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The myths of Chico Santos
In ancient Greece, myths were narrated by rhapsodic poets, storytellers with authority given by the gods. The word myth itself has, in its etymology, the meaning of “narrating, telling something to others, designating, announcing something” (CHAUI, 2000, p.32). Myths were truths about things in the world, that is, explanations that gave meaning to existence itself. Such conceptions, which came from remote pasts, intended to clarify things in the present in which they were told. According to Jean-Pierre Vernant, such was the importance of myths in Greece that, for listeners, it was not “a simple personal entertainment, a luxury reserved for a learned elite, but a real institution that serves as a social memory, as an instrument for the conservation and communication of knowledge, whose role is decisive. It is in poetry and through poetry that they are expressed and fixed, vesting in a verbal form, easy to memorize, the fundamental traits” (VERNANT, 2006, p.16).
Through the myths the Greek communities were allowed to understand their duration, cohesion and permanence from generation to generation. “Fundamental traits” in this case refers to culture and religion. Although philosophers later questioned the role of myths as explanations of truth, the Greeks recognized them “as an instrument of information about the world beyond” (VERNANT, 2006, p.20). In order for them to survive, myths and legends carry real elements in them, whether facts or things present in the world. Repeated countless times, they are inscribed in time and in popular memory; they strengthen cultural habits and religious beliefs.
In Brazil, legends have very different ethnic origins, coming from indigenous, European, Asian and African cultures. The social function of myths and legends observed in all these cultures is very similar to that discussed by Vernant in relation to Greek myths. For the context of Chico's work, however, it is interesting to resort to legends that have indigenous origins. In them, imaginary beings inhabit the forests and fulfill the function of protecting them. This is the case of Curupira, for example. In one of the popular versions, this mythical being rides a wild pig and punishes those who disrespect its habitat, the forest. Other legends are presented in a similar way, such as the Saci-pererê, the Boitatá, the Cobra Grande and the Mapinguari; all beings protectors of the forests.
Chico Santos' recent work draws on these questions about myths and legends. His proposal creates three mythical narratives related to environmental preservation spaces in the state of Paraná. I spoke with the artist about his work process and his recent research, which is presented in the form of video and photographs. The narratives are fanciful and sew supernatural elements, linked to historical events related to spaces in the north and coast of the state. More specifically, it can be said that he created and produced supernatural narratives about spaces in which, thanks to human interference, flora and fauna were preserved. Two of them, the Superagui National Park and the Mata dos Godoy, for example, are natural spaces that are different from their surroundings, which were transformed due to the deforestation that occurred in the colonization process in these regions. In other words, these two spaces are distinguished from their surroundings (deforested, urbanized) thanks also to a human action that prioritized preservation. The Capivara Reservoir is a scenery of exuberant beauty, however, non-natural, as it resulted from a human action that produced a great environmental and social impact.
This kind of fiction of nature (the existence/permanence of the natural by human decision) was what motivated Chico Santos to elaborate his fictional narratives. Just as legends are perpetuated through culture, the artist makes a Homeric effort to insert his legends into the popular imagination. For the creation of such legends, the elaborated narratives are related to the places chosen by the artist, who later records, in videos, costumed people (including himself) performing choreographies in the chosen locations. These videos are disseminated in different ways: on the internet or in an exhibition set up in an institutional space. If legends often carry moral content, Chico's work calls for the preservation of these natural spaces in the social context in which they are inserted. In his work, the artist mixes elements of local reality with fantasies that reinforce the need for harmonious human coexistence with such spaces.
I think about the way the artist's work has changed over time: I studied with Chico at the State University of Londrina, in the course that was then called Art Education. We've known each other for many years, but since graduation we see each other infrequently. On one of those occasional occasions, I met him at an exhibition and he told me that he was concentrating on developing new artistic research. To do so, he isolated himself in an old family place to draw. Surrounded by rural landscape, green fields, small stretches of riparian forest, the drawings were unusual in terms of the surrounding landscape. They were large pieces of paper filled with drawings of tiny buildings, clustered together like fungi that grow on tree trunks, but with the calligraphic look of urban graffiti.
Although those drawings were a surprise to me, I couldn't help thinking that this paradox was, in fact, Chico who, since I've known him, has been looking for essence and balance. That's how I saw him engaged in learning Sumiê, a painting technique of Chinese origin that is related to calligraphy and has in its character the monochrome of ink and the elementary construction of the form. In this way, the artist who isolated himself in rural space reflected on the immeasurable growth of cities, of large urban centers. The drawing, due to its graphic and structural character, was the beginning of an elaborate research that culminated in these myths from Paraná.
