Instructions for Assembly

Gwynneth Porter

2006

 

1. According to the phrase book I was given, “The verb ‘to be’ can take two forms in Portuguese: ser or estar. Ser is used when speaking about permanent characteristics… The verb estar is used for characteristics or states that are temporary.” It lead me to wonder what effect such a choice operating in the language had on the Brazilian people – in a way I supposed you were forced into venturing opinions about whether or not you thought something was cast in stone or in a state of flux. Did this mean that people went for the ‘to be’ that pertains to the temporary more than that pertaining to the permanent? Did the more practice they had about making the calls mean they had more or less certainty? Was this something that was discussed? Were particular names or unnamed virtues, or disparagements (etiquette, even) attached to such verb usage? 

 

2. A tent was erected on a 10 metre wall that was the exterior surface of two-storied building housing the A Gentil Carioca gallery in Rio de Janeiro’s Centro district – an area of fairly low-rent specialty shops in 19th century edifices of the same height on narrow lumpy streets that are more like footpaths than roads. (Set up by artists Ernesto Neto, Laura Lima, Marcio Botner), the name roughly translates to a kind person from Rio de Janerio, Carioca being the work used to denote someone who is from Rio. The gallery project seems to be quite irreverent to its architectural space, relishing, with some sort of “will to break”, the opportunity to bash walls, cut into floors, introduce objects that seem too big or impossible to introduce.) More correctly, the tent is a Portaledge, a device developed for climbers to sleep in when they are part-way through a climb, or just don’t want to come down. An essential for the (comically) well-equipped nomad, its colours are synthetic, poisonous even. 

 

3. In nature, such a colour-way might warn birds “don’t eat me, I will make you sick or even kill you.” Or they might, conversely, attract insects to pollinate its flower and allow multiplication and thus species adaptation and continuation, to take place. The way that this tent clings to the sheer face of the wall, quite remarkably, in my mind makes it more akin to a plant than an insect (unless in stillness it was a cocoon). It has the air of an epiphyte – a plant that grows on another plant, but is not a parasite – or one of those plants that grows seemingly unfeasibly out of a brick wall or motorway structure. Only time will tell how long it will be able to sustain itself as it is possible that it might outgrow its available nutrient resources. The tent is to remain on the wall for six months and given how attractive it looks, who knows if it will last the distance?

 

4. It is orchid-like in colouration and in its opportunism, this portaledge, and its cords attach it to the surface like aerial roots; only in this case they are tied to carabiner, the clip rock-climbers use to secure themselves to the pins they have drilled, and sometimes glued into the face. So much architecture and so many plants are so overblown in their foundations compared to these entities. Somehow the way they have a lighter existence, as if untroubled by such epigrams as Marx’s “Everything that is solid turns into air”, whereby the effect of capital is perhaps suggested

to take the ground from our feet, our feet, and everything else too.

 

5. Marx was remarked on a lot during our stay, but not Karl, a different fellow - Burle Marx was a Brazilian landscape architect who worked closely with Oscar Neymeyer, the man most popularly known for designing Brasilia. Marx designed what might very well be the longest drawing in the world as public sculpture, namely the beachfront promenade footpaths at Ipanema and Copacabana. The paths are made up of almost cubic stones of dark granite and another equally hard and fine whitish stone of about paper-weight size. These materials and this same process are used a lot in other older part of the city, and the pattern variation is impressive, and tends to be more organic than rectilinear. Marx’s path figures a long regular sinuous wave, as if describing a sweet sustained note that one cannot see the end of, or the beginning either.

 

6. As the sun goes down at Ipanema, the crowd on the beach applauds.

 

7. When a stone is dislodged from the footpath, others work their way out and holes develop. Sometimes people pile the loose bits up near a tree or something providing a place to pile if it is close. These loose stones seem to know their power as potential missiles in street confrontations. Mitchell had considered casting these as part of an on-going interest in the materials employed by civilians during unrest, revolution and riot; particularly the matter that is drawn in to the erection of barricades. He has been collecting documentary images of such “spontaneous architecture” as he has come to call it, into a sort of archive. He has been engaged in a process of redrawing these, some of which are photographs of obstructions set up during the military dictatorship in Brazil in the 1960s. 

 

8. Of this process he has said that “it is also interesting, on a more formal note, that when I am laboriously drawing these constructions/objects/assemblages that I am distilling them (I have it in mind that they will float in space, on the page in the no-context of white paper) when they were constructed in a moment of urgency and exigency where formal concerns were arbitrary.” 

