Moacir dos Anjos - That imprecise moment that is called now

“There we were side by side on the salt-coloured sand, among people who had also lost children or watches, youth or opportunities, courage or their teeth, their parents or their money, trust or an arm, their property, their identity or their job, their wits or their life. There we were sniffing out a dead man....”

Osman Lins, Lost and Found

If we have to begin somewhere, it could be with the story of a name. José Rufino is not the artist's official name but that of his paternal grandfather (1895-1979), the former owner of the Vaca Brava sugar mill, in Areia, a municipality in the marshlands of Paraíba. The artist took on his forebear's name at the end of the 1980s when he received, as a family heirloom, his grandfather's collection of documents, comprising letters, notes, receipts, tickets, books and various other papers. This collection of material traces allowed the artist to reconstruct the business and emotional world in which his grandfather had lived and, for manyyears, exercised the power of ownership'. This world includes the family and geographical environment in which the artist spent long stays in childhood. It was after this encounter with his at the same time recent and distant past that the work the artist had been producing until then under his given name (José Augusto de Almeida) underwent an abrupt change and he began to use this collection of memorabilia almost exclusively as the support for his work.

It was at this time that the artist produced Letters from Areia, a series composed of hundreds of drawings and paintings on envelopes and letters sent to his grandfather by a wide diversity of individuals over several decades. José Rufino uses a variety of media (pencil, India ink, gouache, tempera and so forth) and has created on top of these records of an age gone-by an additional set of memories and symbols, establishing ties between different generations and forging links between different epochs. Sometimes images of dry landscapes drawn from memory cover the antique paper; at others images that conjure up the family house and furniture and the sugar plantation. There are also solitary unclothed figures with genitals exposed and recurring images of crosses and trees. Partially covering addresses, stamps, seals or formal messages, the images reveals range of superimposed stories, which, although remote in time, share the same space.

A similar process of construction also gave rise to the creation of various other art objects. In some of these a variety of documents, which once belonged to the artist's grandfather, are partially inserted and glued into the cracks in small wood blocks, which are, in turn, attached to the wall in a row. When inspected carefully, one gets an impression of what these papers are about, even though it is never quite possible to uncover their specific content. In other objects, letters that belonged to the artist's forebear are almost completely covered with paint, joined to one another as if they formed a long document, and hung from old typewriters placed on the floor or attached to the wall. Although different individuals are responsible for the antique texts and the contemporary marks that partly cover them, they appear at least-due to the way they have been put together - to share the same degree of importance.

In each of these pieced there is an apparent conflict of intentions. This conflict will pervade an extensive part of José Rufino's work and take on, over time, a variety of different forms. On the one hand, the artist puts on public show documents that until now were known only to a restricted few, thereby making old and private information part of a public and contemporary work of art. On the other hand, he covers part of the content of these documents with paint or puts them in places where they can not be fully made out, thereby shutting off access to their full content. It is precisely by way of these conflicting signals, however, that the work manages to transcend a mere exhibition of private reminiscences and has the power to spark off memories in the mind of whoever comes into contact with it By bringing together distinct eras, José Rufino creates a passage from personal memory to collective remembrance, and through his creative method finds a way of getting close to the "minor” histories that make up the woof of life (2).

This bringing together of the affective memory of the artist and the memory of the other began, from the second half of the 1990s onwards, to take the form of medium- to large-scale installations. In one of the most eloquent of these Lacrymatio [1996] - dozens of letters originally sent to his grandfather are partially covered with tempera, attached to the wall at various heights and joined together by rubber tubes, all of which lead to an empty chair, thereby producing a profusion of distinct but paradoxically somehow closely-connected meanings, such as fear and family affection. In the case of some letters, nothing can be read beneath the thick layer of paint, but the contemporary gesture nevertheless fully affirms the life of the artist's forebear. In others, however, passages from the messages written to his grandfather can still be made out between the marks left by the strokes of the paintbrush. Some of the original messages contain expressions of thanks for some favour, business proposals involving land ownership or prosaic formal invitations to family occasions. If it is certainly the case that the network of tubes connecting the scattered items and leading them to the same point can be taken as a metaphor for genealogy, roots and the rosiness of home, it is also true that it can be seen to represent the power to give orders of the man to whom so many letters from so many different individuals were addressed. By allowing for both interpretations, the effect that José Rufino finally achieves has the appeal of being an apt and universal description of the ambiguous relationship that exists, to varying extents, between affection and control.

