Iole de Freitas, 1970s / Image as presence
This exhibition brings together works of art created by Iole de Freitas more than five decades ago, some of them rarely exhibited, and many of them known only to a select circle of fans. It is the first time that such an extensive and representative body of work from this foundational period in Iole's career is being presented. Although the photos, films, and installations in this exhibition may surprise the public who has been accustomed to associating the artist with the field of sculpture since the 1980s, these are works that already announced characteristics that would emerge in one way or another in everything she produced thereafter – although, unlike the sculptures, the pieces on display are made of something as imponderable and elusive as the luminous matter of images.
Perhaps the main characteristic of these works is their obstinacy in scrutinizing the body's plasticity, the fascinating capacity of our bodies to transform space according to whether they engage with it or offer resistance to it. The cinematic and photographic images that stemmed from Iole's first forays amplify this characteristic, which does not fail to manifest itself – albeit in different ways – in the sculptures and installations that the artist creates to this day. Although the exhibition specifically refocuses on the work produced in the 1970s, it eschews historiographical ambitions. Rather, it is concerned with urging the past to make a statement about the present, and this past could only be illuminated when confronted with the authenticity and poignancy with which Iole's current work is able to interpellate it.
A constellation of works, including three reconstituted installations, has been achieved, and, under assessment, it can clearly and straightforwardly contextualize the environment of ideas in which the work's lines of force had sprouted. The fact that the show consists of a set of photographs and films – considered "new media" at the time – is certainly linked to the great interest that these media's heterodox uses (along with video) aroused among young artists prompted by the crisis that called into question Western cultural tradition's great canons.
Like Iole, they sought to liberate themselves from museum walls, to immerse themselves in a phenomenological space, to test the aesthetic and political powers that could stem from a technological apparatus of image production, portable and easy to handle, ready to seal the liquidation of a reified artistic object. Interacting with the artist over the nearly 12 months that preceded this exhibition, we learned that despite the pieces having been conceived more than half a century ago, their reassembly in a new context had a surprising result. The entire exhibition has revealed itself, in fact, as Iole's most recent work: a kind of large installation that speaks eloquently to and about the present.
The presentation of Iole de Freitas' work from the 1970s allows us not only to become acquainted with or revisit the artist’s oeuvre, but also to reflect upon the singularity of the artistic experimentation developed by a woman artist who dialogued with photography and film during those years. From these two expanded fields of art emerge a reinvention of the representation of the body, made present by its own image and movement.
Beyond conventional artistic genres, definable by the nature of their specific mediums, and beyond photography and film as autonomous genres, Iole de Freitas explores conceptual lingos that invent new forms that condense time in space, articulating the photographic and film images she records as moments that structure and expand the work’s place. This “Iole in photography and film” also reveals a woman artist who appropriates the existing means of image production and reproduction in her time to transform them into new poetics. Aware of her body, which she assumes as movement, Iole constructs the poetics of the fragment from the production and editing of the image. The body’s register becomes the genesis of space, in configurations that already hint at some of the fundamental issues in the artist’s later work. When Iole was invited to gather and revisit her work from the 1970s, she did not let herself be tempted by the simple anthological collection of her works, but moved towards the “third bank of the river”, mounting an exhibition that is assumed as a new movement in her path as an artist. This is one of those shows in which “the exhibition is the work”, without betraying the specific nature of each of the featured pieces.
The discovery of these Images as Presence would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and dazzling inventiveness that Iole de Freitas dedicated to the exhibition’s entire construction process. Instituto Moreira Salles is extremely grateful to the artist for her extraordinary availability and generosity. Furthermore, this exhibition would not be what it is without Sonia Salzstein's research and rigorous and assiduous work. She is its curator and author of the main monographic essay in the book, whose edition she coordinated with the diligent and competent collaboration of assistant curator Leonardo Nones. To both we express our greatest gratitude, extended to everyone at IMS who made this possible, and also to the Contemporary Art Institute, which has preserved and protected the artist’s archives with such care.
