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Raul Mourão

Raul Mourão Fills Empty Heads and Idle Hands at Nara Roesler

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Open through June 19, Nara Roesler is presenting Raul Mourão’s solo exhibition “Empty Head” at its New York gallery. On view, the artist is sharing recent works that offer a critique on contemporary issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the political climate of his home country of Brazil.

In “Empty Head,” Mourão poses a representation of his own engagement with society through kinetic works that encourage viewer interactions—like three pieces from the artist’s “Rebel” series. Existing between art and architecture, the large-scale sculptures (made from corten steel and reminiscent of precarious medieval contraptions) have been designed to react to gravity and the touch of their audience. Mourão has also made smaller works like The New Brazilian Flag #3, which responds to the country’s government, and the glass jug-and-steel WWW, that react to the touch of its audience.

To learn more about the works on view and the origin of exhibition’s title, Whitewall spoke with the artist.

Raul Mourão

Portrait of Raul Mourão by Erika Mayumi for Nara Roesler.

WHITEWALL: Tell us about your exhibition “Empty Head.”

RAUL MOURÃO: The exhibition “Empty Head” could also be called “Pandemic Works.“ All sculptures were conceived under a strong feeling of anguish, uncertainty, fear, and insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic social isolation period in 2020. I lived this year very intensely and immersed myself in my studio. Although The New Brazilian Flag #3 is from 2019 and the video Bang Bang #1 from 2017, I understand them both as carrying the spirit of the pandemic because they invite us to think about latent and pressing issues that the pandemic brought to the fore, such as persecutions and censorship of artists’ and art institutions’ in Brazil, and the social-economic crisis that makes us question whether we live in a democratic rule of law.

WW: Where does the name come from?

RM: The name comes from an expression many languages and cultures share: “Cabeça Vazia, Morada do Diablo.” The proverb literally means an empty head is the devil’s abode. In English, the proverb is slightly different and reads, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

This expression has a twofold meaning in terms of the exhibition. Being with an empty head may be an opportune moment for the artist’s creation, for there is a void that needs to be filled with new experiments and reflections. However, there is a fine line separating the emptiness that inspires a purposeful and creative attitude, which enhances life, from the one that causes stagnation and mobilizes harmful and violent feelings that hinder the possibility of collective well-being.

WW: How does your use of scale play into the overall narrative of the installation?

RM: We all live permanently between the big and the small. We move around the city in colossal structures like the subway, but we drink water from a small glass. An airplane is small when flying in the sky but huge when we are next to it.

In my artistic trajectory, since the beginning of my career or perhaps even before that when I was still a student, my interest has been the articulation of a formal repertoire about the urban space. The city is my subject and field of work. I like to think of the signs we can decode from the relationships we establish when moving around the city. The concept of scale is fundamental to the modern architectural and urban ideal. Being an artist concerned with observing and experiencing life in the city, I could not let this be a timid concept in my production. \

Sometimes, I think I would like to focus only on the construction of big-size works, dialoguing with the city’s public scale and nature’s scale. But, during the process of creating, I experiment with small sculptures with bottles, glasses, and other objects that tell stories about everyday life, with the things at my fingertips. Every large-scale sculpture begins with a small drawing on paper and then a small model. In this exhibition, I decided to transfer the reality of my life and studio practice into the gallery space.

Raul Mourão

Installation view of Raul Mourão’s “Empty Head,” photo by Charles Roussel, courtesy of the artist and Nara Roesler.

WW: You’ve said that the works are interactive objects that depend on the audience’s engagement. How do these kinetic sculptures function, and what kind of interactions might your viewers seek out with them?

RM: The sculptures are stationary, static, but as the parts are sustained by unstable support, any minimal touch triggers a movement. That precarious instability invites the public to engage with the work. Yet, it is very important to highlight that it must be a rational, conscious interaction, not random bodily contact. There is a real physical risk in this series of work, and each large-scale sculpture may hurt if people engage carelessly.

Regarding the small-scale sculptures, on the other hand, a thoughtless interaction may damage the work, which in turn demands that the public pays attention. By touching the sculptures and triggering the movement, the viewer becomes a co-author. The movement creates a new design in space, a new volume, and involves the public in a more generous moment of enjoyment, as if they were taken to a privileged place of observation.

WW: How does this relate to the overarching representation of societal engagement?

RM: While I believe that the public needs to touch the work to give it a new life, I also think that it needs more active participation in the art circuit. For example, we should engage more with museums, art spaces, cultural projects; we all should take more care of them.

Society as a whole has to participate in the maintenance and survival of art spaces. We need to fill our heads with new references that mobilize us towards a society that values the plurality of thought and freedom of expression. We need to support the work of artists engaged in the reflection and production of new languages that denounce empty heads and idle hands that have already become the devil’s workshop.

WW: In your eyes, what draws the line between art and architecture—like in your “Rebel” series, for example?

RM: Both the artist and the architect’s craft have a so-called project and creative dimension. I nevertheless understand art as a radical experience of freedom, disconnected from the functional issues of architecture. The “Rebel” sculptures series bear similarities with the methods of architecture since both are born on the ‘drawing board’; they are drawings turned into projects, then made models, and finally ‘built’ on the real-size scale. But they are works of art. They are part of a context of research and artistic practice that share a formal repertoire with architecture.

Raul Mourão

Installation view of Raul Mourão’s “Empty Head,” photo by Charles Roussel, courtesy of the artist and Nara Roesler.

WW: Your work The New Brazillian Flag #3 originated in 2018, but you’ve recomposed it in turn with the country’s politics. What statement does the piece make in the context of this show?

RM: The New Brazilian Flag series, which resignifies the Brazilian flag, began during carnival in Rio de Janeiro, in 2018. I continued developing this series and have already produced eleven pieces. This work both presents and affirms a great void. It is an act of violence against the Brazilian flag that somewhat symbolizes the Brazilian government’s mismanagement, its lack of republican ethos, the lack of dialogue, and the political institutions’ destructive program. In this sense, The New Brazilian Flag series also carries the spirit of the COVID pandemic.

WW: The use of everyday objects like glass bottles is meant to be ironic, yet you’re touching on subject matter like politics, society, and even life and death. What are you hoping to achieve by using these familiar items?

RM: I think using ordinary and everyday objects infuses the artwork with a sense of humor, of nonsense, and produces a different form of empathy within the public. I believe it is critical to reflect on our material culture, on how objects designed for consumption are loaded with meanings that allow us to compose other languages through new arrangements and combinations. This enables us to advance alternative modes of existence in this world so dazed by processes imposed by modernity

Raul Mourão

Installation view of Raul Mourão’s “Empty Head,” photo by Charles Roussel, courtesy of the artist and Nara Roesler.



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