In a more condensed fashion, visual references to the exercise of power are also present in an untitled installation that only slightly predates the one mentioned above. In this piece a small space contains a chair, again empty, to whose sides and back copper plates are attached and in front of which a photograph of a child - the artist himself - stands on the floor covered by an opaque resin. From the ceiling hangs a thread holding the only light bulb that dimly illuminates the room and which both causes and bears witness to, from close quarters, the softening of the plastic material and the consequent progressive erasure of the image. As he has done with his given name, José Rufino also here partially annuls his own visual identity in favour of a fluid time and space, situated somewhere between the past in which his grandfather lived and the present, which, for him, is not enough. It is precisely in this updating of the times lived by others whilst endowing them with new meanings for those who are alive today that the originality of the artist's work resides. Since the end of the 1990s, however, José Rufino, has progressed from using the material traces of his own affective memory, preferring now to move back and forth between distinct times. By interfering with documents that register past business transactions from various places, he evokes the tangled everyday life of those who originally handled and were close to them, and in this way succeeds in universalizing his memories of his origins in the interior of Paraíba to any part of the world. In the case of the installation Laceratio [1999], the artist appropriates long-forgotten administrative documents from the port authorities of the city of Porto Alegre (with, it should be added, the full consent of the port authorities themselves), and imprints on them, using tempera, whatever he pleases. In Murmuratio [2001] it is worthless papers and old furniture from the Rio Doce Valley Railway (again ceded to the artist by the company that owned them based in the city of Vitória) that serve as the support for the artist's drawings. Differently from earlier work, the drawings no longer represent images dug from the artist's memory; nor are they merely amorphous stains covering parts of the vestiges of a past in which he himself played a part. Almost all produce the impression of a human figure undergoing a process of dissolution, appearing to announce rather the absence than the presence of whoever they might be supposed to represent. In addition to this, and differently from the drawings objects and installations produced using the collection of documents belonging to his grandfather, there is no natural affective tie between José Rufino and the documents he uses as a support in these pieces. This leads him to search, in a deliberate fashion, to get close to the material records of the past of those institutions and the memories of the individuals connected to them by the functions they once occupied. However, it is not only various different times, but also, different spaces that now brush against one another in the artist's constructions. His memories of Areia cease to be a mere inventory of the symbolic repertoire through which he originally saw the world, and become a means for getting close to almost anything that exists within his now broadened horizons (3).

This unique method of perceiving and commenting on the world reaches even greater complexity in the installation Plasmatio [2002], first exhibited at the 25th São Paulo Bienale. After passing through a narrow or small space (a corridor in the original installation, an anteroom in the installation at the Museu de Arte Moderna Aloísio Magalhães), the visitor enters a room of huge proportions, where two towers made of heavy desks piled one on top of the other, flanking and confining a painting, immediately strike the eye. Vertical, symmetrical marks run from a small wooden box at the top, down over the seat of a bench, whose legs rest on the two towers of dark wooden furniture, until they almost touch the floor. The marks appear to be a front view of a suspended male or female figure. As one approaches this object of uncertain nature, the eye is gradually able to make out that the support of the painting is corn posed of many sheets of paper with writing on them joined together, and already showing signs of wear and tear. The viewer momentarily loses interest in the painted figure and the eye tries to see what is exposed there, fragile and partially covered by thin layers of dark paint. Patient close inspection of the piece reveals that the sheets are fragments of letters and notes written by people long since detached from the affective settings that provided them with a sense of belonging in the world. Sparse but precise references suggest that they were written by prisoners and political detainees at the time of the military regime in Brazil, or written to them by relatives, comrades and friends. These papers are impregnated with sensations of absence and loss, frustration and rage, revealing the discomfit of one facing a situation that gradually detaches him from all sense of origin so that he is left merely with a vague feeling of uncanniness and exile. The perception of the lack of the other in these texts is absolute, as the loss suffered is of uncertain duration, constantly provisional: it may last a lifetime or shortly be redressed.

