BY Silas Martí in Features | 01 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 145

In Focus: Jonathas de Andrade

Tropical Modernism and the ‘potential of nostalgia’; photographs, prints and new layers of memory

BY Silas Martí in Features | 01 FEB 12

The sun in Recife burns the skin and the stifling heat drains all one’s energy. It forces those who live in this coastal town in the northeast of Brazil to seek shelter in the shade and to protect themselves from weather that oscillates between splendour and cruelty, violence and warmth. Everything seems to glow uneasily, as shards of light pierce forgotten Modernist constructions that have crumbled over time. 

Jonathas de Andrade looks at these buildings from a historical distance. The artist, who was born in the 1980s, came of age when the Utopianism of tropical Modernism had long since been rescinded, leaving neglected, worn-down fragments in its wake. All around Recife, Modernist homes and office buildings were either demolished or simply eroded over the years, now standing as remnants of ill-fated attempts at achieving social equality through formal architectural procedures.

De Andrade’s work suggests that the failure of modernity in these tropical settings – and elsewhere – has to do with the period’s rejection of the body, as if the presence of people did not affect perceptions of these spaces. In the installation Ressaca Tropical (Tropical Hangover, 2009), he denounces the absence of human scale in Brazil’s late Modernism by illustrating a journal he salvaged from a rubbish tip with images of these constructions.

HoyAyer (TodayYesterday), 2011, 24 photographic prints on Kodak gloss paper, each 115 x 27 cm. All images courtesy Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo

The entries are as anonymous as the buildings. On 13 October 1977, the unknown writer celebrates the victory of his favourite football team following a 23-year hiatus, and ends the account mentioning a night of passion with his lover, Marlene K. In the end, fact seems to merge with fiction as the artist creates a new layer of memory, one closer to fantasy than it is to reality, evoking a latent, passionate echo in abstract concrete dimensions.

De Andrade identifies the city’s libido as a destructive force in this process of remembering and forgetting. At work is what he refers to as the ‘potential of nostalgia’.While De Andrade documents space, and samples anonymous love letters and literary passages, he constructs an alternative reality – what could have been and was not – reassessing history from the standpoint of an artist infatuated with a time he did not live through but is keen to rewrite.

In his installation O Clube (The Club, 2010), words by the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas are used as captions to photographs of an abandoned yacht club in Maceió. This circular concrete structure, once a high-society gathering point, is now used for illicit sexual encounters amongst men. De Andrade sheds light on the apparent ruins of a project – the up-market club turned open-air sex joint – revealing a tight parallel between Modernist architecture as fetishist exception in the landscape and as a space for exception itself, the magnetic and secret reality of a cruising spot.

‘I dive into this field of recollections,’ says the artist. ‘This is a past I have no intimacy with, seen as if it were a territory, a place for re-enacting a kind of amnesia, an often-violent brush between today and yesterday. Not being touched by this is what allows me to rework the nature of these images.’ As if shielded from the sun, De Andrade keeps a safe distance from the contradictions he unearths with his work. 

Educação para Adultos (Education for Adults), 2010, 60 laminated prints on photographic paper, each 46 x 34 cm, installation view 29th São Paulo Biennial, 2010

A dry, cerebral approach to documentation is perhaps the key to maintaining this distance. De Andrade catalogues, classifies and pinpoints his discoveries, real and invented, with anthropological precision. Educação para Adultos (Education for Adults, 2010) is a collaborative effort between the artist and local illiterate seamstresses to associate an image with a word. It is a remake of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s system of posters for teaching adults how to read, in which words were paired with an illustrative photograph. The point, however, was to show the new posters mixed with the old, and to highlight the contrast between the original versions from the 1970s and those from the present day.

While maintaining their Modernist aesthetics – neutral lettering, square images – the new posters make explicit the way concepts evolve. The pictures for ‘colony’, ‘devotion’, ‘union’, ‘progress’ or ‘richness’ could or could not have remained the same, depending on the perspective of the individual seamstresses, but there is a blatant disparity between what these women think of their country and the image Brazil projects globally today, with its euphoria over the country’s economic expansion and the upcoming Olympic games in 2016.

Likewise, in HoyAyer (TodayYesterday, 2011), De Andrade fuses different historical contexts, using photographs of a never-setting sun as a metaphor for Chile’s dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. De Andrade borrows words from a political propaganda book released under the same name by the regime, and combines these with images of summer in the Arctic circle, where daylight lasts 24 hours, hinting at Pinochet’s ambitions to perpetuate himself in power.

On a more intimate level, De Andrade subverts the logic of an instruction manual in 2 em 1 (2 in 1, 2010), for which he photographed two carpenters working to fuse together two single beds to create a double bed. Two of the same become one larger whole: 2 em 1 is a metaphor for homosexual love based on the impersonal aesthetics of prosaic furniture design. This bed made of two, and for two, could sit in a bedroom somewhere in the artist’s sun-washed hometown of Recife, where a couple may lie down to sleep or to make love – in a poignant critique against the Modernist white elephants that litter the glowing landscape.

Jonathas de Andrade lives and works in Recife, Brazil. He has had solo exhibitions at Galeria Vermelho and at the Centro Cultural, São Paulo, Brazil (both 2010). His work was also included in the 29th São Paulo Biennial, in 2010, and in the 12th Istanbul Biennial, Turkey, in 2011. His work is currently on show as part of the 2nd New Museum Triennial, New York, USA, and he has a solo show at Marcantonio Vilaça, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, opening 13 March.

Silas Martí is a writer based in São Paulo, Brazil, and an editor at Folha de S.Paulo newspaper.