The Parkview Museum

Interview with Néle Azevedo

São Paulo - Brazil, 23.05.2012

1- How did you start your artistic career?

 

NA: I started my artistic career at middle age. It was a long journey into choosing the visual arts. I had worked in other areas, such as banking and public service, but I have always been connected to literature and poetry. I took drawing lessons which made me choose art as a field of activity. I started Visual Arts School at 43. So, it was an option made as a fully-grown adult.

2- Your series of works titled Minimum Monument you present small scale human shaped figures made of ice therefore addressing issues related to the fragility and ephemerality of the existential condition of the individual and also related to the issues of global warming and ice melting. Could you tell us more about the project and its genesis?

 

NA: I developed the concept of the Minimum Monument project when researching for my master’s thesis in Arts, in 2003: ‘An aesthetic proposal of the minimum inserted as a monument in the city’. We know that one of the characteristics of the monument is that it is erected by the power of the dominant to commemorate their achievements. We can say that monuments are the narrative of official history. As all power or victory entails the defeat and oppression suffered by the dominated or defeated, monuments in their honor also incorporate this contradiction, being referred to by Walter Benjamin as monuments of barbarism.

 

Thus, I found in public monuments a synthesis of my uneasiness: historic commemoration as being too distant from the ordinary people. The main discussion and poetic reflection are the intersection between local history and public monuments. I sought to reconcile the public and private spheres, the subjective self, and the city. I then subverted, one by one, the characteristics of the official monument. Contradicting the grand scale widely used to flaunt power, I proposed a minimum scale. Not the face of the hero, but an homage to the anonymous observer. Instead of durable materials, I proposed ice sculptures that last around forty minutes - it is an anti-monument.

 

We can, in short, remember the origin of the word monument: momentu, monere – to remember, to warn. It is etymologically linked, among other, to mausoleum, tomb. The monument, therefore, has mortuary origins. This is evidenced in history by the relations the most ancient civilizations establish with their ancestors and with invisible things – a phenomenon that has placed death as the generator of artistic manifestations (Egyptian pyramids, for instance). Regis Debray observes that the monument is intricately linked to the way in which each civilization deals with death (AZEVEDO, 2003).

 

In the West, there is a process of moving away from death that starts to deepen in the 18th century and grows with the strengthening of capitalism in productivist societies. As the logic of production, efficiency and profit gradually increases, funeral rites practices diminish to the point of completely separating the living from the dead, once the dead do not produce wealth. We then have death totally separated from life and a civilization with a notion of limitless potency.

 

It is the ephemerality of the Minimum Monument that intensifies its relationship with death and with time. Both the time of melting and the time of the observer, the participant. The whole event takes around forty minutes – from that, the Minimum Monument becomes an event in the present, it does not crystallize the memory, neither does it separate death from life. It gains fluidity, movement and rescues this original function of the monument: to remind us that we die (memento mori, “remember you shall die”), (AZEVEDO, 2003).

 

As “art of presence,” the Minimum Monument opposes the permanent public fruition of the traditionally static sculpture – it is necessary to be present in the place and at the time of the event. The experience with the placement and the melting of the ice sculptures is public, yet individual, in person, non-transferable. The time of the minimum monument is the present, the time of the spatial experience, immediate and for the duration. It is not the case, therefore, to face the melting, but to live it as an experience.

 

3- In which countries around the world did you exhibit your work?

 

NA: On April 7, 2005, I made the first major intervention with the Minimum Monument, in downtown São Paulo. After that I did the Minimum Monument in twelve different countries: in Brazil (several cities), France (three times in Paris), Portugal (Porto), Germany (Braunschweig and Berlin), Italy (Florence and Rome) Norway, (Stavanger), The Netherlands, (Amsterdam), Ireland (Belfast), England (Birmingham and Kendal Castle), Peru (Lima), Chile (Santiago), Denmark (Silkeborg), USA (Burlington and Middlebury – Vermont).

 

The Minimum Monument’s history can be seen here: https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/the-journey-of-minimummonument

 

4- Your ice melting artworks are also imbued with a philosophical connotation: they seem to blur the boundaries between eternity and ephemerality, between presence and absence, between life and death. Could you share with us your thoughts about it?

