David Barro

There is a group of artists who carry out a subtle narrative, with minimal devices, with moments that are born out of patient waiting and with a tense, reflective gaze. The case of Alexandra do Carmo is one of them. Her drawings emerge like a journal capable of reflecting and reflecting on what being an artist today means, what their place is and what their difficulties are. As if it were a game, and without losing her sense of humour, Alexandra do Carmo works on communication, sounding out its possibilities until concluding its impossibility. Like in palaeontology, each step forward comes from other tiny discoveries which apparently do not mean anything and lead nowhere, but which end up making sense. In her latest works each drawing grants meaning and form to an idea. In this manner Alexandra do Carmo reveals and decodes the real world in order to multiply its possibilities. She does so using metaphorical figures such as the dinosaur and the chimpanzee, which function as writing, and take us into a sort of materialised dream, a reality that involves the first reality and reminds us of the fictional element that is hidden in both of them.
When looking at her drawings, we become locked within a story almost without noticing it: the story of the artist’s diary. Immersed in a sort of circular, Borgesian ruin. As pointed out by the French philosopher Clément Rosset, in his work Le réel et son double: essai sur l‘illusion, “all duplication supposes the existence of an original and a copy, and one needs to question which of the two, the real event or the “other event”, is not really the double of the “other event”. So at the end it turns out that the real event is the “other”: the other is this real that occurs, that is, the double of another reality that might be the real itself but which always flees and about which we will never be able to say or know anything”. After all, our artist and her writing in the shape of drawing also ends up moving in a sort of Moebius strip that does not allow one to distinguish between the inside and the outside, in a seamless and endless curve, a course that insinuates but cannot totally deduce the realities, accepting them in a natural manner, as if in an incongruous or impossible dream. Alexandra do Carmo does not replace reality with fiction or vice-versa, but rather duplicates spaces and events in a sort of independent and concomitant existence. In her recent works she thinks that animal gaze – that of the chimpanzee – as light, as possibility and memory, as the passing of time that allows one to draw different phases and moments, both interior and exterior ones, clear and blurred shapes. So the marks and lines that form the fiction of the workshop in the eyes of the chimpanzee and those that form the animal figure are mixed together in a sort of Piranesian, almost magical tightrope-walking, drawing up presences and stories as it goes on building up. Like the very process of “making”, thoughts overlap and are absorbed in a sort of palimpsest. There is a past and a present, a cinematographic rhythm in the action of looking until coming to an illusion of order that comes from repetition. In the meantime, the succession of images has already formed a story, a reading.
In her last work, which is the reason for this book, the drawings represent the narrative of the video in emphasising the fiction. The film itself is a performance, in this case a documentary on the artist who intends to rent an apartment in Brooklyn. The questions follow on, and everything is being filmed. In the video we are shown the whole relationship with the real estate agent, and as a backdrop we see the change taking place in that area of New York City, which had previously been the home for other types of workshops, just like the development of art and the development of the space. The title – Office/Commercial – underlines that sense of spaces for rent. As always, Alexandra do Carmo uses ideas as her material. The simple, narrative will result from her reduction into a drawing, avoiding unnecessary noises, often seeking colour as a pictorial hue, being timid yet inevitably more instinctive, like a syncopated note that seeks out the delicate emphasis. If at first it was the dinosaurs, now it will be the chimpanzees who take us on a journey into the past without leaving the metaphorical present. Everything is more important than it seems. It is a matter of not losing one’s calm. Like in a music score . Let us think of the figure of the chimpanzee, dumb, upstanding, challenging the spectator like in the best performances. The spectator has to face up to that divided gaze. Meanwhile, the dinosaur heads from previous works insist and are repeated until they make up a landscape. Repetition, more than ever an action on memory, is associated to difference, like in the artist’s stubborn making, like that above-mentioned palimpsest of emotions that make a time denser and do so sketching the horizon line.
