Nuno Ramos loves challenging himself with a category-defying, cross-disciplinary, and comprehensive repertoire of painting, drawing, installation, video and performance, as well as literature, opera, film, music, theater and anything else that blows his privileged mind. The latest production of the much-admired polymath is “Espectros (Cadeira 17)” [Specters (Chair 17)], a monumental automatic contraption that delivers a two-in-one experience: an art installation and his very personal view of the theater of the absurd: heavy red velour drapes but no actors on stage, only their specters, or ghosts, as characters represented by symbolic props with voices. The core idea of the surreal plot was ignited from his reading of Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 play, “Ghosts,” which takes place in icy, well-organized Sweden but is set in Brazil’s traditionally torrid political turmoil. Ramos’ fifty-minute drama happens three times a day in Rio’s leafy Gávea neighborhood at Anita Schwartz Galeria de Arte at the forefront of the contemporary art market, housed in a minimalist building with a nine-meter [twenty-nine-foot] ceiling height, barely high enough to stage the artist’s nine-meter-by-eleven-meter-by-eight-meter [twenty-nine-foot-by-thirty-six-foot-by-twenty-six-foot] extravagant experience.
Artworks by São Paulo-born, sixty-three-year-old Nuno Ramos are featured in several collections. In the United States at the Jewish Museum and The Bohen Foundation, both in New York City, and in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center. In Europe, in Germany at the Städtische Galerie Villa Zanders, Bergisch Gladbach, and The Deutsche Bank Collection, Frankfurt; in the U.K. in London’s Tate Modern and the University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art; and in Austria at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Vienna. In Brazil, his works are in major institutions such as MAC-USP, Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, MAM-Rio and Museu de Arte de Brasília.
Nuno, what did you extract from Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” (1881) to inspire you to conceive your theatrical installation “Espectros (Cadeira 17)” [Specters (Chair 17)]?
The core idea behind Ibsen’s play is the inevitable issue of heredity, legacy, inheritance, which I see as a past that will not go away with no chance of pardon or change. The theme sounds familiar: it has a lot to do with what goes on in politics in Brazil—a post-catastrophe that nearly annihilated us and infiltrated into our daily lives in a most shocking, natural way. For the doubtful, the phenomenon of bolsonarism (in reference to right-wing ex-president Bolsonaro) showed what was plain for all of us to see: The institutional game is temporary and phantasmagorical, dependent on fine, futile noble gestures like musical chairs constantly changing among themselves without much surprise. Our institutional fragility comes from the obvious—the exclusion of most of the population from full and equal citizenship. My work is a burlesque parody of, to pass in review, to use a military expression, Brazilian culture beginning in the 1940s in the days of film studio Atlântida (1941-1966), which shut down after having been the country’s most successful film production company ever. I captured voices lost in fragile archives being erased by time, but still much alive. To put the work together I assembled over five-thousand voice fragments.
In our foremost literary academy, the Academia Brasileira de Letras (ABL), founded in 1897, following the French Academy model, each “immortal” occupies a numbered chair passed on to the next elect immortal when the member of the select intellectual group passes away. Having belonged to the late politician and renowned immortal Afonso Arinos, “Chair 17” was passed on in 2022 to our grand dame of the stage, ninety-four-year-old Fernanda Montenegro. In your performance play the chairs are important props—what do they represent?
The great Fernanda Montenegro is the only living actress in Espectros, all the other voices are from deceased people, specters, ghosts. Montenegro is not physically present on the stage, she is there only in voice, represented by “Chair 3.” However, her voice insists on calling her chair, “Chair 17,” in reference to the chair she occupies at the ABL when she was elected to the academy.
How many “characters” are there?
It has six characters, each one represented by a specific symbolic prop with a voice composed of fragments of numerous recorded voices from old archives. The crucial element in the play is the tapestry of voices, meaning the dialogue between these voices interweaved like a chorus.
Now tell us about the “characters.”
The installation is a mechanical-automatic contraption, with stage winches managing the six props/characters: the Curtain, the Military Bugle and the four Chairs. The Curtain has a commanding voice captured from two sources, the archives of the Supreme Court and the Jornal Nacional (longest-playing daily news TV broadcast). The Military Bugle plays traditional military marches. Chair 4 is a group of voices from what I like to call “our prophets,” brilliant deceased greats of Brazilian history with revolutionary minds very critical of our governments, all with deep understanding of our country: Darcy Ribeiro (humanist intellectual, educator and politician); Glauber Rocha (filmmaker of the Cinema Novo movement); Zé Celso (theater director); Stella do Patrocínio ( poet); and some iconic characters from Cinema Marginal, filmmaker Rogério Sganzerla and Tropicália writer José Agrippino de Paula. Chair 2 assembles phrases from interviews rendered by Bossa Nova musician João Gilberto. Chair 6 is a mishmash of sounds of people coughing, choking, begging pardon, etc. Chair 3 represents the feminine soul with its voice. It captures fragments from the voices of fifteen female actors (stage greats like Bibi Ferreira, Tônia Carreiro, Marília Pêra, Cleyde Yáconis and Cacilda Becker) from characters in films they made at Atlântida studios and fragments of plays they staged at the late Brazilian Comedy Theater (Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia, TBC). However, the towering voice in this experience belongs to Fernanda Montenegro, who delivers parts of her extraordinary opening speech at the Brazilian Academy where she declared her love for the arts and, in particular, the theater.
Specters, ghosts, phantasms—how do you relate to all the “phantasmagoria” embedded in our political culture?
I love the word phantasmagoria in the sense of things that are latent, in purgatory, but remain wandering among us in a parallel, spectral dimension, more pathetic than frightening. The voices in my play are no longer living but they sound like a scratched old vinyl. I kept all the scratches of the recordings, it renders a strange and fragile corporeality to the play’s atmosphere. At a certain point, the ghosts cry out in chorus: “We are not alive / We are not dead.” Ghosts don’t know whether they are dead or not, it’s the same in our political culture. I hope this year-long effort makes for a good comedy. As for myself, I had some good laughs putting it all together.
Nuno Ramos: Espectros (Cadeira 17) [Specters (Chair 17)]
Through January 19
Anita Schwartz Galeria de Arte, Rio de Janeiro
Rio-born Cynthia Garcia is a respected art historian, art critic and journalist fluent in five languages stationed in São Paulo. Cynthia is a recipient of the 2023 APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics) award as a contributing editor of Newcity Brazil since its founding in 2015. Her daughter America Cavaliere works in the contemporary art market and her son Pedro Cavaliere, based in LA, is in the international DJ scene.
Contact: [email protected], www.cynthiagarcia.biz