The World before the Shot – 2018

by Luisa Duarte
Version by Chris Burden

The first time I saw the sculptures by Raul Mourão where his famous Balanços (See-Saws) are balanced on different empty glass bottles, it was as if I were encountering something strangely familiar. The bottles played the role of an intruder in an unknown territory. The geometric sculptures built entirely from steel offered an unexpected sign of everyday life, with its own temperature and a fragility that was unprecedented at the time. This gesture, in my view, opened up a new perspective of meanings regarding a well-known aspect of the artist’s process: which is to say, a state of strangeness created within a familiar situation.

We know that in the Balanços, made purely from steel, the power is generated by the unlikely combination of weight and lightness, where the rigidity of the material is infected by the playful vibration of the movement. As has been observed, this meeting of opposites has as one of its causes the fact that these sculptures emerged from Raul’s drawings. In other words, in the genesis of these works, which are so secure and proud, one notes an experimental, unpredictable, risk-taking quality. It is from this unsuspected kinship between opposites that the strength of much of these works derives.

This poetic foundation, in a state of constant friction, encounters a matchless moment in the video Bang Bang (2017). Over the course of six minutes, six different sculptures forged from this combination of elements – the steel geometry and the glass bottle – have their most vulnerable part targeted by a direct shot. We don’t know where the attack comes from. One, two, three, four, five, six works have their bases shattered. In other words, what matters here is not the annihilation of a specific work but rather that we are made to think about the meaning of the successive repetitions of the same type of impact.

On incorporating the fire-arm into the piece, the theme of violence is restored to the artist’s work. We may recall that, for many years, Raul produced numerous works which made direct reference to the railings that populate urban centers, thus alluding to a visuality that embodies the fear of violence in Brazil’s big cities. In the words of Paulo Herkenhoff, these steel sculptures, produced from 2001, are about the “geometry of fear in a precise historical context.”

Raul has conceived and produced Bang Bang in the light of the events of 2017, when Brazilian contemporary art has become the target of a fascist rage that is plaguing Brazil, forcing us to witness countless cases of the censorship of freedom of expression.1 The video can thus be read as a response to a moment where art has become a target of violent forces. But it should be noted that Bang Bang in no way illustrates this situation, which would render it merely propagandist.

Firstly, he creates a poetic event characterized by concision. The bottle, the geometric steel form, the kinetic register incorporated there which places everything in tenuous balance: the artist creates a scene that is simultaneously playful and stern, emotional and sober, fragile and tough; a kind of hourglass that contains a time that could shatter at any moment. A meeting of opposites: the empty bottles full of memories that contain countless narrative possibilities and the metallic geometric forms closed in on themselves.

The attacks launched against each bottle, shown in slow motion, initiate a time without truce, the shattering of an (im)possible balance. Finally, the attacks directed against the field of art were not informed by any degree of critical consideration, but were primarily characterized by a desire for a complete silencing – the annihilation itself – of the discourse of the other, of he or she who is different. In other words, the direct shot of Bang Bang, whose author is anonymous, precisely replicates this relationship deprived of any attempt at reflection or dialogue.

If we pause the video at 24 seconds, a fraction before the first shot, only the soundtrack indicates that something serious and irreparable is about to occur; since Raul’s sculpture is nothing more than the proof of the possibility of power derived from a meeting of opposites. This visual declaration of a possible balance between different things – the universal geometric forms and the botch-job of the empty bottles – and the beauty derived therefrom is proof that, in the field of art, we possess the chance to daily embark on what, in the so-called real world, sometimes appears impossible to us.

While, there outside, everything seems irreconcilable, a war between deaf parties, the artist constructs an allegory about these somber times through what he does best: a translation of the experience of life guided by critical distance that does not allow this translation to be reduced to a mere illustrative gesture. In other words, his Bang Bang does indeed concern the violence inflicted on art, but it is also, simultaneously, a testament to the durability of art: proof of its capacity to address us, in the midst of a ‘bang bang’ with no end in sight; the declaration of a possible equilibrium where the power of life occurs precisely in the meeting of the different. If reality plunges us into a paralyzing nihilism, art can still preserve our capacity to imagine another possible world, closer to that evoked by the work of Raul Mourão before each shot.

1 In 2017, several art exhibitions were the target of censorship in Brazil. For more on this subject, see the dossier “Brazilian art under attack”. Jacaranda, n. 6.