of who we are and what we want to be. Denying what these artists did with their works -a radical oxygenation of our imaginary- and treating them like criminals would certainly regress to times of sad memory.
I can understand people who are against animals in captivity. It would be interesting to take a little consistency from that position, -that is,radical vegetarianism, since almost all the meat we eat comes from animals in captivity, the closing of all zoos, jockey clubs, farm animals for breeding, and also general upgrading of our relations with domestic animals. But more than consistent, I would like them to be enough democrats to accept that not everyone thinks like them, nor everyone acts like shamans, in intimate contact with the wishes and feelings of animals, and that within the rules of public law of each country, the access to these animals can be given without hysteria or slander.
WHITE FLAG As little or nothing was said about the work, I beg leave to interpret what I did myself, starting with a brief description. "White Flag" (this title, in the midst of such a bombing, is one of those things that only art explains) was installed for the first time two years ago, at CCBB Brasília, and now expanded and modified, received a second version, especially for the 29th Biennial.
The work consists of three giant column sculptures made of black sand, dark and fragile; from their top, made of marble, three speakers broadcast at inconsistent intervals, songs like "Bandeira Branca" (by Max Nunes and Laertius Alves, performed by Arnaldo Antunes), "Boi da Cara Preta" (folklore, by Dame Inah) and "Carcará" (by João do Vale and José Candido, performed by Mariana Aydar). Three vultures live on the installation throughout the exhibition.
The result is a solemn scene, between litany and lullaby, which in my opinion has dug, in its installation in Sao Paulo, a sort of black hole at the Bienal building. I think that the space of the building, one of Niemeyer's happiest works, with its speed and optimism, gained with my work an ambivalent counterpoint, nightly and enchanted, sad but also akin to the world of fairy tales.
There is a kind of upward spiral at the work, that dematerializes as the viewer climbs the ramp of the building and the heavy sand columns transform into the geometry of the viewer who sees the sculptures from above. Made of sand first, then the marble, then glass, then sound, then the flight, the work runs the same path as the birds, in a cycle of white feces, falling onto the pieces and the ground, it begins again.
ANTIPENETRABLE But the crucial point, I think, is that despite the monumentality of the work and the unfinished texture of the sand, claiming the body of the spectator, the public is kept out of work, which is a kind of anti-penetrable. The work somehow has been occupied, it already has an owner and therefore we can not approach. At night, the songs and the vultures are the owners, and the viewers can only watch from outside a living being, who doesn't need them.
The songs and the animals, lifting force against inertia and the weight of the sculptures, have already taken account of the work and the protective screen, which materializes the outline of the building space, mark the passage between an institutional exterior and an active interior, self-contained , a mixture of culture (songs), nature (the vultures) and architecture.
The birds and the songs give to the work, which has turned into their work, a duration which becomes something indifferent to the world outside. Hence, many people have told me that they felt like being observed by the birds and not like observers, inside the fence and not outside it. And that in the midst of such turmoil, the three birds certainly seemed the only ones in peace.
This internal self-sufficient activity is in the heart of this work and has followed me over the turmoil of these difficult days. I'm glad to see that somehow the work already assumed this, talked about it and defended it- wanting to carry it along, far from the noise that it caused, however.
SELF-SUFFICIENCY Instead of the activity of the viewer, typical of many of the best modern works, which found among us an extreme formulation in the idea of "Penetrables" by Hélio Oiticica, contemporary art seems to be turning inward, in a stubborn self-sufficiency.
It is not the place here to analyze this further, but, in order to give two memorable examples, I think that the "Ellipses" by Richard Serra, relying on themselves and not on the walls of institutions, or "The Cremaster Circle" by Matthew Barney with its endless folds and internal relations, share this characteristic. In a way, my work follows that direction.
The growing institutionalization of art brought along a plethora of institutional discourses, all perfectly centered, self-confident and fighting for a space in the media and the budget opportunities. This comes, perhaps, from the shattering of the great universal notions that accompanied the birth of the modern world: politics, religion, bourgeoisie, proletariat, class struggle, right, left etc.
With the breakdown of those universal notions, individuals (ecology, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities etc..) were reinforced, full of themselves, pointed, zealous in their beliefs. Perhaps art is the ultimate universalizing experience, or at least not symmetrical to the discourse of the world, and I think that it tends to be increasingly attacked, whenever there's disagreement, for pride and for authority. But I think that this is the very thing what art should keep: its pride and its authority, so that it can continue creating.
AUDACITY Well, this was what impressed me the most: the absolute interpretive inability of the people who attacked me, refusing to see something else, to relate the feeling of acceptance or rejection that my work has caused with anything it proposed; in short, the audacity with which it was used as a springboard for an already existing discourse, which could not see in it a possibility of communicating ideas.
For this, of course, the main ingredient is that it was interpreted in an absolutely literal and opaque way, as a meaningless corpse. In order to make it a strict vehicle of discourse and groups, without letting it use its natural discourse, say natural (seduction, desire, ambivalence), the work of art must be, in fact, since the beginning definitely dead. Hence, I believe, the ferocity with which I was attacked -a kind of preventive hygienic operation, to prevent any germ of shock, ambiguity, beauty, wonder, from appearing, disqualifying the desired consensus.
Basically, I think that the famous quote by Frank Stella, who threw a shovel of lime in the subjective illusions of the early '60s and launched the minimalist poetics that last until today, "What you see is what you see", has migrated from art to the world. The literalness of the works of Carl Andre or Donald Judd has been transferred entirely to the institutions and the public.
Maybe that's why the very simple, yet so difficult task, to say quite the opposite is left to art: "What you see is NOT what you see". Or, as the song says “Bandera branca, amor (White flag, love)”.
* This text was originally published in the magazine "Folha de São Paulo", on 17/10/2010