BY Silas Martí in Features | 01 JAN 13
Featured in
Issue 152

In Focus: Rodrigo Braga

Conflict, communion and making human presence resonate in the landscape

BY Silas Martí in Features | 01 JAN 13

As a teenager, Rodrigo Braga once found a sick dog while he was on his way to school in Recife, a coastal city in northeastern Brazil. He knelt down to look into the animal’s eyes and had something he compares to a nervous breakdown: a flood of tears, accelerated heartbeat and a rush of cold sweat trickling down his skin. That image haunted Braga for the next ten years, until he finally came to terms with his panic attacks and his deep-rooted fear of human interaction.

After years of therapy and medication, Braga’s first work as an artist went back to that pivotal episode. He managed to acquire the body of a dead dog, make a silicone cast of its face and have a veterinary surgeon sew the ears and muzzle to a replica of his own face, recorded in a striking hyper-realist series of photographs suggesting a grotesque fusion between man and beast. It was the fake documentation of a real-life encounter that could only exist after the death of one of those involved. 

This bizarrely literal work, titled Fantasia de Compensação (Compensation Fantasy, 2004), is what launched Braga on the Brazilian art scene. But it is by no means where the artist seems to stand now. Born in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, and raised in the booming seaside metropolis of Recife, Braga seems to have honed his senses to translate the brutal polarity between life and death that hangs in the air in these cities surrounded by water, where leftover animal carcasses abandoned in public markets rot in the sun, prey to clouds of vultures.

The exuberance of tropical vegetation and the stench of decomposing flesh – metaphors for the cycle of life – function as conceptual polar opposites in Braga’s work, which are mostly performances and photographs that juxtapose life and death at the most intimate of levels. When Fantasia de Compensação attracted not just critical attention, but threats and hate mail from animal protection organizations, he decided to take a break from that line of work. From that first radical, rather sensationalist intervention, Braga went on to create more introspective pieces, photographing himself in a state of communion with nature, naked and buried in the earth or covered in leaves and flowers.

Indirectly, he evokes in his trajectory the three key moments in Euclides da Cunha’s epic reportage Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands, 1957). In this classic of local literature, the author recounts the battle of Canudos, a 19th-century struggle over land in the region, to zero in on the fate and fortune of the people of northeastern Brazil. Starting with a description of the land, Da Cunha moves towards a detailed account of the nature and habits of those who live there and draws to a close by shedding light on the conflicts that rage there. Braga takes this history to an individual level while making himself an archetypal character in the narrative: the common man who must grasp the power and weight of an overwhelming natural landscape.

Tônus, 2011, video still. All images courtesy Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo
Tônus, 2011, video still. All images courtesy Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo

While Braga appears in every photograph and is himself the agent of all the actions documented, confessing he is unable to delegate his performances to other actors, he wants to stand in the place of the common man, establishing a middle ground between human and animal prowess. In what could be seen as a study of the land, as well as a keen reinterpretation of Arte Povera, Braga uproots and buries entire trees in graves he digs himself, short-circuiting the natural cycle of life in the forest. Depicting himself as both master and slave, he embraces dead goats, wears a fish head over his own face and mimics every sign of weakness displayed by the creatures he encounters.

But it is his own weakness that seems to underline his every move. Braga appears screaming alone in the middle of the forest in the video Mentira Repetida (Repeated Lie, 2011). Having isolated himself on the islands of the Anavilhanas archipelago, a land formation in the middle of the Negro River in the Amazon, Braga recounts that his reaction to the deep jungle could only be a scream, fake at first yet increasingly real as he realizes that is the only way human presence can resonate in that environment. It is a helpless cry, leading to nothing but the notion of complete solitude, despair against a green backdrop.

In his latest series of work, shown at last year’s 30th Bienal de São Paulo (2012), Braga addresses the conflict between man and nature, human and animal. In Tônus (2012), he ties himself to a goat and attempts to run in a different direction, an action that results in them both spinning endlessly in circles. He also fights the claws of a crab with his bare hand, a duel that ends in stalemate – a metaphor for the human condition in a landscape impossible to tame. 

Rodrigo Braga lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 2012, his work was included in the 30th Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil, and group exhibitions including ‘From the Margin to the Edge’, Somerset House, London, UK; ‘Reflected Mirror’, Centro Cultural Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro, and ‘In Praise of Vertigo’, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France.

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