Through the drawing, Chico has already created a series of stickers that were applied on the walls of abandoned buildings, assuming the transgressive posture of urban artists. In this proposal, he made a sort of inversion by pasting drawings of buildings and clustered houses onto constructions that had lost their utilitarian function. Abandoned, with the walls peeling or discoloring, they were given these “fungus buildings” in a humorous irony.
The development of this work showed signs that it should leave flat supports and gain three-dimensional versions, which in fact it did. Chico carved his “fungus buildings” out of coconut soap and installed them in river rapids; he modeled them in latex and these sculptures traveled the world, being installed and registered by friends even on the Wall of China; made versions in synthetic resin mixed with phosphorescent substances, and its fungus-buildings glowed at night; he made other versions in pottery and placed them on damp trunks, which made them look like house mushrooms; on another occasion, he stuck sticks in these “houses” and recorded them rolling over the bank of an abandoned road construction in the city of Pelotas, in Rio Grande do Sul. final video work made the impression of an alien invasion film. Alien creature-houses invading a desert setting, which could have appeared in a Mad Max movie: yet another metaphor for the city/nature paradox. At that time, a process also began in which the works would leave the sculpture aspect to be seen by the artist as creatures.
More recently, Chico's works have grown a lot in scale and changed material. He started working with wood and the sculptures gained manipulable parts. They stopped being fungi in proliferation and became creatures definitively, as if the works were taking shape and wills of their own before the artist. The choice of wood has a very relevant aspect. In the first sculptural works, the materials were synthetic and/or resistant to the weather to which they were submitted and, denoting coldness, a metaphor for the big cities as already mentioned. Wood has a character more susceptible to climate, to the passage of time; it is a material considered thermally resistant and comfortable. With synthetic materials, Chico opposed the places where he placed his works. With wood he makes the work submit and establish a dialogue with nature.
Therefore, the choice of wood as a support can be considered a turning point in Chico's artistic research. Since its use, the works have stopped interfering with natural spaces and started to compose with them. The material offers the artist the possibility of establishing a more harmonious relationship with the natural spaces, so dear to him.
In the proposal of the myths discussed here, the relationship with nature is even more intrinsic. This time, the symbolic resources, the myths, in this case, were elaborated before the material resources, as the importance of the work falls more on the myths and places chosen by Chico than on the sculptural aspect of the fantasies he built. Nevertheless, the fantastic beings present in the narratives invented for the three proposals are houses and churches. The mythological being who retreated from the riverbank in Superagui is a church; the being that floats on the water after the construction of the Guaraqueçaba dam too; the entity that moves in the Mata dos Godoy and is worshiped by the indigenous people is a hollow, a house of indians. Chico discovered that during Carnival, in Guaraqueçaba, children make masks to play. To feed the mythical narrative with reality data, he offered masks of a church and made a visual record of people celebrating. In the Mata dos Godoy, he danced in the forest dressed in a costume, visually promoting the cult of the entity that moves through the forest. In Superagui, he used another costume, always recording the work on video.
In his proposal, Chico Santos produces and inserts elements in nature such as apparitions, those that “give people talk”, that become stories “in the mouth of the people” and are disseminated in conversation circles. It takes images of local residents in suggestive attitudes with regard to mythical narratives and then publishes them on social networks, with subtitles that reinforce the idea contained in the narratives. He doesn't resort to metaphors, but to mysticism, to the magician. To this end, it researches and copies rituals from traditional cultures and, at the same time, acts with the similarity and respect that it recognizes in them. Meanwhile, it feeds this data with images of people and places. They are mythical narratives because they intend to announce something. And that something that pulses in his desire is the importance of the permanence of Superagui, Guaraqueçaba and Mata dos Godoy. Places whose existence/permanence is not natural, but designated by the human being. Hence, resorting to artistic invention that calls for responsibility, which exerts the power of the image to give new visibility to what, being close, sometimes is not seen.
It is recurrent, in contemporary artistic practice, that the artist dialogues with local culture and that the content of artistic production is established in the aesthetic dialectic versus political relevance. Chico's proposal is, in fact, to produce an aesthetic content inserted in certain spaces, with the aim of attracting the attention of the other (spectator, participant, listener) to such spaces. Thus, it is politically configured because it articulates aesthetic elements in favor of the relationship between people and places to which the artist attaches singular importance.
