I thought that my sister could sprout into a tree of muscles, with branches of bones producing flowers of fingernails. Thousands of fingernails that perhaps would follow the little bit of sun. Perhaps they would grow like sharp claws.

Valter Hugo Mãe, A desumanização

The Portuguese word muda in the exhibition’s title, Corpo em Muda [Body in Change], besides meaning “change,” is associated with sprouting, transformation and renovation. The term also designates a young plant (seedling) which is yearning for the action of time. These notions also bear a sense of expectations of hatching, metamorphosis, and fruiting.

In his novel A desumanização, Portuguese writer Valter Hugo Mãe tells the story of a girl who, in trying to come to grips with the death of her twin sister, asks what happened with her body. She starts to equate that which was buried with the image of the body that is disintegrated by vermin in the earth and with the essence of fertility. This gives rise to the dubious condition of a “planted child,” of a body which is simultaneously carcass and seed. In her infantile naïveté, the girl imagines that her sister would sprout branches and fruits, as well as fingernails and teeth, in a disordered growth process. It is a body in change from which dissimilar elements sprout, resulting in the coexistence of disconnected parts.

Bodies in change reappear in the recent production by Eduardo Berliner. The artworks featured in the show reveal the means by which his figurative universe operates hybridizations. Upon entering this exhibition we see a flutist with the snout, a dog with a child’s head, a doll with horns for arms. Dissimilar autonomous elements circulate within the same universe, without any definite origin or destination. The outlook presented is one of bodies that undergo transmutations, recombinations and amputations in a space of limbo between the human and the animalesque.

The first sign of these operations is found in the wide range of origins of the images, which combine figures arising from the exercise of observation and from imagination. The artist’s disconcerting figures spring from studies in a natural history museum, fragments of memory and elements of day-to-day life. In the painting O flautista [The Flutist] the cranium of the elephant was transposed in detail from studies in drawing, while the body of the flutist – a man/dog hybrid – seems somewhat improvised. In this case, as on other occasions in Berliner’s production, the outlines of the human figure do not result from observation, but from what is imaginatively implied or suggested by the blotches of paint. 

The set of artworks featured in the show also conveys the uneasiness that arises when figures of such diverse natures are treated equivalently. This equivalence does not involve their pictorial aspects or the procedures of their making, but rather the coexistence of the absurd and the familiar. These bodies are treated in an uncanny way, as in Balanço [Swing Set], in which a simple swing set with amputated limbs is part of a typical childhood scene. In light of the juxtaposition of hybrid and dissimilar elements, it is not possible to distinguish what is innocent or dangerous, nor even whether there is any displacement of the explicit motif in the paintings, or not.

The juxtaposition of elements is coupled with the ambiguity of the gestures. At the same time delicate and violent, the contact between the bodies takes place in the form of a reciprocal exchange: a boy wears an animal skin like a glove, the animal paw wounding his foot; a skull with skeleton arms is holding a man’s head as though it were about to break his neck. These gestures and counter-gestures contain, however, an unknown quantum of meaning, just as in the scenes portrayed there is a latent content. We do not know what leads a child to stick his fingers into another boy’s eyes and mouth – it could be a game, though it’s not clear if it is ingenuous or perverse.

Besides the bodies in change and the multiple origins of the elements, there is another dimension in this set, which is linked to the experience of the gaze. Paintings such as Vampiro [Vampire] and Sem título [Untitled] contain presences that are not limited to their pictorial constitution. They are figures that beckon for and return our gaze, which lends them a dreamlike or phantasmagoric status. The communication they establish with us is in a certain way intrusive, since at first sight we already find ourselves being watched by them. More precisely, through the chromatic behavior of the artworks, we are confronted by apparitions that emerge from the darkness.

Nevertheless, Eduardo Berliner’s images are matteric. They are paintings, drawings, prints and watercolors of diverse densities and constitutions; artworks whose complexity springs from the accumulation of gestures and chance occurrences in the manipulation of the medium. Each artwork presents itself as a body and shares the space with the observers. There is, however, an ambiguity in the perception: what is on the canvas, the paper, or the wood is both recognized and not recognized. There is a game between abstractionism and figurativism: sometimes one of the abstract paintings reminds us of the planarity the others. In light of the figures of his imagination, we see that his artworks essentially deal with pigment, light, size and distance.

Between the imagetic, the matteric and the personal, these bodies in change evince something that is underway in Berliner’s work. A turning point seems to have taken place due to the influence of an incipient problematics, relative to the contact with the Other. In contrast with his production from previous years, his images now contain signs of autonomous subjectivities in relation to that of the artist. This explains the dynamics of the gazes that are established between the observer and the artworks. The discomfort we feel before some of them is the recognition that we are ourselves objects in the gaze of the Other.

Berliner’s bodies in change do not refer only to the myriad possibilities of the fertile body but also to the mystery of maturation: to the impossibility of the current situation to unveil its future. In the novel, the twin of the planted child experiences the limit of her own process of becoming: she asks her father to prune her body, like a bonsai tree, to stop the change, so that she does not get out of step with her sister. We thus find in Eduardo Berliner and Valter Hugo Mãe the moment of alterity: the self cannot avoid its transmutation into another. It is likewise not possible to postpone the encounter with what is different. We are surprised at the instant when the potential for change brings together a wide range of possible paths, from which sprout the rachitic and the gracious, the prosaic and the brutal.

Priscyla Gomes and Felipe Kaizer