An Art in Favor of Life: A Conversation with Anna Maria Maiolino
The artist discusses her decades-long artistic practice across a range of mediums, from drawing and photography to clay, performance, and even family.
For more than half a century, Anna Maria Maiolino has been creating projects that delve into the minuscule corners of the mind, or room-size installations that recall the discrete, repetitive gestures of everyday life.
In this interview, the artist discusses three
This conversation is part of Thinking Abstraction, a series of interviews with Latin American artists whose work raises questions about the transition between abstraction and the emergence of Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s.
Anna Maria Maiolino. Black Hole (Buraco Preto), from the series Holes/Drawing Objects (Os Buracos/Desenhos Objetos). 1974
Inés Katzenstein: I’d like to know more about Black Hole (Buraco Preto) (1974), another work in MoMA’s collection, and its relation to the context within which you were working, especially in terms of the Brazilian dictatorship at that time.
AMM: Black Hole is part of the series Object Drawings, made between 1972 and 1976. This series is close to sculpture: high wall reliefs that keep the characteristics of drawing alongside other graphic elements such as sewn thread, cuts, and tears. Built in total blackness, this work engages in a spatial interaction that shows light as life, analogous to the dictatorship that reigned at the time in Brazil. Nevertheless, it was not politics that directly motivated this work, but rather a feeling of bereavement for the lack of freedom.
IK: When you made these works, rips, cuts, folds, holes—all ways of transforming a graphic image into a three-dimensional form—were constant in your work. They also appear to have been an important marker for the Neo-Concrete artists, such as Lygia Clark and Amilcar de Castro. But at the same time that you were exploring these procedures, your work seemed to have been in a search for forms that avoid geometry and choose visually unstable forms, such as the figure of the egg, or, later, the elemental clay forms. Curator Paulo Herkenhoff talks about a certain “exhaustion” of concrete geometry when you returned to Brazil from New York in 1971. Can you talk about this tension, between the presence in your work of the legacy of Neo-Concretism and its contestation?
AMM: When we talk about my work, I tend to recall that I arrived in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1960 at the age of 18; an immigrant, having lived in other countries. These experiences have marked the development of my art throughout 62 years of work. It is very difficult to give an objective answer to this question, bearing in mind the whole heritage of multiple cultures that have formed my spirit and knowledge. On the other hand, I have produced art in several different mediums, both conventional and new, which has resulted in a very diverse body of work.
When I say that my work is Brazilian, that is because it was developed in Brazil. It took shape after Brazilian artists came into my life in Rio de Janeiro. At that time, Neo-Concrete art was in its final stages, but for a young girl like me, to be around the Neo-Concrete artists of the previous generation, like Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, was decisive. My relationship with Clark and Oiticica, and my attention to what they had to say, certainly influenced me to use geometric constructions for poetic insertion. Only the series Built Projects can be compared to Neo-Concrete art in terms of practices, though this influence has been removed from most of my work.
In 1971, when I returned to Brazil from New York, I incorporated new conceptual questions into my work. It was renewed with new signifiers, the search for potency together with the manifestation of essence. [The philosopher] Marcio Doctors says that potency resides in being equal to oneself, like Spinoza’s God, and that freedom is not an act of will, but rather the awareness of the impossibility of being different from what one is. The individual finds his potency because he has become equal to his freedom.
IK: Thinking more specifically about the artistic dialogue with Lygia Clark, some of your work calls to mind her Bichos (critters), especially The Inside Is the Outside (O dentro é o fora) (1963), in which surface and interior are inverted. Can you tell us about your own approach to the problems of depth, volume, and illusion in regard to works such as Black Hole?
AMM: Unlike, for example, Clark’s The Inside Is the Outside, Black Hole forms a fixed topology of papers, an overlapping of surface planes. The inside and the outside exist only in latent potency, or as faculties that may come to exist. The inside and outside in this work remain only as a virtual utterance in sight.
The Inside is the Outside refers to another of Clark’s works from the same year, Walking (Caminhando), which is an unfolding of the Möbius strip, as well her Hand Dialogue (Diálogo de mão) (1966). These works were developed with the same principle: movement that articulates the inside and the outside. When I first saw the Möbius strip in Lygia’s house, I had a profound insight. I found myself before a mutating line that depended on the hand movements of whoever manipulated it, articulating itself as plane and line, that, through the movements of whoever handled, it presented the inside and the outside as constituent parts of the work of art. I believe that the concept of movement toward infinity of the Möbius strip unconsciously gave me the whole idea for the infinitely boundless hand actions in my later Modeled Earth (Terra modelada) series
Installation view, Anna Maria Maiolino: ERRÂNCIA POÉTICA (POETIC WANDERINGS), Hauser & Wirth, New York, November 14–December 22, 2018
MMT: I think this idea of the sensory, of touch, of manipulation is really important, because you characterize your artwork’s bond to everyday life as one of sensation rather than of direct political reference. This approach brings to mind your 1996 poem “Schhhiii…,” which was just included in the second edition of PRESENTE, the magazine you founded in April 2021 with curator Paulo Miyada. I’ll quote some fragments of the poem:
With holy wrath I vomit snakes and lizards,
the dictatorship of the military – repeated violence,
and the intolerant stupidity of humanity.....”
Oh! What a nausea”
While the poem references the military dictatorship, it does so in a visceral way, allegorizing violence and ignorance with delightfully abject images. Why do you choose to work with these sensations of repulsion? I’m also thinking of pieces like What Is Left Over (E o que Sobra) (1974) or In-Out (Anthropophagy) (In-Out [Antropofagia]) (1973).