But let us not forget. Drawing is physical and imaginative, something that gives off a feeling of being incomplete; the simplest and most personal form of making a picture. We could think about how many artists have erased everything to try to go back to draw the story. A good therapy for correcting errors. Because the drawing has taken on a meaning as a (literary, subjective) refuge in order to narrate some current themes without overdoing it, to the point of occupying a privileged place in relation to such a spectacle. For Alexandra do Carmo, the drawing is present and, as we have stated, its set is an accumulation that acts like a daily register. We should insist on it in the same way that she insists on that performing sense of drawing. Each drawing is a past and a present, each image is the construction of a memory. Alexandra do Carmo repeats and represents sequentially in order to resemble an order that is never really that, but which only manages to be a mark, possibilities for a story told in simultaneous translation. So the notes printed on paper correspond to the presents in her videos. Past, present and future as a trajectory lead us to a story capable of functioning as a hypertext in which everything is united and deconstructed, is disorganised and represented, but above all is repeated.
Let us think of the theories of Michel Serres, for whom the history of science undergoes turbulence; that is, it is subjected to random connections of all kinds among several different areas. Serres points out how science moves forward through the unpredictable and the unexpected. “Both the world and objects, both bodies and my own soul are, at the moment of their birth, drifting. Drifting close to descent down the slope. And this means, as is usual, that they irreversibly become undone and die (...) The drift is the whole of time: the dawn of appearing, life limited by finiteness and disintegration, a random explosion of multiple temporalities in the infinite space” . In Alexandra do Carmo that discontinuity and indefinition, that turbulence, is the product of that continuing test, of that drawing as experience. The chimpanzee’s eyes would be a sort of interconnected link allowing an uninterrupted but broken reading, one interconnected but cut. Like an endless ‘text in movement”, it cannot be read in its physical impossibility. The spectator-reader sees before him a story told by an author-actor which is no more than a text which is only made up of alternative beginnings of texts, of fictions drawn about that camouflaged performance of gathering information. Deep down it all fits in with what Roland Barthes defined as the ‘ideal text’, thinking of an interwoven text that might constitute a type of galaxy of meanings, a reversible text. We are talking about a text that is experience and fiction, a non-linear search, often following a sort of serendipity. The reader defines and decides his path of reading, altering the centre, the start, the axis of its organization. Thus we establish a decentralised, open path, with no hierarchies. An alternative for the spectator.
Moulthrop termed this “textual promiscuity”. All of the courses generated introduce different possibilities of interpretation that lead us, in the final analysis, to think of poetry. The original meanings and messages are fractured, making the reading richer through that which is called “poetic licence” semiotics. The hypertext drawn out in Office/Commercial would thus come close to a puzzle with the perceptive appearance of a zapping process, in which what is suggested is much more efficient than what is suggested by a thing, if we follow Borges.
The figure of the chimpanzee, which in this case takes on a tormented appearance, with blurred edges in which the imperceptible stands out, stands as evasion and disorientation in its distorted gesture, but also as a process; as a process of the construction of a language. I am thinking of how Samuel Beckett, in an article on Proust, points out our inclination towards the vulnerable and sensitive when we are taken out of the safe context of our daily surroundings. Alexandra do Carmo seems to wish something to emphasise something like this in many of her projects, aware of the cryptic sense of contemporary art for a non-specialised spectator, overwhelmed by doubt and attracted by that impossibility that emanates from the indiscernible and alien that it may produce, but above all obliged to make an effort, like the chimpanzee, to reach an interpretation that he ends up being unable to reach. To see, or to understand? To look at, or to read? To observe, or to interpret? How many questions might we ask ourselves about the possible reading or non-reading that the figure of the chimpanzee might take from the images? And if we, the public, are the chimpanzee, and the project is what we call art, what do we understand about that art that virtually flow from those images projected by the chimpanzee?
