Words on the Wall

Trying to define "Brazilian Visual Poetry" at Mexic-arte

<i>Poema De Valor (Poem of Value)</i>
Poema De Valor (Poem of Value)

So, what is visual poetry? To tell the truth, after seeing the exhibition "Brazilian Visual Poetry," I'm not really all that sure. I approached the show expecting it to deal with concrete poetry, a movement begun roughly in 1952 by brothers Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, and Decio Pignatari that attempted to facilitate an integral relationship between language and visual arrangement of words on the page. Simply put, words of the poem were arranged in a manner that reinforced the poem's underlying meaning or sometimes the syllabic utterances of certain vowels and consonants. A good example is Haroldo de Campos' Camões Revised by Bashô. De Campos' arrangement of this haiku visually reinforces toads jumping in a pond and croaking. (No, not getting killed.) It leaves you with a visual document and an idea of how it sounds by reading it according to its arrangement. A fundamental aspect of concrete art is that it isn't generally romantic. In the case of concrete poetry, there is intent to demystify language.

As curated by artist Regina Vater, "Brazilian Visual Poetry" offers a plethora of works that at times fall into the realm of concrete poetry -- like the work mentioned above -- and other times are probably outside visual poetry, like Hélio Oiticica's photographs of his parangolés. The show also seems to be an attempt to give new Brazilian artists some exposure as well as trace a history of visual poetry. The result is that the show feels fragmentary, a difficulty exacerbated by Vater defining poetry in the broadest of terms; it really makes it difficult to pin down what she means. Ultimately, the exhibition is about Brazilian artists who utilize text, and the viewer is left to decide what belongs to visual poetry and what falls beyond its scope.

My own take is that the show can be divided into three types of work: poetry, commentary on poetry, and political commentary as poetry. The Haroldo de Campos piece mentioned above is a good example of poetry. A good example of commentary on poetry would be André Vallias' Nous n'avons pas compris Descartes (We have not understood Descartes), in which Vallias diagrams poetry in relation to a Cartesian grid on a page. The explanation given with the piece is not terribly clear, but it seems to conclude that Vallias' process somehow transcends the relationship between poem and page, making the field of poetry three-dimensional. (Despite the elusive logic, you can see how this makes it more of a commentary on poetry than a poem in its own right.) An example of political commentary as poem is Paulo Miranda's Poema de Valor (Poem of Value), in which a small poem is stamped on a Cruzeiro, the official Brazilian currency. The artist made 100 of these pieces and apparently only one person actually spent the poem-laden Cruzeiro, to buy some candy. The explanation accompanying the work is somewhat ambiguous, suggesting that the other 99 not being spent was a statement of total disbelief in their value. Well, disbelief in the value of what? The poem? The currency? Seems to me the one guy that bought candy with his poem had the right idea. Spending it circulates the poem in a very public domain and finally makes the poem capable of practical value. At least the actual value of the poem is dictated rather specifically on the currency it is printed on. While many of the works exhibited seem to exist in several categories, the poetry/ commentary/political commentary division offers one practical way to navigate this show with some sense of clarity and order.

Nonetheless, some works still don't quite fit in, such as the pieces by artist Millôr Fernandes -- or shall we say author or poet -- a certifiably odd character. (Do yourself a favor and read his biography at the show; it's really interesting.) Reproduced here are two of Fernandes' illustrated haikus, which have a real brutal quality to the artwork. The guy just can't draw, which is probably why I enjoy his drawings so much. Unfortunately, the quality of these reproductions is really low, which brings up a very problematic aspect of the show.

Are we looking at art or just reproductions? A lot of what is on display in this show is completely out of context (one reason why mounting an exhibition of this type of work is so challenging). Much of the work was originally published in book or magazine format. Vater provides reproductions and some Photoshopped pages of poems as well, and she takes a bit of liberty in manipulating several of these works via the computer without really addressing her reason for doing so. Is it a presentation of art? Or is it a collaboration between artist and curator? Why not just have the work be Vater's own artistic production?

Yes, we have the books in which the work was originally published on display as well, but they are trapped in glass boxes. Books of this type were intended in many cases to be distributed and circulated. So while having the books in the exhibit may add a semblance of authenticity, having them all locked under glass seems a bit staid. Once these books are in boxes, they become objects that we are discouraged from viewing -- or quite literally reading -- as poems.

The quality of the reproductions is inconsistent. Some are pretty good, others not so good. (Yup, they really don't make Millôrs like they used to.) The exhibition as a whole seems a little unkempt, neither aggressively sloppy or slack nor pristine. But the fact that some of the pieces are reproduced poorly isn't the real issue; it's the inconsistency with its application that is troublesome. Personally, I view consistency as being of the utmost importance. I would much prefer to see the informal method of display pushed more aggressively -- Free the books! -- and to see a dialogue about what it means to use reproductions for a lot of the work. This is a real interesting point that is completely avoided or perhaps not even considered.

"Brazilian Visual Poetry" has some problems, but there are inherent difficulties in trying to mount what is essentially a small survey of Brazilian art since the Fifties. Vater and Mexic-Arte should be commended for not shying away from this task. And regardless of the problems, this show is a good foundation for beginning a dialogue on alternative curatorial strategies. end story

"Brazilian Visual Poetry" continues through March 17 at Mexic-Arte Museum, 419 Congress, and may be viewed on the Web at www.imediata.com.

Merchant Adams is a non-romantic artist who lives in Austin.

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