by Renata Scovino

In the project ‘Desterro – Exile Project’ Ícaro Lira develops a research in the field of visual arts which seeks interdisciplinary partnerships in sociology, anthropology and archeology. His work includes several actions that start from the need to stay in the place of investigation. The search in the archives of the institutions, the cohabitation and the interviews with local residents, as well as notes, drawings, diaries, videos and photos. All feeds his project. It can be said that the work of Ícaro questions the notion of art which separates the process and the documentation. He goes way beyond that, since, for the artist it’s not enough to collect material and replicate museum procedures. The work of Ícaro is based on the archive as a possibility of redemption of the past, is not the mere recognition of an event that interests, but a kind of knowledge that opens to empty, absences and oblivion. It’s the contradictory game near and far, appear and disappear, the visible and the invisible. Through the evidence he seeks the evocative power of the images, and to create room for the experience of the memory. The image becomes powerful enough to recall the event without imitating it. We talk to Ícaro Lira about the ‘Exile’ project and its book publication.

In the ethnographic research, theory and practice are inseparable. Generally speaking, before going to the field is necessary to seek information on the subject to be searched. In the field the look and the ears are shaped, guided and disciplined by the theory. Upon returning the facts are translated and framed an interpretative theory. Within the poetic freedom of artistic production this procedure has been somewhat helpful to you? It is also true that reality always trumps theory and ends up turn it over. Do you agree?

Ícaro Lira (IL): My first contact with Canudos was with the Glauber Rocha film and then with the book Sertões by Euclides da Cunha. Antonio Conselheiro is from Quixeramobim in the central backwoods of Ceará - my home state - and I always had a very close contact with his image. I worked initially with materials from the National Library (in Rio), Joaquim Nabuco Foundation (Recife) and Bahia Public Archive (within the Bahia Biennial). My research proceeds fundamentally on the fields with the locals, with the survivors and their descendants. I consider all my work as a single body, a continuous research on forced migration movements. I try not to put things in frames, works are open ideas and their formalization in the museum or gallery also follows this path. There is no final form, but an ever-changing. So I try not to be framed by previous theories and ideas, but I am open to discoveries, ramifications and overlapping in the stories I strive for.

© Ícaro Lira

To become an ethnologist, according to Levi-Strauss, it takes a vocation for ‘chronic uprooting’, ie not feel at home anywhere. When does it begin and when does it end a trip for you?

IL: The backcountry of Brazilian northeast, in general, interests me. I do not separate this research on Canudos from others I’ve been doing in recent years. They all have in common the question of social control and isolation. My route in Ceará includes places as Juazeiro, Crato, Senador Pompeu and Quixeramobim, and in Bahia, beyond Canudos, Feira de Santana, Euclides da Cunha, Monte Santo, Bendegó. I now realize that only a local and long-term work may have some effective action. I am a little like a snail that carries its house around. Between 2012 (when I started DESTERRO work) and 2013, I lived like a nomad, homeless. Once started a journey it never ends. Paths instead  have an end.

Jean-François Lyotard considered “the end of narratives” as the founding event of post modernity. And, in fact, in a significant part of contemporary production what the artist offer to the viewer are or possible clues, whose function is to create an atmosphere around what can be deduced from the chain of events. Are these photos, videos, notes, found objects or their combinations an updated version of the travel reports? A version that allows several readings and a very rich contamination, rather than impose a text ready to be observed?

IL: What if, instead of evidence for a descriptive and analytical discourse, archeology bring in objects and images to a poetic experience? Can we advance from a stone, a stick, or an old cloth some form of non-scientific knowledge? Our work can be an exercise in archeology that seeeks to “understand”, in other ways, events that left their mark on our history, like the one of Canudos. 

I prefer to run away from a concept that limits the exposure of the idea. I know what I have to avoid. I carefully try not to fall into traps such as the mere pamphlet or the fetish object. The exhibited objects gain strenght when they are put together, articulated, to create relations. And the viewers also create their own connections and paths within the exhibition.

