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Nelson Leirner

(1932 - 2020)

Born in São Paulo in 1932 Nelson Leirner has no predilection for winners. The football game in one of his best known works titled “Futebol” (“Football”, 2001) ends in a draw, though he devised it for the World Cup 2006. His artefacts exemplify the change in Brazilian art from adversity to diversity since the 1960s, and his “Futebol” ironically serialises modern cult objects which have sunk to the level of kitsch. His rethinking of modern industrialised pop culture brought him the honour of representing Brazil at the 48th Venice Biennial in 1999 and has made him one of Brazil’s most famous artists. However, international acclaim shows that he has been successfully assimilated by the art industry, whose ploys his life had been dedicated to exposing. In 1966, together with Geraldo de Barros and Wesley Duke Lee, Nelson Leirner founded the São Paulo “Grupo Rex” which both humorously and aggressively criticised the dominant system of production, valuation and marketing of art at the time. On resolving to shut their magazine and gallery the following year, they turned this information with a humorous gesture into a happening by announcing that Nelson Leirner’s paintings could be taken home. After this announcement the gallery visitors stormed the gallery and tore the paintings into pieces. This reduced the acquisition of art and the artist’s role to absurdity. This should be seen against the background of the Tropicalia movement favouring the participatory rather than the elitist, the national rather than the international, and the home-made rather than the commercial. Nelson Leirner had already taken part in the São Paulo exhibition “Propostas 65”, whose artists were striving for “contemporary realism in Brazil” in the tradition of Hélio Oiticicas’ “New Brazilian Objectivity”. In the catalogue they were advised by Sérgio Ferro to forget “good manners and grammatical constraints” so as “to formulate the new with the necessary rawness”. In many of his provocations Nelson Leirner has been content to heed this advice. In 1966 he submitted a wooden cage holding a stuffed pig with a ham tied to its tail for an exhibition in Brasilia. On its acceptance he asked for the criteria of the decision. This led to three months of debate about art and the jury, during which he and his work were virtually forgotten. Originally, he had planned to collect his jailed pig, which had been sacrificed for the sake of its ham, and take it back to São Paulo sparkling with medals, but censors intervened. The political symbolism, questioning whether a jailed pig can be said to be still alive, was not lost on the authorities in the years of military dictatorship. Leirner was in no position to question the authorities directly, so he did so through aggressive intelligible metaphors. These included hens on racks under a mechanical torturing machine to behead them on the one hand and scissors with wings to castrate and kill on the other. Erotic allusions served him as alibis, enabling him to tell censors that his art was not about politics, but about sex. From the start of the 70s he taught for two decades at the Faculdade Armando Á lvares Penteado. He stresses that he did not do this because of the censorship but for the sake of the sympathetic principal, who had invited him to teach there, and for the sake of verbal intercourse with the young, which he enjoyed. He believes that since the start of the 80s the system has become slier. It buys and exhibits the works of its critics to undermine their credibility. The more an artist attacks society, the more he sells and the more commercial he seems to be. This, according to Leiner, is the logic of scandalisation. Although he attacks the United States, the globalisation, the US-hegemony in Latin America in his series of postcolonial postcards entitled “Assim é se lhe parece” (“Right You Are If You Think You Are”, 2003) his works are also bought in the United States. An installation of his, mocking the mechanism of art auctions like Sotheby’s, was appreciated and sold at Christie’s. “You can’t dodge the mechanism except by retiring!”, he exlains. But retirement for him is no option. From the 60s to the end of the 70s he knew who his foes were and wanted to hit them as hard as possible. They were not only representatives of the dictatorship but also of the art market. With "Homenagem a Fontana" (1967) he tried with the help of zips to demystify the relationship between art and industry and to sell the series, each made up of 25 items, at production prices. But the prices, reckoned by simply adding the costs of frames, zips, cloths, working time and profit were unacceptable. The "system" insisted on including the value added price of the artist’s reputation and awarded him the first prize at the Tokyo Biennial in 1967. But even now Nelson Leirner questions the romantic notion of the artist: "If anyone now asks me if I make art, I reply: ´No, I make a product.´ I have no wish to be an artist. Society wishes me to be one. If someone wishes to call me an artist, he can, but I’m not an artist. I’m the head of a business." The rethinking of images, as in Leirner’s series "Assim é se lhe parece" ("Right You Are If You Think You Are", 2003) typifies his minimalism dating back to the 80s in borrowing and repeating conventional icons. The US flag is planted over the whole globe in a wave of colonization, or colourful Mickey Mice or black and white matchstick figures colonize North or South America in a diptych. He likewise deals subversively or iconoclastically with representation in the works of artists ranging from Leonardo via Duchamp to Warhol in coming to terms with art and its history. In his installtion "La Gioconda" (1999) Nelson Leirner takes the vulgarisation of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa to an extreme and ironically comments on the image by mingling highbrow and everyday culture, kitsch and pop icons. He uses the same approach in his installation "Futebol" ("Fooball", 2001) and "A grande parada" ("The great parade", 1998), made up of two installations which he first put together for the exhibition "Copa da Cultura" (2006) in the House of World Cultures in Berlin. In this version, the procession he created for the Venice Biennial in 1999 becomes a crowd of football enthusiasts queuing up at a stadium. Evolution and history dissolve into the imaginary folklore of internationally known idols. There is no progress within the "Grande Parada", just as there are no winners in the game of life symbolized by football. The two ensembles of figures, which partly overlap, ranges from Christ and the saints on the one hand to Buddha-figures and an African water goddess on the other. Viewers in the stadium include Snowwhite and a good deal more than seven dwarves and other denizens of Disneyworld as well as monks with shaven heads and black jazz singers in white suits and white bowler hats. But who are the football players, and what is the game? The players are all apes who are wearing different numbers but not even shirts. Nelson Leirner explains that members of the military were referred to as apes in Brazil in the 70s, whereas in the 80s apes came to stand for endangered species. All viewers with their own culturally acquired signs and symbols are welcome to their own interpretations. In the House of World cultures they can become part of the installation "Waiting Room" by seeing themselves mirrored beside apes with lips reddened by lipstick. Nelson Leirner explains that he chose female apes as being the prettier. He is generally disinclined to offer explanations but admits that football has long been part of his family tradition. Before his father’s emigration to Brazil in the 1920s he played in the Polish army team. Nelson Leirner likes to sit in a back row and listen to viewers explaining what his works are really about. Thanks to a lecture given by the head of the New York Brooklyn Museum he learnt that in "Futebol", despite the abundance of figures and hues, there are no team songs or yells of encouragement. The installation reveals a state of football or society in which individuals have frozen into silent ciphers and global consumers, no matter how funny and colourful they remain. He agrees that in spite of their merry appearance his installations are basically sad. After all, he has more than 30 years of psychoanalysis behind him. In "Futebol" there are no winners, and the goalies are saints. These were the first figures he added before searching for others. Even in the finale on the Day of Judgement there can be no winners. Leirner surmises rather that in the last of all possible installations he should perhaps pulverize all his figures and dissolve them into thin air. Not even he will have won. Conceptual art has lost its power, he regrets, since artists’ statements are now geared to curators’ marketing concepts. He began his career by wielding the hammer of art to demolish dictators, but he now believes he has only his figures to demolish, just as his paintings were torn in the 60s by viewers. This cycle of events may be Nelson Leirner’s own vision of "Antropofagismo".

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