Guidon, man of Betanimen
"Guidon, Man of Betanimen", Rosângela Rennó (2018), from the series "Notable Beings of the World". Photo: Courtesy Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo
Horizontal, color photo. Rosângela Rennó is sitting on a staircase without a handrail. With her legs crossed, she rests her elbow on one of her knees and uses her hand to support her face, which is aimed at the camera. She wears a black long-sleeved t-shirt, gray pants, and a scarf printed with shades of orange, green, brown, beige and blue. On her face, round white glasses. She has her hair down. Behind the artist, a shelf with film rolls.
Rosangela Renno. Photo: Gabriela Lima

Rosângela Rennó's work will be revisited in a large anthological exhibition, to be opened at Estação Pinacoteca, on October 2, giving the public the opportunity to see together the power of her production. Having as main elements memory and image, especially the photographic one, the artist deconstructs structures of perpetuation of power, illuminates social perversions and brings to the surface artifices of our social order that help us to illuminate and deconstruct naturalizations that sometimes seem unshakable.

Curated by Ana Maria Maia, the show presents a wide range of research and questions developed by the artist over 35 years. There are anthological works, such as the series Red (Military), Common people ou deletions, mixed with rarely seen works from the beginning of his career, or unpublished research in Brazil such as Eaux de Colonies (2019)

Anyway, Small Image Ecology, the title of the exhibition that derives from a work done in 1988, points to the poetic core around which Rosângela orbits, marked by intertwined times, by the persistent use of private images and by a fascination for taking away from the invisibility of archives and histories anonymous, aspects that she addresses in the following interview.

arte!brasileiros – Does this exhibition revisit your entire career? Can it be considered a great retrospective?

Rosângela Rennó – It's big, but it's not retrospective. First, because the word retrospective already makes me panic, it puts us at a certain age that we refuse to admit we have. But also because a lot was left out, which is natural in any exhibition. She was led to have a certain type of work and a temperature. If we were really going to be retrospective, we would have to cover other issues.

You've been working with photography since forever, haven't you?

I was still at Escola Guignard – I studied architecture and Guignard at the same time – when I took the photography option. That's when I said: “This is what I want to do, this is my main medium”. Between starting to work with photography and assuming certain manias, certain schisms (it's a Minas Gerais thing. Mineiro schisms!) and choosing certain issues, certain themes, it was a very short time.

The first work is from 1987. This process of revisiting old productions must be interesting.

I used a doll from the 1950s, which belonged to my very ugly sister, to play Alice, Lewis Carroll's character. But in fact it was a kind of pretext to do some photographic experiments. We discussed a lot about recurring things, including because there is a work called vicious circles, from the Pinacoteca collection and which will be in the exhibition. In my life there are a lot of things that come and go. Because I make them come back, I provoke it. And there are also issues that I've dealt with within my work that don't leave me. It's not that they come back, they never leave. There are problems that are always on my mind because they are amazing. Haunting, I don't even know if the word exists, is something in the territory of photography, isn't it?

Like something veiled, latent? It seems like you're always reaching for the bone, but that bone is always a little bit further away.

Because I also think that's what makes the photographic image so powerful. It's because of the haunting that you can be between fiction and reality. Today there is a lot of discussion about this: how much information, how much fiction can you project on supposed information, on objective information. We are not even going to give too much space to talk about the obvious, which is the political use that can be made of it. But this territory, this thing between fiction and reality, has always existed in photography. But sometimes it gets more attention. And it seems that in the digital realm this is easier to perceive.

O Universal File, this collection of material about the image that you started in the 1990s, is it still alive? How will he be present at the exhibition?

