The Mystical Body: an interview with Nino Cais

by Mara Sartore
April 1, 2015
Mara Sartore
Cais Nino

Nino Cais was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1969. Since his success at the São Paulo Biennale in 2012 he has become one of the best-known artists both in Brazil and abroad. During Art Basel Miami Beach, Mara Sartore spoke with him to get into his practice.

MS: I’ve put together some questions to ask you, but first of all I’d like to ask you how you are, how you feel to be here in Miami for the first time with your project at Art Basel.

NC: It’s the first time I’ve taken part in a fair this size. I’m happy about the result for my work. I am very serious about what I do and I am pleased because I think all of this is a part of a process I am undertaking. For me this is the beginning of a new chapter just because I am among so many internationally-famous artists; I have worked with some of them, and followed and learnt from a lot of them, and now I am here with them too. I think this is an important step: it is an education and all the result of my work.

MS: How did you decide on the works to bring? Did you choose them together with Central Galeria de Arte in São Paulo or did you choose them by yourself?

NC: We chose them together. At first we thought of writing down a plan, but then we began to design. Here I am presenting the results of my long, personal research into the female figure.

I represent the female body as something fragile yet rigid. This dualism can be found in the figure of Venus who is represented as eternal yet frail and is compared to a still-life (fig. 1). In many sculptural versions Venus has been seen as an eternal and static figure, while in my work I have underlined women’s more vulnerable and fleeting aspects. The background of paper taken from an old book creates a kind of wallpaper; her face is combined with a lettuce which echoes the form of her face and hair. Like a lettuce, this female figure will in time die and rot. In the sculpture that is half woman and half plates (fig. 2) I played with the contrasts between an icon that is basically eternal, and the plates which are so easily and frequently broken. Here, as in the portraits compared to vegetables, the main idea is of time passing, of what is not conserved because fragility is far more evanescent than the concreteness of an image.

By bringing together these two images (of Venus and plates) and considering them similar I am actually placing myself on Venus’s pedestal as though I were on top of it. My gesture alludes to an artist: Brancusi, an artist I love. His works have been an inspiration for me. And he too used wooden bases, though his were unfinished, rustic trunks. In this work (showing my legs sheathed in nylon pantyhose, together with fruit, fig. 3) I tried to keep these elements in balance. I tried to compare my own skin to that of a woman’s through the use of this stocking-clad skin. The evanescence of the fruit was an allusion to the archetypical female icon when, in primitive times, she was shown as a fertility icon with huge breasts and belly. In fertility icons the female was considered as a divinity that could generate and nourish life from herself. In this work I wanted to speak of women as fruit-bearing, and so I tried to create a voluminous body.

MS: By portraying your own legs, have you identified yourself with the female figure?

NC: Yes, I place myself in the role of a female and build an impossible body, given that it is a male one; on this basis I try to find a balance which underlines the frailty of these fruits clad in nylon. And so, as with the portraits, I explore the theme of the female nude; if you start to look at the work seriously you note the similarity of these shapes to a vulva, to breasts, to the bulky, fatter parts of a woman. The ambiguity is always linked to sexuality, and always explores female sexuality.

MS: All the works here date from 2014. They are different but interconnected series, and their leitmotif is always the female figure. How come?

NC: I’ve often been asked why I am so interested in the female figure. I think that in an indirect way it comes from my relationship with my mother. She separated from my father when I was only 3 years old, and so I lived in this female world with my mother as my only reference point. She had to work because my father completely disappeared at one point, and so she also took on a male role. That’s why there’s this ambiguity in my attempts at creating this woman who is, at one and the same time, frail yet rigid. In this case Venus balances these roles; her body consists of two elements: on the one hand the plates that link her to the home and fragility, on the other the curves of her body which allude to the icon of Venus which, however, I bring back into our own world in order to contemplate the figure of contemporary women. So putting different elements side by side is to be seen here again, as a dualism that each time relates the female figure to elements that underline that it is fragile and transient, fertile and golden…

I am always concerned with analysing the evolution of an image throughout history. Currently I am working a lot with antique books; I reuse their images and bring them back to life: the pictures in old books are like the dead and I give them their life back when I reuse them. I cut them out and modernise them, then recompose them for the contemporary world in order to think about what it is and what it once was. What it was is not distinct from what it is today: it is the same thing.

MS: This idea makes me think of the work you will be showing in May at the Galeria Central. In it you use old photos of people travelling around the world, and so you return to the theme of journeying, something that is central to your work.

NC: This show is related to all the material I have been collecting for some time and which I continue to collect. I have been to many old bookshops and for some time I have thought about history and epochs as reflected in images. I do not like travelling: I prefer to remain in my own intimate sphere, in my home; however, through my search for these images I have undertaken a poetic, abstract journey. The various images found in old books become postcards from various places around the world. They are very old pictures of exotic places; in the past people loved to send postcards from exotic places: India, Japan, Africa, or photos of tribes. But I always cut the face into a kind of portrait.

MS: How did the creative process come about in this case?

NC: I find and buy these books, then I leave them in the studio without thinking about them but continuing to observe them; this is how what these pictures give birth to is produced. It is as though the plan was already inherent in the image and emerged by imposing itself; Michelangelo comes to mind: he stated that his sculpture already existed inside the block of stone or marble, and that he simply dug it out. I think it is like this for me too. I take this raw material and it begins to emerge by itself; all I do is slowly work and clean away until I arrive at this result.

MS: Another central theme of your work is the presence of you yourself, of your body. We can feel your presence in the female figures too, as in the Viajantes series; however, we never see your face. Can we speak of self-portraiture or is there some other way of defining your presence in the works?

NC: It is not a question of self-portraiture but of “allegory”. It is as though I modelled these allegories on my own body and made from it a possible but inexistent culture. So I speak and joke a bit about the “Mad Max” film: in a world teetering on the edge of an apocalypse, everything is falling apart and the protagonists recompose the world by putting the various pieces back together again. When I create these Viajantes, it is as though I am gathering up bits and pieces of cultures and appropriating them to create a kind of folkloric and contemporary identity/entity which does not actually reveal where it is. You might imagine it is Oriental, though it isn’t; this other image might seem “very Brazilian” or tropical, but it isn’t. I create a-topical people who could be from any place, and so I always displace myself through an act that becomes a part of the construction. While I am making a work I become a part of it: an extra element to be added to the rest. I once read a phrase by Richard Serra who said that, when he looked at a classical marble sculpture, he thought in particular about the sculptor’s action as though he could see the artist in the moment he sculpted the marble. Something similar happens with me. My presence is frozen into the work during the act of creation. For me the camera is like the Gorgon’s terrible gaze. While constructing these people it is as though I have been stung by a jellyfish and remain paralysed inside the image. So I do not consider it a portrait but the testimony to an almost mystical experience. The final outcome of this creative process resembles a collage. My body acts as a magnet and attracts objects that find me, then the jellyfish arrives and stings me, freezing me in the image together with the objects. The journey through the objects seen in the Viajantes series is, then, an introspective journey, one that starts from a thought; it does not imply movement but is the result of a personal experience that passes through the experiences of others. Those who try to find a “place” for themselves in their own culture, in their own world, pass through this metaphor, through this introspective journey.

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