In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.
To encounter the work of Brazilian born, Copenhagen-based artist Tamar Guimarães means to pause. Her work requires slowing down, listening, and absorbing in a way that is both meditative and analytical. It is not work to take in passively, but work to grapple with over time. Guimarães’ video and installation pieces require this kind of engagement, perhaps because they are produced through a similar process: a gradual research method that evolves, expands, turns, and deepens until the work is done. Guimarães references history and uses research to call into question established narratives, and to create space for new considerations and openings of understanding.
The artist recently completed a research residency at 18th Street Arts Center in preparation for a later commission to be featured in a joint exhibition between 18th Street and LACMA. "A Universal History of Infamy" is curated by LACMA's Pilar Tompkins Rivas, Rita González, and José Luis Blondet and is a project of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an initiative of the Getty with arts institutions across Southern California. Guimarães and her collaborator Kasper Akhøj spent two months in Santa Monica this past winter, investigating linkages between their ongoing research and Los Angeles regional histories.
In "A Man Called Love" (2007-09), Guimarães delves into a unique persona in Brazilian’s recent past, a well-known psychic medium called Francisco Candido Xavier. The work took two forms: first a narrated slide projection made up of archival images gathered from Brazil’s national and Sao Paulo state archives (2008), and then a small book, "A Man Called Love: Reading Xavier," (2010) which extended some of the ideas. Both works cover Xavier’s history, the context of the country during that time, including the history of Spiritism in Brazil, and how those intersect or not with leftist resistance to state control. She uses his story as a way to explore civic and institutional consent in Brazilian civil society and beyond, during the period in his life when Xavier was most popular, the 1960s and ‘70s, when his vision and presence coincided with one of the most repressive military dictatorships in Brazilian history, between 1964-1985. One image of Xavier disappears into the next, disappears into images of social utopias he wrote about, disappears into visions of state violence, all under the soothing voice of a woman who slowly and clearly suggests multiple readings and questions, allowing a viewer to meditate on these musings without settling on an answer. The elusive character of communication between spirit and living person that "A Man Called Love" presents is paralleled by the artist’s visual approach. Like the seemingly invisible authors who inhabit Xavier’s writing, the ideas in Guimarães work reveal themselves through the work’s layers, even if they remain as open questions.
In a 1971 TV interview, Xavier, who was believed to have the ability to channel “spirit guides” from another realm, delivers a message from the most prominent of these, “Emmanuel”: “Remember to subject yourselves to the ones in government. Be obedient and ready to assist in the good work.” Did the writings of the largely white and middle class spirits like Emmanuel, calling for obedience and hard work, aid in the government’s repression? How do the idealistic visions of society originally proposed by early Spiritism in Brazil and in some of Xavier’s writings complicate this story? Guimarães found that her use of a slide narrative actually lent itself to her desire to avoid a single vision. The “slides with sound have been a good tool for my bricolage approach to narrative, in the sense that there are various elements coming from different sources, which are often being re-written,” the artist explains. The book version of the project allowed her to add to her thinking, but also question it. “To further the narrative was to pursue it beyond sociological parameters, beyond suggesting that the mystic’s experiences are simply symptomatic re-stagings of social structures in disarray,” Guimarães clarifies. She recognized the “violence” involved in reducing Xavier’s “context and work to a set of socio-political and psychoanalytic signs,” she explained in a 2014 essay in "South Magazine," referring to the concern that using Xavier only as a tool to describe Brazil’s social or political contradictions could overshadow acknowledgement of his alternative vision of the world which included the well-being of all human beings. Instead, she became more curious about the work being done by the Spiritist community to create a kind of freedom within their own context, regardless of what was happening politically or socially across the country.
