Tunga, True Rouge, 1998, installation view, dimensions variable. All images courtesy of Luhring Augustine.

The magician never gives away his secrets. Tunga is content to explain his, yet the sum of these secrets remains a mystery. Such a paradox—the in/explicable—is characteristic, for Tunga’s work abounds in both harmony and discord. Each force brought into play is noted as much by default as it is by its own empirical reality: the transparent invites the opaque, the positive invites the negative, and chaos can only function with order knocking on the door.

Tunga is chance in motion, convinced that if he moves halfway to resolve the conditions he has invented for himself, the rest will materialize within the act itself. Through that assertion he proves that chance can be used to a point beyond which it can use you. The fact that the latter is continuously to his advantage is a measure of the man, of his wit, dexterity, and vision.

In recent years, Tunga has become increasingly interested in creating what Kurt Schwitters called the gesamtkunstwerke, the total work of art, a microcosm or universe—which is to say that he mixes media of all types at the service of ideas that are both direct and unequivocal, the proof that traditional categories and boundaries—the bondage of a conservative age—can, indeed must, be erased to bring about a catharsis. In controlling aesthetic concerns at will, he never allows appearances to remain appearances but always invests them with purpose. In so doing, he stretches the limits of perception, demanding of the viewer an intellectual engagement that never seems at odds with the purely sensual enjoyment of his art. Such a balancing act requires risk, of which he is wholly aware. Indeed, a sense of danger is a prerequisite for the work, bringing it to life.

I have known Tunga for some years and have collaborated with him on a number of projects, performing with him, sharing ideas, and offering up the occasional algebraic poem. We are good friends. He is a man without compromise, generous, beguiling, and incorrigible. So how to interview the monster? Everyone knows that when the tape starts turning, a certain self-consciousness tends to creep into the air. I therefore decided to write down some quotations I thought pertinent or evocative, and I left them with him for a while to consider. When I appeared with the tape recorder at his house in Rio de Janeiro one August afternoon, Tunga offered his reaction to these aphorisms. I occasionally interrupted him with comments of my own. This is the result.

Simon Lane What were you saying earlier? What about a theory? Is there any theory in what you do?

T Theory and art are the same thing to me. Theory of the theory of a possible art: a poem creates the possibility of a possible poem. In other words, it creates the theory of a poem. The exercise of writing a poem is only one of the theoretical versions of this poem.

At the beginning of our conversation, you suggested using a series of cards, cards with statements, phrases, boutades by other artists that might serve as topics for elaboration. And that brought to mind my frequent, assiduous readings of San Juan de la Cruz—an erotic poet, a mystic, the poet of the great erotic mysticism—who wrote about the dark night and then added exegetical commentaries. So it seemed to me that those boutades, the assertions are, in a sense, like short poems around which I could perhaps elaborate commentaries. There are no good questions, as there are no good answers. There is a profound disjunction between the quote and what is quoted.

SL Let’s pull up one of them. I have here particular phrases by a variety of people, artists and writers, and I’m trying to find one that might be appropriate . . . I’ll choose this one, Picasso. Do we agree that Picasso was a genius? You know, he said, “Art is a lie that teaches us to understand the truth.” What do you think about that, assuming that you agree with it?

T I have always believed that Modernism, the modern thing, implied a new oracular mode. I have been working along that dimension. Every time you require—urgently feel the need for—a red, and you don’t have any left on your palette, you use blue, and that blue is oracular. In other words, what interests us is art’s ability to respond to what we don’t know. An artist’s certainties must be questioned, doubted, and that will be the most profound doubt. What does an artist truly believe in? That his response will be as close to the truth as possible. When an artist arrives at this point, he says, “No, my answer is no good, it is not correct.” I think enabling doubt in this manner places us face-to-face with that phrase, Picasso’s enunciation.

SL In what sense do you see the art you do as being an objective concern, or a personal concern? Do you think Picasso is talking about his own personal values, or about the fact that he was just an artist functioning?

