Camden Arts Center

July, 2009
The Sixth Sense
Alexandre da Cunha: Laissez-Faire

Jens Hoffman

The so-called sixth sense is the ability to perceive the world through instinct and intuition rather than through the known senses or previous experience.  We often consider artists to have something like it—a deeper and more profound sensitivity to thoughts and feelings. Yet intuition and instinct are  not often discussed when examining an artist’s work. Too often are we  tempted to quickly move past something that we cannot immediately  explain; we fall back on standardised, formulaic ways of analysing a piece  of art, contextualising it within the wider canon of art history or the artist’s  peers, trying to find factual links and common ground to establish and  justify its uniqueness. We are conditioned, especially through the legacy of  conceptual art, to approach and assess art rationally and intellectually. How does one objectively describe such seemingly vague qualities as  intuition and instinct? Why is there such resistance to an interpretation of  art that looks at more intuitive and instinctive notions, articulating,  perhaps, a point of view that expresses the complex fluidity of life, both  rational and irrational, rather than one purely based on reason, which  often becomes reductive and circumscribed?

While often considered to be similar (pre)dispositions, intuition and  instinct are actually quite different. Intuition leads us to believe things  even when we cannot articulate evidence or reasons for those beliefs; it is a  quality related to our decision-making functions. Instinct, on the other  hand, is an inherent outlook or behavior. Instincts are unlearned,  inherited, fixed patterns of action or reactions to certain kinds of stimuli.  Both instinct and intuition are qualities that abound in the work of  the Brazilian-born, London-based artist Alexandre da Cunha. Thus far, most  examinations of da Cunha’s work have been rather formulaic and one dimensional, focusing on what is frequently described as an artistic position  oscillating between the legacy of Brazilian Modernism and a reevaluation  of specifically formal concerns associated with the European avant-garde. 

One frequent reference point in the evaluation of da Cunha’s practice has  been the Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement, which was established in the  1960s as a reaction against a form of commodified, modernist abstraction  that dominated much of Brazil’s art world, especially in São Paulo, during  the 1950s. Neo-Concrete art, as with many transgressive art movements of  the 1960s, set out to take down art’s elitist position and (re)connect it with  a wider public, specifically Brazil’s many marginalised communities. NeoConcrete artists turned art-as commodity into object-based works with  social purpose, without discarding the complexities that art can have. Today,  just a few names dominate the evaluation of Neo-Concrete art, limiting the  historical evaluation of this important Brazilian movement. Hélio Oiticica  and Lygia Clark are its two best-known figures, followed perhaps by Lygia  Pape. Aluísio Carvão or Amilcar de Castro are only two of the many other  protagonists of that time who are rarely discussed.

Da Cunha’s work has also been repeatedly associated with Arte Povera, a heterogeneous style that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and was characterised mainly by its use of “poor” materials and its emphasis on process  rather than the object. It is an affiliation that da Cunha does not reject, but  it could, however, lead to strong misconceptions of his work, particularly  given the dissimilarities between Italy’s political and social situation during  the 1960s and the contemporary realities of Brazil and England, where da  Cunha lives. The danger of too many references to either Neo-Concretism  or Arte Povera is that they represent a kind of uninformed nostalgia for a  period that has been mythologised to a detrimental, occasionally even comical  degree. The political, cultural, and social changes of the 1960s have made  it a “golden era,” synonymous with radical artistic expression, especially in  recent assessments of artists born in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Even more worrying is the fact that most historical references employed  to describe da Cunha’s work are the same ones used to speak about many  other Brazilian artists of his generation, even when the works and styles  differ greatly. Is the Neo-Concrete movement really the cradle of the  diverse range of Brazilian art we see today, or are we witnessing, rather, a  form of reductive melancholy for a bygone time, fused with a desperate and ignorant desire to establish an artistic canon?

In the case of da Cunha, we see a connection to Neo-Concretism in  his relationship to the everyday, the making of ephemeral objects that can be activated and are relational, but there is not always an outwardly  political motivation to what he does, nor is he necessarily interested in  experiences of community. Likewise, his work does connect to the legacy of  the readymade but without its overly conceptual context; his practice  combines appropriation with a highly intuitive and instinctual inclination  toward a formal play with materials, shapes, forms, and colors, speaking  as much about pure aesthetics as about social realities.