Anna Maria Maiolino. É o que sobra (What Is Left Over), from the Fotopoemação (Photopoemaction) series. 1974
AMM: Black Hole [and] my poem “Schhhiii...” were both elaborated with metaphors. The metaphorical poetic expression in the two works allowed me to express my emotions and sensations without becoming a political pamphlet. These works show my revulsion against any totalitarian regime.
MMT: How would you describe the current political situation in Brazil?
AMM: It is characterized by a state of uncertainty. Brazil's political history is a result of great social inequalities and prejudices inherited from the past, from European colonization, which are difficult to eliminate. Now, we are living in a government that is destructive and threatening to environmental issues and that ignores the problems of minorities. This pandemic has brought us closer to planet Earth and humanity.
MMT: In the first issue of PRESENTE, you write that if you were to return to the Mental Maps series, you would call it Nós (Us), envisioning that this iteration would be collective in spirit, and free of the divisive lines and grids that characterized the works in the series. It’s also important to note that you and Paulo Miyada launched PRESENTE at the start of the pandemic, at a time of severe isolation and fear. As a sort of antidote to this moment, the magazine features intimately personal “correspondences” between people, proposing a sense of collectivity and exchange despite our confinement. Can you tell us about how the present moment has altered your perspective and your artistic practice, especially in regard to questions of collectivity and exchange?
AMM: PRESENTE originated from the need to do something that could be done together with other people. It was certainly this state of isolation during the pandemic that motivated me to reach out to Paulo Miyada, for whom I have a great respect as a human and as a curator, to accomplish something together and with others. That was how, with joy and with total gratitude, PRESENTE was born.
IK: Speaking of human connection, I’m reminded of your work By a Thread (Por um Fio), from the Fotopoemação (Photopoemaction) series (1976), which shows your mother, you, and your daughter tenuously connected by a thread held in each of your mouths. It is a beautiful yet unexpected form for a family portrait, one that highlights your position as not only an artist, but also a mother and a daughter. The
AMM: By a Thread is the image of a photograph, of a game that became a metaphor, a work of art. I recall that Sunday afternoon at the house of my mother, Dona Vitalia, with my daughter Veronica and the artist Regina Vater, who took the picture. I recall the happiness we all felt upon photographing that performance-game. Without doubt, By a Thread was motivated by my child becoming that which, as [the philosopher] José Gil wrote, produces multiplicities of differential and heterogenous singularities that we come to know; what Deleuze called haecceities.
Anna Maria Maiolino. Por um fio (By a Thread), from the series Fotopoemação (Photopoemaction). 1976/2017
The string that passes from mouth to mouth symbolizes life and continuity. Each body in the photo is part of the inheritance left by the bodies of those who came before. It is a family portrait; my family. The picture hints at precariousness and the end of the continuity, if there are no more descendants.
For me, this photo was a way of making my childhood memories last, as nature itself is perishable. The portrait proves that humans possess a certain immortality through the repetitive life cycle, procreation.
Recalling the human connections of my original family, 13 of us sat at the table, for lunch and dinner; I can assure you that there is nothing more human than sharing food. I often assert that that big dining table was my school for practicing the ethical and human action of sharing. Affection is also the factor that I seek for understanding others and accepting differences.
Anna Maria Maiolino. Piccole Note. 1986
Whenever I feel lost, I go back to zero, to nothing, to the beginning. “Principle” is a noun that suggests actions of phenomena with no logical or interpretative deduction. These assumptions provided me with great freedom—all I had to do was draw and wait. Drawing the Piccole Note became an active state of meditation, a state of waiting, of gestation, which finally culminated in the work of the hand actions on clay.
Back in Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires in 1989, I started to work with molded sculpture, beginning the series Sculptures/Installations in 1990 and then, in 1994, Modeled Earth. The two modalities rely on a process developed through the repetition of the gestural action on the clay, forming basic shapes: little balls and rolls that are the same and different, produced by the gesture, which is part of nature and not repeated. In these installations, the gesture is an original truth that reveals matter and its possibilities, separating chaos from order.
MMT: How do you imagine the spectator interacting with these pieces?
AMM: Despite the possible metaphors that we might make in these works, the installations intend to compose a real space, because it is occupied with the presence of the entropy spent in making the work. The spectator might see pasta, waste, although that is not the intention. All the wet masses display similarities, which could mislead the less attentive spectator. However, the spectator will be able to rediscover his daily labor when faced with this work, composed of an accumulation of pleasurable fatigue. He may recognize himself in the work performed, and incorporate the work for himself, becoming its support, because the spectator and I share the vital gestures of work that have been common to all since the dawn of humanity. In this way the spectator can become a co-maker of the work, becoming an embodiment of it, gaining awareness of being.
IK: How does the physical process of working with clay for the Modeled Earth series relate to memory?
AMM: Kneading the clay brings to mind my childhood: my mother’s hands white with flour, preparing the bread for us, her children. This series is connected to artisanal production, delving into the heart of cultural
It is precisely by betting on this rejoicing in conviviality that I offer spectators the pleasurable process of manipulating clay through the same repeated forms accumulated in the body of work—forms that they will encounter daily in the act of making, forgotten gestures that may be banal yet are as vital as life support. So the basic clay shapes are of an individual, and of everyone, and the forms are mediations between language and the individual body and collective bodies, remembering that the communal body is present and primitive.
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