Moscow Biennial, Catalogue Essay, 2007
Flávia Müller Medeiros
By Curator Vanessa Desclaux

The work of Flávia Müller Medeiros drifts between “here” and “there”, the familiar and the unfamiliar. She explores the distance between those two poles; the moment when the dance becomes fight, when logical discourse slips into non-sense, when laugh turns into cry.

She investigates social situations like her own artistic practice, as in “What have I said” (2003), a video that shows a close-up of her own face, talking about her work to the camera with chewing-gum in her mouth, altering her rhythm of speech and facial expressions. In her video project “Failed, Emerging and Young” (2004-ongoing), she interviews curators within their working context and asks them to define the controversial notions of failed, emerging and young artists. In front or behind the camera, she observes how people articulate their thoughts through speech while they are exposed to the public gaze, which makes them more vulnerable. Her past experience of performer seems to inform her current artistic choices, which still very much rely on her presence, or the presence of others.

Since 2002, Müller Medeiros’ artistic practice has developed at the margins of performance as such, through performances conceived for the camera and video installations - such as “Inaugurate” (2005) and “Twang Twang Dreamland” (2006)- that focus on spoken language, disembodied of physical presence. In these works, she looks into the imaginary space that can be created by distancing sound and images. She points out the power of language and its capacity of creating sense and non-sense, of carrying different meanings according to the transmitter and the receptor of the words.

Müller Medeiros looks for situations that confronts contradictory ideas and leave the viewer in a position of wonder. She takes away political statements and discourses, or personal memories recalled by a southern American girl, from their original context, creating collages of found images and sounds, and exploring their potential for inventing new fictions. Humour, derision and singular cultural references are key elements of a personal exploration of art, identity, democracy or revolution.

Beck’s Futures Exhibition, ICA, 2006
Flávia Müller Medeiros
by Curator Adam Carr

Using a cross-disciplinary approach spanning the diversity of performance, video and photography, Flávia Müller Medeiros’ work occupies an artistic position that explores the way in which language dramatically influences our perception and how this affects representation. Her practice aims principally at examining the established creeds, perception of reality and subjectivities in western society - concerns reflected in a video work Inaugurate (2005) presented in Beck’s Futures 2006. Each part of the artist’s working practice operates as a process – a complex labyrinth in which works are re-looped, re-visited and often contain other works, in a way suggestive of a Russian Matryoshka doll.

It Depends on the Circumstance and the People (2005), a small yellow book produced by the artist, demonstrates a deliberately meandering strategy. The publication catalogues Flávia’s artistic output from 1999 to 2004 and at the same time operates as a work in its own right. The artist realises that this chosen format is not only a means for disseminating information regarding previous work, but can also serve as an occasion to initiate new work that might exist strictly within that format. Performative Concepts (1999-2002), a work contained in the publication, indicates this particular condition. As the title suggests, the piece comprises a list of concepts that constitute the bases of a series of performative works. The artist’s aspiration is here directed towards confronting the reader with the imaginative possibilities for the work’s form and shape. How would each individual concept directly engage with an unsuspecting public? And what effect could be posed on social groups, or society as a whole? Therefore, the outcome of the work is ultimately subjective: it is reliant upon individuals reaching their own conclusions. In parallel, the suggestion of art in the public and the public in art is brought to the fore in a number of Müller Medeiros’ works that take to the street, interpolating in daily life. Bringing to mind the pioneering work of Adrian Piper – in particular her Catalysis pieces (1970-) – Flávia’s work aims to transpose passive interest into direct participation, a concerted effort to bridge the divisions between art and life.

Although Flávia’s work finds affinity with Piper’s explorations, her concerns also seem to deviate. For her, it is less about provoking race, xenophobia, and gender issues inherent in society – issues on which Piper’s work is founded - and more a proposed form for examining the parameters of socially accepted behaviour. Arguably, today’s society increasingly displays impersonal and paranoid characteristics, which Flávia aims to test via acts of direct confrontation and a strategy of charm. One work clearly exemplifying this strategy, You Are Beautiful (2003-ongoing), could be ephemeral to the point of complete disappearance. But should you meet with the artist, you might be handed a card declaring: “You are beautiful: I made this card to hand out to a beautiful person, especially after eye contact. It intends to acknowledge beauty that is inclusive and subjective. I would like to give as many cards as there are beautiful people in the world.” The recipient of the card is left to consider the artist’s intent: is her motive sincerity or deep irony? Is this use of language deceptive? Should we even trust this person?

