Five Times Brazil, a survey of five video works by the Brazilian artist Bárbara Wagner and the German artist Benjamin de Burca, curated by Margot Norton and Bernardo Mosqueira at the New Museum, couldn’t come at a better time. As Brazil commemorates 200 years of its independence from Portugal and 100 years since its modernist movement hatched around the 1922 art event Semana Moderna (Modern Art Week), the artists’ work serves as a rousing demonstration of the complexities of Brazilian national identity. Similar to some of their modernist predecessors, the artists critique their society while envisioning utopian futures.

Wagner and de Burca’s presentation is anchored in regional music and dance as both content and a form through which identities are affirmed as well as explored and subverted. “Swinguerra,” the duo’s video from 2019 (they’ve been collaborating since 2011), is the best example of these multiple registers. The work, which was conceived as a two-channel installation for the Venice Biennale and is presented in this format here, captures a faceoff between two Black queer dance groups in Wagner’s native city of Recife, Brazil. At first glance, the work is a blazing manifesto of gender positivity: trans and nonbinary dancers profess, “Pleasure is coming back!” and “Women own this fight!” as they gyrate dynamically. But they also seize on the phrase “order and progress” — lately usurped by Brazil’s predominantly white ultra-right-wing movement that vilifies LGBTQ+ communities. The video plays on this militarist metaphor — the title conjoins swing and “guerra” (“war” in Portuguese) — and impregnates it with sensuality. It’s not just that dance and the video take the notion of play as political, the personal marked by ideological standoffs, but also that the political arena is itself a mutable theater.

Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, still from “Estás vendo coisas” (You are seeing things) (2016), 2K HD video, color, 5.1 sound; 16:00 min. (© Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, courtesy Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro)
Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, still from “Swinguerra” (2019), 2K HD video, color, 5.1 sound; 21:00 min. (photo Ela Bittencourt/Hyperallergic)

In its energy, “Swinguerra” is “a riot of gender performances,” to borrow a term from the literary and gender theorist Elizabeth Stockton. Stockton’s idea is that we desperately need to loosen our immediate associations between what she frames as surface performances of gender and assumptions about their “content” — in this sense, Stockton thinks of gender the way we commonly think of art, as a tensile interplay between form and content. It’s a gorgeous way to think about the concept of identity in “Swinguerra,” which acts out such loosening.

The film plays on the notions of “male versus female” as some of the lyrics reference narrow gender roles while the dancers themselves create a more fluid, explorative space. As they observe each other dance, the act of seeing — and seeming — constitutes identity. Viewers, who I observed constantly pivoting between the two screens, are also caught in a perceptual vertigo, following similar shots shown on both screens facing each other, but captured from slightly different angles. Such techniques, sensually deployed by the cinematographer, and the duo’s longtime collaborator, Pedro Sotero, subvert the viewing of gender in binary terms. The work furthers the sense of gender as performance by staging the entire stand-off as rousing theater.

Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, still from “Fala da Terra” (Voice of the Land) (2022), 2K HD video, color, 5.1 sound; 20 min. (courtesy the artists and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, S.o Paulo/Rio de Janeiro)

The duo’s entire oeuvre expresses a broadly understood loosening of dichotomies: for another video, “Holy Tremor” (2017), Wagner and de Burca filmed Brazilian Evangelicals singing psalms and religious songs. Here too there’s a tension between the narrower institutional context of the performers — singing psalms on the radio to spread the teaching of the scripture — and the surprisingly sensuous aspects of devout performance (e.g., white-gloved singers elaborately synchronizing their movements while immersed in water; a youth clad like a dandy in a desert landscape and surrounded by mirrors). The identity that emerges from these composite portraits is one in which surface and content produce endless frictions that are often contradictory, wondrous, and strange. 

The artists’ latest video, “Fala da Terra” (Voice of the Land, 2022), takes as its theme Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement by presenting the performances of the collective Coletivo Banzeiros that dramatize the struggle between Indigenous communities and landless workers against powerful landowners and illegal land-grabbers. The work echoes that of the Brazilian dramaturg and educator Augusto Boal, who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed. Like Boal, whose practice emerged after decades of suffering political oppression and violence, the activist-actors in the video harness propagandistic, educational materials to creative ends. As in all the other works, “Fala da Terra” is at its most powerful when it inhabits the crevice between performance and life: not by dismantling the stage, but by making viewers aware that the political arena constantly relies on a performative framework — herein lies its incantatory power, but also the power for new actors to reclaim or reform its fundaments.

Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, still from “Faz que vai” (Set to go) (2015), 2K HD video, color, 5.1 sound; 12:00 min. (© Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, courtesy Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo/Rio de Janeiro)

Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca: Five Times Brazil continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Margot Norton, Allen and Lola Goldring Curator, New Museum, and Bernardo Mosqueira, ISLAA curatorial fellow.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.