 

9. Mitchell also relates the barricades to a kind of theatre, quoting Virilio to illustrate: “Barricades are a kind of theatre prepared in advance of confrontation/war: ‘if the ancients seem first and foremost to be builders of ramparts and fortifications, it is because the ambition of conducting a war begins with the planning of its theatre, or the creation of artificial environmental conditions which will form the infrastructure, the stage on which the scenario should be played out.’ Barricades represent political activity making its way into reality (becoming concrete). Popular defense, and transgression of ordinary ‘productive’ use of objects – containers, tyres, road cobblestones, gates.”

 

10. The tent is illuminated at night, giving it the air of an incubator, or grow room. This atmosphere of assisted growing suggests that either a plant is being forced to go to places it has never been before by an inspired breeder, or that the organism is fragile and needs all the help it can get. All orchids are endangered species now it is rumoured. They are apparently unable to survive any longer without help from the species that has changed the world so much; a veritable plague, humans are, in terms of ecology. 

 

11. There is a vast botanical gardens in Rio, established by the son of the King of Portugal who was a lover of exotic plants. He had specimens collected from all corners of the world and establishes in a huge private arboretum. There are also greenhouses for things like cacti, carnivorous plants and, of course, orchids. When plants become a part of a collecting garden, they seem to enter the realm of human meaning in the sense of being subject to taxonomies whereby order imposed on their formlessness. They are dragged into language and into our attempts to map out something of their scope and range. However, Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese writer of many pseudonyms, wrote in his posthumously published The Book of Disquiet that “If I contemplate, I don’t think. On these days, I am particularly fond of gardens”. 

 

12. Rio is in the tropics, and, if the heat would ever let you forget, the plants that spring out of every available crevice would remind you that the dirt has memory of being jungle.

 

13. But this tent is not in nature, it is in a public square of sorts; or rather the wall it is on is. Centro is full of small shops, specialist shops to be exact where one can go to see a full range of prosthetics, tubes, craft materials, musical instruments (stationary, fake tattoos etc etc). It seems that whatever you need is there, like a sort of trading bazaar when really it is just a shitty part of town where there are shops for everything and it just seems exotic because I am visiting. They still have the same $2 shop craopla that you can get here, naturally. The crossroads that the gallery is on is actually quite a wide space, an almost but not quite square, or largo. (Isn’t that Latin for slowly, a musical instruction?) On one corner an unassuming bar spills out, its plastic beer company sponsored furniture providing a place to hang out for people who must live or work thereabouts.

 

14. It is one thing to plan to put a tent up a wall, but it is quite another to actually achieve this – who would have thought there would step forward a perfectly personable artist who is also an accomplished rock climber? It is also another thing to find out what such an audience as provided by the bar makes of the work. According to one of the gallerists, the tent has been quite the primer for jokes, mainly about it being a place to sleep away from home – a dog-box, something that can be hired by the hour. Another unexpected element was that this site gag is suspended on a wall that is perpendicular to the window of the local dealer-pimp. Its height was adjusted accordingly so to not be alarmingly on a level with the two orange-lit openings in his dwelling. 

 

15. It was suggested by a critic speaking on a video resource in the Lygia Clark show on in Rio at the time of his project that in Brazilian art there seems to be a unity between the cerebral and the sensual. And looking at Mitchell’s project, there is no way of escaping vertiginous sensations of a considerable nature. Her work was also lauded in terms of representing a return to an era in which art was anonymous. Mitchell’s tent too has all the anonymity of the found object, something rare in public art of the sort most of us are accustomed to. The artists is not interested in any biographical interpretations of the tent – as in he is not in it, nor going to get in it and that is not the point – and he is not even really interested in it as the tent of a climber. The object is re-inscribed, if by nothing else than the fact that no-one is going to believe that this was a legitimate climb. At only a few metres in height – even thought it is high enough to injure, to look determined about getting away from people – it is hardly “where eagles dare”.

 

16. Lessons from my errant grandmother on the redeployment of objects: lean a long dining table down a flight of stairs and it becomes a slide for you and your siblings. Shove a croquet hoop through a canoe and it becomes a cruel joke against an unwelcome tea-guest.