T Enunciation of the modern thing implies the dissolution of the subject. I think the modern strategies were mistaken in this regard. Picasso certainly was not the first to hit upon this idea. Rimbaud had already clearly formulated it, and Lautréamont even more so. Lautréamont made two very clear statements regarding this question of the subject raised by Picasso. First, he said, “Art is the fortuitous meeting of the umbrella with the sewing machine.” And the other, a statement found in the edition of Lautréamont’s poems that includes all his texts, is, “Art must be made by everyone, and not only by the chosen ones.” The dissolving subject, I am an other, must be considered beyond the personal perspective. An artist who applies to his practice his personality, his innermost questions, is simply one in a long line of artists he is or may become. We could say that he is only one among the crowd, amid a multitude of people, where everyone may be him, though with a different face.

Tunga, Sero Te Amavi, 1994, color photograph, 71¾ x 39¾ inches.

SL We’ve known each other for a while, and have worked together. Several months ago, you said to me, “I try to put things together that are not supposed to be together.” Does that mean that you are playing a game of opposites?

T No, the idea of oppositions follows a norm that is, let’s say, old-fashioned, an antiquated way of thinking. In other words, if one thing is opposed to another, the two are not necessarily contradictory. If there is a lesson to be learned in Brazil, it is that in Brazil there are no opposites. What we find is the coexistence of what are conventionally called opposites. Aristotle’s third principle, the law of the excluded middle, dissolves in this social space. Perhaps at the juncture between the two we can find the avant-garde of Brazilian culture. The principle proposed by the Surrealists, that there might be a point within mental space where contradiction was not valid, was formalized by a Brazilian theoretician, Milton da Costa, who proposed a paraconsistent logical model. I believe that there may really exist within the territory of poetry or art production a paraconsistent mode of thinking, where a mode yes and a mode no may each find a space where they are not valid. So we must place ourselves on this ascent, the mode of living in doubt, questioning what seem to us the surest and safest things in our existence. The artist’s discipline consists of this ascesis. To try to understand how a yes and a no can live together, or how a yes and a yes, a no and a no, can live together.

SL I am looking now at a quote by Cyril Connolly, from The Unquiet Grave: “To attain two-faced truth we must be able to resolve all our dualities.” Do you think that it’s necessary to resolve dualities or do you think that dualities are implicit in our existence, that they are perfectly natural?

T The notion of duality seems to me vitiated by pragmatism. It is an extremely practical idea to coexist in the world such as it is organized today. However, there are other modes of living in the world, there are other worlds. One ought to remember that a third of our life is spent in sleeping mode. And the mode for thinking while sleeping, or the mode for representing sleep, is the oneiric. And then there is the mode of cooking, creating flavors; or representing oneself poetically. Duality can be very practical in a certain mode, but it is not going to be useful. But let’s forget about the words useful and practical. Neither is going to reveal us intensely as human beings. They might articulate our ability to carry out multiple tasks that our social structure presents to us. But these words won’t enable us to carry out other tasks that make us more human, tasks like those performed by the symbolic mode, which allows us to think of ourselves in oneiric terms, enabling us to add something more human to the human. I am reminded of Artaud’s words, when he said, “How many pounds of excrement, how many liters of urine, and how few poems humanity has produced!” I find myself more on the side of those few poems than those pounds of excrement.

SL In a way that’s a terrifying thought. But it’s interesting that you mention the idea of usefulness. Because I’ve got an Oscar Wilde here, the idea that art is actually useless. Is it useless?

T The Italian anarchists divided things, with a belief in dichotomy I don’t like, between useful and pleasant. In a film by René Clair there is an anarchist who says, “The umbrella is useful, the parasol is pleasant.” I am on the side of what is pleasant.

SL I like that. I have here a haphazard collection of quotations, one by the art critic Mason Line: “The work of Tunga consists of a code of antitheses.” Does that make sense to you? Or is it just semantics?

