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Raw meal.

That "the universal" and "universalism" are pretty discredited notions hardly bears repeating. For the last decade, the flood of cultural criticism that can be grouped under the rubric of "multiculturalism" has done nothing but attest to this. But what happened to the concept of the universal in the very places in whose name it is now regarded with derision? In those "remote" corners of the Americas like Brazil and Argentina? Deprived of power from the start, generations of South American intellectuals have been insistently imagining a "universal" that does not reproduce the dominant discourses in the political and economic centers of power, imagining, that is, a sort of "universal of pure thinking" that would encompass all cultures and emanate from no particular place.

Their thinking is aimed at defining their own identity not in a regionalized or ghettoized way, but, on the contrary, as part of an imaginary, necessarily incomplete, whole. This way of thinking identity may prove a more useful paradigm than the reified pluralisms that characterize the current wave of identity politics. Take the bailes funk (funk dances) held periodically in Rio's favelas, which feature music that combines rap, funk, and samba with protest lyrics. These can be thought of as the popular, psychedelic, contemporary embodiment of what Brazilian intellectuals identify as the foundation of Brazilian thought: the logic of cannibalism - the assimilative devouring and subsequent transformation of foreign influences. It was in his 1928 essay "Cannibal Manifesto" that Oswald de Andrade first pointed to anthropophagy as the constitutive principle of Brazilian culture. In his text, de Andrade not only defined the law of the cannibal as the obsession with everything foreign, but also identified "cannibalism" as the glue that holds Brazilian culture together. Since then, many generations of artists and writers have reworked that concept to frame their reflections.

In the realm of the plastic arts, these attempts to think the "universal" usually take two very different forms. One sector seizes the latest cultural fashions from the "center," takes them out of context, and hyperbolically generalizes the results of their analyses in order, finally, to impose them on artistic practice in Brazil. In this vein, a certain local formalist criticism continues to refer to Rosalind Krauss' texts and to Robert Morris' work as paradigms of contemporary Brazilian production instead of evaluating the actual impact these works have had on local artists. Let's call this a "peripheral universal," the traditional consolation of the poor: it speaks the master's tongue as if it were the "universal language" so ardently desired. But Brazil also harbors a vast range of cannibal thinkers who digest the information they receive and project the results of their analyses and intuitions onto a more general, virtual, and certainly more utopian plane. To this group belong artists such as the late Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, Tunga, and Cildo Meireles; the innovative bossa nova musicians, such as Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim, who combined cool jazz, American standards, and samba; the avant-garde, oppositional filmmakers of the cinema novo (Brazilian new cinema) such as Glauber Rocha, who made films such as Deus e o Diabo na Terra del Sol (Black god - white devil, 1964), Terra em Transe (Earth entranced, 1967) that combined the techniques of the nouvelle vague with popular Brazilian culture and a strong sociopolitical message; and writers such as Clarice Lispector and Guimaraes Rosa. These artists have tried - indeed, they are still trying - to recover a "universality" that is now forbidden in the center, one that is undoubtedly a construction but that shines with the perhaps un-fulfillable promise of synthesis and reconciliation.

As a principle, anthropophagy stands in opposition to those theoretical paradigms founded on isolating the esthetic from the rest of the epistemological field. Unlike Greenbergian formalism, the logic of cannibalism relies on contagion and contamination and leads inexorably to a poetics of displacement and hyperbole. This is why Brazilian modernism - and here we should make a distinction between European Modernity and the various ways it has been read, let's call those "modernisms" - can really be best described as the effort to acquire esthetic knowledge through a certain analytical, intuitive operation (which could be called the work of art) and to project that knowledge onto the rest of the epistemological field in order to produce ruptures and partial reconfigurations. In this sense, the work of Clark, for example, may be described as the production of an esthetic knowledge of the body, which comes from a meticulous study of the interaction between the spectator and the work of art. In a similar attempt to erase the boundaries between disparate fields of knowledge, Tunga has always deliberately blurred the line between reality and fiction, science and art, in his work. On the popular culture front, singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil took the country by storm in the late '60s with their syncretic music, Tropicalismo - a mixture of rock 'n' roll, kitschy, popular Brazilian music, and violent lyrics. And none of these things were happening on their own. At almost exactly the same time that cinema novo emerged, Oiticica and Clark were developing their most radical work, and Tropicalismo took its name from Oiticica's 1967 installation Tropicalia - an environment created from sculptural forms in the concrete tradition, the architecture of the favelas, elements from Brazilian popular culture, and a television - which Oiticica described as the most "anthropophagous" piece he had yet made.

