An intereview for the Bieenial's cataloge
You travelled through three different Brazilian states (Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) looking for local, top-down, bottom-up and national narratives. What did you (not) find?
I wanted to see museums and places that commemorated atrocities through visual and material means. My interest in this genre is because I see in these places a tension between the will to impress and the will to be reliable. Spectacle and atrocities are parallel outputs of colonialism that the contemporary world has inherited. I believe that memory is flexible and therefore I generally put together bottom-up and top-down practices. In the western world, the big museums are generally the dictators of the grand narratives, but small museums, often established by private people or little communities, are able to show another kind of complexity in both technological and narrative terms. I am most interested in the forms of display and presentation techniques, aspects of the institution that accumulate power and become stronger than the narrative it is meant to support.
I was warned about the lack of a narrative of atrocities in Brazil and. I can say that the warnings were right, though the picture is somewhat more complex.
In São Paulo I visited the museum of resistance, the terror museum at the police academy and the football museum. I also visited samba schools workshops before the carnaval where they were working on horror themes, and the park located on the ruins of Carandiru penitentiary where a museum is being built nearby. In Minas Gerais I visited the madness museum that used to be a horrific mental hospital and museums of the slaves. In Rio de Janeiro I visited a small part of the slaves harbour exposed during infrastructure works for the Olympic Games that now functions as commemoration site thanks to a few engaged archaelogists. I also visited churches that display a accumulation of objects brought in by worshippers as offerings of thanks for saving them from personal disasters.
In general I got the feeling that there is very little place to marshall the commemoration of national atrocities. When I compare Brazil to where I come from (Israel, Europe...), with its hundreds of museums and commemoration sites, I see a major difference in terms of time and space.. In Brazil, the atrocities do not have clear time or space limitation, at least in the way the ‘west’ is used to. The atrocities here didn't happen and didn't end in a clear and unambiguous way like in the west or perhaps other Latin America countries. This blurs the possibility to point the finger and allocate responsibility, if I may translate it into western terms, in a way that means the narrative remains open.
Is the idea of the empty display the result of a ‘dis-encounter’ or is it a critical answer to the way stories are told in Europe or Israel?
Both. I have developed this work at a stage when I am working on military and atrocities museums in general. It started in military museums in Israel, and continued in Holocaust and other genocide and massacres museums elsewhere. My point of view and critical tools are definitely a result of my origins, and the idea to show an empty display came after two projects that I did using presentations and displays that mix narratives from different parts of the world. I'm doing that to try to create a situation that will not allow people easily to make political use of the material or create contemptible lessons out of it. This comes from the Israeli reality, but also from resisting the aggressiveness and authority of memory and commemoration in museums in the west in general. In addition, my encounter with "weekend" narrative in displays here, which for me was also a kind of release, brought me to make a museum without images. To all of that I can add my negative approach of being a tourist-artist..
Did you find other way to tell stories in Brazil besides the traditional museum display? If memory is flexible, how can one tell a story? Are you trying to answer to this question or or do you leave this problem for museum directors to solve?
There are some examples: the religious ceremonies of black people that are used as channels for commemoration; allegorical scenes in samba schools and display rooms next to churches that people bring offerings after being saved from disaster..There are definitely attempts to establish narratives in various communities. Yet as far as I can tell,, the reason for making museums here is the will to show objects and artifacts, more than to tell narrative. This is the case, for instance, of the penitentiary museum at Carandiru. There are some exceptions like the new permanent show at Pinacoteca and the Resistance museum that might herald a change. .The memory is flexible and probably this is a reason that museum is not the best way to tell a story. Even when there are the technological, educational and political ambitions to produce a progressive display, they quickly become obsolete.
I feel that in Brazil the narrative is stronger in non-material modes, and here is the challenge for me as one who has a passion for effective installations.