In this sense, it is important to propose a relationship between the works of Chico and the American artist Matthew Barney, who, in his creations, uses mythology and religion, among other things. Barney's poetics works with elements that speak of the forces of nature. In the work entitled De Lama Lâmina (2004–2009), mounted at the Inhotim Institute, in Minas Gerais, the artist built a geodesic dome, made of metal and glass, which houses a huge tractor that, in turn, holds a tree made of polyethylene. high density. In this work, Barney uses these symbolic resources to elaborate a complex narrative of the struggle between Ogum, an orixá linked to iron, war and technology, and Ossanha, an orixá of plants, forests and the forces of nature. If these elements do not necessarily have a political content, the mythological one is evident.
Like Barney, Chico Santos articulates symbolic elements. However, it does not appropriate ready-made elements, such as Barney. Even the three places are, as we've said, fictional in a sense. Therefore, the elaboration of a mythical structure fits in the context in which “natural” places are invented. Since the fantastic narratives have always served human beings in the most diverse cultures, they organized the beliefs, customs, education of younger generations, nothing more logical and rational than making use of these resources in favor of environmental preservation.
Otherwise, we can also refer to the proposal entitled Green Rivers, by the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. In this proposal, Olafur clandestinely releases green pigment (not harmful to nature) in urban rivers, that is, that cross cities, dyeing them. People's reaction when they see this event is usually one of amazement, as the green used by the artist is not natural, that is, it looks like something potentially dangerous that attracts attention. At a conference, the artist reflects:
How to configure the relationship between our body and space? How do we configure this? How do we know that being in a space makes a difference? What does it matter when I take a step? Does it matter if I'm in the world or not? And does it matter if the kind of action I take turns into a sense of responsibility? Is art about that?... I would say yes. Obviously it's not about decorating the world, and making it look even prettier, or even worse, if you ask me. It's obviously also about taking responsibility. The Green Rivers, as an activist idea, not as part of an exhibition, was really about showing people that space has dimensions. A space has time. (ELIASSON, 2009, our translation).
When Olafur refers to his proposal as an activist, he is not mentioning a necessarily political engagement, as he does not raise social banners. Activism, in this case, is also about transforming reality through action, as the meaning of the word implies. In the case of Olafur, however, this activism is sensory, as it transforms our perception through external agents strategically planned by the artist. The objective interference in an important element of the city, which constitutes it since its formation as such, causes different senses and sensations to be awakened in the bodies that, in view of these perceptions, take attitudes, carry out actions. It is also in this sense that the artist talks about taking responsibility.
The position taken in face of experience implies some kind of responsibility, whether of greater or lesser relevance. Chico Santos' proposal is similar to that of Olafur Eliasson's work, since, although he does not take his viewer/participant to the work site, by disclosing his images in different media, his production instigates his responsibility in relation to the territories in question. It is important to emphasize that these places/territories, which constitute important natural reserves, are, on the one hand, permeated by a lot of fantasy, and, on the other, by absolute ignorance. There are many people who live in Londrina and have never visited Mata dos Godoy, for example; others don't even know of its existence. This scenario is conducive for Chico to build his mythical narrative, which involves peoples and invented rituals, which are embodied through manufactured costumes, mythical dances in these spaces and images of local citizens in line with his proposal, permeating social networks. At a time when the term “post-truth” was consolidated in dictionaries, a story repeated over and over again on social networks strengthens cultural habits and political beliefs.
In this sense, the myths of Chico Santos bring places to the fore. They make use of fantastic and mysterious resources to give visibility to what, even close to their residents, seems invisible in everyday life. The fantasy created in his images constitutes an opportunity to offer the public a new spatial and temporal existence. Chico's perception instigates responsibility for giving new existence to these places, through myths; these existences, in turn, call us to responsibility. Between the invention of mystical legends and the preservation of spaces in Paraná where there is flora and fauna, Chico's work is created with and for the places themselves. To paraphrase the painter Pablo Picasso, art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.
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● TUAN, Yu-Fu. Space and Place from the perspective of experience. London: Eduel, 2013.
● VERNANT, Jean-Pierre. The origins of greek thought. Rio de Janeiro: Difel, 2002. Source available at: http://minhateca.com.br/RHAHU/CATALOGAR/Filosofia/VERNANT*2c+Jean-Pierre.+As+Origens+do+Pensamento+Greek,909215365.pdf >. Accessed on January 29, 2018;
● VERNANT, Jean-Pierre. Myth and religion in ancient Greece. São Paulo: WMF Martins Fontes, 2006. Source available at: <https://archive.org/details/JeanPierreVernantMitoEReligioNaGrrciaAntiga> Accessed on January 29, 2018;
● ELIASSON, Olafur. Conference given at TED. Source available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCGuG0uT6ks> Accessed on January 22, 2018
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