We get older, we get more selective. It has to be a really good story to keep. I edit the material less, but I keep a lot. THE Universal File is the text file over image. It will show up in the exhibition with several of the devices I've used before. It is at the base of installations such as the Hippocampus, which must have about 18 texts with phosphorescent letters, has some texts tattooed on skin and photographed… There are also remains of the studio. There are, for example, two texts that were in my studio because nobody wanted them. They are horrible texts, horrible subjects, which are now back on the wall. The curious thing is that these ugly ducklings, which no one wants to have in the living room, are linked to racism and colonialism. Look at the coincidence.

Are they in the category of our hauntings?

Hauntings that actually never failed to leave our imagination. They just weren't in the front. It's very curious. Something I showed you five years ago that bothered you. And I want to show again, bother again. Not even to see if anything has changed or not. Deep down, we do these things or insist on showing certain things, talking again, because it is only through repetition that we can at some point change the perception of something. The human being only learns if you hammer the same thing several times.

Could you talk about the issue of ecology, which is in the title of the exhibition? It has to do with this recovery of materials that you do, but there are other less evident dimensions, right?

When did I Small Image Ecology I was already interested in thinking about a certain idea of ​​economy of images. It is a question related to a thinker who impressed me a lot in the 1980s, Andreas Müller-Pohle. Very few people read it, very few people talked about him, but he was the editor of the European Photography magazine together with Vilém Flusser and he had wonderful texts. Basically, what he called the political principle of the ecology of information I brought to the territory of images. Because, at that time, I was already a collector of the photographic residues that populated my laboratory, without knowing very well what to do with it. If I was dealing with the image as information, it was natural for me to work with titles. That was the joke, that forced intertextuality. It was from Small Image Ecology that I took on this thing of creating these reading noises. The images I enlarged with the remains of the laboratory and put some crazy titles, some nonsense, linked to a kind of hecatomb of the world. Do you remember that movie Brazil, by Terry Gilliam? In addition to the crazy look, there was still that thing of playing Brazilian watercolor in the background, something of a post-third world war world. And there was also my inspiration for the crazy titles: We were happy before the bomb; Electron beam towards the 21st century… I looked at that and thought: look what I did in 1988! And then it became impossible not to bring this work back. I really enjoyed being able to call the exhibition a Little Ecology.

Speaking of the most recent works, is there also a work made especially for the show?

There are actually two super new jobs. have the Eaux des Colonies. It's a pun, infamous, basic. Last year I should have done a residency there in Cologne to research the archives of the industries there, but the residency didn't happen because of the pandemic. But Germans are Germans and the exhibition was not postponed. The amendment came out better than the sonnet. I ended up reversing the logic of the production of the work and opened my fan, accessing everything that told me about the history of eau de cologne, about the history of perfumery all over the world. I ended up understanding a whole logic that related eau de cologne to the city of Cologne, which was a Roman colony, which inevitably led me to the question of colonization. And then the work became much tastier, much more fun. I was able to add stories and talk about colonies, about colonization. And about consumerism, a universe in which we are immersed and I don't see how to get out.

And the second work, which you are doing especially for the exhibition?

I've been working on an idea since last year. I received a series of slides, which are educational kits produced by the Salesians, which are catechesis, in the broadest sense, not just about teaching religion. A very strange material, but that interested me a lot because I realized that, in the pedagogical issue, practically nothing has changed, except for some very specific things. I realized that within the problems, or the construction of the subject – one of the sequences was Life under Construction -, there was no talk of racism, for example. Otherwise, it's exactly the same thing.

Are we stuck in the same cycle, like a hellish repetition?

We are there in the movie Brazil, by Terry Gilliam. Then I thought: this is what I'm going to do now. I took the story of Nobody, the man who wasn't a man (with a capital H), which was the original name of this parable, and inverted. Zé Nobody became José Nobody. In the original story the character takes “Personalina” and becomes a man, that was the story of the Salesians.

People always around with miracles that seem to solve everything?

Basically, that's exactly what it is. I created a new fiction for an individual called José Nobody. He is José, not a Zé. But he has a doubt. He will seek scientific help, which gives him two types of treatment: either he takes “Amnesilax” or “Memorilin”. Both have side effects, no diagnosis is categorical, he has to choose. But he doesn't choose and his life remains the same. It's sad, I've shown it to friends who said it's depressing.

