by Agnaldo Farias

    For the benefit of the forgetful reader, Oscar Satio Oiwa made his debut in the Brazilian art circles at the 1991 São Paulo International Biennial. In those days, the 25-year-old artist had just earned his bachelor's degree from the University of São Paulo's School of Architecture and Urbanism. His special room at the show was quite impressive, which is not the same as to say that it was fully understood: firstly, because in such particularly confused and compressed exhibition, the works could not be adequately viewed and appreciated; secondly, because at that time, just when the bursting movement known as Geração 80 (Generation '80s) had reached its turning point, the Brazilian scene was a lot more restraining than today: there were numerous prohibition signs, and young artists sought to validate their poetics by linking them to the few genealogical trees of Brazilian art; not to mention, of course, a few reputable international references, either established or emergent. As far as I know, in view of these facts and young Oiwa's relatively "orphaned" work, no commentary worthy of mention was offered about either his long room (30 meters long, 10 meters wide), where upon entering the visitor was flanked by two huge "whales" rendered in metallic gray paint on the two longer walls, or the equally relevant creations by other artists.

    These two paintings done with spray paint on Kraft paper, each measuring 22 meters in length and two meters in height, were titled Baleia I and Baleia II (Whale I and Whale II), respectively. They were two symmetrical bodies cutout on paper, representing top views of a submarine and the bone framework of a whale, respectively. Visitors stepped down the hall as if they were wading in a thin, yet dense and cool ocean, between two figures that were nearly identical, despite one being organic and the other, technological. In this room, the artist proposed an uncanny, yet plausible approximation of two dimensions - two clearly distinct moments - of a same world. What is more, the news of someone having heard a "song" resulting from the combination of clicking sonar sounds and sea-mammal vocalizations would not come across as preposterous at all. In the long room, the somewhat rhythmic and melodious high-pitched whistling slashed the heavy atmosphere as the visitor strolled along the image of the submersible vessel, the shape of which seemed to have been drawn from the whale across the hall. Incidentally, would not the prophet Jonah have been the first involuntary passenger of a whale-cum-submarine? Depicted as it was by the then young artist as a bone framework, the whale was to assert its precedence in time - a fact that in no way has hindered the perfectly harmonious coexistence of whales and submarines that now and then surface for a breath of air.

    Having been thus presented and compared, the two figures draw the viewer's attention to the fact that just as whales are endangered species, so are submarines and other human-made, environmentally-unfriendly things doomed to extinction. As to their remains, who knows, some day will be retrieved from the sea bottom as fossils representing an extinct living group about which hardly anything is known at all.

    Oscar Satio Oiwa's work is characterized by the perception of future as a dimension that resounds in the cities in the guise of ruin - as if emerging from the past to transform it into an archaeological site, where life circulates among fossilized remains. This trait is clearly evinced in the series of large-format paintings on display at this exhibition, the artist's second solo show held in São Paulo ever since he left Brazil in the early 1990s. Even the lighter scenes, or those featuring all-over, small multicolored bursts of flowers or something indistinguishable, do not cover up the visions of cities plunged in a dull, homogeneous atmosphere, its buildings and other structures slowly decaying like water left in a flower vase overnight.

    Having earned a degree in architecture and, particularly, from a Brazilian school such as the University of São Paulo's School of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU-USP), Oiwa nurtures a perfectly understandable relationship with the city. Whereas by taking in the past as an element that could no longer be discarded world architecture pioneered the criticism of the future pledge of modern thought - as "The Presence of the Past," the 1st International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale (1980) curated by Paolo Portoghesi demonstrated, for better or for worse1 -, it was not until much later that this discussion was introduced in the Brazilian environment. To the eyes of Brazilian architects, the future was here, it had been brought by the hands of architecture in 1960, the year Brasilia was founded.

    If to Octavio Paz one of the essential implications for Latin-Americans was in the fact that during the first "three centuries the word 'American' designated an individual who was not defined by what he had accomplished, but for that which he was yet to accomplish"2, the "nostalgia for the future" that for a while permeated our cultural production was a result of this doom to be the historical project of European awareness. However, Brasilia put an end to this nostalgia. How could we define the paroxysmal boldness conveyed in a city plan drawn on white paper from a cross design that, according to its demiurge, Lucio Costa, rendered an instance of appropriation - a marker? Given this fact, it should not sound odd that several generations of architects educated to view their profession as an exercise trained on the future were to shun the past. In the pristine, ideal field of the blank paper, these designers delivered the most appropriate translations of this canon. A glimpse at designs by such masters as Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier (the one who came closest of all to Brazil), and even Oscar Niemeyer will ascertain the utopia of modern architecture, the founder of a supposedly more democratic space, due to being more abstract, rational, intelligible and universal.

    Even the briefest look at Oiwa's artistic career clearly shows that if on the one hand at the school of architecture he nurtured a profound interest in the city and its buildings, on the other hand this city is far from being designed after ideal, utopian principles. Oiwa's city is in fact an all-in-one city, one that not only contains all other cities, but also is laden with their past and present.

