Corollaries to the Anthropophagic Feast
Tadeo Muleiro’s art embraces the delicate challenge of crossing the formal exuberance of certain native Argentine cultures and the conceptual demands of contemporary art—and that is no easy task. It is widely known that art today is resistant to looking back to visual traditions prior to Modernism, let alone to setting its gaze on non-Western creation. That does not seem to dissuade this young Argentine artist, though, as he has developed an extensive and rigorous body of work along those lines in recent years.
The striking fertility of the intersection Muleiro formulates is due less to the traditions it evokes than to the frictions it generates. To an artist who began producing in the 21st century, who was trained in a contemporary institutional framework, who lives in the midst of a technological universe and large city, it is clear that his project is not a question of attempting to restore the values of a culture completely foreign to our contemporary idiosyncrasy and largely incomprehensible to us. Nor does he look to that culture as a source of formal inspiration or unusual motifs. He does not seek to uphold the political blazon of defense of native peoples. What he pursues, rather, is a field of research that strains the present, one that is manifested in a rich symbolic universe that ceaselessly questions us on the basis of its radical otherness.
Tadeo Muleiro makes use of that ancestral legacy to build an intimate mythology that takes the shape of a domestic drama. This is evident in the titles of his works. Papá y mamá [Mom and Dad, 2006], El hijo [The Son, 2008], La casita [The Little House, 2010], Los hermanos [The Brothers, 2010], El abuelo [The Grandfather, 2012], and El padre [The Father, 2015] build a story in which cosmological entities intersect with specific moments from the artist’s private life. Each work delves into customary ceremonies and legends that, when brought to bear on contemporary life, produce immediate interactions with these times, thus multiplying their projections on imaginary and symbolic levels. At the same time, the works as a whole construct a sort of larger family narrative that freely—and at times capriciously—brings together elements from different local fables and rituals. This because the artist does not attempt to reproduce or to bring to the present values or meanings that cannot be experienced or interpreted in their original form, but rather appeals to those values and meanings as he puts together a universe of his own in which they resonate in a unique pitch. It is not a question of mythical characters and situations being transferred wholesale onto the conceptual framework of contemporary art, but rather of an appropriation that attempts to re-energize their visual potential and discourse.
To that end, Tadeo Muleiro looks to Oswald de Andrade’s Anthropophagite Manifesto (1928), specifically to its implications for the visual arts. Artists inspired by de Andrade affirmed the need to consume and metabolize foreign influences as they created work rooted in the local. Muleiro makes literal, albeit playful and ironic, use of these ideas in his early paintings. Ricas señoritas [Rich Young Ladies, 2005], Marilyn sabrosa [Tasty Marilyn, 2005] and othersevidence the need to accept, but also to eschew, the visual heritage of Western masters in order to pursue a unique and personal path. That path became clearer the next year when he made Papá y mamá (2006), a large soft sculpture of a single body with both male and female traits. In this work, references to pre-Hispanic legends and symbols are more apparent. The figure is a hermaphroditic being that embodies life and death, menace and shelter; it engenders children with skulls for heads, jaguars, and serpents. Its colorful body is structured around exaggerated genitals and its arm-tentacles hover over the viewer when they open. In this work, some of the characteristics that would come to typify a great deal of the artist’s later production appear: saturated and vibrant color in shapes inspired by pre-Columbian art from Argentina (the Aguada culture) and from other parts of Latin America (Aztec culture from Mexico and Chavin culture from Peru); bodies built with canvas or fleece, padding or foam, that are both flat and volumetric—and, hence, halfway between painting and sculpture. These are bodies that incarnate symbolic values and, whether explicitly or implicitly, give shape to a scene of some sort. In Papá y mamá, that scene is a birth: children and serpents poke through the dilated vagina of the female figure. The production process for these pieces is strictly artisanal: they are created and painted by the artist and never again repeated; each of the children and animals that comes out of the mother’s womb is unique, which means that each piece takes a considerable amount of time to produce, in addition to the time required for its planning and conceptual development.
The main character in El hijo (2008) is a double of the artist. The scene shows the son—“half man and half myth, shroud in holy images”—coming out of “the vagina of the Earth,” which serves as both cradle and nest despite soft tentacles that turn it into a space sheltering yet menacing. In a photograph, Muleiro is sleeping next to his inanimate double, reinforcing the phantasmagoric quality of this inert and uncanny doppelgänger.
The work Caja roja [Red Box, 2008], which was produced at the same time, consists of a fabric-lined wooden trunk inside of which are a skull and a handful of snakes made out of multicolored cloth, as well as a book—which is also soft—with sketches for the El hijo project in watercolor, acrylic on canvas, and quilted material. Like Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box (1934), this work is a sort of private miniature museum with a correlate of larger works geared to an exhibition space. But, unlike Duchamp’s box, this one is neither a register nor an inventory. It is, rather, a working document, a container that stores incipient ideas.
El brujo [The Warlock, 2008] introduces a new element to Tadeo Muleiro’s art: the primary sculptural component is now a suit, a sculpture to be inhabited. New materials are added to the artist’s formal repertoire by a wooden and paper maché mask; certain prop-like objects (a sable and a real skull) are used alongside objects made in painted canvas.
The clothing is based on a kimono and the sable reminiscent of a weapon used by a samurai. This mix of cultures is significant not because it brings two far points of the planet together, but because it seems to tell us something about the artist’s cultural horizon: Tadeo Muleiro grew up in the visual universe of manga, anime, and television series like Power Rangers and Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac. These Eastern touches are undoubtedly an acknowledgement of his imaginary ecology, of the magical beings that peopled his adolescence—as close to the mythological world as a young city dweller gets.
