ESSAY BY MICHAEL BRENSON
At once arena, chapel, playground and theater, "Americas' Courtyard" is a public artwork that welcomes people of all generations, from children who want to run on or between the three rows of stones, to adults drawn to sunbathing or meditation. It is a magnetic field for strollers and laborers, dancers and monks, drummers and priests. This architectural sculpture, 30 feet in diameter in its Chicago incarnation, suggests the potential compatibility of vastly different modes of thinking and being, including those worlds that continue to revolve around ancient rituals and the high tech world that often savages the past but that can contribute to its preservation.
While so general in its sculptural language and so inclusive in its appeal that it may appear almost universal, "Americas' Courtyard" is rooted in Brazilian cultural, archaeological and political history. The artists, the husband and wife partnership of Denise Milan and Ary R. Perez, are Brazilian; they live in São Paulo. Milan is an artist devoted to the creation and re-imagining of public art. The international public art conferences she organized with the Social Service of Commerce (SESC), a government organization, in São Paulo in 1995 and 1996, were designed to consider the ability of public art to respond effectively to problems of urban chaos and violence, and to the issues cultural translation and transformation. Perez is an engineer with experience in the theater and an interest in diverse audiences, including children. He is known for his knowledge of technology. He engineered "Americas' Courtyard" and developed its permutations.
Milan and Perez's longing for a harmony that makes room for the unexpected, for a logical and immediately accessible structure that encourages intuition and improvisation, would not be so intense without an acute experience of the second class status of the Third World and the continuing exploitation of Brazil and South America by Western Europe and the United States. Or without a painful awareness of the bitter and divisive conflicts within Brazil itself -- with its myriad cultures and traditions and the co-extensiveness within its geographical immensity of the most starkly disjunctive notions of space and time.
Circulating through "Americas' Courtyard" are big questions. How can ancient ways of revering and celebrating that for Milan and Perez are essential to the vitality and identity of Brazil survive in a country and in a world ruled by speculation and speed and by a belief in an irresistible link between modernity, technological progress and economic and political power? Is there a particularly Brazilian creativity? Can it be a factor in shaping the ways in which other countries think and imagine? Can it, at the very least, encourage people to value older cultures and alternative views of circulation and time?
Brazil provides the physical substance of, as well as the inspiration for Milan and Perez's dream of the Americas. The 60 stone slabs in "Americas' Courtyard" were gathered from throughout their country.
Fifty-five of the stones are granite, a stone found almost everywhere. Granite exists in so many colors and textures that it can symbolize the racial and ethnic diversity of Brazil and the world. One slab is basalt, or lava, which brings into the work the memory of the volcanic processes that formed the earth. The spaces, or voids, between the four marble stones at the work's center also hint at the geological processes of emergence and separation. "Americas' Courtyard" asks: why not rethink or redream the creation myth of the Americas in terms of the cultures and histories of Brazil, or South America?
Except for the marble, all the stones are arranged in three rows that decrease in height toward the center, which allows the work to function as a theater in which everyone seated can see what is being enacted. The four marble stones are taller than the others. White is the color that results from mixing all the colors of light: it is therefore, for Milan and Perez, the color of integration. The marble heart of this sculptural body, the core to which everyone, in some way, belongs, suggests a site of performance, worship and sacrifice, of performance and worship that is at the same time sacrifice, of a spiritual purity that cannot be dissociated from the passions and cruelties of the human heart. Milan's altar-stage, altar-heart, suggests that the human capacity for awe and mystery is ineradicably connected to a force in human beings and in nature that is so elemental and profound that it can never be entirely eradicated or tamed.
At the end of a century and a millennium, in the midst of a digital revolution, "Americas' Courtyard" asks a recurring question: how should Brazilians and all the rest of us think about this energy, or pressure, or force, in the human heart? It is reminding us of the importance of seeing this energy and pressure as indispensable to whatever sophistication, creativity and soulfulness we are capable of. It is implying that real primitiveness results from repressing this energy and pressure, or refusing to give them the kind of creative vitality Milan finds so abundant in Brazilian artistic and cultural traditions.
Do we really not yet know, the work asks, that the people who define civilized as an alternative to the primitive, or who see progression as the opposite of regression, are the ones in this century, more often than not, who have been responsible for or complicitous with catastrophic violence?
Not only in the feeling for ritual in "Americas' Courtyard" but also in the song of the stones, the artists argue for the importance of that older Brazil that is now endangered. Many of the stones were cut by Aparecido dos Santos, a stone carver whose quarry is about an hour from São Paulo. Milan describes him as a man who "lives in his quarry as if it was his sanctuary." For her and Perez, he is representative of those Brazilians whose connections to ancient customs make them repositories of embodied knowledge. "There is no way for any one else to have his kind of knowledge," she says.
Perez had the stones worked so that they are tactile: the tops are polished in a way that encourages not only sitting and lying but the play of the hand. The stones also seem organic. Their other surfaces are usually rougher, more irregular. In part because some seem slightly swollen, even bloated, the energy within them often pushes outward. Even when the stones are set alongside one another, there is a sense of enough space, or enough disparity, between them to allow each to breathe. So while each is part of the same family, the same alphabet, each is distinct. Each maintains its integrity without violating the others. Despite the weight of the individual blocks, each of them, as well as the structure as a whole, communicates movement. Nothing about the work seems final. The stones and the structure seem alive, very much what they are but also capable of evolving into something else.
The work was designed to be flexible. As a circle, it could be as large as 60 feet in diameter without losing its sense of scale. But the stones do not even have to form a circle. For example, they could be arranged in curlicue waves that suggest geometric patterns on ancient pottery and temple walls in many countries. This organic flexibility, this sense of mobile parts that can be organized into many shapes, helps make this massive work an homage to evolution as well as continuation, an assertion of a reality that is forever changing form and eluding any attempt to box it in even as it remains constant.
Milan and Perez's reverence for an older Brazil is apparent in their love of the mineral crystals in which Brazil is so rich; the work they built into a wall of the Clinicas subway station in São Paulo is a cave hardly bigger than an average human body in which hundreds of crystals are composed into an enveloping bed. "Americas' Courtyard," like crystals, seems to have emerged and at a certain point suddenly coalesced into an order that is elementary yet hard and beautiful. Milan has wondered if crystals, which are so spectacular in Brazil, provide essential information about the Brazilian earth, Brazilian nature. In "Americas' Courtyard," she and her husband ask if these crystals, seemingly chaotic, even violent in their jutting and clustering, but constantly forging new arrangements in which all the parts somehow cohere and work together, can inspire dreams of a constructive and healing future.
"Americas' Courtyard" is indeed both a romantic and a radical work. It is based on years of thinking about Brazilian rituals and about the earth and nature of Brazil, and about the possibility of a Brazilian essence. It is also an attempt to find within the identity of Brazil an alternative to economic and political systems based on consumption and exploitation. "Capitalism will fail," Milan declares. Then what? Is there a better model? Can those seeking an alternative learn from the passion and complexity of the rituals of Brazil? From the syncretism characteristic of the crystal's growth? From the way in which crystals make chaos and structure, ancientness and freedom, inseparable?
Michael Brenson is a critic, art historian, curator and educator; He was born and raised in New York City. After receiving his Ph.D in art history from Johns Hopkins University in1974, he moved to Paris, we he remained until 1982, when he was hired as an art writer by The New York Times. Since leaving The Times in 1991, he has written and lecture widely on modern and contemporary sculpture, public art, public funding and changing shape of art museums in te United States. He has a consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Getty Scholar. He is an Associate Professor in the curatorial studies programo f Bard College.