 

17. The tent seems more of a figure, for the artist, of a reclamation of space which is “schizophrenic in some ways – a reclamation of space; latching onto public space; taking space that is unused; but a retreat, a hiding space.” To me it sits as a strange anomaly – it seems to offer sleep, but how could anyone sleep hanging out over who knows what height and potential fall? It also seems to figure an explorer character as “tent” connotes to me “away from home”, or “wilderness”. And this one in particular, the hint of one who determinedly goes where one isn’t normally able to go – perhaps even somewhere inadvisable. An invocation to a bored god?

 

18. Ursula le Guin, the great SF/fantasy writer, once wanted to provoke a response a colleague’s university class that she had been invited to speak to. The paper was called “Wilderness” and she raise the idea that wilderness is that place outside of what is accessible to or structured by language. And that wilderness is a female space, a silent hinterland – no call of the wild draws men into this unimaginable landscape. This, to me places extreme sports in an interesting light – are they perhaps enacted by men who are subconsciously trying to “reach” their other in “Nature” (men’s wilderness)? It is, after all, a two-person tent.

 

19. The supposed collapse of distance afforded by jet travel is particularly satisfying when traveling to South America given that NZ was originally joined with this continent. (Our kowhai is the national plant of Chile, Mitchell has pointed out; but it is, of course, called something else there.) There was a model of Gondwanaland, in the Canterbury Museum that, when you pushed a button, showed an ancient continent floating apart into the modern land-masses we are familiar with. Then the light would go out and it would float back together.

 

20. Last night an old man asked me, as I was complaining of jet-lag, if I had seen the way that an Aborigine on walk-about would stop and lean on his long stick with one leg bent up. I said that I had I thought, and he asked if I knew why. I said I didn’t. He said and aboriginal man had told him that after they walk for a while, they stop and wait for their soul to catch up.

 

21. The distinction between mapping and archeology made by Deluze seems to have been run rough-shod over by Mitchell who gleefully tilts to both in his practice with no particular preference for either when he makes up his maps, diagrams, models, re-enactments; even the frame of the tent seems a diagram of sorts… He appears to prefer to exist in the exquisite both-ness enjoyed by poets and deplored by empiricists. This is not surprising, for as an artist, he knows that his tent maps out its own absence.

 

22. Both map-making and archeology seem to be plagued by the problems Fredric Jameson talked about in his recent Auckland lecture that are involved with any kind of “cognitive mapping” and “the dynamic difficulties of the representational process” in general. For example, he cited Godard’s question: “can labour or work ever be represented?”. What about “a nervous flock of birds”, “the global flight of trade, foreign exchange”, “the simultaneity of space/time?” he asked. Of representation, he said, “fiction is its function, not its mal-function”. “Maps, like documentaries, often have their paranoid dimensions.” 

 

23. It is worth noting that the title of this work of spontaneous architecture is taken from the first line of Elias Canetti’s book Crowds and Power: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the un-known. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Men always tend to avoid contact with anything strange. In the dark the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic. Even clothes give insufficient security: it is easy to tear them and pierce through to the naked, smooth, defenceless skin of the victim.”

 

24. In this light, the tent might figure the human body, which, as Thomas Carl Wall pointed out in his book Radical Passivity, has a skin, where the self does not. It could figure, more numerously, “the flight crowd” – that, according to Canetti, which is “created by a threat”. This is the crowd that relates to strikes; it explodes in all directions, including up, each individual losing themselves into the mass in an exquisite act of surrender. All reserve, all hierarchies and boundaries are destroyed by such a crowd, including the perceived limits of one’s own person. Furthermore, the original fear and need for protection from touch is paradoxically reversed where the crowd is at its most dense. 

 

26. They seem to take to crowds remarkably well in Brazil. Quite apart from the obvious, I was very taken with a crowd that came past the building we were staying in every weekday morning at half-past eight. Between me and them was the canopy of trees that filled the head-space of the avenue below, so I could not see who was pouring past. But I could clearly hear a pack of a hundred or so primary-school children coming down from the hill one street back, heading towards the beach, one block away. They were not just chattering, but chanting, egged on by their teachers, I have no idea what, and for the life of me it sounded like a child protest march, but too happy a riot to be against anything except maybe reserve. 

 

27. Surely there is nothing more inviting than a sheer face to those who dislike ruling things out, at least before a solid attempt. Fortune favours the bold does it not?

 

 

Dane Mitchell ©  2020