Mira Schendel at Tate Modern

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern

Mira Schendel, London, 1966, © Clay Perry, England & Co Gallery

There is a definite philosophical calm to Mira Schendel’s graphic works. Standing by her Objetos Gráphicos – transparent sheets of acrylic restraining an avalanche of inscrutable text on rice paper – I find myself thinking of Bernard-Henri Levy’s recent exhibition Aventures de la Verité (Adventures of the Truth). Levy, who is something of a celebrity philosopher in his native France, recently curated his first ever art exhibition at the Fondation Maeght in the South of France. His exhibition explores the relationship between art and philosophy since the advent of Western thought, and narrates the struggle between the two disciplines, at times allies, and at others adversaries.

Schendel’s work, like Levy’s exhibition, reflects a preoccupation with philosophical precepts. Regarded in her time as a ‘thinking artist’ or ‘metaphysical calligrapher’, favoured intense dialogues with philosophers, theorists and thinkers, over art-historical debates of the day. Moreover, much of Schendel’s output from the 1960s and 1970s demonstrate a concern with time, eschewing a linear, Western concept for a more open ‘field of possibilities’. Correspondingly, in Aventures de la Verité, Levy disregards time in his narration of art and philosophy, situating the classical with the contemporary; a Bronzino with a Basquiat. This reframing of time in both exhibitions, albeit from the different perspectives of artist and curator, assaults our preconceived notions on the subject, questioning how we have come to regard ideas and objects. It makes for a refreshing originality that permeates both the Tate Modern’s austere rooms and the corridors of the Fondation’s shrine to Modernism.

For this reason alone, Levy would have done well to include Schendel’s work in his exhibition. His portrayal of conceptual art, as demonstrated by his examples, points to what Jacky Wullschlager the art critic has described, as ‘painting accepting philosophy’s terms’. Schendel’s work would have provided a more coherent example of the embodiment of philosophical thinking in artistic practice; a co-existing of the two instead of a submission of one to the other. Moreover, Schendel progresses Leyv’s argument one step further: in her works, the cold clear voice of philosophical reasoning, is enlivened with the feeling and pathos of human experience, bringing to mind Fernando Passoa’s epithet: ‘everything that feels in me thinks.’

Schendel’s investigations also led her not only to embrace branches of Western philosophy such as ontology and phenomenology, but Eastern philosophical precepts, which informed her ideas on time and the void. Other influences to her work also included language, concrete poetry, semiotics, theology and science. Swiss by birth, Schendel lived in Italy and Yugoslavia before migrating to Brazil after the second World Ward. In Brazil she found the place to experiment, producing an oeuvre comprising over 4,000 pieces of work roughly grouped into series. Tanya Barson, Tate’s curator, has concentrated on works around specific series, giving a broad overview of her work – comprising 240 works in a career survey spanning over thirty years.


Mira Schendel, Tate Modern

Mira Schendel, Variants, 1977, Oil on rice paper and acrylic sheets, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art © The estate of Mira Schendel

The first few rooms of Tate’s exhibition are dedicated to Schendel’s paintings: explorations on still lives, geometry, abstraction, and abstraction/figuration, drawing inspiration from Paul Klee, Giorgio Morandi and Giorgio de Chirico. A large room is dedicated to Schendel’s Monotipias series (Monotypes). The simplicity of the Monotipias’ dark lines, shapes and text, both legible and illegible, against the frail diaphanous rice paper comprise Schendel’s first concentrated investigations into language, phenomenology and the void.

Also included in the exhibition is an emulation of Schendel’s display of her Objetos Gráphicos (Graphic Works) from the 1968 Venice Biennale. The transparent nature of these works enables them to be viewed both sides, encompassing notions on corporeality. Writing on these works from a language perspective, Villem Flusser observed that, “Mira’s texts are not texts….they are pre-texts. They are what texts are before they became texts. But as they are almost symbolic as pre-texts they cannot be ‘read’ as drawings either.” And this is what is startling about these simple but beautifully executed works: their openness and their refusal; the way they break open language, and force us to confront the very nature of expression.

Other highlights in Tate’s exhibition include the Cadernos series, unconventional notebooks challenging the traditional, diachronic structure of the book, whilst in Itatiaia Landcapes (1978) the letter ‘A’ flits across the landscapes like a fugitive figure. Her tempera and gold leaf works from the 1980 express a balance between transparency and opacity, and also refer to the determination of the Self. One of the most important works in the exhibition is the installation Ondas Paradas de Probabilidade (Still Waves of Probability). It was made for the 1969 São Paulo Bienal as part of her controversial decision to participate whilst many artists were boycotting in protest against the dictatorship regime. In Ondas Paradas de Probabilidade, thin nylon threads cascade down from the ceiling like a waterfall, and gather on the floor like wafts of soft clouds. The overall feeling is one of movement and absolute stillness. Exhibited alongside the work is a text from the Old Prophet of Kings, describing God’s revelation to the Prophet Elijah.


Mira Schendel, Tate Modern

Mira Schendel, Untitled (Disks) 1972, Letraset, graphite on paper and transparent acrylic support: 270 x 270 x 7 mm on paper, unique, Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2007© The estate of Mira Schendel

The ‘waves’ of Ondas Paradas seem to allude to freedom, whilst the accompanying biblical text points to crisis, and of the faith required to withstand that crisis. It suggests that rather than oppose what is not desired, we should instead support what is desired. It is a work of faith and of action, and its presence at the Bienal was a silent act of empowerment against a repressive regime. As Schendel wrote in her diary of the boycott. “….this is a bridge, we have to cross it. Not run away from it nor dwell with it. In the relative – this is our liberty. To say yes or no. To love and to not be attached…To be faithfully of THIS world And to not to be of this world.” And what is the role of art and philosophy if not to help us make sense of this world, and to enable us to be of this world as faithfully as we can.

Mira Schendel, Tate Modern, London, through January 19 2014.

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by Gowri Balasegaram
in Focus on Europe

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