Watching recent Brazilian films about AIDS, I was reminded of the paucity of depictions of the pandemic and its devastation on the country’s gay community in contemporary art of the time. It is an absence that has made artist José Leonilson’s audio cassette diartic entries so intensely haunting; Leonilson documented her lovers, her coming out to her religious parents after contracting HIV and her failing health, until her death in 1993.
We miss such an immersive personal record of another crucial Brazilian artist, Rafael França, who, like Leonilson, was gay and died of AIDS when he was young – Leonilson was 31, França 34. The inextricability of the França’s art of the history of AIDS in Brazil and the United States was corroborated by the posthumous inclusion of her work in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark exhibition, Speak out: AIDS film and video (1991), and more recently in United by AIDS (2019), at the Migros Museum. But França must also be recognized as a pioneer of Latin American video art. More than any artist of his generation, he embraced video not as a side experience – as had been the case for older Brazilian artists, who had mostly worked in other media – but for the good. of its own unique aesthetic.
I saw França’s video work for the first time last September, in São Paulo, in the exhibition Requiem and Vertigo at the Jaqueline Martins gallery which, since its creation in 2011, has highlighted some important and unsung artists of the 1960s. The show was not ostensibly about AIDS – although the first video presented, that of França “A Prelude to a Death Foretold” (1991), made a few days before his death, showed the torsos and hands of França and her companion, Geraldo Rivello, in gentle caresses and embraces, before the names of the deceased friends of the artist did float over and disappeared from the screen. But this video was also the culmination of the major themes of the second half of França’s meteoric career, interrupted when he was becoming better known: that of fragmentation. Overall, the show vibrated with an edgy discontinuity, making the glitchy technology of video and television the perfect medium for capturing psychic disturbance and vertigo, and, in a way, a playful game, although often violent, playing with the systemic breakdown.
Technology was França’s enduring obsession. Shortly after moving from Porto Alegre to São Paulo – to study at the University of São Paulo (USP), where he learned lithography and printmaking from artists Regina Silveira and Carmela Gross – he began experimenting with the art based on photocopying.
“[Xerox] was an alternative medium that brought us together,” remembers artist Mário Ramiro in the documentary by Alex Gabassi and Marco Del Fiol, Obra as testamento (The Work as Testament, 2o21). Ramiro, França and Hudinilson Jr. (who would later become famous for his erotic Xerox self-portraits), bonded over the USP photocopier, the seriality of their works already resembling cinematic storyboards.
In 1979, they founded the collective 3Nós3, dedicated to in situ interventions. They wrapped the heads of the statesmen statues in plastic bags; they cut off traffic on the city’s largest commercial avenue, Avenida Paulista, with a barrier of plastic tape – awaiting the reaction of the crowd. If the press sometimes qualifies them as vandals or Marxist anarchists (Brazil remains under the right-wing military regime until 1985), their public actions, outside galleries and museums, echo Brazilian artists such as Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles or Lygia Clark.
In the 80s, video art was still relatively new. Nam June Paik first exhibited in São Paulo in 1975. Influenced by Paik, França’s early installations drew on her interest in minimalism, with video monitors producing abstract shapes and sculptural conglomerations. França has never completely abandoned her interest in video as an immersive environment: her archives at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the University of São Paulo include her proposal for The video column project (1988) — inspired by classical architecture — with 10 videos of 20 minutes each, to be broadcast on 200 monitors. The impact of Paik, and others such as Joan Jonas, Doug Hall, Bill Viola, was also felt when França organized Video librarya video art exhibition at the 19th Bienal de São Paulo, in 1987.
By then França had settled permanently in Chicago. He had left Brazil in 1982 to do a master’s degree at the Center for Advanced Studies in Art and Technology, at the Art Institute of Chicago, with a focus on computer hardware. Abroad, he had begun to experiment with fictional storytelling in a very disruptive way. In “Fighting the Invisible Enemy” (1983), he makes the image of his body, captured in horizontal and vertical views, flicker so fast that it is almost impossible to get an overall idea. Its sound, slowed down or played backwards, often rumbles like a monstrous beast from a horror movie. The jolt of its confrontational fourth wall collapse is reminiscent of the 1970s in Brazil Marginal cinema.
França’s art thrived on the weird, as in “Getting Out” (1985), a rhythmic collage, in which artist Maggie Magge helplessly shoots at her front door before turning on the gas, then mysteriously escapes out the back. Experimental cinema had long mastered surreal effects – think Jean Cocteau, Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren – but video art was less ostensibly artistic; it might be shocking, and yet somehow feel closer to real life.
Still, França’s self-fiction can be slippery. In “Re-encounter” (1984), he abruptly goes from the image of himself standing in the street on a gray day to himself gagged, strapped to a chair, swinging frantically to get loose. Is it a memory or a fantasy? Probably both, as if time had come unstuck, Lynchian fashion. When França climbs onto the roof and points a gun — first at the viewer, then at their head — and shoots, it feels like her fictional doppelganger might have been dead from the get-go, chronicling her own demise. In this sense, video is an automatic psychic loop, a “self-encapsulation – the body or psyche as its own environment”, as Rosalind Krauss calls it in her 1976 essay, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”. , in which she compares the video’s spatial claustrophobia to self-reflection.
In her videos, França used fictional framing to create such reflective distance. “Without fear of vertigo” (1987) includes candid talk about illness and death, but is masked as fiction that features an interview with a man who may have helped his lover commit suicide. Meanwhile, “I Have Lost It” (1984), with its jerky camerawork, feels like a parody of mundane notions about psychosis. He quotes excerpts from the text (“Lost what?” “Have you seen it?”) by Ronald David Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist whose book The divided me was popular in Brazil in the 70s, influencing artists such as Lygia Clark (who eventually gave up art to become an art therapist).
França’s despair over friends lost to AIDS and her own sudden decline have undoubtedly colored her work with an anguished urgency. The nearness of death only heightened his longstanding preoccupations: mind and body as unwavering, jarring, unreliable, but also endless hallucinations in their perverted game. Video entered this configuration as the accessible means of catching hide and seek with oneself and eros. It was something to be watched “with the lights on,” as França insisted, without pretense of high art. In her stubborn, obsessive, agonistic lucidity, França seems to echo the sentiment of David Wojnarowicz, expressed in the catalog of the 1995 exhibition SIDA et art, Against our disappearance“There’s something I want to see clearly, something I want to witness in the raw.”
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Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special edition of Hyperallergic dedicated to under-recognized art histories. This article was made possible through a grant from the Sam Francis Foundation.