The question posed by Alexandra do Carmo is merely that of how to communicate from the position of the artist and whether that communication is truly possible. The masked used for this search – that of the chimpanzee – may be insignificant, although in this case it is not. The chimpanzee, which is very close to the human being in its genetic make-up, is a key towards emphasising the fiction that the very act of drawing already contains within itself. Also to reveal the artist’s gaze, and, of course, a sense of humour contained in each one of these portraits-self-portraits. The fictionalised reality functions as a mirror in the eyes of that chimpanzee that ends up granting expression to a drawing that is apparently similar but which always bears the tones and marks of previous attempts and mistakes. In Alexandra do Carmo’s drawings one may read notes capable of remaining there, in the same drawing, from much before the result we see. While the spectator reads these notes he is, unwillingly, caught in the image-reflection of the chimpanzee’s eyes, as if he were involved in that same space, as the main character of the tale by Salvador Elizondo, La historia según Pao Cheng, felt: On a summer’s day the philosopher Pao Cheng sat down on the bank of a stream to foretell his destiny in a shell of a turtle. Before the eyes of his imagination, great nations fell and small ones were born which later became great and powerful before falling in their turn. The force of his imagination was such that he felt himself walking through its streets. Through one of the windows, he could make out a man writing. Pao Cheng then looked at the sheets of paper lying on an edge of the table and as he went on deciphering the meaning of what was written in them his face clouded over. “This man is writing a story”, he said to himself. “The story is called La historia según Pao Cheng and it is about a philosopher from the olden times who one day sat on the bank of a stream and thought about… Then if I am a memory of hat man and if that man forgets me, will I die?” We, or rather our illusion, is what operates in this redoubled world; this is done so up to the point that, like Pao Cheng, we can no longer distinguish between realities and appearances.
If we think of Alexandra do Carmo’s work in a retrospective manner, some keys to it are revealed. If in Office/Commercial (2007/2008) she explores the transformation of spaces, in A willow (or without Godot) (2006) it is the spectator’s behaviour that is seen, taking Beckett’s well-known play as a starting point. In previous works the creative process (untitled drawings, 2006); the literal and symbolic creation of a workshop by the artist and other workers using the specific language of art to question virtual proximities (Argon Corporation, 2004/2005); the immodest gaze of a spectator at the inside of the workshop through a microscope (50 Richards, 2004); the relationship between the artists activity and that of a palaeontologist (Wild m5, 2004); or the spectator as author at the time of producing (Micron 005, 2002/2004); tell us of a concrete search: to bring the spectator close to the work, both physically and conceptually. The first approximation is obvious: whether this is looking through a microscope or forcing him to physically come close to the drawing in order to understand what is taking place inside the eyes of the chimpanzee or the motif of some dinosaur heads makes the reception physical.
Meanwhile, conceptual approximation takes place almost in the opposite way: in seeking a direct confrontation a break in the discourse or the event is produced. Here the mistake, like in the act of drawing, takes place “where stating is impossible”, in the incomplete and impossible aspect of all communication, in the now metaphorical difficulty that flows from the choice of the animal itself.
In Office/Commercial it is not the first time she has approached the complexity of the idea of the artist’s workshop. Before, for example, the deconstruction of the essence of the workshop took its starting point in Courbet’s painting (The Painter’s Studio) in order to reformulate the notions of the public and the private and the new models of post-production and representation. With her shiftings, Alexandra do Carmo makes her attitude political, seeking to intervene on the social sphere in a critical manner, showing and granting greater presence to the process. And always from anthropological performances and collective field work capable of uniting the non-artistic social aspect with the specifically artistic one.
Deep down this underlines a deconstructive style that we may compare to some words by Italo Calvino: “Kublai Khan had stated that Marco Polo’s cities were alike, as if moving from one to another did not involve a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city that Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind went off of its own accord, and dismantled the city bit by bit, rebuilt it in a different way, replacing ingredients, displacing them and inverting them. Marco went on referring to his journey, but the emperor was no longer listening to him and interrupted him”. And there is a great deal of interruption in Alexandra do Carmo’s drawings, although it is in order to move forward. They are drawings that appear to be suspended, in a sort of almost thrilling product of going through the mirror as a form of experience, as we will see further on. Limits, balances and tensions, everything inviting one to penetrate it with the aim of coming across the true depth of an image that is always the same but always different. Deep down, Alexandra do Carmo is interested in taking detours and disseminating meanings. There is a search for effort in interpretation, an active participation capable of restating the idea of an art capable of functioning as a science of knowledge. This is the reason for her ambivalences, her games of differences in what is apparently the same, her search for singularity in the similar. All of Alexandra do Carmo’s drawings remain open, and thus accept and inherit the universe of mistaken marks from her previous attempts, seeking the essence of that hand that draws in feeling out possibilities. In Alexandra do Carmo it will always be difficult to have access to the image because the present always emerges as a presence in the suspended gaze.
