Billed as the first major survey documenting a decade of work by Porto-born, Barcelona-based artist Carlos Bunga, the ambitiously-titled ‘The Architecture of Life’ inhabits the halls of Lisbon’s MAAT rather modestly. At least initially; a series of small rooms holds Bunga’s drawings and collages, many resembling preliminary studies (which, in fact, they are not). The rough, understated ink-and-graphite drawing Nómada IV (2008), for instance, shows a willowy humanoid silhouette holding its skyscraper-shaped head with one hand, accentuating its wonky proportions. The drawing acts as an exploratory cue for the show’s presentation of Bunga’s sensitive artistic practice, which responds imaginatively and tactilely to urban architecture.
Several videos in the museum’s vestibules show documentary footage of Bunga constructing with his favoured material: cardboard (which he has compared to skin for its materiality, scent and ephemerality). We see him mounting, with brown sealing tape, large-scale constructions at different museum lobbies: at Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, for the installation and video Landscape (2011), he covered the walls with white and pastel-painted cardboard panels. In 2015, at Barcelona’s MACBA, he took apart previously-created carton walls, climbing, jumping and rolling over on their folding surfaces. For Bunga, both assembly and disassembly are performative. While architecturally-structured, his playful structures have both the rudimentary playfulness of children’s playhouses, though also the gravity and humanity of the makeshift beds of the displaced. Bunga deploys all the versatility of his material. Akin to the ritual dismantling of a meticulously executed sand mandala, his methods reflect his belief in entropy, acknowledging the mutability of material.
Entering the main hall of the exhibition comes with a certain release, for there is finally some space to gain perspective on Bunga’s larger pieces. On the floor, his grid Reflejo (2015-19), made of square carton boxes painted white on the outside, resembles a three-dimensional slab floor that could be replicated infinitely. His earlier videos, Bottle and Lamp 5 (both 2002), are projected high above. In one, we see hands cutting a plastic bottle into pieces, just to have it compactly packed together as if compressed for recycling. In the next, we see hands shattering a light bulb, then taping it together awkwardly. However futile-seeming, these emphasise that actions of care are meaningful in themselves.
Intento de conservación IV (2015) is a series of painted cardboards preciously presented under a lit glass widow, and the series ‘Construcción pictórica #8h’ (2016) and ‘Construcción pictórica (Verde Suave)’ (2018), made with painted cardboard and wood, offer a deceivingly sophisticated level of production. Under closer inspection, the execution contrasts with the mundanity of the material; yet this calls attention to our own presumptions about stability, craft and permanence – steering us to consider, more generally, the many things around us that can suddenly deteriorate or escape us.
As if pondering these existential questions, Bunga has shown a site-specific installation at the back of the main hall. Light Inside (2019) is placed within a modest-sized, high-ceilinged space which Bunga has partitioned so as to direct our gaze upward. Openings that let the light pass through a certain way here, and block it another way, resemble Gordon Matta-Clark’s architectural cut-outs (which Bunga has referenced more explicitly), though here they are made with painted cardboard. The whole is reminiscent of a small shrine or altar within a larger church in which we seek introspection and refuge. In its ludic quality, it balances the pleasure of playing in an elaborate carton box, while still acting as a reminder of the perishability of things.
Carlos Bunga, 'The Architecture of Life. Environments, Sculptures, Paintings and Films' runs at MAAT, Lisbon, until 20 May 2019.
Main image: Carlos Bunga, 'The Architecture of Life', 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: EDP Foundation; photograph: Bruno Lopes