The insistent discomfort at not being able to read what the painting obscures, however, forces the viewer once again to turn away from the written surface and reconsider the painted image. As it does not have a clear outline, the figure sometimes appears to originate from the pieces of furniture or to partly dissolve into them, suggesting the remains or the shadow of a body, vestiges that have been lost never to return. On the back of the towers, another image - still more tenuous than the first - reproduces the compositional structure of the front of the object and reinforces the feelings it has summoned up. These are figures that evoke not any one of the bodies of which the texts speak as individuals-each with their own name, shape and smell to be remembered but the existence of a collective and anonymous body that resists, in spite of its imprecise and diaphanous appearance, the gradual flaking away of the ordinary memory of events and facts. The eye still searches unsuccessfully to gauge the distance at which the tension created between words and images comes close to breaking point, which would thereby make it possible to fully visualize the piece and reconcile the realms of private pain and public affairs.

Having as its centre the towers of desks, the large, sombre room opens out and other similar constructions are revealed. In one of these, a chair is placed upside down on a long thin case, fastened in horizontal position high on the wall. From the central part of this case hang various other sheets of paper covered in writing, again almost touching the floor. These too are partially covered by anthropomorphic paintings. Once again, however, it is unclear where the running body-like marks end and the varnishes and oils that darken the wood begin, in such a way that the representation of the human head blurs into the chair that crowns the cross-like piece. From a tower made up of identical chests of drawers and another desk - cut and also fastened at the top with two chairs on top - more texts hang (partially blotted out with paint). These relate to the furniture in mimetic fashion, almost turning these constructions into paintings. In this tense architecture, made of writings and furniture, there are also references - taken from the accounts of political prisoners and formally processed by José Rufino - to the environments and equipment used for collecting evidence and torturing prisoners by the repressive organs of the emergency regime that was in force for two decades in Brazil. The remembered description of rooms, furniture and cells from institutions that for many were stages on the way to disappearance are, however, in these constructions, blurred with the creation of symbolic space that commemorates these bodies and endows them some form of permanence. Bringing together the hybrid objects, a large web of thread and rubber stamps runs all over the walls of the space that encloses Plasmatio, making the atmosphere even more oppressive and drawing whosoever enters the room into the fragmented, claustrophobic and precise narrative that the artist intends to produce.

Although it expands on and gives more detail to the territory that the artist had been exploring in previous work, it is in Plasmatio, however, that José Rufino best brings together different times and conflates spaces created by individual actions with those of collective public life. Availing himself of a unique construction method, he inserts documents that attest to private loss into the flux of collective memory and transforms them into instruments with which to resist the pervasive and broad powers of forgetting societies have at their disposal. The very process of acquiring the papers establishes another new network for the flux of memories and for combating the evanescence of facts. The painstaking, tense negotiation necessary to convince those in possession of the texts to give them to the artist- despite the fact that he himself is the son of a political prisoner - creates a network of contacts between people who have not spoken for a long time, or who, although they did not know each other before, share memories of similar lived experiences. The moments when these experiences of loss were registered are, in this way, extended to the present and their content comes to inhabit the uncertain limits that simultaneously bring us close to and distance us from personal memories and the country's history (4).

This impregnation of the public sphere with the viscous memory of the individual occurs in the course of the construction of the images on the pages of writing itself, even though, in the process, the artist blots out with paint the possibility of fully enunciating these memories in words. The artist paints on only half of the surface of the texts, using forms that are reminiscent of the vestiges or signs of absent bodies. The texts are then folded in two and pressed down, thereby spreading the pigment over the dry parts of the support. It is from the symmetries thus formed and ingrained into the fibres of documents containing private records that the disembodied faceless figures, which appear time and again throughout the artist's work, emerge. Although the sheets of writing and the images that partly cover them brush, on the symbolic plane, against what is represented, it is their physical proximity (in fact a superimposition) that transforms them into indexes of a feeling of loss that transcends individuation of meanings.

In so far as they demarcate space in an imprecise manner, the painted symmetrical marks encourage the eye to unveil what they really hide, thereby situating the work of José Rufino in a conceptual genealogy, of which the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) forms part. Like the plates used by psychoanalysts to stimulate the projection of personality, the painted forms of Plasmatio awaken in the viewer memories, doubts and personal interpretations of past events. Moreover, they consolidate a cognitive operation based on the construction/reading of symmetrical images initiated by the drawings and paintings executed by the artist on documents that once belonged to his paternal grandfather (Letters from Areia) and, later, on the documents that are included in the installations Laceratio and Murmuratio, suggesting a clear long-term strategy in terms of method. By exhibiting bodies in the process of vanishing or already ill-remembered, the marks created by José Rufino on the pages of writing also reflect, both in their appearance and express intention, the spiritual engravings of the German physician Justinus Kerner (1786-1862), which seek to register human forms, that, at the time of the creation of the work of art, were no longer in existences (5). Finally, this relationship of complicity in the construction of the marks recalls the Turin shroud as a distant antecedent: a shallow, but firm trace of a single body, which the artist seeks to emu/ate in the joint remembrance of what the absent bodies did, be they anonymous civil servants or political prisoners and the disappeared.

