THE BODY IN THE WORK OF NINO CAIS . CAUÊ ALVES

The body, as it appears in Nino Cais’ work, possesses a rather unique conception. In one of his first public appearances in São Paulo, for the “Occupation” project at the Paço das Artes in 2005, the artist stitched and tied kitchenware like cups, saucers and pans to a kind of straightjacket. But this was not the same as the device used to immobilize mental patients during psychotic episodes, rather an attempt to invent an approximation between the artist’s body and the objects that carried some emotive value.


In this work, his body is not conceived as something isolated and apart from the world, or as inert matter that belongs to the subject. This formulates the very impossibility of separating the body (with its internal depth) from the memories and emotions in relation to the surrounding objects. The body in this work by Nino Cais, as a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity, is neither entirely distinguished from the tangible and material world, nor reduced to that. It is as if the utensils tied to his body were extensions of the artist, like the walking stick as the extension of a blind person’s body, or the racing car of the driver’s body. It all occurs as if the objects were incrusted in his skin, reinforcing the primordial connection between man and the world.


The artist’s body intimately related to objects has been a constant theme in his oeuvre: His hands interspersed in a pile of metal teacups; his head pressed against a horizontal line of domestic utensils. The body is the fragile element balanced on glass containers, whether as an indirect allusion to his presence on chairs hanging in the same way, or as direct contact with the environment. The connection between the body and space is highlighted when the artist starts to build kinds of pillars with buckets, basins and broomsticks pressed tight between the floor and ceiling. In this case, while these columns made of everyday, trivial objects act as caryatids (sculpted female figures that supported the whole weight of the superstructure of Greek temples on their heads) the visitor’s body walks around wary and insecure between the improvised and unstable columns.


In a series of later photographs, Nino Cais’ body appears camouflaged between brooms, tea towels, fridge magnet penguins, saucepan tops, embroidered towels, paper decorations, flowers, rugs or gloves. There is a purposefully kitsch appeal, a kind of self-irony that emphasizes the cheap and tacky, or even average distastefulness of objects made for mass consumption. Even though this body’s face is covered, which hinders quick recognition of who it is behind, it cannot completely lose its identity. It is as if characters and masks were invented and placed over this body which forges fictions, fantasies and other identities. There is a certain estrangement generated in these works, both by over-colourful images and by allusions to fantastical tales and oneiric worlds.


Nonetheless, this is not just any body, or a body-turned-thing, but rather a body with intended meaning. The artist portrays the meaning already given to the everyday objects, distorting their original function and, therefore, attributing unprecedented meanings to them: whether by underlining the symbolic character of the objects, or because the relations that they acquire in contact with the artist’s body subvert that already instilled. Therefore, Nino Cais’ body uses personal choices to establish meanings that each object would not hold separately.


In some works, the artist’s body undergoes a kind of loss of subjectivity, as if it were just a support for a vessel, like a coffee table. However, the power of these works resides precisely in the fact that the body that the artist inhabits is distinct from the world precisely because it is not just an inert object. And indeed, in Nino Cais’ work, the body could never be reduced to a mere base that passively receives outer senses. On the contrary, instead of a mere support, it is the body that gives and receives meaning from the objects. Its presence is inevitable and even when there might be a will to annul or match the body to a cheap object, it reappears pointing our attention to the bizarre aspect of this operation, as if to remind us of its specificity in relation to everyday objects.


In the contemporary world, representation of the body indeed answers more and more to the demands of consumption. And fashion and sewing magazines, like those used by the artist in his collages, represent a fertile field for this treatment of the body as a thing. In these publications, squalid bodies tend to resemble coat-hangers for designer clothing. Or else the body becomes a mere image that represents a sensual role, bearing an artificial attitude, a pose, aimed at a predetermined niche of the consumer market. In his collages, Nino Cais lays flowery designs and patterns over the faces of these pictures of bodies, which themselves already serve the function of dictating norms. An operation of repetition with the sign changed, like an annulment.


Also in Nino Cais’ drawings, the body is often represented. But in them the starting point is his image photographed and transposed on to paper. His silhouette is subjected to interventions with lines, embroidery and flowery motifs. His body merges with objects, plants or animals, but the reference, nevertheless, is still his own body. 


The artist’s drawings and collages, following a long process of experimentation, were developed from the appropriation of pictures from old books and the attempt to create volumes that extrapolate the two-dimensional plane. The strategy of placing circular cut-out shapes on the faces of unknown figures could be seen as a continuation of the previous works which featured printed pictures of bodies from magazines transfiguring the identity of the characters.


In any case, the body, his own and others’, constitutes one of the central elements of the artist’s investigation: it is image represented and direct experience with the world. This is a body that returns to itself to investigate its capabilities and limitations and, hence, reflects on its own acts, postures and connections to objects. His art involves the fundamental and ongoing question about the possible meanings of the body and, above all, about the meaning that it gives to the objects around it. In Nino Cais’ practice, the traditional opposition between active and passive no longer makes any sense. The body acts on the world and suffers in itself the action exerted on it.