It is with great satisfaction that after being presented at IMS São Paulo, the show now arrives in Rio de Janeiro, the city where Iole de Freitas developed most of her artistic career, thanks to a partnership with the Paço Imperial/IPHAN - MinC. We would like to acknowledge and express our gratitude to Claudia Saldanha and her entire team for this meaningful opportunity.
Marcelo Araujo, General Director
João Fernandes, Artistic Director
Instituto Moreira Salles
The Paço Imperial is very pleased to host the exhibition Iole de Freitas, the 1970s / Image as Presence, curated by Salzstein and the artist herself.
This exhibition brings together Iole de Freitas' exploration of image and its reproduction in different media, revealing her highly experimental work from the early 1970s. Using innovative resources of that time, the artist highlights the unfolding of the language of super 8 film and static images, in a combination of pure freshness in a new field permeated by light, shadow and movement. Projections, refractions and reflections are printed on kerchiefs, mirrors and glass plates that embody image as presence, the term that gives this exhibition its title.
In 1992, the Paço Imperial brought together Iole de Freitas' copper, stainless steel, pewter and brass sculptures in a beautiful exhibition defined by curator Paulo Venancio Filho as “the revitalized incorporation of the body’s absentminded logic.” In the current exhibition, Iole revisits the origins of her exploration and sheds light on projects not yet known to the general public.
By hosting this exhibition by Iole de Freitas, the Paço Imperial joins Instituto Moreira Salles in promoting modern and contemporary Brazilian art and culture. In 2017, the partnership culminated in the exhibition O Paço, which brought together historical images of Rio’s transformations. The following year, the exhibition Marcel Gautherot featured the work of the French photographer who documented cultural expressions in different corners of the country.
Claudia Saldana, Director of the Paço Imperial
In 1970, then in her twenties, the artist decided to consolidate her career, which had always gravitated towards art. She left for Milan at the start of the decade, taking with her an experience involving modern dance going back to her childhood, as well as introductory studies in design at Rio de Janeiro’s Escola Superior de Design. Her love of dance and her fondness for design would charge all her subsequent work with the decisive interest in movement, in the scale that the body naturally imposes on space as it moves, thus endlessly modifying it. Both Rio de Janeiro, where she had moved with her family from Belo Horizonte as a child, and the Milan she met in 1970 offered themselves as stimulating laboratories of ideas for a young artist.
In the Carioca capital, she had frequented an artistic environment where the modernist constructive tradition had become radicalized and Neo-Concretism had been forged, decisively marking much of the art that has been made in the country since then. An example of this effervescence was the exhibition New Brazilian Objectivity at the MAM in Rio in 1967, visited by the artist, in which the period’s most restless currents of Brazilian art were present. Iole certainly would not remain indifferent to the poetics of the body that had sprung up in the wake of this experimental enthusiasm, nor to the emphasis that many artists a little older than she, who had emerged from Neo-Concretism, placed on the body’s erotic and sensorial dimensions.
Rio de Janeiro would also be an important sounding board for the Tropicalist Movement, whose anarchic facets had electrified the national political and aesthetic debate since the end of the previous decade and during the darkest years of the civil-military dictatorship that took hold in 1964. There is an irresistible urge to conjecture that the frankness and truth with which Iole offers the constructive processes in her work are to some extent due to her early training, which took place in the wake of the experimental practices that had inspired Brazilian art from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. Likewise, Tropicalism subtly echoes in the 1972 film Elements, for example, at the beginning of which we hear Caetano Veloso interpreting the song “Asa branca” by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, in a rousing soundtrack.
