July, 2009
Interview with Alexandre da Cunha

David Yu

July 2009, London Editor David Yu had the the great opportunity to chat with Alexandre da Cunha about his residency and current show at the Camden Arts Centre. After two glasses of water and a retro recording, they talked about the humourous side of da Cunha’s sculptural practice and an upcoming project in China.

David Yu -The Camden Arts Centre invited you to create this exhibition in combination with an artist residency. Did you have any preconceived ideas in terms of how this exhibition would culminate or was it very organic in its development within the residency? 

Alexandre da Cunha -I had some ideas before. I was working already with some pieces that I wanted to have in the show but I guess I also had in mind that the residency would change my original plan, basically to do with the space and being here. Like for instance, this piece (Palazzo), I was working on it already and the original idea was to make something smaller than this.  As soon as I got into the studio next door, which has the same height as this gallery space,  I started changing this piece and it started getting bigger. It’s not like it has changed dramatically but it was to do with the space. 

DY- Do you generally create work in situ? Changing concepts and the feel of work to cater to spaces?

ADC– Usually I don’t. Usually I like the idea of being in the studio sorting out things and thinking about other works individually as sculptures and not so much in terms of installations. I tend to think of my work as independent pieces that can work here, there, or anywhere else. In this case, because the space is so dominant, I had to play a bit with the situation and take the space and architectural things into consideration.  

DY- I see quite a lot of mimicking in your practice.  Objects are reclaimed and decontextualized and altered – in doing so, the objects lean towards the sensibilities of other object. I suppose a good example would be your installation at the “Around the World in 80 days” show at the ICA with the “flag pole” beach towels or your beach chairs that turn into minimalist paintings. What is your position with mimicry? Is it to critique, to explore the materiality or ambiguity of objects?

ADC– I think there’s two things at work here.  On one side all of those works (especially like the deck chairs) make references towards specific artists or periods in art history, playing that joke, such as a deck chair referencing minimalist painting or serious abstract painting. The other side is my actual interest in the origin of the materials, like the beach towels that I made flags from. Within the specific context of that show I was trying to relate that object, the towels, with the idea of tourism and how people don’t actually know much about the culture they find themselves in. Materials such as the beach towels can bring a whole discussion about culture through the preconceived notions of the exotic. Basically there are two things, one perhaps is more of a formalist way of approaching the material through art history and they other one has to do more with the subject where you see the work. In this case with this coconut type thing (Red Fountain, Blue Fountain) it’s impossible not to think about different countries or how people perceive different cultures. 

DY- How do you respond when people compare your work to heavily loaded art historical movements such as Duchampian ready-mades and Arte Povera? 

ADC– In contemporary art the idea of Duchamp is so universal, pretty much any artist at some point in their career, or through art school, has been hugely influenced by this period. I like when you make that reference and add the context. Jens Hoffman wrote about my work and talked about the “tropical ready-mades.” I like the idea – the ready-made with a bit of a twist. Also I think some of my work is quite humourous in a way.  I’m not following a strict set of rules in the tradition of the ready-made; I try to change it. 

DY- There is quite a humourous, satirical side to your work in regards to its position with modern art. Can you talk a bit about that?

ADC– I think its quite important. I really like the idea that the work looks quite rigid and very formal and very elegant with your first impression, when you first see it or if you don’t spend so much time with the work. The work could be seen as just elegant, beautiful things in the space. As one spends more time, there is actually these hidden hysterical sides that reveal themselves in the work. I think the key thing is how to find and how to get the joke right. If the objects are really in your face and trying really hard to be funny, they become really not funny and not humourous. So I think the secret is in finding the right time to tell the joke.


