The Double Life of Tunga (1952-2016)

The late Brazilian artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, is a delicate exploration of his multi-faceted practice

Tunga was born in two cities at the same time – or so he’d like you to believe. Throughout his prolific career, the late Brazilian artist (1952–2016) often said he was registered in two locations: Palmares in Pernambuco and the city of Rio de Janeiro. Might another Tunga, his double, still be roaming around? This kind of deliberate self-mythology, an important aspect of his practice, is clearly visible in this exhibition, curated by Luisa Duarte and Evandro Salles, which spans four decades of Tunga’s work and includes extensive archival material across an entire floor. Rather than attempting a proper retrospective, this precise and thoughtful show focuses on the artist’s process and references – from psychoanalysis and pure math to poetry and alchemy – by delving into his drawing practice. A quieter, but no less intense, version of Tunga – best known for his gimmicky and erotically charged large-scale sculptures and installations – comes through in delicate tracings of biomorphic forms. I could spend hours following the single lines that generate surrealist bodily images over the pale hues of handmade Himalayan paper in the series ‘La Voie humide’ (The Humid Way, 2011–14): female genitals become pearls that grow legs and then transform into wings. Tunga plays perverse mind games with an astonishing lightness of touch. Like a charming puppeteer, he seems to hold strings that guide us through his mysterious universe, letting us go only when he pleases.

Tunga, from the series ‘Moforlógicas’ (Morphological), 2014–17, bronze. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art Rio de Janeiro

Over the past few decades, almost all of the most prominent Brazilian art critics have written about Tunga; yet, there is still something about his work that seems impossible to articulate, a kind of pure presence. Duarte and Salles’s non-chronological, coiled exhibition is a sensitive homage to the artist’s highly aestheticized philosophical and mystical concerns. Beginning with Tunga’s early arcane and open-ended symbolic forms from the 1970s, the exhibition also features landmark works from the 1980s and ’90s, such as his seminal video ÃO (1981), in which a camera loops around an endless tunnel, and Vanguarda viperina (Viperine Avant-Garde, 1985), with its disturbing scenes of braided living snakes. A group of stunning 2014 studies for his final ‘Morphological’ series – dozens of small, bronze cast clay sculptures, hand-moulded and spread atop a large table – leads to a smaller, more intimate gallery, where a series of shape-shifting erotic drawings (‘Ethers’, 2010) exhibit a sensuality more explicit than in the artist’s better-known installations.

Tunga, Palíndromo incesto (Palindrome Incest), 1991, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Museum of Modern Art Rio de Janeiro

Although the exhibition focuses on Tunga’s drawing practice, its largely two-dimensional display is punctuated by a few well-selected floor sculptures. One of the most remarkable pieces in the show, Lucido nigredo (conjunto discreto) (Discreet Group, 1999), features an array of dark materials such as felt, iron dust, magnets, sponges and bristle brushes, mixed with small glass balls and shards of blown bell jars. The contrast between matte black material and sharp, glistening glass transmits the energy of matter in transformation, a kind of alchemical effect the artist mastered throughout his career.

In Tunga’s photographic records of a 1987 seashore performance titled Seeding Mermaids, we see the artist turned away from us as he spins a long-haired cast of his own head, before throwing it back into the sea. To explain this image, Tunga once wrote that he had taken a walk on the shore and discovered his own severed head attached to long strands of puddled hair. In his text, the idea of sowing mermaids is associated with the cultivation of the mandrake, a black-flowered plant that grows by gates to the underworld. The image is an amalgam of masculine and feminine in motion, somewhere between life and
death, and – like the artist’s own personal narrative – somewhere between reality and myth.

Tunga: O Rigor da Distração’ was on view at the Museum of Modern Art, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 30 June until 4 November 2018. 

Main image: Tunga Performance, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: Museu do Arte do Rio; photograph: Daniela Paoliello

Fernanda Brenner is the founder and Artistic Director of Pivô, an independent non-profit art space in São Paulo, and a contributing editor of frieze

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019

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