Similar to what she had experienced in Brazil, in Milan Iole would find an artistic and cultural environment in full renewal, in which the political and aesthetic debate’s radicalness and the resounding voice that the feminist movement had gained in this debate stood out. In those years, the city was emerging as a cosmopolitan cultural center, relatively receptive to the presence of foreign artists. Together with her then-partner, the artist Antonio Dias, Iole frequented the period’s most active European art circles, where the manifestations of arte povera, body art, and conceptual art intersected. She also found an artistic milieu in which there was a notable growing participation of women as artists, curators, writers, and feminist activists, most of whom were questioning the representations of the feminine in the culture industry’s universe. Some of the period’s most radical feminist authors, such as Lucy Lippard (who had seen Iole’s work at the 1975 Paris Biennale), Lea Vergine, and Annemarie Sauzeau-Boetti dedicated texts to the artist’s work.
In this exhibition, the intersection of heterogeneous temporalities – the 1970s and the present – only reaffirms the permanence of some crucial issues in Iole’s work. The work’s wager on the untiring experience of deconditioning the body is confirmed; always the situated body, placed at the vertex of a power play, and it is only this experience that can restore the autonomy and integrity that our body demands, in the permanent adventure of movement that is its fate. Not by chance, it is a female body, the historical and social place where this unrelenting battle takes place, and the movement to which we refer is that of its psychic and social existence, which Iole opened up to the obscure and the unknown.
In this way, the exploratory journey reconstructed here acquires a more complex political and aesthetic meaning, whose incandescent core is female subjectivity, testing and confronting culturally unsubdued forms. The self-representation of the body is present in much of women artists’ work. In Iole, the process from which these works resulted was unique: silent performances, whose only audience was the artist herself, caught up in the discovery of the multiplicity of images of herself that the movements produced on reflective surfaces. The resulting images ended up revealing a constellation of shadows, textures, silhouettes, in short: a sensorial scenario in which the physicality of the surfaces stood out, their marks and small accidents, betraying the fragility that the skin can reveal of what it encapsulates. They constituted the day-to-day of a body under permanent construction, testing its physical and expressive powers.
The artist seems to have immersed herself in these performances solely for the satisfaction of the experience they offered her; it was a solitary endeavor which deprived the protagonist of the possibility of having her body framed and sublimated in the sight of others. As it was always Iole who was photographed and filmed, we will never see a body totalized in its anatomy – on the contrary: by valuing the fragment and the indetermination, many of these images, the non-finality of gestures, dissolve the visual codes that historically determined what the visuality of the female body should be. Especially in the photographic sequences, the body is presented as a complex bundle of members, engendering a driving force that seems to seek that culminating moment of change, of passage from one state to another.
They stretch or contract, distort the presumed verticality of the upright “civilian” body, even exercising the frenetic fusion of feet and head, as in Glass Pieces, Life Slices, from 1975. In this, as in other photographic sequences, Iole seems to find the body as a place to still and always be constituted, of contiguities and relations, a vertigo of surfaces suggesting new structures each time; new images – the body, at last, as a complex of passages that unfold in permanent interchange among themselves, beckoning to so many other possible bodies.
The adventure of self-representation would paradoxically end up revealing subjectivity’s prismatic nature to the artist – not the encounter with a supposed self that is identical to herself, finally pacified. The work finally breaks the dualistic principle of self-representation, with its promise of an absolute interiority, in the face of which an “outside” or antagonistic Other would be erected: the masculine world of the city, of offices, anodyne buildings, and the monotonous roar of car engines that is glimpsed in Light Work (1972). As dualism dictates, a distant “over there” where power is in fact exercised, where women roam, permanently cowed.
In Iole, we find the body far from this dualism: it is contiguity, a continuous passage between interior and exterior (and vice versa). These experiences, even when performed in the recesses of the artist’s studios, speak to the complexity of contemporary life, to the present's convulsive political and social world (that of the 1970s, as well as the present). Under the tepid and indecisive light entering through the window of the apartment where she lived in Milan at dawn, or in the New York loft that also witnessed her silent performances, Iole de Freitas recorded the tensions of the contemporary world in her body.