    Way before Oscar Oiwa's understanding of city began to expand as the artist took to traveling the world beginning with Tokyo, the land of his ancestors, his notion of urban life was informed by controversial hard rock, ranging from Lou Reed of "Walk in the wild side" to the Sex Pistols and Clash; by the comics of Robert Crumb and Moebius; by the dismal vision of Ridley Scott, of "Blade Runner", and Terry Gilliam, of "Brazil" and "Twelve monkeys;" by the remote and steady murmur of street and expressway traffic "around our sleep, as of dead souls blabbing around the edge of a dream", as Don DeLillo wrote in his "White Noise; by Anselm Kiefer's revised version of the biblical rivers Tigris and Euphrates in his "Mesopotamia," the highly dramatic painting he presented at the 1987 São Paulo International Biennial and that indelibly impressed Oscar Oiwa. In the work of our artist, these rivers are transported to the contemporary urban reality under the guise of a sooty and oppressive view of an overpass crossing above a thoroughfare.

    By the time the urban visions of Moebius led French filmmaker Luc Besson to shoot "The Fifth Element," they had already inspired Federico Fellini, the Italian master who took life in provincial towns, devastated large-city suburbs, and the chaotic and extravagant highway to Rome, and successfully transformed them into poetry and dreamlike visions. And just as Fellini made movies out of his visions of circus, variety shows, and people and scenes that he turned into deformed, grotesque comics - thus once again demonstrating that the old chasm between high culture and low culture is an issue to be discussed by obstinate Adornian spirits -, so Oiwa starts from the iridescent, parodic and keenly visual realism of comics to address the city and the history of art itself. One example is the series "Masterpieces - The Ancient Museum Collection", of 2000, in which the artist revisited masterpieces of world history of art from his own very personal viewpoint.

    Evidently, Oiwa does not draw from these cultural references only. By and large, his themes spring from expeditions to cities that he visits while exercising his nomadic spirit, i.e., his inclination for uprooting that makes him a citizen of all places. While strolling the city streets or flying the world skies, taking in the sights below like a bird's-eye view, the artist becomes aware of the deep wounds that progress inflicts on the flesh of metropolises, on whose dilacerated margins the previously crystal-clear brooks have turned into streams of liquid and solid waste. Oiwa scrutinizes toppled buildings and their weather-beaten, forgotten rubble. He takes promenades through gardens with frost-burnt lawns and shrubbery, and fountains that issue streams of blackish liquid from which toxic vapors emanate. He takes tours of the garbage dumps that flourish on the city's outskirts, at which animals and people scavenge for food scraps. As the artist emphatically and dramatically states through chunks of meat, entrails, and bones assembled in the form of continental maps, food is the driving force of everything. In turn, just about everything - from continents to merchandise in a shop display - may be reduced to food. The artist concludes that, in fact, the pure and simple quest for food is behind everything - from abject poverty to opulent wealth, from restraining pragmatism to dreams of freedom.

    Not that cities are thus reduced. On the contrary, the artist views them as if through a device capable of recording present, past and future, all at once. Like the earth's crust, the city is formed by the movement of its various strata, and Oiwa's systematic resource to large-format paintings and installations are meant to provide the spectator - often from an unexpectedly lyrical vantage point - a notion as realistic as possible of an actual landscape, a view as spectacular as the glowing twilight observed in cities with greater air pollution, or the deadly bombardments aired on TV with voluptuous imagery comparable to that of a firework show.

    Finally, beauty is everywhere, even if it be a beauty impregnated with danger, as in the clouds of poisonous gas that yield acid precipitation. Yet, is this not the nature we have created? Ultimately, as the artist himself notes, everything dies before it is reborn, beginning with people "whose bodies turn into dust particles that are washed down streams, and then suspended in the atmosphere as clouds in the sky. In turn, clouds precipitate rain, and rain water eventually issues life." So, there is nothing to be sorry about. Rather, in view of the falling rain - whether it be lethal flowers, snowflakes or pieces of charcoal -, of the crumbling world, and of cities that exhale colorful puffs, there will always be a chameleonic, cunning life delicately and yet firmly perched on a slender branch, accustoming itself to the environment no matter how inhospitable, and feeding on whatever it can find to keep on going a bit further.

    Agnaldo Farias

    University of São Paulo, School of Architecture and Urbanism


1. In fact, the edition of the Venice Biennale was an epiphenomenon of a debate that harks back to the CIAMS (International Congress on Modern Architecture), of the 1950s, and is commented in seminal books by Aldo Rossi and Robert Venturi, respectively "The Architecture of the City" and "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture". These books first released in the 1960s were only published in Brazil in the late 1990s!

2. Octavio Paz, "Literatura de Fundação", in Signos em rotação (Signs in Rotation). São Paulo: Perspectiva, 1996, p.127, translated herein from the Portuguese.

Cortesy: Thomas Cohn Gallery, São Paulo