In the late 1950s, the art critic Mario Pedrosa said that Brazilians were “condemned to be modern.” He was writing about the country’s love for everything new. That also applied to Brasília, the modern architectural city designed by Oscar Niemeyer that became Brazil’s capital in 1960.
That quote is the basis for a new art show at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs operates the venue.
Condemned to Be Modern is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, and it consists of 21 contemporary artists responding critically to what curator Clara Kim calls “the afterlives of modernist projects” in Brazil, Mexico and Cuba.
“The exhibition is not a traditional architecture show, but they’re contemporary artist projects who are responding to what we’ve been calling the ‘afterlives’ of modernist projects,” Kim said.
For, instance Eduardo Abaroa’s project imagines the destruction of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, a very sacred place for pre-Columbian cultures. “For him, it’s a commentary on political policies as it relates to indigenous cultures. But his project involves the systematic destruction of the museum itself. and really the symbol of architecture of these cultures being more important than the everyday lives of people,” Kim said.
Clarissa Tossin, whose new work responds to the Hollyhock house, grew up in Brasília and her projects have to do with the kind of everyday element of cleaning, such as “the herculean task of cleaning the white marble every day” on the buildings in Brasília or the foot paths that people make as shortcuts.
“So it’s that kind of everyday, human, lived dimension of architecture which I think is the root of the show,” Kim said.
Kim walks us past photos of Brasília by the artist Mario Resti that depict it in less monumental ways than typical architectural photography.
She shows us a vivid wall tapestry by Cuban artist Alexandre Arrechea in which photographs of details of buildings in Old Havana are woven into a design that seems like a bold human mask.
Another artist, Beto Shwafaty, is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil and his piece is called “Remediations.”
You see a wooden screen that serves as a partition.
“The screen functions as a kind of interface, let’s say, between a certain space that is a standpoint where you are from outside trying to look inside,” Shwafaty said. The screen, used in Brazilian design and borrowed from Portuguese architecture (itself influenced by North African architecture), “allows someone that is inside of the house to observe what is going on outside without being seen.”
On the wall are framed photos and magazine ads that are paired in such a way that critique the idea of progress in Brazilian society. For example: a picture of Brasilia just after it was built from a page of a book called “Brazil: Magical Land” from the 1970s, paired with an advertisement from the National Association of Advertisers of Brazil praising the country’s former military president.
Look through the screen and you see several chairs facing a television propped onto ceramic and concrete bricks.
“That makes an evocation also to these ongoing attempts of constructing reality with our own hands. In Brazil, more than 50 percent of the constructed buildings are self-constructed. We have a huge number of self-constructed communities. Some people call them favelas. If we can talk about the Brazilian style, I would say that is not Niemeyer, our greatest architect, but it is the people. They do like miracles sometimes with these materials that are really humble,” Shwafaty said.
“Condemned to be Modern” opens September 10th at the LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park. You can RSVP for the opening celebration from 2-5 pm here. The show will be up through Jan. 28, 2018.