In the title of this exhibition, “the 1970s” is more than a pure and simple chronological marker: the period signals a founding moment in Iole de Freitas’ work and probably in the work of many artists of her generation, in which art and politics seemed to reveal a unique historical convergence, both showing extraordinary critical power. It is not a question of isolating the decade on the calendar, as if it were possible to freeze the historical process – in fact, the years of turbulence had already begun at the end of the 1960s and were the culmination of the gradual depletion of the global situation of relative economic stability that had emerged in the aftermath of WWII in industrialized countries. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the collapse of the economic growth policies that had sustained the period finally came to a head, as did the dissipation of social welfare expectations anchored in them.
It is important to stress that a radical spirit of change was pushing the fields of art and politics in the same direction, in a way rarely seen in the 20th century; in its own terms, each was pointing to the demise of the institutions that had proclaimed themselves pillars of civilization in modernity, and pushing for the integral reinvention of culture and social life. In the world of art and high culture, respectable institutions were being called into question – the museum and the university leading the way – but beyond them, the “institution” of art itself, as well as consolidated artistic practices, were also being challenged and turned inside out. Iole de Freitas lived through this convulsed period as a young artist, starting her career in the city of Milan – a nerve center of contemporary art.
The documents gathered in the Paço Imperial's Dossel Room offer a glimpse of the thrust of the European artistic debate in which Iole was beginning to take part – a radicalism that also echoed the political turmoil on the Italian and world stage. This room displays art magazines such as Diagramma, Prospects and Data that document Iole’s work in those years. These publications are notable for their militancy around that time’s most restless currents; in their pages, the interventions of body art and conceptual art stand out (although these categories could then be mixed and were even indistinguishable). The use of short films, video and photography is prevalent in these interventions, and there is a strong and provocative presence of women artists and essayists as protagonists in the actions, performances and installations featured in the publications, in which the body emerges as the central focus of inquiry.
Also on display in the Dossel Room are catalogs of the many shows and exhibitions in which Iole participated throughout the decade, bringing to light the liberating agendas of the feminist movement, as well as the artists’ disjunctive forays into the latest image technologies. On the European front, feminist activists such as Annemarie Sauzeau-Boetti, Marisa Vescovo and Margarethe Jochimsen stage these exhibitions; Brazil’s Aracy Amaral takes an active part in the critique, organizing the show Expo-Projeção 73, in which the artists she invited resort to “unconventional means”.
Clippings from Brazilian newspapers from that time bring to light the attentive and informed gaze of the art critics whose critiques appeared in the most important periodicals of the time, in texts signed by authors such as Frederico Moraes, Roberto Pontual, or by a member of the young generation of critics, such as Ronaldo Brito, a columnist for the fierce Opinião, a weekly newspaper opposed to the dictatorship. The documents assembled in this exhibition come from important documentary collections relating to contemporary Brazilian art, a significant number of them donated by São Paulo’s Institute of Contemporary Art (Instituto de Arte Contemporânea, IAC), while another substantial portion belong to the artist’s personal collection.
Finally, the unprecedented presence of Iole’s original writings among the materials included in the Dossel Room is worth noting. More than a writing activity, these notes almost always served the artist as a method of sorts for thinking about future work - a resource that provided her with something akin to a mental spatialization of her subsequent interventions. In the case of the films, the notes emerged as scripts, or “schemes”, as she came to call them. The set of documents shown here is a sample of the documentary collections that were harnessed for the research that resulted in this exhibition, and offers a general overview of the environment of ideas surrounding the most experimental artistic production in those years; it also shows the close and mutually involved relationship between the practice of critique and the production of artwork in that time period.
Iole de Freitas (Belo Horizonte, 1945) moves to Milan in 1970, to work as a designer at Olivetti under the guidance of Hans von Klier. The artist finds a culturally vibrant city that wields great influence on the European scene; contemporary art’s most experimental elements had been converging there since the 1960s, and brought with them a powerful network of galleries, museums, critics, and art publications. Iole finds herself part of an expanded universe of artists, critics, and gallerists, in which arte povera, performance, body art, and conceptual art intertwine.
