1. The North American artist Robert Smithson made some important works in the late 1960s and early 70s which created a dialectical relationship between “site” and “non-site”, relativizing the work’s importance as object in favour of the more abstract idea of a path, which was a completely new approach at that time. He was thus entering the ideational and technical mechanism more common to such professionals as architects, topographers or geologists, making sketches, localisation maps, photographs, and films of his exploratory journeys, to be able to record his movement as a counterpoint to the more fixed and essentialist notion of place, yet without resorting to mimetic representation. Constructing his Earthworks in the landscape as a physical action (site), he transported elements he had collected, such as stones and piles of earth, together with maps and drawings, into galleries or museums (non-sites) as a cultural position complementary to the initial action – and leaving the absence of those elements in their place of origin as a negative trace of the action, also documented and displayed at the non-site. In this way, he defined his work as a perpetual dialectical coming and going between the instances that were both materials (site and non-site) and symbolic (physical and cultural). Hence we can in fact characterise these works as routes towards a third thing mediated between places and representations. Along such a route, the site (nature) becomes coextensive to the gallery, as the work no longer has a hierarchical centre.

On his famous exploratory expedition of the land of his birth (Passaic, New Jersey) on September 30, 1967, Smithson encounters an abandoned industrial scene to which he nevertheless attaches considerable symbolic weight. He, therefore, considers tractors, bridges, water pumps, and pipes, for example, as “monuments” of the landscape, like fossils of prehistoric animals that existed independent of human actions. He says that the first monument he found on the trip was a bridge across a river, connecting Passaic to Bergen: “Noon-day sunshine cinema-ized the site, turning the bridge and the river into an over-exposed picture. Photographing it with my Instamatic 400 was like photographing a photograph. The sun became a monstrous light-bulb that projected a series of “stills” through my Instamatic into my eye. When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank.”[1]

The return to Passaic is in that case a voyage in both space and in time, with an evocative power that seems to de-realize the site as materiality, to create a strange system of symbolic equivalence in which map and site mingle together in the extraordinary image of someone walking over a huge photograph, which is a map. A symmetrically opposite position to this appears, as I see it, in some of the works and texts by Hélio Oiticica, such as the Penetrável Tropicália (1967), which he describes as follows: “Before making these new cabins, I had the idea of ‘appropriating’ places that I liked, real places where I felt alive. The Penetrável Tropicália, with its mass of tropical images, is actually a kind of condensation of real places. Tropicália is a kind of map. It’s a map of Rio and it’s a map of my imagination. It’s a map that you can enter.”[2]  As we can see, Hélio was also operating with the transition between site and non-site, we might say, but always in the sense of favouring the physical experience of the work, bringing the results of his “delirious wandering“ through the city and imagination, with its subjective mapping, into spatial installations in which that city-map can be experienced in another way: “a map that you can enter”.

Another interesting example of the same thing appears in his 1978 work “Manhattan brutalista”. It was the year when Hélio returned from New York to Rio de Janeiro, and construction works for the metro under Avenida Presidente Vargas were producing a huge amount of rubble in the district. Oiticica came across a piece of asphalt shaped like Manhattan island, an object “semi-trouvé”, which he appropriated and then used as part of the installation “Kyoto Gaudí”, made in the bathroom of his house – once again avoiding cartographic abstraction in favour of materiality. In this case, the arbitrary formal association between a piece of Rio asphalt and the outline of Manhattan is the basis for a reflection on urban archaeology, investing this piece of rubble pulled from the earth – part of the old avenue that had witnessed the parades of Rio’s first samba schools – with a metaphorical significance about the erratic art of wandering, in contrast to the “internment of the museum” or the “fixity of the map”. That is, taking it in praise of underground urban existence, in contrast to the all-seeing and dominant aerial view, the panoptic control of vision and representation of the “bird’s eye”. As Paula Braga asks of this work, “Is Manhattan brutalista a map of Manhattan Island or Rio de Janeiro, after all? Or is it possible to overlap all the maps to form a unique geography?”[3]

