The following is an excerpt of a long interview by Helena Tatay with one of Brazil’s leading artists Anna Maria Maiolino. This deals mainly with that part of the discussion about her shift to clay as her primary medium in 1989. However, I would recommend reading the full interview as well. Maiolino’s voice is richly poetic and her observations about art, life and metaphor are remarkably powerful. For imagery that relates to this discussion view our first post about her exhibition in 2014 at Hauser & Wirth in New York.
In 1989, you started working with clay.
I started a series of sculptures using the traditional method with a mold. First I model the clay, then I make the mold, then cast a positive in plaster or cement. I’m going back to territorial questions, but this time through the tactile.
Did you start making cartographies again?
Of course, every time I’m lost, I think about territory. Territory as a way of recognizing where I am. A lump of clay on a table is already a topology.
Evocation of the primeval, this nostalgia for the origins, reappears in all your works in clay.
When we lay our hands on that wet mass of clay, a whole cosmic vision appears with all the archetypes of creation. Clay is the perfect prototype of matter, and it contains the possibility of form and invites us to look for it. Meanwhile, form organizes amorphous matter, it sets limits on it. We are faced with a paradox. The form that organizes matter is also the beginning of death… What do you think? All these thoughts on materials where going round and round in my head when I started casting sculpture with molds.
You seem to be talking about limits again. All your work is a negotiation of dichotomies – inside-outside, pure-impure, empty-full – and they all reconnect in a process of transformation. Now you mention form-amorphous as a metaphor for life-death. It seems you’re evoking questions relating to the individual and his or her limits through the materials.
An artist is like an alchemist, who in seeking to transform metal into gold, ends up transmuting his own being. The process of artistic work is a constant state of construction and deconstruction, which to me represents an active state of transforming meditation. On the other hand, the territory of art is a mirror of life, and it is possible to establish analogies with all the physical and psychological aspects of life.
You started making sculpture in a traditional way, with a mold, but working with basic forms, minimal.
The methodology of clay – to knead, cut and compact – is an important part of the sculpture vocabulary. I do the same thing with the archaic method of ceramics called cobritas y rollitos (little snakes and rolls). These are common procedures because it is what the material demands. But I incorporate it in my work and I make it visible.
Is Um, Nenhum, Cem Mil (One, No One, One Hundred Thousand) the first work where a simple form is repeated serially? Where there is repetition and difference?
Yes. Basic forms produced by hand, identical and different, are added to the body of the sculpture. The same as in nature, they don’t repeat themselves, there is difference in sameness. Like the Pirandello play the title of which I borrowed, Uno, Nessuno e Centomila, this is a work about multiplicity that questions the notion of identity. When forms are repeated, next to each other, they affirm and negate one another in their sameness and difference. In a public square you are one and no one, because your identity is dissolved and you become one hundred thousand.
After this, you begin what you call sculptures/installations, which are a series of sculptures, cast with a mold, but which remain open because you keep adding and subtracting parts, the segments.
The series of sculptures/installations that I began in 1993 are still in progress, unfinished. There are series made with modules or segments in positive, and others made with the negative, the mold. These last ones are made with the mold, which is normally discarded in the process of sculpture, but which here acquires the status of a work of art. São is a series in positive that so far has over seventy modules or segments. Each segment has its own mold, which is unique.
These sculptures/installations are similar to some primary biological forms where, when one part of the body is lost, it grows back again. The segments can be divided, subdivided, removed from the main body of the installation and used as an independent sculpture. Then, one day, all the segments could be put together again to form that main body. Moreover, we could also add the new segments we’ve been making since. The installation will thus have an ever-changing structure, acquiring new configurations in every space.
The mold, which is normally discarded in the sculptural process, acquires the status of a work of art in its own right in your work. Do the titles you give them – É o Que Falta (It’s What is Missing), A Sombra do Outro (The Shadow of the Other), Ausentes (The Absent) – allude to the memory of the sculptural matrix?
I’m interested in the working process, the preparation, what happens before the work is finished. In my imaginary, titles feed on the work’s execution, but in the meantime they allude to something real since I’m working with the empty and the full. A mold is an empty space that used to contain the positive when the positive and the negative were conjoined. In fact, A Sombra do Outro refers to the absent positive.
Your work is not explicitly feminine or feminist, but the narration is clearly that of a female voice. You talk about the everyday, food, the memory of the matrix, the tactile, the proliferation of life through repetition and difference, etc.
It is a reflection on my relationship with the world, with my likes and dislikes. Working hands are very present in my imaginary. I refer to them in several of my writings and they figure in a Super-8 film of 1982 and a video of 1997. There are also the works on the ‘hand that makes’, which relate to the sculptures/installations and to the installations Terra Modelada. And there are other motivations that could be seen as metaphors of the female body, the inside and the outside, and which relate to the positive and the sculptural mold. But the metaphors of the body are unconscious, since the work wants to be in a real space far removed from anything allegorical. So the associations with sexual and bodily aspects are the interpretations of others, of the viewers.
I think both your writings and your work reflect a relational subjectivity that goes out to meet the other, and that is more common in the work of women artists.
This reminds me of your first visit to my studio, when I told you that the difference between the work of male artists and the work of women artists could be interpreted by comparing their orgasms. You remember? I hope I’m not generalizing too much here, but the male orgasm goes in a straight line right to the end, while women are lucky that their orgasms go in a spiral sense, with the possibility of multiple re-starts. This circular, spinning motion can be compared to the facility women have to express their affection for what lives ‘between’ things. And since for women small can be large, their choices are not hierarchical, they’re simply related. Besides, we have a disposition to sacrifice, which has been socially imposed on women because traditionally they take care of others. I don’t believe we have to sacrifice ourselves for others, rather to be with others with affection, as Tarkovski says in Sculpting in Time, a book that has greatly influenced me.
In 1994, you began making large installations with unfired clay, which are ephemeral. When did you decide to discard the mold?
It became very difficult to transport the large quantities of segments that make up the sculptures/installations for an exhibition. And since one of the most important aspects of these works is the sensorial feeling of ones hands on the clay, I decided to discard the mold. I opted for manual work, the work of happy hands, moved by will and desire and away from the supremacy of formal vision. Besides, working without a mold allowed me to make more segments in less time and to concentrate on the installations. It was a liberation, as was the subject of the permanence of the work!
Besides the subjects of food and defecation these ephemeral installations allude to something primordial. You use basic movements of the hand, which are common to everyone, and which evoke in our memory a vital impulse in everyday life towards gesture, repetition, work and tiredness.
José Gil, a Portuguese philosopher, says that a body carries the legacy of the dead and the social imprints of the ritual. Our hands carry the memory of the history of humanity’s work since the first gesture of our ancestors, when the hands became the first working tools, giving rise to language and the domination of matter. Since the actions of the hand are immutable in time, the primordial and the ritual are relived in this work. These installations are based on repetition and difference, and on supporting the “principle” of work.
Faced with the mounds of segments made by tiredness – a satisfying tiredness – the audience can identify with their own daily work.
Maiolino was born in Calabria, Italy, in 1942. At the age of 12, her family emigrated to Venezuela, and a few years later to Brazil, which quickly radicalized her both politically (when she arrived Brazil was a dictatorship) and aesthetically.
Above image: Anna Maria Maiolino.
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