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Maria Clara Bernal

A version of this essay was published within the catalogue León Ferrari: The Architecture of Madness accompanying an exhibition of the same name at the Art Exchange, University of Essex, 2002.

In an interview published in 1984 León Ferrari described his series of heliographies as plans for what could be seen as the architecture of madness. In them, according to Ferrari, it was possible to see the absurd within contemporary society: 'a sort of quotidian madness that is necessary for everything to appear normal.'
Ferrari is known worldwide for his polemic work; he achieved notoriety in 1965 when one of his pieces, La Civilización Occidental y Cristiana (Western-Christian Civilization) was banned from a show at the Di Tella Institute in Buenos Aires. In this work the figure of Christ is crucified on a North American bomber. From this point Ferrari began to develop works that interrogated structures of power: as incarnated by political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions. As another example of this questioning, Ferrari's 'architectures of madness' can be read in the light of two important and interconnected events in his life and that of Argentina: opposition to the Argentine military government and, subsequently, exile in São Paulo. Between 1965 and 1975 Ferrari had been part of a group of artists devoted to campaigning against the imposition of successive dictatorships in Argentina. By 1976 these activities had made it impossible for Ferrari and his family to stay in the country: La Junta, the fiercest of military governments, forced him to leave and to take refuge in Brazil. It was there, at the end of the 1970s, that he created his first heliographs.

Seen in the context of military repression the heliographs could be understood as a critique of order as imposed by force. For Ferrari, life under a system - religious or political - constitutes the absurd. But for this series, the impact of arriving within the São Paulo megapolis was also a very clear motivation. Rather than focussing on the dense architecture of the city, the artist's fascination lies with its mass of people. In these plans, typically people invade every space; life at home spills out into the streets, the streets take over the home, everywhere unusual scenes are uncovered: a lecturer reading a paper to a group of toilets, hundreds of people struggling to get into the same bed, inanimate objects become mobile and socialise with one another.

The exhibition Xerox that took place in Sao Paulo in 1979 encouraged experimentation with reproducible media, and it was there that Ferrari met a group of artists including Mira Schendel, Regina Silveira, Carmela Gross, Marcelo Nitsche, Nelson Leirner and Julio Plaza. The determination to remain open-minded, despite Brazil's own military dictatorship, was a tendency shared by this group; this had an impact on Ferrari, who joined them in showing work in a series of ad hoc exhibitions. These exhibitions not only included techniques of reproduction but also those, such as postal art, which would make the work of art both low cost and widely spread.

Ferrari's series of plans was created using Letraset symbols designed for use in architectural design, and then reproduced using heliography, a technique employed in the reproduction of architectural blueprints. Ferrari was fascinated by the idea of reproducibility and what interested him about using Letraset and heliography was that he could use them to create works that would erase the distance between his art and the public, works that were not only accessible in terms of materials, but also in meaning. Being overwhelmed by the city was something that artist and public shared.

Ferrari's creativity thus does not lie in the design of the original figures, but resides instead in subverting the order and function of the architectural symbol by turning the scene created into nonsense. He gives personality to these identikit symbols by elaborating contained visual narratives, and each plan is composed in such a way that its appearance will alter as the viewer takes a closer or more distant view upon it. From a distance the figures are identical and insect like (and when the artist was asked for an object to place in the gallery window for this exhibition his immediate reaction was to hand over a bag of plastic cockroaches to fill the space). Although, at one level, Ferrari's heliographs are composed of modules and patterns, it seems impossible to predict the movement of these tiny readymade human figures. Looking closer, there are no patterns of behaviour, simply infinite possible variations; the Letraset becomes a gesture and the surface becomes texture, before turning into tale.

Maria Clara Bernal, 2002

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