As I see it, discussions along these lines have been updated since the 1990s by artists like Nelson Felix, in works strongly alien to the concept of site-specific, based on new ways of representing the site, extending the time and occurrence of the work. I am referring in particular to a work like “Cruz na América”, produced through a system of art actions on the South American continent (Uruguaiana, the Atacama desert, the Acre jungle and the city of Rio de Janeiro, created based on an arbitrary logic given by geographical coordinates in the shape of a cross, making the conceptual totality of the work only exist as a mental fact that cannot be experienced. In this case, the “public” and objective language of the system of graphic coordinates is taken by the artist as an arbitrary law that will formally organise the work from the outside and give it meaning. Rather than being represented, the places are in this case signified through representation. In a sense, Nelson Félix seems in fact to be stepping on a large map, which is also a kind of over-exposed image.


Right from its title (“lugares/representações” [places/representations]), this exhibition demonstrates a clear relationship to this lineage of art works, although not necessarily to those artists mentioned here. Andrei Thomaz, Daniel Escobar, and Marina Camargo belong to a generation for whom Google Earth and the GPS have become commonplace instruments in the intellection of space, bringing real places and their graphic representations closer to each other than ever before in human history. Through these amazing contemporary Alephs, everyone has in a way become an architect, topographer, or geologist,  intimately incorporating knowledge previously considered specific and abstract. Backed by a framework of progressive “unrealization of the world” as an inalienable physical experience – both through postmodern cultural sensibility and through the dissemination of technologies for virtualising space – the three artists are engaged in a mapping of their (our) relationship with the surrounding environment, usually urban. Yet they would never be “poets” of the life of the street, as the Baudelairian flanêur once was, and Hélio Oiticica as well – perhaps as the final representative of that lineage . Their relationships with the city are umbilically mediated through a cloud of codes, whether from cartography, advertising, tourism or even from art, in a context in which notions of original, referent, primary source or authenticity  have long since disappeared.

Could the urban landscape be an uncontested symbol of order and truth, relating to the extreme trust we place in the sense of sight, and in society as a form of collective organisation? Might there not be, behind this appearance, an infinite number of repressed or latent possible universes that could be glimpsed through any kind of disturbance, even arbitrary, of this visible order? Starting from questions such as these, Andrei, Daniel and Marina have engaged in different forms of mapping urban conditions – their formal fabric and their imagery qualities – , to produce works that do not reproduce real places but “invent” new places. Rejecting the idea of the work as an “object”, these young artists work with webs of information, creating speculative non-sites that are not based on sites in terms of a concrete experience of place. The planet for them is entirely manipulable, like a game, and the entanglement of these webs, such as occurs in “Eclipses” (Andrei Thomaz and Marina Camargo), reveals this process of emancipation of the code in relation to the thing in itself, to suggest the possibility of glimpsing a kind of hidden order of things (cities), which the immediate experience of the individual can never discern through looking and walking.

This conception of art and space is mirrored in the artists’ practice itself. Working on different supports and with different media (photography, billboard paper, books, cut wood, acrylic sheet, light boxes, plastic bags, video projection, computer images), they problematize the notion of authorship, sometimes making works in pairs, and in some cases focused on open creative participation via the internet. In this sense, Andre Thomaz is the link in the chain. Preferring to operate in the realm of the virtual, whether on the web or with monitors and projections, he has worked in partnership with Daniel Escobar and Marina Camargo,  conscious of the convergence of the three artists’ concerns. In his individual works or those made in partnership with others, Andrei addresses the issue of the dialectic between pattern (abstract and generic) and real place. This appears both in the sea that is transformed into barcode (“Horizontal vibrations. Bridget Riley, 1961”) and in the banal landscapes of “Changing landscapes” (with Daniel Escobar), where overlapped billboard photos of places create a vibrant weave of vertical lines that breaks up and reconstructs the image of those places like a post-cubist-constructivist montage. If on the one hand the dazzle of the waves can be catalogued as an item from a series, a consumer product, on the other hand, the commercial billboard landscapes can temporarily leave the world of consumption and entre the realm of aesthetics, through the random reorganisation of their images as geometric pattern, which hides the poor quality of the original photos and the scene itself.

