Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
    tunga: art rituals from rio
by David Ebony
Tunga's performance
at Bard
St. John the Baptist
Braided snakes
Palindrome Incest
Palindrome Incest
(installation view)
Milky Fallings
still from
The Silver Nerve
still from
The Silver Nerve
Tunga is an artist from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, whose sculptures, drawings, videos and performances have met with acclaim in his homeland as well as in Europe and Japan. Born Jose de Barros Carvalho e Mello in 1952, the euphoniously rechristened Tunga has twice appeared at the Venice Biennale, and this summer made a big splash at Documenta X. In Kassel, he presented a large installation, which featured cargo nets filled with giant plastic bones, and enormous straw and felt hats suspended from the rafters of the train station and used in a continuous performance on the platform. Aside from a 1989 show at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Tunga's work has not been shown in depth in the United States until now.

A large-scale, 20-year retrospective of Tunga's works, co-organized by Bard College in New York, opened there last month and appears through Nov. 23 before traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami in December and continuing on to the Museo Otero in Caracas, Venezuela, later in 1998. New Yorkers can take a ride up the Hudson to see some lovely scenery and also have their brains tweezed by the powerful magnetic fields that Tunga -- quite literally -- generates in certain works.

Near the museum entrance, in a darkened room, visitors are stopped dead in their tracks by a 16mm film projector and a snaking film loop that runs around the room on a track raised a few inches off the floor. Projected on the back wall is a black-and-white image shot from the windshield of a car racing through a tunnel at breakneck speed. Viewers on this endless and reckless underground joyride listen to Frank Sinatra singing Night and Day over and over on the film's soundtrack. One might see the piece as an ironic reference to Princess Diana's recent death, but the work, titled Ao, was produced in 1981. At once soothing and aggressive, hypnotic yet irritating, Ao set the tone for the entire show.

Curator Carlos Basualdo, who is also a poet and senior editor of the art and literary journal Trans, has selected works that show the diversity of Tunga's art but that nevertheless sustain a consistently haunting mood. One room is devoted to a group of delicately wrought sculptures in human scale. Made of rubber, felt and neon, and titled after the names of Catholic saints, the works -- with perhaps more than a nod to Robert Morris -- are Minimalist in design yet romantic in conception.

St. John the Baptist (1977-80), for example, features a rough oval of black rubber fixed to the wall. Attached near its center is a dimly flickering infrared bulb. A wire dangling from the lamp leads to a kind of pouch resting on the floor like the purse of some forlorn monk. These abstractions conjure eerie personages from a distant time and place.

The intimacy of the works in this room contrasts with the theatricality of the enormous sculptures that dominate the show. One of the exhibition's spectacular installation pieces is titled Palindrome Incest (1990) -- perhaps Tunga's best known work. It results from the artist's study of topology, and also seems to refer to strip mining in the Amazon forests. In this work, several huge iron cauldrons, about five feet high, are wrapped in hundreds of strands of thin copper wire hanging from the ceiling in elegant swags. The wire connects the vessels on opposite sides of the room, transforming them into gigantic magnets. Some of them are covered with a layer of furry-looking, magnetized iron filings, and one bears a layer of small sheets of pinkish gold colored copper leaf, which flutters in even the slightest breeze.

Filling one large gallery, Milky Fallings is a work that consists of five giant cast iron bells, three of which hang from a huge steel beam. Splattered over the bells is a whitish gel medium that looks like wax, but probably stands for the milk mentioned in the title. Strangely, the sensuous organic forms and the incongruous mucilaginous splattering lend the work a kind of earthy charm, in spite of its over-the-top massiveness. In some ways the work recalls certain pieces by Richard Serra, who often uses similarly monstrous forms. But Tunga's sculpture seem less inert and implies an action. In fact, many of Tunga's works appear to be by-products of some ritual or dance. The absurdly heavy bells in this work seem to have been dropped out of a mammoth cathedral tower by an earthquake.

In one way or another, all of Tunga's work is related to performance. Most of the artist's actions seem to center on environmental concerns and the relationship between people, industry and nature. At this show's opening the artist appeared in person to present several examples. In one piece, Tunga used lighter fluid to make a huge drawing in the museum driveway. Creating an immense pictograph of two intertwined figures, he connected the flammable line to a wooden rocking chair also covered in lighter fluid. Setting a match to the whole thing, the artist produced a conflagration that resulted in a driveway adorned with a blackened line drawing -- resembling in a funny way a design by Cocteau.

Also during the opening two identical twin girls, dressed alike and with long flowing hair, strolled leisurely through the galleries. The girls wore an elaborate wig, connected to each other by long stands of hair. This image -- of Siamese twin girls joined at the hair -- is a recurring one in Tunga's art. The twin girls are featured prominently in an astonishing video titled The Silver Nerve (1987), which was showing continuously in the museum's video room. In the video, the girls stroll through what looks like a deserted factory.

Also in the video are examples of some of Tunga's other recurring motifs. A particularly unsettling one is of braided snakes. As I understood it, after talking with Mark Primoff of Bard, Tunga keeps the large snakes in a refrigerated room until they slip into a state of semi-hibernation. With the help of studio assistants, he then braids together three snakes. Eventually, he takes the "snake braid" outside where the warmth of the sun revitalizes the animals, and, unharmed, they slowly slither away from each other to disappear into the tall jungle grass. In the background, one could almost hear the rhythmic pounding of tribal drums and voices of the jungle villagers chanting, "Tunga...Tunga!"

DAVID EBONY is a contributing editor to Art in America.