This feeling of ambivalence is taken even further in a video piece Failed, Emerging and Young (2004-ongoing) where systems of art production become a working principle, and within which often-unquestionable terminologies used to describe a particular stage in an artist career come under the artist’s scrutiny. But rather than an expression of the artist’s thoughts, the work invites the views of those who use these terms the most: curators. Each participant, captured on camera, is asked to articulate their own understanding of what categorizes failed, emerging and young artists and to offer an explanation of how they might employ those terms. While seeming to examine the relationship between the position of the curator and that of the artist, it is in fact one aspect of the artist’s continual collaboration with others – within and beyond the institution – as a means of investigating a broader and more meaningful theme: the multitude of ways in which we use language to give meaning to things, by dissecting meaning hidden within the everyday.

A failed artist is someone who...
An emerging artist is someone who...
A young artist is someone who...

Flávia Müller Medeiros
Failed, Emerging and Young Video, 2004
Writer Celia Jameson, from Contemporary magazine, 2004

Flávia Müller Medeiros asked some curators to talk about three different terms by which artists are defined. The curators have been asked to speak, and this is what they do: define, discern, articulate a position, place things in relation to each other.

And yet, given the time to expose themselves, they begin to flounder. Language is failing them, even as it is re-produced. Filmed in their institutional settings, they begin to look uncomfortable, something is evading them perhaps, maybe some question that should have been asked at the outset. But its too late, I canʼt get out of it now, Iʼve started to speak, and this is what I do....

The piece is presented in a gallery space, on a monitor or as a small projection onto the wall. The names of the curators are listed, and there is a remote control so that the audience member can choose who to watch first, whether to stick with one person until theyʼve finished or skip to someone else. Or one could look at the alternatives presented in the menu and decide not to bother. As the audience then, we are enabled, but within certain constraints. And as subjects we are both enabled and constrained by the language that is available to us, which presents us with certain identity positions to inhabit. Müller Medeirosʼ work inserts itself into the circuits by which meaning is produced and disseminated; in this case, the circuits of production and consumption through which art world meanings are produced, through which one is produced as an artist.

As a subtle intervention this piece is both sly and generous. It not only generates critique, but opens up the possibility for other relationships of meaning. The curators are given very little instruction. They are given the time not only potentially to expose themselves but to reflect on their own positions, and perhaps it is through reflection that we are able to make small shifts, small changes to our way of being in the world, in our relationships with others.

Müller Medeiros hands out cards saying “You are beautiful” to people she meets on the street. The cards have a small text on them which states that beauty is “inclusive and subjective”. As an intervention, this articulates a question about aesthetic judgement, and about subjectivity. We are aware that beauty is both a culturally constructed category and “in the eye of the beholder”. It is language that brings us into being (as beautiful or not beautiful, as failed or not failed), but how can we be both created in discourse and aware of that creation? If we want to question categories, or resist categorisation, how can we articulate that resistance in a productive manner?

This artist resists in one way by challenging the conventional means of presenting and archiving an artistic practice. The intervention with the cards for example is not described as a finished or an ongoing performance, because it is neither: it is an activity that can be started up again and left again at any time. In a forthcoming book, artwork and documentation of performances from different times is presented randomly, not in a linear organisation that would suggest an evolution of the work through time, and a relationship of causality between one piece and another. And it is significant that the book contains work that was never regarded as “finished”. The book performatively produces the work as finished in one sense, but at the same time always in process, hovering on a threshold or a boundary between one condition and another, and challenging the status of that boundary.

In the sound piece “Loving Hands” the artist repeats what might sound like contradictory statements: I like my hands / I don't like working with my hands / when I have to work with my hands I get lazy / I like thinking / ideas, experiences are more interesting than materials / the idea is what matters / my hands are functional and give love. This work explores the culturally extant dualism between mind and body and hence the tension that exists between an idea that one might have (for an artwork, for example) and the physical practice of its creation, through which “thought” might be more usefully be located as an embodied practice.

Elizabeth Grosz has suggested the body as “the threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidably at the pivotal point of binary pairs” ', and Müller Medeirosʼ practice is haunted by her embodied presence. In the large scale video projection “What I have said”, we are presented with the artistʼs face projected onto a wall as she attempts to talk about the artwork she has produced, hindered by the fact that she is chewing gum. In talking about the work, she produces the work, but language is disrupted by bodily processes.

There is a body in process then, a body that experiences and that disrupts and evades language. Perhaps it is this bodily potential that gives Müller Medeirosʼs work the potential both to exist within already codified systems of meaning, and to slip away from them. There is no closure here.

List of work discussed:
“What Have I Said”, 26 minute looped video projection, 2003
“You are Beautiful”, printed cards, 2003
“Think Don't Think”, audio composition, 2003
“Loving Hands”, audio 2003
“Failed, Emerging and Young”, Video, 2004
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'Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994