 

NA: The Minimum Monument visits the cities, inserts itself in their landscapes for some minutes, without becoming a part of the permanent landscape or the official history. The small figures are put in place by passersby, directly on the ground, on stairs and sidewalks, without hierarchy, privileges, or highlight.

 

In the years that followed that April 7 of 2005 (the first big intervention in São Paulo-Brazil), I have been able to gather people in European and Latin American cities to mold ice sculptures together. In each of the 25 Minimum Monument interventions, students, art teachers, and volunteers were invited to give shape to the ice sculptures. This is a work that requires care, attention, and, above all, the dimension of time.

 

It is in time that relationships of encounter expand and make it possible to develop something able to be the construction of the future itself. This is what the idea of Minimum Monument also announces. By making us remember our own finitude, the Minimum Monument seems to lead us to an idea of the future that can be built collectively, side by side, and in the time of the dialog. In the end, and in this sharing with the public, there was, in each intervention, a suspension and a happening in the cities’ daily life. A poetic, reflective moment was established, taking all the people present to express themselves strongly and collectively. This way, the Minimum Monument ended up fulfilling its role of becoming a nomadic, ritualistic, moving monument. A liquid monument that evaporates and undoes itself, for liquid times.

 

In its biggest dimension, in Birmingham, England, still in the line of proposing another type of historic commemoration, we made 5000 ice sculptures for the 100th anniversary of World War I, honoring not only those who fought in the war, but all those who contributed, including families who sacrificed themselves. On August 2 of 2014 there were around 6000 people in Chamberlain Square who quickly placed the sculptures on the stairs. It was way beyond what was expected for an urban intervention. There, once again, we produced the image of the day in England. These are encounters and connections that renew me and make me understand and think about the world...

 

Still using the ice matter, it is worth highlighting the installation/performance named Suspended State, in which more than 1000 ice figures are hung at different heights on a metal structure. For approximately one hour, they slowly and dramatically disappear. Suspended State alludes to a provisional state, to a suspension of the body in relation to the ground, to a state of being somewhere without really being there. As they melt, they show not only the fragility and the ephemeral, but also a provisional state of transition, of an intermediary stage.

 

The temporality of the suspended ice figures refers to our human condition both from the point of view of subjectivity and the collective. Through the melting of the bodies and the expansion of the sound, the work brings out the conflicts between human temporality and the temporality expressed by the rhythm of contemporary life. These ice figures, suspended by a thread reaffirm the ephemeral, the tragic and the sacrificial.

 

Ice as matter configures a boundary. It is cold, but the contact with it produces heat. Its stability takes us to an idea of stagnation, of death, and the water immediately leads us to life. It is a privileged way of revealing the contradictions that permeate human existence.

 

The experience with the ice matter has made me create other ephemeral works that led me to other experiments with space, matter, elements. Some can be seen on my website: www.neleazevedo.com.br on the links below:

 

urban “spawing” - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/urban-spawing glory

 

to all inglorious fight - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/glory-to-all-inglorious-fights

 

cross through the pain on the blue days - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/cross-the-pain-during-blue-days-1

 

from body to earth - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/eng-do-corpo-%C3%A0-terra

 

free fall free falling - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/eng-queda-livre

 

sisyphus - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/eng-sisifo history

 

is not happiness's territory - https://www.neleazevedo.com.br/history-is-not-happiness-s-territor

 

5- How did you develop your ecological concern and when did you start to incorporate environmental related issues into your artistic practice?

 

NA: The climate/ecological issue came through the eyes of the public and was incorporated into the original concept of the work. In the intervention carried out in Florence, Italy, in 2008, the images of the Minimum Monument released were read by internet users as “army of melting men” or “melting men” and spread all over the internet. Due to this interpretation, I was invited by WWF Germany to make an intervention in Berlin in September of 2009. This invitation was the beginning of my reflection about climate change in connection with the Minimum Monument. Something became clear: we, humans, are at risk of disappearing from the planet. Here is a possible contemporary monument. With the World Climate Conference-3 taking place simultaneously in Geneva, the massive publicity of images of the Minimum Monument granted international extension to the work. It was the image of the day worldwide. The work overflowed the contemporary art circuit.