Other contemporary Latin American artists, such as the Mexicans Abraham Cruzvillegas and Gabriel Kuri, and the Brazilians Marepe and  Rivane Neuenschwander, also employ the concept of the readymade, strategies  of appropriation and improvisation, and a strong relationship to the  everyday while being rooted in very sculptural and formal practices. But  the uniqueness of da Cunha’s work is in its artistic sixth sense—a quality  that ultimately distinguishes each of these artists from one another and  can only be explained as an indefinable sort of perception and intuition. While there is value in the previous assessments of da Cunha’s  practice, it might only be now, as he has established a more substantial  body of work over a longer period of time, that we can speak about it  with a deeper and wider range of knowledge and experience and finally  move beyond the apparent and obvious. What is it that viewers get to  see and experience when confronted with his pieces? What becomes  clear is that his artistic method begins with a highly intuitive selection  from the endless possibilities that life offers him. By and large the  artist is a sort of flaneur of the twenty-first century—an avid observer  of the everyday, wandering the streets, seeing and understanding life  in the contemporary metropolis on varied artistic, anthropological,  and sociological levels, and evaluating the individual’s relationship to the  world. Da Cunha is a creator of readymades, but they are readymades  with a human touch and a dry sense of humor. His works are tropical objet  trouvés, or found objects, that he brings into his studio and alters  through a process directed by intuition, observation, and chance, allowing  for the emergence of surprises and the unknown.

Even though da Cunha has been working for more than a decade, he  only became widely known in 2003, with his participation in 50th Venice  Biennale. He presented the series They Really Work for Me (2000) and  Made to Measure (2001–3), both groups of crutch-like objects that could be  handled and used by the audience. The variously colored and sized crutches were made of broomsticks covered with sponges, cloth, and adhesive tape, and they were displayed leaning against the wall. Visitors soon discovered  that the contraptions actually hindered walking, rather than helping, and  the nice, harmless metaphor of art-as-crutch popped like a soap bubble.  The crutches also perfectly exemplified the intuitiveness that is at the  heart of da Cunha’s artistic process. He plays with materials and colours,  often without a predetermined idea, until he senses the right combination  of elements to bring together. One of his best-known works is a group of  sculptures begun in 2005, which take the shape of ceiling fans like those  frequently found in tropical countries, but placed on the floor and made of old skateboard decks and various metal bowls and cups. Here the artist is interested not only in form—specifically the assembly of ordinary objects into something completely new—but also in the random stories that the used and abandoned skateboards tell. Da Cunha has said that he likes working in series because it allows him to give form to a large number of ideas. Rather than whittling down a constellation of ideas into a single, embodying object, a series of versions of the same work gives his viewers some insight into the nature of his creative process.

Some of da Cunha’s quieter works, such as Terracotta Ebony (2006) or the series Platinum Column (begun in 2005), are made of ordinary household objects. In both cases the titles reference expensive materials, but the works are actually made from cheap goods available in any hardware store. Terracotta Ebony consists of a number of differently colored toilet plungers with their sticks removed, placed on a classical plinth. To see the sculptural potential in such objects, and to create such a sophisticated piece from them, certainly requires an abundance of imagination; the piece demonstrates da Cunha’s uncanny knack for detail and observation. The Platinum Column works are made of differently shaped metal bowls stacked into towers, clearly reminiscent of works by Constantin Brancusi. What connects da Cunha with Brancusi is an extreme simplification of form; what distinguishes him from Brancusi is an extreme simplification of materials and labor.

Recently da Cunha has begun to develop a strong interest in national identity and its various forms of representation. The series Velour (2005) was the beginning of this investigation. The artist created a collection of flags using beach towels printed with explicitly exotic motifs such as tropical animals or beautiful women in bikinis. He connected the towels to curtain rods or broomsticks and placed them against the wall so that only a portion of the towels’ illustrations were visible. Seascape (Flags) (2008) are collages of images glorifying Brazilian beaches; the resulting abstract, geometric shapes look like elements from national flags with their various vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stripes.

Da Cunha’s work is an open-ended and highly sensitive observation of the world around us. It is certainly the result of a collision of cultures, blending European-derived artistic ideas and theories with the realities ofcontemporary Latin America, but it could not exist without his remarkable intuition with respect to object selection and his uncommonly strong instinct for material, shape, and color. His ability to render observations into works of art certainly requires a sixth sense.

Jens Hoffmann is a curator and writer based in San Francisco where he is the Director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.