The way the artist accomplishes the operation in Plasmatio - a recurrent theme in his work - of dislocating times and feelings is, however, dichotomous. Memories are recovered that have long since been removed from having an impact on the world. Covered, at least in part, by blots of dark pigment, meanings, which not many are party to, are unveiled, but at the same time hidden or silenced. Inscribed in this apparent indecision there is the desire to construct situations that unequivocally lay claim to that which is repressed, forgotten or rarely taken into consideration by history scholars: namely, the existence of a feeling of nostalgia that goes beyond the sphere of the individual and condenses a state of recognition of collective loss. By exposing evidence condemned for years to social invisibility (for reasons of modesty or fear on the part of those who produced it), José Rufino does not restrict himself to the original presentation of texts previously unavailable to the public, but, through his own manipulation of the fragile materiality of these writings, himself plays an indispensable role in awakening, in the realm of art, the common feeling of absence that is embedded in them.

This is what is coincidentally present in all these personal vestiges of loss and what justifies and permits the artist to interfere with them, turning nostalgia into a feeling that can bring people together and that can, at least occasionally, define a whole community (6). By introducing the discomfort of unconcluded mourning and organizing the exhibition space in a divisive and tense fashion, Plasmatio is designed to be not a monument or a memorial - agents of forgetting - but an unsettling ruin, around which silence and trauma circulate and which reverberates with public fact.

It is this feeling of uncertain and continuous passage that is impressive in the piece Memento mori [2002], which, although operating in the sphere of private memory, shows a similar concern with preserving that which is normally discarded. The first thing that draws the eye in the space where the piece is installed are the many frames - dark and old- hung from the walls with string and nails. The imposing individuality of each of the frames is probably meant to evoke the portraits of dead relatives that adorned the old rooms of houses, always very neat and tidy and shut off from the ordinary life of the people who lived there - rooms, for example, like those in the family home on the artist's paternal grandfather's sugar plantation. Placed at varying heights, the frames contain, instead of the photographs they once bore, symmetrical and diaphanous images, monotypes on old and already yellowing papers similar to those used in other pieces.(7) Devoid of the clarity typical of portraits, the figures that José Rufino creates are reminiscent of human forms in an advanced state of decomposition, vestiges of bodies that are gradually fading away From the centre of the painted page outwards, the images appear to be flaking away, and opening up within the figures represented passages, tunnels or doors to an unknown place. In contrast to the conventional portrait room, the exhibition space signals and records the disappearance, in the field of memory, of that which has been deprived of the visible solace of the material.

Placed in one of the comers of the room, there is a narrow bed-old and dark like the frames that surround it. On the bed there is another monotype, which blurs into the varnishes with which the bed is coated, owing to the imprecision of the forms of which it is composed. In contrast, however, to the images hung on the surrounding walls, the figure on the bed - a place of birth and also of death - retains a human form and clearly anthropomorphic features. Furthermore, the bed is fastened to the wall with a hanger similar to those used to hang the portrait frames, as if in anticipation of an unavoidable fate. Already withdrawn to the calm of a time that apparently no longer flows, the images attached to the frames appear to bear witness to what is going on in the bed - the last moment of transition to the unknown. The work of José Rufino freezes, however, what is fleeting; it makes a symbolic register of the tenuous moment that separates life from death. Using a solemn and stable construction as his anchor, the artist affirms paradoxically the transient nature of all flesh.

Likewise in his work as art director for the short film Transubstantial [2003, directed by Torquato Joel], José Rufino superimposes disintegrating anthropomorphic images directly onto the unclothed body of a man, who is filmed as if floating in empty space at no precise point in time or place. Here the superimposition on human skin of the representation of its supposed final decay takes to the extreme, on the symbolic plane, the dissolution of differences between distinct times that is fundamental to the artist's work. This temporal transition is clearly expressed in Sudoratio [1997/2003], a second version of an installation mounted years previously. In this piece, twenty old boxes of varying sizes are aligned with one of the walls, giving the impression of a strange procession of containers used to transport a diversity of objects. From each of these a white substance appears to be oozing through small cracks. However, when examined by the eye alone, it is impossible to tell the weight or density of this substance. As if summing up the work of José Rufino, these rounded blobs of substance, which look like huge drops of some liquid, point to all that which, though produced long ago or stored for a long time, can still manifest itself as a living thing in that imprecise moment that is called now.