In a certain manner Alexandra do Carmo rushes into a challenge of rigid conventional order and proposes the disorder of poetry, or, which is the same, the random and exception. But it seems to me that this poetic disorder comes from a mental order, from an image that starts to experience variations and crossing in a manner similar to that of fantasies or dreams. The mental image is distinguished here from the mental scheme in which she keeps the visual traces necessary to recognise a thing or a place; in this case the search for a studio may turn into an obsessive view of previous levels that little by little we deform and shape to our liking. They are virtual images, dominating forces that have a lot to do with the psychic, impressions of similarity or of analogy that may manage to be simple mental constructions. Perhaps for this reason Deleuze wonders, “Is it not, in short, the definition of perception to make imperceptible forces perceptible to the senses, the forces that populate our world, which directly affect us, which make us perceptible?” The artist’s fantasy may be found there. And it is in that sort of imperceptible fantasies that Alexandra do Carmo manipulates her structural bases in order to uncover her particular view, disturbing all distinction between the real and the virtual, without betraying her fidelity to some conceptual presuppositions that remain firm, dealing with democratising aesthetic experience through forcing the idea of an active spectator.
As I was stating, Alexandra do Carmo’s work offers a certain resistance. It emerges there were the meaning still lives without being flattened by the image. The patient gaze unveils that first ambiguity and generates a kaleidoscope of possibilities in one’s gazing, as Berger points out so clearly. Alexandra do Carmo imitates the process of seeing and only thus is it possible to discover her intentions. Everything becomes obvious when she draws the head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a thin orange marker pen, a head that is not recognisable at first sight, which leads us to a virtual, ambiguous landscape. Once the head has been recognised the doubts as to how to interpret it remain, with form and meaning never seeming to come together. Robert Knafo explains this with some feeling: “What I see as interesting in this is that some aesthetic projects of disruption or of radical redirecting, of that liaison between form and meaning can produce very different results: some art provokes a sort of semiological dyspepsia; it seems to actively frustrate understanding and appears arbitrary, or even perverse, impermeable to interpretation. On the other hand, artistic instances and strategies like those of Alexandra do Carmo, even when they are disorientating, may at the same time seem thrilling, reverberating and stimulating; instead of raising up an impenetrable wall, throw open a series of doors and windows that is greater than usual” . Alexandra do Carmo fractures and decomposes the meaning, effectively multiplying it and even exploding it like Lewis Carroll’s Alice: “In another moment Alice was through the glass and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room (…) Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.” Carroll’s words are particularly revealing of the leaps that the image also undertakes with Alexandra do Carmo, although in her everything is turned into something more subtle, into a palaeontological poetry that is born out of the note, the indication and of insistence. Deep down it is a matter of producing meaning by showing the fiction and the gaze as a product of time.
Like in her chimpanzees, the artist’s reality precedes the image, and the latter precedes the meaning that the spectator may be able to assign to the group of drawings that acts as a set. Just as in the overall set of her work there is a conscious process of absorption of forms and contents, involving the spectator in that process of creating the product, although it may be a performance, in order to seek a direct relationship, the creation in symbiosis that would traditionally only be the function of the artist and now has cut short the distances. Therefore she attempts to strip creation and grant music to these ideas, which more than ever are the material for action.
In Alexandra do Carmo’s work everything seems simple although it is a product of an analysis of the complexity connected to the visual. Thus questions referring to alterity, to repetition, to the process, to error, to reception and, in short, to the imperfect act of creating and the difficult position of the creator as the generator of meaning – all this is hidden in each one of her drawings, videos or performances. They are perceptive fissures that positively draw a lost identity.