Of the three, Daniel Escobar is the artist who reflects more closely on Pop Art, through the American practice, known as “neo-dada”, of appropriating commonplace everyday objects and symbols from the urban surroundings. Daniel works with the landscapes of desire created by consumption and entertainment. The city thus takes on a dreamlike air of immateriality constructed by fantasy, through the folds of iconic monuments from tourist guides or the creation of labyrinthine paths from tiny maps printed on supermarket plastic bags. We might therefore be able to associate his works with a kind of poetry of the street itself along the lines of Baudelaire-Oiticica, whom we spoke of earlier. Daniel’s works, however, specifically do not seek the authenticity of the irreducible experience. They become entangled in the tautological mesh of code: one thing leads to another, which leads to something else, and so on. But they are not solipsistic. As they dig beneath infinite layers of advertising imagery, his works seem to be on the verge of releasing the sleeping ghosts of the cities, latent fantasies in the cold face of anonymity.

Closer to photography, the clean finish of Marina Camargo’s works displays greater proximity to the tradition of minimalism and the work of Brazilian artists like Iran do Espírito Santo. In many of her works, including some that are not present in this exhibition, such as “Atlas do céu azul” and “Horizonte”,  the artist  contrasts or overlays different forms of spatial organisation: the map of the world, urban fabric, celestial chart, typography, etc. Drawing is a language and the interchange between natural and cultural elements in Marina’s works creates a common ground of significant things, always concerned with dissolving the idea of boundary: continents that shift, buildings fading in the mist, interchangeable seas and skies, and the city that lights up the stars until literally supressing the horizon line – that quintessential boundary – into an impossible crack of light that reveals the artificial nature of the operation, and the commutability of things. In this way, the artist addresses the modern (and nowadays anachronistic) contrast between nature and civilisation as pure states. Her works use the language of art to bring tangibility to what theorists like Bruno Latour call a hybrid field of nature-culture[4], which is the setting for contemporary post-industrial experience, our real “place” today.

In conclusion, Andrei Thomaz, Daniel Escobar, and Marina Camargo use different media and supports to manipulate a set of familiar elements from urban experience (maps, billboards, tourist guides, postcards, GPS information, barcodes) to shuffle the complex and banal web of information in allusion to a kind of hidden order of cities, fragile and aspiring. The poetics are formed in the gap between reality and representation – a false horizon vibrating like a magic halo between heaven and earth? ­–, which also means, in the final analysis, in the dialectic between landscape and drawing, universalism and particularity, since it is all language.

[1] Robert Smithson, “A tour of the monuments of  Passaic, New Jersey”, in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: the collected writings. Berkeley: University of Califórnia Press, 1996, p. 70.

[2] Hélio Oiticica,  “Sobre a retrospectiva na Whitechapel Gallery – Entrevista a Guy Brett, 1960”, in César Oiticica Filho et alii (org.), Encontros | Hélio Oiticica. Rio de Janeiro: Azougue Editorial, 2009, p. 60.

[3] Paula Braga, A trama da terra que treme: multiplicidade em Hélio Oiticica, Tese de Doutorado. São Paulo: FFLCH-USP, 2007, p. 140.

[4] See Bruno Latour, Jamais fomos modernos: ensaio de antropologia simétrica. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2005.


Text by Guilherme Wisnik, originally published in the catalogue “Lugares/Representações“, in the exhibition of the same name (2011, FUNARTE, São Paulo – Brasil)