El brujo consists of a series of photographs in which the warlock is at the center of menacing situations. He attacks the figure from El Hijo with his sable before the figure of the tree-bathtub from the work Árbol-bañera (2007) and places him in a vat at the foot of the tree. The scene ensues somewhere between sacred ritual, heroic painting in the style of Jacques-Louis David, and low-budget film. The extreme color, clearly artificial setting, and rigid poses reduce the dramatism of a character that symbolizes the nexus between the living and spirits.
Something similar takes place in the video Los hermanos (2010). Though it represents the dispute between existential dualities—light and darkness, beginning and end—the staging recalls, in a sense, professional wrestling matches shown on television. Nonetheless, the slow choreography of the bodies produces a captivating environment that goes beyond the media reference. The violence intensifies as the combatants become more and more engrossed in their work. At the end, each of them returns to his original position in the arena as if they were going to start all over again.
The actors in the work are the artist and his brother, Emmanuel. The family component relativizes the fictional nature of the piece and gives it a singular dramatic weight. The work contains references to the childhood rivalries and strife that give shape to personality, and to cock fights, which gives the work the telluric atmosphere sought by its maker.
The work La casita (2010) returns to the themes of birth and fertility through the paradigmatic figure of Pachamama, described in an illustration of her created by the artist some years later as “Navel of the Earth, source of all living beings, mother of the Sun and of the Moon.” La casita consists of a painted canvas tent that can hold the viewer. Its outside is covered with colorful ornamental circles and its interior contains a rich iconography of animals and plants that inflame the walls with energy and vitality.
If, in the suit-works, the artist inhabited the sculpture, here it is the audience that occupies that place. The two videos that continue the family saga veer away from pre-Columbian themes. The first (El abuelo, 2012) does so by means of references to local political history, specifically to the tragic episode known as the Conquest of the Desert (1878-1885) in which the Argentine military killed and displaced thousands of indigenous peoples to consolidate control over the nation’s territory, the second (El padre, 2015) does so by means of an homage to the artist’s deceased biological father. While, as in the earlier works, the protagonists of both these pieces wear suits, here their outfits are much more abstract and geometric.
El abuelo is the first video that tells a story in the classical sense. It is an account of a native spirit that goes from the country to the city to stand before a statue of Julio Argentino Roca, the right hand of the military campaign that exterminated much of Argentina’s indigenous population. Unlike earlier works, this one is filmed in real locations in Buenos Aires province and city. Nonetheless, the environments that this strange being visits during his pilgrimage are largely unaltered by his presence; the journey seems to form part of him or to exist in a parallel reality that ensures him a certain independence.
El padre is a dark video. The main character is a spirit with mirrors that reflect his surroundings: the interior of a gloomy and abandoned house that bears signs that something fateful has happened here.
The protagonist walks around slowly, as if surveying the place. He dwells on a family photography, hangs a painting and a few sculptures on the wall, and then leaves. The works in the video are by visual artist Carlos Muleiro, Tadeo’s father, who died in a mysterious incident in the place shown in the video.
The mirrored face is reminiscent of the hooded figure in Meshes of theAfternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, which has a similar psychological depth. Muleiro’s work sets out to be an exorcism of sorts, a means of banishing an unexpected tragedy. While all of his works evidence something personal, this one is indisputably the most self-referential and intimate.
La salamanquera (2014) furthers the line of projects based on native legends. Here, the artist offers his own version of the stories surrounding the myth of the cave of Salamanca. A series of paintings where the night is depicted in intense shades of blue shows covens, ceremonies, and challenges. Human beings exist alongside threatening animals that torture them and put their courage to the test. Some recognizable figures like the basilisk, the goat, the serpent, the crow, and the Zupay or Criollo devil—in the form of a soft sculpture with black body and red mask that was exhibited at a solo show at Galería Ro—appear.
These works are complemented by a video that takes the fable to an urban setting. This time, the protagonist is a woman seduced by a dancer wearing a goat mask. The initiation ceremony takes place on a rooftop terrace, rather than in the depths of a cave, in the dark of night. The Supay and the figure from the work entitled El abuelo take part in the ceremony, though for the first time they play secondary roles. The video is edited in a narrative style; it complies with all the norms of conventional cinematographic montage. The work partakes of the fantasy genre due to its strict adherence to cinematographic vraisemblance; the soundtrack gives it a realist tone absent in other works by Muleiro. During the same period, Muleiro produced a group of illustrations under the title Seres sobrenaturales de la cultura popular argentina [Supernatural Beings of Argentine Popular Culture, 2011-2012]. This inventory of chimeras acts as both a catalogue of works produced and of those planned for the future. It includes most of the characters in earlier works (the figures in Los hermanos, el abuelo, el árbol-bañera/axis mundi, el brujo, and el Supay) while making way for the eventual appearance of others. The regular format of these illustrations, which are framed in geometric shapes, brings to mind, if fleetingly, the strange, rich, and eloquent symbolism of tarot cards.
The illustrations do not attempt to conceal their affinity with the language of comics. The figures are frontal and seem to come forward from the geometric backgrounds as if eager to capture the viewer’s attention. Figures-in-action, these beings promise adventure; they are instruments of a narrative about to unfold.
In its mix of diverse cultural references, combination of varying materials and media, and conjunction of traditional legends and the contemporary world, Tadeo Muleiro’s work takes part in the anthropophagic feast that holds unrestrained hybridity over precise restitution of custom. And it does so by means of a mythology of beings removed from their time to inhabit our world, beings that come to life in stories located at the corners of that world, beings that are an undeniable, embodied presence. This attitude seems to embrace the words of Oswald de Andrade who, in his Anthropophagite Manifesto, stated “The spirit refuses to conceive spirit without body.”