Moacir dos Anjos

(catálogo da exposição no Museu de Arte Moderna Aloísio Magalhães – MAMAM, Recife, 2003)

1 - in fact, the artist's grandfather was baptised José de Almeida. However, as a teenager, he was given the nickname José de Rufino (a reference to his father, Rufino Augusto de Almeida), as a way of distinguishing him from his cousin José Américo de Almeida. It was only in adulthood that the future owner of the Vaca Brava sugar mill officially adopted the name Jose Rufino. So, the artist José Rufino appropriated not his grandfather's official name, but that which he had taken on as a young man that he would from then on use as his own. Almeida, Antônio Augusto (Ed.) & Almeida, Alice. José Rufino. Areia Paraíba. Mamanguape, Davina Editora, 1995.
2 - The ability to universalize the meanings of objects heavily imbued with private past history and to bring them up to date is also present in the work of various other artists who are contemporaries of José Rufino. These, in various ways, similarly seek both to hold back and to display the marks of time. A clear example is the work of the British artist Rachel Whiteread (1963-), which, using casts of various objects and structures - a light switch, the interior of an entire house, a bath tub, a wardrobe or a staircase - succeeds in creating sculptures (in plaster, resin or rubber) which register the details in them and thereby reveal the traces (memory) of the histories they contain. Gallagher, Ann. “Introdução” in Rachel Whiteread (exhibition catalogue). Rio de Janeiro, Artviva, 2003.
3 - in the catalogue published on the occasion of the first mounting of the Laceratio installation at the II Mercosur Bienale of the Visual Arts in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 1999, there is a fictional text by José Rufino which seeks to describe the lethargic and claustrophobic environment in which the functionaries who first handled the papers supposedly worked. This interest in information that lies on the margins of history as officially reported (be it in notes and letters sent to his grandfather, or in banal office paperwork) has a clear parallel in the work of the French artist Christian Boltanski (1945-), who also processes and preserves, in his work, the "minor" memories of ordinary people, whether dead (as in the case of holocaust victims and Swiss citizens who died during a certain period of time) or alive (unemployed workers from the North of England, or a French peasant.) By retaining and processing photographic images of or objects that surround(ed) them (papers, clothes, furniture), both artists succeed in preventing the vestiges of what conferred individuality on these people from disappearing. "Tamar Garb in conversation with Christian Boltanski" in Semin, Didier; Garb, Tamar & Kuspit, Donald. Christian Boltanski. London, Phaidon Press, 1997.
4 - The establishment of a relation of complicity between the artist and people with memories and material relics of the period to which Plasmatio refers brings this installation close to the work of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (1958-), whose creative process involves forging links of solidarity between the artist and the relatives of victims of the armed conflict that has afflicted Columbia for so long, and also in the use in her work of the banal objects that belonged to them. Likewise José Rufino, Doris Salcedo constructs poetic situations (sculptures and installations) where a time and a place hidden from public memory can subtly inscribe and reveal itself and to which her work bears witness. Huyssen, Andreas. "Unland: the orphan's tunic," in Princenthal, Nancy, Basualdo, Carlos, & Huyssen, Andreas. Doris Salcedo. London, Phaidon Press, 2000.
5 - Kerner, Justinus, Kleksographien von Justinus Kerner. Stuttgart/Leipzig/Berlin/Vienna, Deutsche Verklags-Hufthalt, 1857.
6 - Lourenço, Eduardo, A Mitologia da Saudade. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1999.
7 - Apart from the installations Lacrimatio and Plasmatio and the Letters from Areia series of drawings, these anthropomorphic images can be found in various other series of drawings, some on white paper and others on documents that already bear the obvious marks of the passage of time, such as invoices or old social security cards. They are also reminiscent of the work of the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer (1929-), whose drawings and paintings likewise make a tenuous affirmation of the human form on a support that may be another piece by the same artist or even one by another artist, sometimes reproductions, sometimes originals.

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