 

On the first day of 2020, the Minimum Monument was carried out at Festa di Roma Capodanno 2020. A great homage and celebration to the beauty of the Earth. On Giardinno della Aranci, the sculptures melted before a monumental Rome and celebrated the Earth. At that moment, the junction of the two issues of the Minimum Monument, historic memory and climate crisis became clear. At the end of the intervention, unexpected smoke, mist, or fog (gaseous state) covered the sculptures, precisely at the end of their melting. The image of this smoke covering the little bodies revealed, to me, a harbinger of what was to come: an environmental catastrophe (COVID19 pandemic) that materialized in an unprecedented political and sanitary worldwide crisis.

 

The catastrophe is still present. Our mortal condition comes to the fore. Here in Brazil the structural violence of our racist, sexist society becomes brutally clear, naturalizing death. Everything that led me to make the Minimum Monument was explicit, developing into its most terrifying aspect.

 

6- Could you talk about your exhibition Continuous Refle(a)ction in Beijing? What was the reaction of the audience?

 

NA: My participation in the exhibition Continuous Refle(a)ction took the form of a video installation named Minimum Monument: art as emergency created to be presented inside institutions, museums, or galleries, since the Minimum Monument interventions only happen in the public space.

 

In addition to the record of the Minimum Monument interventions, there is a video of the work Composition for sculptures and a body. An installation/dance that combines my work with that of choreographer Marina Tenório.

 

I can say that the video-installation Minimum Monument: art as emergency was very well received by the public who attended the opening at the Riverside Museum of Art, Beijing-China (May 25 to Aug 28 of 2019). It was also presented at the exhibition Continuous Regeneration in Columbia Circle, Changning District, Shanghai (Nov 23 of 2019 to Feb 16 of 2020). Therefore, the actual urban intervention has not yet been held in China. I would love to do it there and be able to see the reaction of the public.

 

7- Could you talk to us about your future projects?

 

NA: The planetary urgency to preserve human life and many other endangered species, along with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which includes the lives of native peoples, is, to say the least, nerve-racking. The future as expansion is finished. The so-called “economic growth” based on the exploitation of the Earth means, today, catastrophe, destruction, and death. Thus, what we have is the possibility of, together, imagine possible presents and futures.

 

Unable to carry out interventions in the public space since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, and with the suspension of my entire calendar of interventions scheduled for Rome, USA, and Slovenia, I began to live and work in my studio, creating "drawings" using perishable materials like onion peels, eggshells, leaves... Other ways to be in the world from where I am “grounded” in the city of São Paulo became the center of my investigation in the field of art. After the drawings with perishable materials at Espaço Vitrine (Espaço Vitrine is a little gallery located in my studio for exhibitions and experimentations by other artists. With the confinement imposed by COVID 19, I started to use the room for my own experimentations) where I start to build an “installation/forest” Pindorama: from tupi pindó-rama/ pindó-retama = Nation, country, territory of palm trees. Then, at Espaço Vitrine Pindoramas are already growing. It is a way to put my body side by side with this fight for life here and now, to experience being near other species, in the middle of the city.

 

I then create this installation named Pindoramas with plants especially studied for that place, selecting species suitable for indoor light, researching about their origin and history. I follow their growth and development as “companion species'' without any knowledge hierarchy. I nurture them and am nurtured back. This way, I propose the symbolic inversion of the place of the forest: it’s the forest that invades the space built by man, convening the visitor to forest the city, experiencing radical change before human and non-human lives and seeking to approach plant life and its imbrications with art, understanding plants as a form of life that generates other lives, responsible for the food base of the world and for the oxygen all other beings breathe.

 

So, as for the future, just the immediate one. More urgently, I have been working in a book in which I present my journey in art. I am also immersed in two projects developed alongside female artists working with women who participate in the right-to-housing movement MSTC (Movimento dos sem teto do centro de São Paulo), both selected by public calls of the State of São Paulo Culture Secretariat.

Néle Azevedo

 

São Paulo - Brazil, May 23 of 2022.