O Narciso: The Streets Look Back at Hudinilson Jr.

Hudinilson Jr., documentation of the performance “'Narcisse' Exercício de Me Ver II [Exercise of seeing myself II)", 1982. Courtesy of Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil and Scrap Metal, Toronto.
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Too marginal, or too resistant, to be an active player within contemporary Brazilian art to reap its rewards, Hudinilson Jr. has only recently gained posthumous success, having died in 2013. He was too young (b. 1957) to be part of the initial resistance to the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-85) of tropicàlia artists and musicians Helio Oiticica, Gilbert Gil, and Caetano Veloso in exile in London; Hudinilson Jr. grew up as an adolescent and young artist within its regime of repressive surveillance. That surveillance would create its own counter forms of resistance in the art of his generation. However Hudinilson had enough institutional support in his last few years that he was able to lay out a template for interpretation and organization of his work (basically as an archive of ephemera), which enabled it to be quickly taken up and disseminated after his death. Hudinilson Jr.: Cut up the World is one of these results.

Reception of Hudinilson Jr.’s work in Brazil is one thing, outside the country another. What travels are tropes of visuality; context does not translate. So here in North America we might be attracted to what is fully accessible to sight: images of the naked male body, either in the public form of the Xerox art Hudinilson Jr. was known for, or the private aspect of his scrapbooks, an atlas of his personal cartographies of desire drawn from the public realm of physical culture, porn, and sports magazines.

Thus, we would be reproducing a purely scopic regime that his work necessarily partially hid from. In a regime where everything was open to inspection, clandestinity was the rule. Under Brazil’s dictatorship new technologies, such as Xerox machines, escaped its gaze while mimeography, for instance, was forbidden. Unlike its hippy frivolity in North America and Europe, in Brazil mail art was consequential, as well as linking politicized artists to colleagues in Eastern Europe’s repressive regimes. All the media Hudinilson Jr. worked in – mail art, graffiti, stenciling (he was no Banksy), as well as his Xeroxes and collages – should first be viewed through the lens of politics. In a place like São Paulo, where graffiti traces its origin to students spraying buildings with slogans like “abaixo a ditatura” / “down with the dictatorship,” artists of Hudinilson Jr.’s generation, too, took to the streets for their defiance, took the streets as their defiance.

3NÓS3, “Ensacamento,” 1979/2003. Courtesy of Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil and Scrap Metal, Toronto.

Other than minor inclusion of the urban intervention of Hudinilson Jr.’s participation in the collective 3NÓS3 (3We3), the exhibition avoids this task. Overnight on April 26, 1979, three young artists – Hudinilson Jr., Mario Ramiro, and Rafael França – covered the heads of classical statues and patriotic public monuments around São Paulo, documenting the event, tipping off the press, and then collecting the raft of reaction. Ensacamento, or “bagging,” they called it: asphyxiating the stone figures with plastic garbage bags over their heads in a symbolic attack on the regime. Whether targeting censorship or the regime’s disappeared, the artists degraded the symbolic idealism of these heroic bodies, but, at the same time, by stripping them of their identity in favor of their often nude torsos, they created a psychogeography of desire, nocturnally mapping languid gestures throughout the city. Exhibition curator Rui Mateus Amaral, at Scrap Metal, calls the action Hudinilson Jr.’s “first significant ‘crop’” – referring to the fragmentation of the body that would repeat in the artist’s collages and Xerox art. Mapping desire through truncated bodies was also a purpose of Hudinilson Jr.’s collage notebooks.

While he continued to defile the streets of São Paulo over the years, with graffiti and stencils, Hudinilson Jr. settled into his Xerography, for which he is a pioneer in Brazil. He threw himself into as well as onto the new technology, perching his body on the machine’s glass platen, and creating his fetishizing objects of desire: Bellmeresque distortions, though flattened in two dimensions [see the documentation of “Narcisse” Exercicio de Me Ver II (Exercise of Seeing Myself), 1982]. He was a master of the art … and, to be so, he attended every available Xerox training session for servicemen! A lovely young man, he fell in love with his quiet interlocutor, allowing himself to be captured in the machine’s gaze, which only reflected himself back to himself. There is an enchanting Xerographic image of him from the 1980s peering into the dark pool of the machine. But to be more accurate, he fell in love with himself. Narcissus was his chosen theme.

I may be going against the grain but I think it possible to pry open this closed relationship. But it is possible only if we think of the resultant image in its materiality as the outcome of a process. The high-contrast bleaching and the dark drift of graphite over the image’s surface, captured by the folds and crevices of its referent body, was much like the beat of a relentless sun on the sidewalks of the city, with their accreting seepage of decay. The resulting image of self, the merging narcissistic duo, was not being exalted as an ideal; it was being degraded. Yet Hudinilson Jr. could say, “There is something erotic about kissing the walls of São Paulo, the passion I feel for this city…” Think of these photocopies of himself rather as substitute frottage of the streets he loved. Yet his passage there was contradictory. His fellow pixadores, those proponents of graffiti (pixação) unique to the city, do not think of their runic tags as narcissistic reflections of themselves but rather as a degradation of the city. We can look at Hudinilson Jr.’s X-rays of his fractured limbs (sustained in those same violent streets) – and a corrosive technology he exhibited on par with his Xeroxes – in the same light: the decomposing body of Narcissus rendered apart like the bony and brittle severity of pixação.

Hudinilson Jr., “(Des) Construir Narciso- I (a), [Deconstructing Narcissus],” 2000; and “Untitled,” c. 1980s. Both courtesy of Galeria Jaqueline Martins, São Paulo, Brazil; and Scrap Metal, Toronto.

This degradation of any singular ideal was a continuation of Ensacamento’s debasing of classicism. It was the singular contradiction of Hudinilson Jr.’s narcissistic work. “Why do you mock me, singular boy?” Ovid has Narcissus say to his reflected image. Caught in the replicative mirror of the self-same image of a repeating technology, he could only artistically waste away, like the physically withering Narcissus of myth. As elegant as this exhibition is, it disguises this fact, which, however, is not its responsibility to document. And as much as I am sympathetic to what Scott Treleaven writes in the exhibition brochure, that “excavating Hudinilson’s creative artifacts is like sifting through an inventory of the contortions necessary to arrive at self-knowledge when the routes have been more or less obliterated,” the truth is that the regime crumbled and queer sexuality effloresced in Brazil. Hudinilson Jr. went nowhere as an artist yet he is now celebrated for what was actually his demise. The streets redeemed his work; the narcissistic tomb of his studio, where he would continue to cut and paste, could not.

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