Salvador’s Museum of Modern Art, housed in a 17th-century warehouse complex built by the Portuguese (refurbished in the late 1950s by architect Lina Bo Bardi, who also built the iconic Museu de Arte de São Paulo), sits right on the waterfront, close to the historical centre of the capital of Brazil’s north-eastern state of Bahia. Its location is an absurdly literal illustration of the country’s persistent gap between rich and poor: there is a yacht club on one side of it, and a favela on the other. It is this favela that prompted Rio de Janeiro-based artist duo Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg to realize a new video piece, entitled Água de Chuva no Mar (Rainwater at Sea, 2012), as part of their exhibition ‘Estranhamente Possível’ (Strangely Possible), comprising works from the last ten years. As much as the favela may look like a picturesque fishing village from afar, the economic reality is different. It is not the local fishermen who support it, but the women, who earn a monthly salary of about 600 reals (or £200) by washing clothes. These women have managed to establish a matriarchal micro-economic system that has kept the (stereo-)typical favela scenario of petty crime and drug dealing at bay. Dias & Riedweg capture them on video in casual conversation about their day-to-day lives cleaning the dirty laundry of the wealthy using nothing but soap, old spin dryers, their bare hands and water from a water pipe.
Dias & Riedweg’s camera approaches the women, most of whom are descendants of African slaves, unintrusively and respectfully, yet – as in other works in which the duo explores the way people on the margins live together – they don’t give in to the romantic illusion of universal understanding between people living under very different conditions. That said, there is a universalist allegory of water at play: water not only as a bare necessity, but also as an allegory for fluid transference, and thus indirectly, the possibility of (media-based) communication despite difference. Just as Água de Chuva no Mar captures, in luscious slow motion, water dripping from the dryer, so do the waters around the small northern-Norwegian island in Juksa (2006) become the protagonist of the two-screen installation, sped up in time-lapse shots of the dramatic coastline. The piece involves original footage of a 1970s Norwegian television documentary about the young artist Hanne Tyrmi moving to the remote island in pursuit of an alternative lifestyle; Dias & Riedweg brought that material back to the island in several ways: blending old scenes with new ones, they chronicle the development of the island from a sparsely populated fishers’ community to an even more sparsely populated summer resort; and they interview Tyrmi on the same spot on the beach, as she reconfirms her statement from 35 years earlier that she believes in the idea of being romantic. They also stage a screening of the old material on the beach for the protagonists, with a singer performing Henry Purcell’s Baroque aria O Let Me Weep (1692). In the installation, actual chairs on sand completed the piece, and the aria became a eulogy to the passing of time itself, and the impossibility of preserving a temporal experience.
On a lighter note, A Casa (The House, 2007) consists of short sequences shot at the artists’ house in Rio, shown on small monitors. The simple sped-up or superimposed scenes of them working at the computer or hopping down the hall in harlequin costumes straddle early slapstick and late Jacques Tati. In Deus é Boca (God is Mouth, 2002), installed in the small deconsecrated church that belongs to the museum, the interplay between bodily performance and virtual editing was heightened to raunchy extremes: examining the power of words, whether those of an agitated preacher or a rapper, the four screens showed close-ups of mouths speaking or party scenes with dancers shaking their booty. These were shown alongside projections of variations of the work’s title – with the last word replaced by ones such as mago (magic) or hora (time) – on a glass box in which live performers, at fixed times during the exhibition, acted out a sort of bingo game of life. Impersonating a murdered bride or a drunken priest operating the small bingo machine, the locally cast actors switched disarmingly between the stillness of wax figures and the agitation of their sweating, uptight personae. The work corresponded uncannily with its site: the church had been deconsecrated after a priest hung himself there. Thus Deus é Boca became a strange summoning of his ghost and, like Dias & Riedweg’s work in general, it reflected on the yawning gap between people produced by historic calamity and contemporary ignorance, while never letting go of the Utopian endeavourto somehow bridge that schism.