But if we remember that devouring is, first and foremost, a metaphor for the process of identification (and perhaps the very matrix of all primary identification), we could then speculate that these cannibal artists are no longer part of the periphery, but have become what they have eaten, denaturalizing the binary relation between margin and center. The center, in cannibal terms, is no longer, then, the site of power but a pure event. That center, from time to time, happens. What would it mean to say that there is a cultural center that does not totally overlap with the centers of power, a "universal" grounded in inclusive, rather than exclusionary, criteria? It may mean, perhaps, that we have to remember that thinking is always an activity pursued in exile, a passion with no fixed location, an "experimental exercise of freedom," as the critic Mario Pedrosa once put it. And we should remain attentive to the fragility of its appearance - to use a Duchampian term. In this context to think the "universal" means to rethink identity, to assume a political stance: establishing an unlocatable center becomes a means of subverting a totalizing power that recognizes different identities only to reify them. Perhaps, as a "universal Argentinean," Jorge Luis Borges suggested, the center is a tiny little sphere called the Aleph, located in the basement of an old house, somewhere in an obscure neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

A concrete example of this dynamic is the insistence with which the curators of the Sao Paulo Bienal have recently turned to curatorial premises that place Brazilian art in the Modernist canon with the express intention of doing nothing other than modifying it. The curator of the '94 biennial, Nelson Aguilar, defined the theme of the show as "the question of the support in modern and contemporary art," an ambitious, ambiguously formalist concept that was meant to frame the last eighty years of artistic production in terms of the changes that have occurred in the relationship between the work of art and its support, i.e. not only the physical, but also the psychological and anthropological space it occupies. If analyzed from the point of view of Brazil's recent art history, Aguilar's proposal reads very differently than it does outside its local context. Let us consider, for example, the work of Clark and Oiticica, which evolved from a formal analysis firmly rooted in European Modernism into a process of constant experimentation that transcended the traditional restrictions of the esthetic realm: Clark explored the inner structure of subjectivity; Oiticica, social, intersubjective bonds. Both are excellent examples of an inclusive modernism in which the formal is political - in Brazil, social and political conditions made it impossible to ever perceive the space of art as neutral (as American formalism once did). Nevertheless, despite Clark and Oiticica's presence in the show, the paradigmatic character of their contribution was not stressed to the point that one was forced to think the biennial through their work. What should have been an attempt to politically resignify formal categories remained only a preliminary, almost hesitant suggestion, and Aguilar's thesis did not sit well with foreign audiences, who viewed his project as oddly anachronistic.

The theme of the next biennial, scheduled to open in October '96 and also curated by Aguilar, is equally ambitious: "the dematerialization of art at the end of the millennium." Aguilar hopes to link the formal issue of the "pulverization of supports" to a more general question that, in his view, concerns the predilection of contemporary artists for producing objects that involve "all the sensory organs" - a quality he believes leads to "a process of dematerialization." If the attempt to present artistic production as engaged with "universal" (even millennial) issues - to map concerns that are common to artists at the end of the century, whatever their nationality - in the next biennial is undeniable (and we must wait f.or the results in order to evaluate the kind of universal paradigm at issue here), the more immediate novelty is Aguilar's decision to accompany the traditional selections of work by national artists with a show of 42 emerging artists selected by seven international curators: Jean-Hubert Martin of the Musee National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie in Paris (assigned to Africa Oceania); Mari Carmen Ramirez of the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery in Austin, Texas (Latin America); Tadayasu Sakai of the Museum of Modern Art of Kamakura (Asia); Aguilar himself and his assistant curator Agnaldo Farias (in charge of selecting the Brazilian artists); Paul Schimmel of L.A. MoCA (United States and Canada); Achille Bonito Oliva (Western Europe); and, finally, Katalyn Neray of the Museum Ludwig in Budapest (Eastern Europe). By offering its own version of the Venice Biennale's "Aperto," the XXIII Bienal attempts to position itself in the international arena, where it has recently played a secondary, even marginal, role. It remains to be seen, however, if this exhibition will repeat the chaos of the 1993 "Aperto" (art show cum department store) or if it will comprise a truly cannibal ritual, one capable of rethinking its foundations and redefining them from an original perspective.

Since the '50s, Brazilian artists and the institutional structures that support them have been attempting to carve a place for themselves in the contemporary canon, but in the last few years their efforts have been bolstered by the current wave of interest in the art of this part of the world, an interest motivated by, among other things, multiculturalist politics and the post-'80s recession. In this regard, it is worth remembering the series of exhibitions of Brazilian art held last January in various galleries and nonprofit spaces, which had distinctly positive repercussions. The American art-critical establishment finally saw itself faced with the possibility that it might be worth reflecting seriously on the last thirty years of artistic production in Brazil, which, with rare exceptions, has never been taken into account when the time came to record the esthetic earthquakes of the century. It is interesting to see how in the last couple of years Oiticica's name, for example, has slowly begun to circulate around the New York intellectual scene. The fact that Oiticica is - as of today - the only Brazilian artist to have been accorded a retrospective in the States tells us a bit about power, or more precisely, about ignorance and forgetfulness as the purest forms of power. Still, nobody seems to feel that Joaquin Torres Garcia, Matta, or the Madi or Neoconcrete artists deserve a place in history (which they do, despite all the dull and misleading "Latin American" shows to which New Yorkers have been treated of late, such as the 1993 "Latin American Artists in the Twentieth Century" at MoMA), as the exclusively European/North American art-historical narrative of the Guggenheim's "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Discipline, Total Risk, Freedom" makes only too clear. The ungraspable event that is the unlocatable center of culture is not always welcome in the centers of power, but beyond the New World Order and its not-so-hidden imperial will, people continue to eat, and shit happens everywhere.

Carlos Basualdo is a poet and freelance curator based in New York. A frequent contributor to Artforum, he is also senior editor of Transarts.cultures. media and is currently at work on his third book of poetry, El Vinculo Afectivo (The affective bond), about cows, diseases, and the Chilean Andes.
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Title Annotation:cannibal culture
Author:Basualdo, Carlos
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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