Katia Maciel: Inútil Paisagem


It may not have been announced as official policy, or carried out in a concerted fashion, but few who live in Rio de Janeiro can have been unaware of the upsurge of fence construction in the city. Countless buildings that before were open to the street have semi-disappeared behind steel railings. It looks like a relentless process driven by fear of crime and of the violence of the favelas. But as a result something very characteristic and very precious is being sacrificed: the small gardens that in infinite variation reach out from the building into the street, and form irregular, organic zones, tiny reminders of the forest.

Despite its desperate social inequalities, Rio de Janeiro has always evoked an image of fluidity, elasticity and openness. It can be felt on an elemental scale: the sinuous, curving embrace of ocean, sky, land and mountains; on the human scale of body language, eased by the climate; and as an inner feeling that public space is in some way endless. A proposal a few years back to fence off parts of the beaches and reserve them for people who could pay, provoked outrage. It threatened one democratic principle that was at least authentic: that the poorest could mingle with the richest on the beaches.

Inútil Paisagem (Useless Landscape – the title is taken from the name of a Tom Jobim song) is the latest in a series of cinematic installations by Katia Maciel which treat the projection of images and sounds as a spatial experience, immersive, and often responsive to the viewer’s interaction. Inútil Paisagem uses long tracking shots in the urban landscape, as an earlier work, Ciclovia, did, suggesting a sort of unending process of transit (implicit in Katia Maciel’s generic notion of Transcinema). Transit of various velocities relative to the fixed and finite features of the scene. Transit of the viewer in the space. This inevitably raises the question of how near or distant one is to the reality that is being mediated and how much outside and inside it one may be.

The ‘endlessness’ of Inútil Paisagem contains a powerful contradiction. The camera tracks along the properties that line the seafront Avenida Viera Souto in Ipanema and other streets, past fence after fence which merge into a single barrier. Then the film suddenly reverses, backtracks, and by the magic of digital manipulation all the fences are removed. The city breathes again. Like a conjurer’s trick it is perfectly believable though we know it is an illusion.

But then, are not the fences themselves erected from an illusory notion of security. ‘Useless’ because in the process, what is supposed to be protected is being obliterated. Here Katia Maciel’s metaphor becomes universal – and highly pertinent to the moment we are living in Europe. Even as I write, in the wake of the London terrorist bombings, the Coliseum in Rome is being fenced off from the public, presumably for the first time in its history, and in Britain an opinion poll declares that 73% of the population would trade some of their civil liberties for a greater sense of security.

Along with its timeliness, however, Katia Maciel’s work connects with a persistent theme, or idea, in Brazilian art: the notion of barriers and divisions as permeable. Lygia Pape’s Divisor in the 1960s – a vast cotton sheet pierced with equidistant holes for people’s heads to come through – explored the paradox of ‘together’ and ‘divided’ as a sensuous and social experience. Similar preoccupations mark Cildo Meireles’s Through (1983-89),  a huge penetrable installation made up of all different sorts of barriers one finds in cities, inside and out. And then there is Antonio Manuel’s Occupações/Descobrimentos (2002) – a participatory environment in which people climbed their way through a succession of holes smashed in brick walls by the artist with a hammer. Working on the electronic image, Katia Maciel adds the perplexities of virtuality and illusion to the problematic.

Rio de Janeiro, a city divided socially and economically as drastically as London was in the 19th century, has never been able to completely honour the astonishing beauty of its site, and the two opposites of liberty and bondage continually struggle with one another at many levels.    

Guy Brett
August, 2005
Written for the catalogue of the exposition “Keep your distance”, at Room Gallery, Bristol, England.