T The idea of antithesis implies, negatively, a thesis and a synthesis. I think there may be some influence here of a delirious reading of Hegel, mediated by Nietzsche, where the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis enter the territory of cruelty.

SL Cruelty is not something you’re interested in, being such a generous person. Let me ask you this: Do you think that making art is something that you do with love?

T Yes, it is certainly made with love, but with a Sadian love. Love, in Sade’s realm, is of a fundamental sort: not mushy love, but love in its most profound potential. Though mushy is pleasant.

SL If it’s true that we can live without art—even if we can’t live without love—then how important is art to what you do, to your life?

T I think a person can live without the idea of art, without the idea of love, but not without art, and not without love. Henri Michaux said, “We don’t make the dreams we want.” He came to me, after all his experiments with drugs, and said, “We don’t have the dreams we want.” Just as we don’t make the poems we want. In other words, we don’t necessarily live with poetry, or with art, or with love on the other side. We can certainly believe that we live without it. However, the profoundest existence is existence with the symbolic. That is to say, you sleep, you dream—any human being sleeps and dreams—and in dreams the mode of organizing oneself as subject is very close to poetry. And that’s also where the true nature of love is revealed. That’s why I brought up Sade. In a dream you are capable of killing your loved one and then you wake up feeling guilty. Nevertheless, if you confront, if you have before you the Sadian model, you will understand that this is a form of love, that it is a form of poetry. Both instances are independent of the will to make them. They are human moments of living symbolically, or poetically. To live amorously is to live in the actualization of this symbolic universe.

SL Would it be unfair of me to suggest that that presents a rather fatalistic view of existence, in the sense that we don’t choose our dreams, our dreams choose us? And we’re simply vehicles for expressing them?

T To take this reasoning to an earlier realm, we could say that we do not choose to be born. If there is fatalism, then fatalism precedes us. We are here, we did not ask to be.

SL That’s fundamental.

T So that is the bowl of cherries. We eat.

SL But having been born, although we cannot say that we are in command of our destiny, do we choose to make art?

T Maybe. I mean, I just make myself available. Going back to Lautréamont, I think we are all artists, we are all poets. Now, some people open themselves up to the self-discipline of practicing this mode of existence, this ascension. The practice of this mode of existence, this discipline, brings us closer to those fleeting glimpses of our essence as human beings. How unfortunate that this territory should exist. How unfortunate that art and poetry should become specializations. But, in fact, they are not specializations but a spice we are all able to produce.

Tunga, Exogenous Axis (Process), 2000, metal and wood, dimensions variable.

SL The myth of modernity is the idea that the more specialized we become, the greater advances we will make. Everyone knows that, for example, in the late 18th century, a multiplicity of talents was absolutely essential. One person could be a philosopher, artist, cartographer, botanist—whatever. The era of specialization, which is modernity, has diminished the capacity to embrace the fundamentals of existence, including knowledge of art, science, philosophy, and all the rest of it. One of the elements of your work I admire is that you’re open-minded enough to embrace different disciplines and reframe them as an art.