This deeper investigation into the actual practices of the Spiritist community became the 2013/2014 work, "Captain Gervasio’s Family," a collaboration with Akhøj. The short film shows members of the small town of Palmelo in the interior of Brazil, about half of whom are psychic mediums. The town grew around a study group and eventually a sanatorium, drawing psychic mediums who continue to practice a form of psychic healing called a magnetic chain. This process is based in a theory, popularized in the 18th century, called “animal magnetism,” describing the transfer of energy between humans and animals or humans and objects, often using actual magnets. In reality, Guimarães says the film only gives us a glimpse of how the magnetic chain is practiced today by Spiritists in Brazil -- members hold hands, eyes closed, and tremble -- a process which she asserts is actually a broader “choreography” including “several roles played by several actors,” some giving magnetic passes (transferring energy) and others watching over them as they do this work. The film focuses on one medium’s journey to map the spirit communities that exist above the land of the living, similar to those described in "Our Home," one of the most popular books psychographed by Xavier. He wrote the book as told to him by a spirit, as opposed through his own conscious thoughts. While there is no voice-over in this film, the text that interrupts the imagery serves as a guide, similar to how the narrator does this in a "Man Called Love." Through this text, we learn the medium describes these astral cities in ways that feel bureaucratic -- fulfilling different needs the way various areas of government might function -- while still being fluid and transcending earthly rules, for instance in the mention of flowers that emit light. “Her account entails a splendid vision of modernity -- cities like those on earth, but infinitely more perfect,” we read. These descriptions are met with imagery of large modern buildings, perhaps holding hundreds of government offices. Ironically, a substantial portion of the inhabitants of Palmelo hold civil servant positions in the real world, but they work within inefficient systems that often fail to pay the workers regularly. The film closes with a description of the work of communal healing as a “radical project in a mainstream guise.” Guimarães suggests that the work the community members do together to heal each other, while not outwardly political, is countering prevailing notions in society that promote the individual, as well as broader control by the state (for example, in the way they closed the sanatorium in the town early on). “Their understanding of the self as a plurality, a view that understands subjects as being at once themselves and others,” allowed her and Akhøj to appreciate the progressive nature of the Palmelo project. “These low-tech practices nevertheless suggest possibilities for other types of relations between humans, non-humans and the earth, opening other futures into view,” the artist maintains. Furthermore, the profound quality of their experiment allows us to consider, on a grander scale, different possibilities as a society.
Guimarães will return to the town of Palmelo for her Pacific Standard Time project, which will also be a collaboration with Akhøj. She introduces it as an opportunity to continue “rehearsing different outcomes” for a story she told first with a "Man Called Love" and then through "Captain Gervasio’s Family." Her current research has focused on Latin American shamanism, an investigation that started with this Spiritist community in Brazil, which she now seeks to connect with other traditions. While, “they are not shamans and don’t describe themselves as such, there are connecting points between their practice and Latin American shamanism; I would like to explore this connection”, says the artist. Guimarães spent her two-month residency at 18th Street engaged in research which included considerable reading, but also long walks, lectures, meetings, and what she calls “mind maps,” laying out in her studio lists and books and ideas that show the interconnections and routes of her research. She relays that doing research in Los Angeles, like any other place she is not from, ultimately leaves its mark. “Connecting one’s ongoing research with new places is a little like acquiring an accent in the way you speak. It might take a while but sooner or later places affect you deeply.” The connections she has made in Los Angeles will feed back into her project in ways that are not yet clear. In Palmelo they will continue to engage the 'psychic mediums’ cosmological perspectives,” and create a kind of “ethnographic science fiction film” focusing on the “occult and primitive technologies arising from their practice of the ‘magnetic chain,’” the artist recounts. Some of those connections will be located in Guimarães’ continuing investigation into and speculation on the role of psychic transfer -- the invisible transfer of information that ultimately has a physical and mental impact. Guimarães’ work has a similar effect: a somewhat intangible, slow effervescence that begins to seep through and call you to question.
Top image: Tamar Guimarães and Kasper Akhøj, "Address Rehearsal," 2013, slide projection with synchronized sound, 5’, courtesy of the artists and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo.