Of all the kindergarten activities masquerading as art these days, the video installation is among the most worthless: and the field of worthlessness is a very crowded one. The whole genre is an open invitation to tasteless banality, in the way that the tort law is an open invitation to fraud. And yet once or twice in my life I have found a video installation both interesting and pleasing to the eye, even if I have found it difficult to take the genre seriously as art.
I came across one such interesting installation recently in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (above), known by its acronym, the MASP, pronounced maspé, which is said to have the finest collection of European art in the Southern Hemisphere. I can easily believe it.
The museum is a landmark in a vast city that seems to the uninformed visitor to be somewhat lacking in landmarks, as a jungle seems just a tangled mass of trees and vegetation to those who know nothing of it. Opened in 1968, the concrete age, it is a brutalist black glass-and-concrete block of pleasing proportions, elevated above the ground by four concrete structures, preserved from being completely dismal by their deep red coloration. The raised block provides shelter for some of São Paulo’s homeless who camp under it. (I assume they are not an artistic installation. One never knows these days, the frontiers of art having expanded like Muscovy’s under Ivan the Terrible.)
The main exhibition space, a single large hall, is like no other, at least no other known to me. The paintings are not hung on walls but suspended from the ceiling; one walks between them as between trees in a wood. It is an effective way to hang paintings and oddly enough an aid to concentration on them.
From the far end of the gallery, however, came the sound of crashing and banging. I wondered what it was—an uprising outside, perhaps, or the police moving the homeless on?—but it proved to be the soundtrack of O sécolo (The Century), a video installation by Cinthia Marcelle and Tiago Mato Machado.
The video begins in silence with a shot of a section of an ordinary, grey, ugly road with a manhole cover, as well as its kerb and a section of the wall beyond the pavement. Suddenly, from the right side of the screen, various kinds of detritus—stones, orange plastic safety helmets, old steel frame chairs, fluorescent light tubes, boxes, steel drums, dirty overalls—are hurled with accelerating frequency by an unseen hand or apparatus towards the left side of the screen, crashing, banging and smashing as they land on the ground. The detritus accumulates; puffs of black and white smoke, provenance unknown, drift across the screen for a time. A distant dog barks: one imagines it to be a street dog, abused, hungry and moth-eaten. A distant police siren can just be made out. Then the shower of detritus slows down and ceases altogether, a silence returning. Strangely enough, the detritus has accumulated in a fashion that, taken as an abstract pattern, is not altogether aesthetically displeasing.
After a brief pause for silence, the video repeats, but this time in mirror image form: the detritus arrives from the left and lands on the right. One cannot help but wonder whether the alternation of right and left as a source of rubbish is a commentary on politics, and that actually—in Brazil at any rate—everything ends up in the same mess whether the government is of the Right or the Left. (Disillusionment with the Left in Brazil at the moment is complete: the local elections held while I was there decimated the party of the once idolised President Lula.) Politics is thus a cycle of illusion, disillusion, counter-illusion and disillusion once more, in which hope is for ever fleeting and unjustified.
More than a commentary on politics, however, O sécolo is a commentary on the sheer ugliness of our modern civilisation, with the hideous disposability of its products. “São Paulo is modernity,” says the advertisement in the airport with an illuminated panoramic photograph of the city lit up in the twilight: an assertion that is undoubtedly true, though modernity in this instance is taken entirely to have positive, exciting connotations, and not its negative ones as in O sécolo. True enough, the city is impressive in its way: vigorous and frenetic, it is ungraspable in its totality even by those who have lived in it for years. But I never heard anyone, even those who loved it, claim that it was beautiful; beauty in São Paulo is decidedly a private good.
As if to underline the message of O sécolo, there was another exhibition in the MASP when I visited: A mão do povo brasileiro (The Hand of the Brazilian People), 1969–2016. This consisted of objects made in Brazil, both utilitarian and decorative, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was a reconstruction of the first special exhibition ever held in the MASP after it opened, an exhibition that was soon closed by the ruling military dictatorship for ideological reasons, precisely the opposite ideological reasons from those that had caused it to be mounted in the first place.
The exhibition of works from dolls to sugar-cane presses, that were mainly, though not entirely, anonymous, was intended to display the aesthetic genius of the ordinary people of Brazil in contradistinction to the small Brazilian elite. The exhibition, therefore, was not just of objects chosen for their aesthetic value; they were intended to convey the message that the aesthetic value of a work was inseparable from its social provenance. By forcibly closing the exhibition, the dictatorship was in effect agreeing, but in the reverse sense: the productions of the ordinary people could have no aesthetic value because they were not refined enough to be beautiful. Beauty and egalité are therefore opposites, or at least incompatibles.
I recall the Marxists of my youth wrestling with the problem of aesthetics and what was (for them) the even greater problem of artistic genius. It was imperative for them to deny the very concept of genius because it threatened their entire historiography, which was that not of individual men but of forces, classes and historical inevitability. Mozart for them was not a genius, therefore, but merely the vector of forces in eighteenth-century Austria, which happened to be propitious to the composition of music. Mozart’s music, or something very like it, would have been composed even if there had been no Mozart.
The current version of A mão do povo brasileiro in MASP tries to reproduce the original exhibition exactly, but cannot do so because some of the exhibits have been lost. And despite the current fraught political situation in Brazil, the exhibition does not bear the ideological charge it once had: for Marxism is no longer the tsunami of the future, as it must have seemed in Latin America in 1969, not only to the Brazilian military.
So now the exhibits can be looked at on their own merits, without ideological parti pris, though in my case not without constantly recalling the video installation. For the fact is that every object in A mão de povo brasileiro, no matter how utilitarian, was made individually, with a seemingly natural eye to the aesthetic. The heavy wooden cane-presses, for example, were objects of great beauty, and obviously built to last for ever (there was no other choice, of course). In a world without abundance and in which nothing is disposable, there is an attendance to the beauty of things unknown in a world in which everything can be replaced, even by the poor. No one would ever have dreamt of using eighteenth- or nineteenth-century artefacts to make a video installation such as O sécolo, even supposing it had been possible.
Of course, Brazil was a slave society until 1888 (the last in the Western world) and the everyday artefacts in the exhibition were displayed in a manner in which none of their makers would ever have expected them to be displayed, as if they were works of art to be admired rather than tools to be used or cheap ornaments to decorate impoverished homes. Perhaps if a fluorescent light tube or an old steel-framed chair were displayed in the same way we should see it anew. But somehow I doubt it. The price we pay for our modern abundance is an ugliness so prevalent that we scarcely notice it.
Anthony Daniels’s latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.