T Curiously, Simon, I have a long-standing dialogue with scientists, much more so than with artists, and at the root of this dialogue with some of these friends—in medicine, biology, geology, cosmology—are dilemmas very close to my own, problems that may have to be approached in the poetic mode. This is to say, there are certain intuited properties of lava flow, which will eventually be formalized in a so-called natural language, or a so-called artificial language. In the scientific world, one must create and formalize a new and artificial language in order to organize those intuitions that correspond to a new knowledge. On the other hand, in the territory of poetry, of the arts, new language can emerge from within the territory of natural language. If in the scientific world these new modes of thought have to be mediated by technology or certain deductive properties in order to become useful as theories in art, this transition is swifter, and carries greater urgency. I believe that at bottom, the two territories are very similar. The task of the artist is to not specialize, and to commit oneself to trying to transform things in a nonspecialized manner. My experience as an artist is to show a work to people who do not come from a “high culture” milieu, but are capable of being deeply affected by what they have seen. And to show the same piece to people who come from a “high culture” milieu, the so-called sophisticated public, and they too will be deeply affected and capable of elaborating the same phenomenon in a different way. Let me say it again: what is important in art is nonspecialization. The territory of oral or written poetry is the last free territory of our civilization. Until the ’80s, the contemporary cultural industry had left the territory of the plastic arts alone. That’s over. Today the plastic arts are part of the cultural industry. What we have left is the pencil, the paper, and the poetics, which still free us to a certain extent from involvement with the cultural industry. I am not against cultural industry. But once we succumb to working within it, it forces us to recognize certain operative strategies. We are no longer alone with pencil and paper. We have partners, colleagues, now we work with associates. This is true for the plastic arts, as well as in music, where this has happened from the ’60s on, just as for theater and for opera even before, or film—all have become subject to the same thing. I am still a poet, but in what sense? In the sense of the pencil and paper. And I am a Pop artist, or whatever it is, to the extent that I work within a context. I don’t work alone, I work with a whole team of people, and within that team there are observers. Let’s take as a starting point Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, who clearly enunciated that the gaze is a part of the picture. He speaks of a very precise gaze, for he was referring to the gaze with regard to Vermeer, a dear and appreciated painter, and his painting The Geographers. Lacan has talked about how this painting was, for a long time, in Mr. Adolph Hitler’s room. What a terrible painting this is, impregnated with that gaze. So it must be understood that the gaze inscribes a subject in each work. It must be understood that one works with partners. In Hölderlin’s greatest solitude—as he writes to the sound of the invisible piano being played—is embedded the reading someone may do centuries later of that invisible piano.

SL Do you think that the story of art, as it were, has a continuum? Based on what we were saying, that a multiplicity of talent was acceptable in the 18th and 19th centuries, less so in the 20th century, when people began to specialize, do you think you have a real place, as an artist now, within the context of the contemporary art world, which seems more and more abstracted from the disciplines of which you’ve spoken? I mean, groups of artists who come up together talk about you being a Brazilian artist, but basically we’re all alone, right? You’re just getting on with your thing. Do you find that that is a problem for you, being isolated, as it were?

T No. Look at it this way, there are two versions of art history. One is constructed according to a plurality of perspectives. That is a recent invention. As a matter of fact, history is a recent invention—art history, even more recent. Let’s remember Hegel again. The other version is that which artists construct. For instance, Masaccio constructed his own art history and Matisse constructed his own art history, with Masaccio in mind. Four centuries elapsed and yet Masaccio was having a conversation with Matisse. Each artist constructs his own history.

SL That’s called eclecticism.

T No, I don’t think that’s eclecticism. I think we can recognize it in the constructed art histories themselves, in the art artists produce. And in response comes academic reflection, a reelaboration, where the attempt is made to reorganize, chronologically and historically, a sequence of productions that seem to have a meaning in their small migrations toward something. That is false, as false as the theologies that explain Minimalism as a natural consequence of Constructivism which comes from Cubism and meets in Russia with a mode of simplification that, later, emigrates to the United States, etcetera, etcetera. That’s false, and a simplistic vision of art history. Antonin Artaud sued Pierre Louys for plagiarizing him in his novel. However, when Artaud sued him, Louys had been dead for 50 years. If I were the judge, I would judge in favor of Artaud.

SL Plagiarism is a strange concept. After all, Shakespeare’s plot for Romeo and Juliet, one of my favorite plays, is from a little known Italian novella by Luigi da Porto. Which brings me to another Oscar Wilde quote. Wilde said, “There is nothing original in art, only in the means of expressing fundamental truths.” I think what he is saying is that the story is always the same, it’s how you interpret it—which is, I know, a cliché. How do you react to that?