Nobody's Land
“Land of José Nobody”, by Rosângela Rennó. Photo: Disclosure

A dark humour, a background melancholy that somehow permeates your entire work, doesn't it?

Yeah, because I think that's life, we do what we can. I couldn't tell another story from those images, a story that had a happy ending. It's slide, no moving image. I didn't want anything to escape the original logic. Slides are modified, each image has been updated. I did the work with a friend, Isabel Escobar. She's one of my video editors and she's a collage beast.

This story brought me back to the question of identity and to another work of yours, Espelho Diário…

It's all about. So much so that we made the obvious choice of putting the two works together. We have the Daily Mirror on the left and José Nobody on the right. Mirror is one of the issues closely linked to the photographic universe, since always. It is in many questions, in the theme of negatives, of doubles. I have always worked a lot with the notion of double.

The exhibition is organized into three different nuclei, bringing together works that deal with the scales of the individual, the collective and the political. But at least in these two works all these aspects are present. Deep down, is your work political all the time, even when you're not explicitly talking about it?

For me these classifications are always very difficult. I have certain concerns, certain issues, things that have led me to make certain decisions one way and not another, and I can't help but think about it. An outside reading is always nice. That of what is collective and what is individual, my work has it all the time. And Rosângelas is an explicit exercise in that. I created a collective character, fake, but it is made up of 133 specific cases of Rosângelas. With horrible or funny stories. Himself Universal File that's it. These are specific cases, but the moment I remove the name, the historical reference, you form an image that can come from many places.

There's an unavoidable question. You are a photographer who rarely photographs. It works with the economy of the image, with the circulation of the image, but it takes away all that side of authorship. Today this is more common, but at the time you started doing it, it was a big news. It would be interesting if you could talk a little bit about it.

When you asked me whether or not I care about theory, I can't say no. Of course I do. A lot of ideas and convictions were born in the 1980s because of many things I read. And one of the things that marked me a lot was Bourdieu. He talks a lot about this medium art, which is photography. It was because I came to understand photography as soon as I became interested in the wide range of photography, which in a way becomes invisible. Either it was never much explored, or it wasn't what the artistic was. I discovered that it was cooler, much more interesting for me to work with everything that wasn't done with an aesthetic proposal behind it. And then I had to learn: scientific photography, vernacular photography, the micro and macro, that is, the scientific uses you make of the image, from the image under the microscope to the one captured via a telescope... tasty, more instigating to discuss photography than the essays that were being done, photography with a modernist character, photography as art. I always found that boring. In fact, I think that few people used their own medium to discuss this at the time. If you talked about it at the academy, the texts were there for you to read. But in Brazil you had very few people questioning or doing any work where this was actually seen. It took a while to get here because photography was for a long time associated with photojournalism. Like it or not, we came from a period of repression. For you to ask photography to stop being the window of reality or to stop discussing reality, it was even very cruel. After all, she had this agenda of commitment to the denunciation. I have a lot of respect for the photographers who have done this work for a long time, under the most difficult conditions in the world. How many photographers have made subtle images to talk about such subtle things? That's it, I think there was a big inertia to accept that photography could have a bigger agenda than what was accepted at that time. And I've always had it almost as a kind of flag, you know? I think that's why I always say I'm a photographer. I've always been. I just don't need to take a picture.

Does this still apply today?

I think it doesn't even fit anymore, because everyone does digital imaging. It doesn't even make much sense. It's just that there was a niche, due to a technical specificity. And you had to master that technique in order to work with it. In order not to photograph, I learned to photograph. I've always been lazy when it comes to taking pictures. For me, photos were always a bit xeroxed. But I know, I learned. I wanted to work with a medium and use as much power as possible that that medium allowed me.

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