The London Paralympics have yet to commence and Brazil is already moving ahead to take centre stage at Somerset House, where Rio 2016 paraphernalia is now on sale - hats, mugs, key chains are all for the taking. Having recently overtaken our country as a world superpower, Brazil has a lot to offer by way of economic power, but still perhaps contests with its national identity and world image. From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the 21st Century seeks to do just what its title claims, using Brazilian artwork to show a different side to the country and to raise universal questions about national identity.
With works on display from 33 Brazilian artists created over the past decade, and covering all mediums including video, painting, photography and sculpture, there is a lot to take in here. Exhibition curator Rafael Cardoso has aimed to organise the various pieces so as to walk us through a kind of examination of European preconceptions of Brazilian culture and art. Grouping the works under the precise themes Raw/Cooked, Craftsmanship/Gambiarra and Preserve/Transform, it seems that these titles are supposed to illustrate the contradictions of Brazilian culture and how we Europeans, as the foreigners here, are to understand Brazil, whilst trapped by our own cultural subjectivity.
Certainly, Cardoso's first grouping, Raw/Cooked, does seem to operate as a very apt introduction to the initial assumptions made about other non-European countries in a globalised society. The title references the debate as to whether the eating of raw or cooked meat indicates a civilized or savage culture, an argument that divides East and West and that depends entirely upon perspective; and whether you prefer sushi or a nice medium rare steak. Established Western symbols of Brazil such as the beach paradise, the dangerous slum and the fanatic football culture are all addressed and questioned. And the opening piece entitled Bandeira seems to encompass the sense of presumption and disconcertion felt by a newcomer to the country. Depicting a deconstructed Brazilian flag, divided into pieces and rearranged into a new, yet familiar image, the work creates a sense that the famous national symbol has been confused, made strange and is no longer a brandished symbol and no longer stands for what people might assume.
Further in, Cardoso's questions become more interesting and probing. His sections Craftsmanship/Gambiarra and Preserve/Transform explore the issues of national perspective, the untranslatable and what can be done to overcome preconceptions. The works become ever more varied and their meaning more complex. The layered photographs taken from a Brazilian beach, and the playful models of differently shaped football pitches from Raw/Cooked give way to video and sculpture that does not necessarily immediately evoke 'Brazil', but still addresses issues important to the Brazilian identity. Zé Carlos Garcia's Chair and Birds are particularly striking. Antique furniture is deformed and overgrown by masses of white feathers, as if mutating into some large pointed bird. Circling round these shapes, which expose glimpses of their antique hosts, any search for a head or defining limb is fruitless: the structures form suggestive features but are left strange and impeachable. Rodrego Braga's Provisions likewise draws attention. The video observes a man digging a very large hole, layer by layer stripping back the earth, often in the rain, and then cutting down a nearby tree, hacking off the branches and felling it to be burried in the hole. This might be a reference to the very well-known harvesting of natural resources in the country, the destruction of the Amazon, and the need for sustainability that is the concern of all nations.
Perhaps it is the biggest and loudest piece, The Universe of the Ball by Dias & Riedweg, which is the most successful. Isolated in its own room, you are invited to step onto a floor checker-boarded with yellow and green bathroom scales, making for a self-conscious viewing. Three screens face the viewer, one with a projection of a homeless drag queen, lacking several teeth, reading out the constitution, another of a fan rotating on a ceiling decorated with the Brazilian flag. These images seem to suggest some considerable uneasiness surrounding Brazilian national identity: stepping onto scales, a controversial cross-dresser, an unusual use of the flag. And this feeling seems to unite Cardoso's concerns in this exhibition: the question of national subjectivity and identity and the creation of a multi-faceted identity that moves beyond the boundaries imposed by the past.