Triskel Arts Centre
15 July – 30 September 2023
A trowel is delicately placed atop a sheet of pale-yellow paper, whilst a voice-over matter-of-factly dictates the importance of building and leaving something for the future. Relying upon an agricultural metaphor (of planting and harvesting), the significance of construction is posited here as that which cultivates the will to continue – if you look back upon your life and see nothing, “you won’t have the strength to build anything else.”
A hand reaches out to pick up the tool, as Lô Borges’s Eu Sou Como Você É, originally released on his self-titled album of 1972, plays in the background. The lyrics, delivered in that Bossa Nova-inspired manner, which seems to oscillate effortlessly between softly singing and almost whispered-speech, dovetails with the sun-drenched cinematography, as we are led through the streets of São Paulo’s Jabaquara district. As the music fades, we arrive at the home of Valdemar, our narrator, who begins to recount the story of his arrival here in 1949, and his efforts to build a home and a family in the favela.
Robert Chase Heishman’s film, Then I laid the floor (2023), emerged from an ethnographic research project – titled ‘The House That Valdemar Built’ – that was conducted in collaboration with artists Brian Maguire and James Concagh. The central theme here is Concagh’s in-laws, their home, and story of battling through discrimination as migrants in São Paulo, originally arriving from the backlands of Bahia in north-eastern Brazil, in order to build a better life for themselves. The work of each artist in the resultant exhibition (which takes its name from Heishman’s film) all seek to respond and give form to the lived experience of the family. Simply put, this is a phenomenological study of a singular familial home and unit, which celebrates the strength and ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity.
The bulk of the conceptual framing is provided through Heishman’s video, as we learn of the piecemeal manner in which Valdemar built the family home. This narrative forms a harmonious dyad in combination with the shot selection, as much of the imagery emphasises and celebrates the labour associated with the act of construction. The house, continually in formation, lives and breathes as a somatic extension of its inhabitants. When Valdemar announces that “this house protected us from the rain, and gave us the shelter that we have today, the whole family”, the statement seems to rearticulate Gaston Bachelard’s proposal of the house as a sort of protected enclave. The home, as such, manifests an enclosed cosmology that is distinct from the universe outside, with this space fostering the peace and security necessary for the complexity of life to be fully grappled with: “Inside the house, everything may be differentiated and multiplied.”1
Concagh’s series of intricately bricolaged, abstract compositions continue the thematic significance of construction. His grid-based images are built up from layers of industrial materials, wherein the process of creation is clearly evidenced across the surface. Their form immediately conjures drone-eyed views of the favela, with the imperfect rendering of each of the cloistered cells within the matrix helping to impart a sense of human individuation onto the canvases. Each of these cells becomes a signifier for the innumerable homes that make up Jabaquara (all of Concagh’s works in this exhibition are named after the district) as well as the discrete experiences and memories of all those housed within.
This emphasis on the autonomy of the human subject, as distinct from the sprawling urban mass, is crystallised within Maguire’s seven charcoal drawings of the Valdemar household. Executed in the artist’s trademark flowing, expressionistic style, the starkness of these black and white portraits establishes an arresting aesthetic contrast with the lustral colour of the accompanying works on display. Yet, like everything else here, the artist’s loose and humanistic depictions preclude the flattening of the subjects into anonymous categorisation, as their specificity is rendered in line clearly and powerfully for the viewer.
As Heishman’s film approaches its close, we are greeted to a scene of Valdemar’s granddaughter, Isabela, dancing to Itzy’s Wannabe (2020). The synthetic instrumentation of the K-POP hit, with the accompanying choreographed performance by Isabela, functions to simultaneously universalise and individualise the core themes of the exhibition. These people could be anyone, yet the sustained and intense focus on their lives in the respondent works by each of the artists encourages the audience to contemplate the singularity and uniqueness of their own specific human experience. When considering the global stresses of migration and housing, it is sometimes inevitable that we lose sight of the individual. After all, everybody, like every house, is nominally a statistic. The success of ‘Then I laid the floor’ therefore lies in its ability to calmly offer a space of reflection which allows these human stories to be heard.
Laurence Counihan is an Irish-Filipino writer and critic, who is currently a PhD student and assistant lecturer in the History of Art department at University College Cork.
1 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994) p 40.