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LOS ANGELES — Whenever I mention to someone that I once lived in Brasília, I tend to be met with a similar reaction: “Wow. What was it like living there? Wasn’t it strange? Like living among space ships?” I almost have the conversation memorized by now. I’ll generally respond, “Yes, it’s very peculiar. The city is shaped like an airplane, and there isn’t a lot of public space. It’s sort of like an American suburb — alienating.”
But that response is a regurgitation of my college studies on modernity and what Brasília has stood for: a failed utopian vision and poor urban planning. When Brasília was erected in the heart of the country in 1960, its uniformly built apartments and commercial strips were meant to foster social equality; the greatest Brazilian modernist architect, Oscar Niemeyer, was remarkably in charge of designing the capital’s buildings, which are white, curvaceous, and indeed look a little like space ships. But the realities of a country deeply divided along class lines seeped into the city, and Niemeyer’s structures became monuments to a lost dream. When the American philosopher Marshall Berman traveled to Brasília in the ’80s, he observed, “it can be a creative adventure for modern men to build a palace, and yet a nightmare to have to live in it.”
The perception of Brasília as a fantastic failure is not entirely untrue, but it can be simplistic, if not presumptuous — mainly because it ignores how actual residents experience or think of the city.
I left Brasília when I was 14 years old; I did not hate it then. However, as I grew older, I developed a certain disdain toward it, agreeing with the popular consensus among cultured people that the city was boring and unsophisticated. But when I am true to my memories I think of the echoes at the marble base of my apartment building; young teens socializing in the shaded park; my fear of bats flying through the windows; and walking on the red dirt ground, avoiding the brittle cicadas. I think of driving to friends’ houses, making trouble at the movies, and ordering hot dogs on the block. I think, simply, of what it was like to live there.
Clara Kim, who curated an exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, is interested in how the lived reality of a city can stray from its historical narrative. At a talk at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, she said her goal was to “demystify the history of modernist architecture and how it’s been told.” For her show, Condemned to Be Modern, she gathered works by 21 contemporary artists, most of who grew up in Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico when their capitals were freshly modernist projects. In their artworks, modernist architecture is neither a feat nor a failure; rather, we learn of its complex impact on everyday life, and how it has touched its residents and environs.
One artwork, Kim says, was “critical” to her thinking of the show. Titled “Tropical Hangover” (2009), the work is by Jonathas de Andrade: a series of 105 photographs of the Brazilian city of Recife, paired with diary entries from a journal Andrade found in the trash in 2003. The photographs, both archival and personal, pair aerial views of the massive, industrial city with soft images of a person lying in bed, or a luminous tropical tree. Meanwhile, the journal entries tell the sweetly familiar, mundane stories of a man who went on dates, prayed, took naps, met with friends at restaurants, and went on walks. The project reveals the radically different, coexisting scales of a modern city, from the grand and urban to the quietly personal. For Kim, the work was eye-opening because it “imbued this history with the human body.”
The modern city can be estranging and inhospitable; it pushes you out, rather than readily inviting you in. But rather than echo this hackneyed view, the artists here attempt to breach that distance with modern cities, while expressing how people, regardless of the barriers imposed upon them, will find ways to become intimate with their surroundings.
Clarissa Tossin, who is from Brasília, says she has “a love-hate relationship” with the city. Similarly to myself, she has said she only began to develop a more “critical position” towards the capital as she grew older. She became interested in challenging those modernist spaces, like the palatial Niemeyer structures, that felt largely “off-limits.” For this show, she made a site-specific video at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House across the way from the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, a house that had been closed to the public for decades until last year and whose rooms are barricaded by rope. In the video, titled “Ch’u Mayaa (Maya blue),” a dancer responds to the Mayan decorations that Wright employed on the exterior of the house, curving her body into impossible shapes while caressing the building’s walls.
In another touching work, Felipe Dulzaides pours water down the gutters of the abandoned ballet school in Havana that was to be a part of Cuba’s National Art Schools, an unfinished and short-lived project of the early Cuban Revolution. We watch the water rush down the open gutters, carrying dirt and loose leaves with it and restoring the building with some sense of life.
Buildings don’t survive without people, and in fact they are transformed by them. The exhibition makes the same point about nature: no matter how much urban life tries to escape it, nature is an overpowering force. In one especially humorous piece, Renata Lucas let loose wild animals, such as jaguars, parrots, and monkeys, into the Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, a famous building designed by Niemeyer that hosts the São Paulo Biennial.
In the years leading up to the construction of Brasília, the art critic Mário Pedrosa said we were all “condemned” to be modern, addicted to the endless possibilities. But equally inevitable is our compulsion to be human — to find a means to live, to develop a routine, and to grow attached to our surroundings and hopefully understand them, even when they shut us out.
Condemned to Be Modern continues at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles) through January 28.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Clara Kim was a curator at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; she is a guest curator there and a senior curator at the Tate Modern. This has been amended.