The organization of this collection of recorded actions and collected objects is made in the form of a archive. An intricate archive which involves the practice of assembling as a possibility: relating, subverting and questioning the meaning of things that appear in it. It’s almost like a background in which we meet your imagination. The elements fitting this archive are available to the viewer, they are grouped into blocks which enable multiple and anachronistic interpretations. What is the function of this archive and its organization when it comes to defining the intention of the work? Or would it be possible without this archive?

IL: The objects that I bring to the exhibition space are mostly used, old and discarded. Nothing is new; everything has its invisible history and imposes itself as an enigma. Temporally isolated, everything takes place in relation to the others. Photographs, boxes and other collected fragments are associated in the assembly. Everything changes reference. My background as an artist comes from the cinema: the assembly, the editing and cinefilia. I guess this explains a little my way of thinking these objects, photos, videos etc… These objects come from my memory of these places. I think that those elements alone do not have much strength. Each exposed thing then presents its own temporal condition, and the installation that I realize in the exhibition space allows the multiplication of narrative possibilities and combinations. It is impossible to outline a systematic logic that leads to a unidirectional interpretation - since conflicts have always varied versions, as opposed to official histories.

In addition to the photographs found during the research, you’ve been taking photographs on your own. These seem more aimed at gathering the landscape that matters to you, and that you want to present in a direct, frontal, and informal way. How important is it for you to include your images? And how they work in the book?

IL: I am not a photographer and despite several clichés  - the trip, the photographer, the documentation that is likely to treat the subject as exotic - in the photographs there is no subject that rely on the object. So there is no room for the exotic. I have a feeling that the images are not photographs, but records (perhaps remains) of a presence that did not found a point of view, and was rather diluted in the landscape. The work is about Canudos, which is already a strong theme that dispenses the author. My photos, within the book, work in conjunction with the found images, with the texts, notes, drawings, newspaper articles. It is the relationship with it all that make them powerful.

The historical identity and the poetic fiction, or the poetic identity and the historical fiction, both are present in the publication, and within the texts written by different authors. Please comment on the role of the working group within the project and the partnerships that have occurred for the book production.

IL: The work is an open book, which is still being written and asks to be written collectively, to be subject to constant changes, and to be able to “grow on each side”. I think the space for conversation as something very important in this process. The different views, discussions and collaborations I had with the other artists and curators during the residency, enriched and defined the result of the publication. It should be noted that the popular project of Canudos, at first, was to build a community…

© Ícaro Lira

© Ícaro Lira

In your work on Canudos you tell of a city that grew on the promise of a popular project as had never been seen before, and which had been burned down and had its population decimated because of the threat it represented. The city then rebuilds slowly, and again, they decide to end it, building a dam that flooded the territory formerly occupied by the city, destroying, in turn, much of the historical evidence of the massacre that happened above. The way you tell us this, however, is always very careful to avoid, at all costs, the spectacle and the exotic appeal. In the second phase of the project, now in Ceará, you intend to deal with such a sensitive subject as this. Tell me a little, how you came to that kind of approach that your work advances. And tell a little of what you want to accomplish in this second phase.

IL: I think the main point is to talk about removed stories. Historical processes that keep repeating themselves and yet are officially deleted by the State. Canudos was burned down in 1886 and men were beheaded. The second city built by the survivors was flooded in 1969 already during the military dictatorship. The images accompanied by forgetfulness, shadows, absences, speak of an open history, with different versions. Thus it’s an experience that, as the found images, is inserted in the past, and it is not just about the past and its acceptance. Right now I’m working on a new research about the concentration camps that existed in Ceará between 1915 and 1932. These camps served to keep away the hinterland population from that of the State capital, Fortaleza, because these people did not fit the pattern of civilization that the city wanted to transpire in the modernization period.

© Ícaro Lira

The book 'Artificial Hells’, by Claire Bishop begins with a quote of Dan Graham that says: «All artists are alike. They dream of doing something that’s more social, more collaborative, and more real than art.» What do you think?

IL: Actually, I think that there are few artists who have that kind of concern, but for me this is real. Art is always almost doomed to failure. In the near future I want to leave São Paulo and move permanently in that region. Perhaps with this move, and far from expectations of an art system, it is possible to perform a real job, which in fact dialogue, touch and modify some tired structures of the medium. 


Ícaro Lira