“The intestine is a hole that we can never fill,” Anna Maria Maiolino tells the curator Helena Tatay in a wide-ranging interview published on the Documenta 13 website, “just as we can never fulfill desire.”
Dislocation, alienation and an intense, viral longing permeate Maiolino’s diverse body of work, which encompasses sculpture, drawing, painting, performance, film, video and poetry. Born in Calabria in the middle of World War II, she’s well acquainted with the uprootedness of the immigrant’s life, having left Italy with her family for Venezuela in 1954, finally settling in Brazil in 1960.
Maiolino considers herself a Brazilian artist, having entered adulthood amid the turbulence of its military dictatorship. In the interview with Tatay, she recalls her generation’s search for “an autonomous national art, far removed from external patterns and models. For us, approaching the popular meant looking for our roots”:
Unlike American Pop art, in Brazil the incorporation of the popular was due to an interest in everything political and social. We dreamt of a free and autonomous Latin America, with its own economic resources, and art was no different in this respect.
Still, while speaking at a preview last week for her current exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Upper East Side outpost, Anna Maria Maiolino: Between Senses (her debut at the gallery as well as her first solo in the US since one at the Drawing Center in 2002), the artist reverted to Italian, rather than Portuguese, when she couldn’t find the right words to express herself in English.
Maiolino’s return to the language of her childhood is not surprising given the emotional excavations evident in her work — all of it handmade and much of it in the primal medium of clay.
As a young artist and mother during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Maiolino developed an aesthetic of the everyday, centering on (from the same interview) “food, manual work, drawing, sewing, modelling. Starting with these, and moved by desire and need, I create metaphors of the body: digestion, defecation, the inside and the outside. Also through the body, the political can be manifested […]”
At the exhibition preview, she asserted that “art is political because it is social” — the artist’s transformation of the medium into an object converts it into an attractor of the mind and emotions, a stimulant for dialogue, a drawing-together of culture and community.
The works in this show include reliefs in brass, plaster and cement; drawings and paintings in acrylic ink; videos; a furniture-and-sound installation featuring Maiolino’s sharply etched, Surrealist-tinged poem, “Eu so Eu “ (“I am I,” 2011); and clay sculptures, some set into gouged-out cement or plaster slabs mounted on metal tables, and some suspended from a metal frame.
The table-mounted clay and cement sculptures are mostly from a series called Novos Outros (New Others) (2013). Their pairing of object and void reflects the line from her poem “Tu + Eu “ (“You + Me,” 2012), “Sinto as paredes do meu oco na presença do outro” — “I feel the walls of my hollowness in the presence of the other.”
Hollowness is a principle concept for Maiolino, and the empty spaces in these sculptures can evoke geological formations, burial grounds, wombs or latrines. The raku pieces, which are rolled into balls and knobs or elongated into sausages, never touch the cavity walls, remaining isolated even when part of an ensemble. Often holes simply remain empty — desire unfulfilled.
In the three works on display from the Preposições (Prepositions) series (2013), the raku pieces hang from metal wires, some clustered like braids of garlic, others loosely floating like schools of fish. Again we find references to the endless cycle of growing, gathering and capturing food; of eating and shitting and birthing and dying. A pointless go-round of Beckettian proportions, the filling of a hole that empties faster with each shovelful.
In one of the videos, the artists tells of meeting an immigrant taxi driver and bursting into tears at his stories of dislocation. In another, she sings along, off-key, with a recording of a Neapolitan folk song. The long-ago, long-gone cast of her singing, tempered by her manifest love of the song and of the memories it evokes, is heartbreaking.
Nothing in Maiolino’s work is stable: we can imagine the objects in the slabs’ hollows rolling from place to place, or the hunks of raku on metal wires clanging together like a carillon; the blots in her drawings and paintings are created by dropping ink on the surface and rocking it to produce running drips; even a sculpture devoid of added parts, such as an untitled cement relief from the 2012 series, Entre o Dentro o Fora (Between Inside & Outside), churns with gouges and burrows like a constantly shifting seabed.
Suffused with an indelible homesickness, Maiolino’s art acknowledges the emotional void left by the people and places lost to time and circumstance, yet it resists the call of nostalgia. Its dynamic material presence instead asserts its place in the here and now, paradoxically sharpening the sting of loss.
Maiolino’s gouged-out slabs are not so much stand-ins for half-forgotten, distant tracts of earth, but condensations of the memories and emotions that reverberate through our lives from sources past and present. Like the taxi driver’s tale, they’re the stories we share.
Anna Maria Maiolino: Between Senses continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 21.