DY- I quite like your way of making in relation to a Brazilian way of adapting objects for another use. I also come from a cultural background where people are quite resourceful and creative when it comes to problem solving, a sort of McGuyver approach to daily living. Would you say that your artwork that is produced in this way is aiming at an embodiment of a low meets high tension? Low culture referencing High culture?
ADC– I think this is definitely a part of the work. The idea of high art and popular culture is discussed in contemporary art a lot. I think I try to do this in quite a specific way; the way that I use the low tech, the low materials and simple techniques, is quite specific. There are a bunch of Latin American artists or even Brazilian artists working in a similar way using very simple materials. Even the fact that I’ve lived outside Brazil for some time now makes me approach these materials in a very different way. The idea of improvisation plays an important role in Brazilian culture and lifestyle. Even when people have resources and money, they are subject to change all the time. It’s a big mess with a certain urge for order and a better life. I think somehow my work talks about that. 

DY- How did people respond to your work at the San Juan Triennial? Undoubtedly, your work would read differently here in London than it would in a Puerto Rico or Brazilian context… 

ADC– The work in San Juan was a very specific thing because I was in a selection of the show. Basically all the works were flags, so I was invited to design a flag. It was an unusual situation. There were about eight artists.  All we did was send the design and somebody else made the flags.  The row of flags was shown outside the institution. The flag I used was based on Hélio Oiticica – he did a flag in 1969 and I used the same image. On his flag he used the slogan that translated: “be a outlaw, be a hero.” I used the same font and the same image, but I added the word ‘no’ in front of each sentence. So, on my flag you read “don’t be an outlaw, don’t be a hero” which is meant to be an homage to him and an attempt to juxtapose two contexts: The artistic and political atmosphere of 40 years ago (when the work was made), and the atmosphere today. He has had a huge influence on contemporary art in Brazil.

DY- Are you comfortable with this show now? How do you think this exhibition came together in the end? Are you happy with your efforts?

ADC– I am quite pleased with this show and I think its really nice.  As I said it was quite a specific situation with being in the residency and the gallery space being literally next door to the studio. It was great to have time to come in and feel the space and see how the light changed the space. I like the way the show looks and feels the same as it was before in the studio. There is some thing quite easy going about the show that I like, comfortable. But you never know until the show goes public. It’s a nice feeling.

DY-How do you think people generally respond to your work?

ADC– I don’t know. It was also great to have this experience here because the studio space is very exposed in a way, so when I was making this piece I had a lot of people come into the studio. Also when they come in here they don’t know if the studio is a part of the show or sometimes they know but come in anyways. It was kind of nice to have some feedback during the making of the work, which is very unusual. Usually you’ll be in the studio and you’d have people helping you and so forth.  In a way, this was very good, not so much that it changed the work through the response, but in terms of having less pressure now since in a way I wase showing parts of the work already. 

There is also something different and new in this work here. I was assisted by four other people in making the work, and it was great. Also I think I was quite lucky because they were just amazing. I did feel that we made this work together, obviously I had a plan and they followed my idea, but during the process of making we had to change things and decide things. I think they felt comfortable and I felt quite comfortable in the way we were deciding and changing the work together. So it was great and it was quite new and inspiring to me to have more people working together. 
DY- What’s happening next? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions? 

ADC– I will be in a group exhibition with a small group of artists in Germany now after this show.  And there will be seven artists so that means I’ll have a lot of space. So that is the next thing in Germany, Leverkusen (Museum Morsbroich). It’s a really nice museum a baroque building and I will be showing in three separate rooms. In one room I’m making a new work; in the other rooms I will be showing some previous works. I’ll be showing the flags again together with some more recent works. In September I’ll be going to China for a project I’ll be working on for six weeks. In terms of the program it’s a bit more relaxed, focusing more on the production of the work rather then the end result of showing the work. 

Alexandre da Cunha’s exhibition runs at the Camden Arts Centre until the 13th September 2009.

— David Yu

ArtSlant would like to thank the Camden Arts Centre and Alexandre da Cunha for making this interview possible.

All images courtesy the Artist and Camden Arts Centre
Images from Top to Bottom: (Palazzo, 2009, Mopheads and wool, © the artist; Red Fountain, Blue Fountain, 2009, Plaster, Planters and drinking straw, © the artist; Public Sculpture – Pouff 2,  2008, Concrete and foam, © the artist; Bust 1, 2008, Mop, dyed wool and concrete, 120x20x20cm, 47 1/4×77/8×7 7/8ins, © the artist.)