T Look, we’re all human beings. I would rather not think in terms of the neurosciences and believe that we are all humans because we have a certain limit of psychophysical integration. But I do think that as humans we have an absolute morphogenesis, a morphogenetic resonance in the territory of the symbolic. This is to say, though I am not Jungian, I think there is a resonance in the symbolic thing that inhabits us.

Tunga, Sem Titulo (Untitled), 1977–80, 1997, felt and fan, dimensions variable.

SL Do you find that American and European critics pick up on ideas of morphogenetics and telepathy as if you were some kind of Indian that just jumped out of a tree with some ancient knowledge? The most natural thing in the world is to communicate morphogenetically, as far as I’m concerned.

T Look, Simon, my trajectory as an artist has never been that of a Brazilian artist. I have been participating for many years in what is called the international art world, and never as the representative of Brazilian or Latin-American art. I have always considered myself, and have been considered, a contemporary artist. The idea of fatherland, of nation, has always been alien to my work and to my perspective. Just as it was alien to the first movements of Modernism, which said instead, “We are human.” All those attempts to find the heterogeneous in the exotic have been around for some time. You also have here a quote by Gaugin among your cards. Gaugin went to Tahiti and discovered a color field.

SL The quote was “Soyez mysterieux,” be mysterious.

T You see here the crystallizing of this idea of finding the exotic in mystery. As long as there is night, there is mystery. It brings to mind Novalis, and San Juan de la Cruz, the whole tradition of this idea that ghosts are born in obscurity and living with those ghosts will reveal an unknown territory. Even in Freudian ideology, the id is thought of as something obscure. Freud himself, in Metapsychology, speaks of the id as a “saurius,” an alligator, a prehistorical animal that nevertheless still lives among us. That is to say, this conception of night is to a certain degree a European idea, or an Anglo-Saxon one. Armando Reverón, a Venezuelan artist from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, would deliberately stay in the dark and then come out and look straight at the midday light, until he became completely blinded, so that he could paint that white on white on white, this blindness made of light. We can conclude that it’s a big mistake to think that there was something to be found in the exotic that is not there. The exotic is us standing in line. After Rimbaud’s dictum, “I am an other” [“Je suis un autre”], we are all exotic to ourselves. What is interesting is that Europe and the United States seem to have forgotten the essential formula of what it is to be modern. To be modern is to be alone standing in line. Nowadays there is much talk about the failure of Modernism, and much is said about Postmodernism. It is said that the modern thing is over and done with. The first person to enunciate the notion of Latin American Postmodernism was Mário Pedrosa, referring to Hélio Oiticica, in the ’60s. I think that there was a failure, not of the modern thing, because we are still living in the episteme—to use a Foucaultian term—of the modern thing. What failed were the modern strategies. They were assimilated, gutted out, transformed into the utilitarian, like the toothbrush; Jean-Luc Goddard flies on the Concorde to New York to shop and then returns home. However, at the bottom of the modern thing, there is a serious issue, that of finding the heterogeneous in the bottom of the well. And that question remains the same. We need to formulate and reformulate new strategies to find the lost subject that is the modern subject, which has yet to find a home.

SL And you, personally, individually, what is your strategy for the future?

T My strategy for the future? Well, here’s a quote for you, Simon, by San Juan de la Cruz:

“In a dark night, inflamed by the anguish of love, oh, blessed joy, to leave unnoticed, while my house lies at peace. In darkness, and assured, through the secret stairway disguised, oh blissful joy, in darkness and stillness, while my house lies at peace.”

SL Well, I can’t argue with that.


Translated from the Portugese by Isabel de Sena.

Originally from England, Simon Lane is a writer and performer who lives in Rio de Janeiro. His novels include Le Veilleur (Christian Bourgois Editeur, Paris), Still Life with Books, and Fear (Bridge Works Publishing, New York).

Critical theory
art—history and criticism
portuguese language
Winter 2002
The cover of BOMB 78