Iole is witness to the period’s radicalized political climate, characterized by workers’ strikes, student protests, and the violent actions of fascist currents and the Red Brigades, an extreme leftist group. The feminist movement gains prominence on the Italian scene and manages to impose new agendas on the international political context. The country she had left is also plunged into turbulence due to the tightening of the military dictatorship; nevertheless, there exists an aesthetically and culturally vigorous environment, spurred on by the interventions of Tropicalism and by the vitality and resistance of local artistic production. Throughout the decade, Iole did not lose touch with her friends in Rio de Janeiro.
In 1971, the couple stays in London for around three months. Rara Dias, Iole and Antonio’s daughter, is born (she appears as a child in the filming of Memory 1 and Memory 2, included in this exhibition). Returning to Milan in 1972, the artist produces her first Super 8 films and photographic sequences capturing her own body; in these photos and films, she strives to capture the subtle marks that her body leaves in space – surfaces of diffuse luminosity, enveloped in shadows, reflections, and transparencies, with a strong physical and sensorial appeal. The interest in movement, in the expressiveness with which the body responds to it, are central issues in the works.
Elements and Light Work – Iole’s first films – scrutinize internal spaces; both were shot in the artist’s studio apartment in Milan. They are engaging recesses, responsive to the objects that inhabit them. The camera seeks to traverse them, inquiring through windows and curtains and other translucent surfaces – inviting passages and precipitating abysmal changes of scale, which freely toggle between the small and the large, the interior and the exterior. Also in 1972, Iole and Antonio move to New York for approximately six months. The couple settle in a loft on Grand Street, where the artist shoots part of the film Exit; the other part of the film was shot in Milan. They maintain contact with Brazilian artists living in the American city.
In 1973, Iole begins to exhibit her work regularly. Her first solo exhibition – in which she presents Elements and Light Work – takes place at Galeria Il Diagramma, founded by the critic and editor Luciano Inga-Pin, who actively promoted body art. The magazine Prospects, which he edited, published Iole’s writing and frames from her films. The artist takes part in an art circuit with a notable presence of women who are not only artists, but also critics and curators. She briefly returns to Rio, and that same year, together with Antonio, she organizes the group exhibition Fotolinguagem [Photolanguage], which brings together works by Christian Boltanski, Annette Messager, Katarina Sieverding, and Duane Michals, among others. The artist presents her photographic sequences, this delicate operation in which her body is revealed in the very act of photographing herself. In São Paulo, she takes part in the Expo-Projeção 73 [[Expo-Projection 73] exhibition, the 7th Young Contemporary Art event at USP’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
1974 – 1976
Iole attends several European art festivals and gatherings, especially in Germany and the former Yugoslavia, and also in Canada; these events propose experimental works, encouraging “new media” – with emphasis on cinematographic and photographic production by artists.
In 1974, she experiments with 16mm film, extracting great expressive power from repeated muscular movements of the eyes, nostrils, and tongue – this work is featured in this exhibition. That year (and the following one), Iole participates as resident artist in the Festival of Expanded Media in Belgrade, then a vibrant, avant-garde center frequented by many body art artists such as Gina Pane, Katarina Siverding, and Hanne Darboven.
Also in 1974, she returns to Rio for a solo exhibition of her photographic sequences, also at the MAM. In Rio de Janeiro, she exhibited Elements and Light Work at the Luiz Buarque de Hollanda and Paulo Bittencourt Gallery. Back in Italy, she partakes in the Nuovi Media [New Media] exhibition at the Centro Internazionale di Brera, and holds a solo show at Galleria Carla Ortelli in Milan. In the magazine Data, the critic Barbara Radice comments on the symbolic complexity that the knife – present in more than one of the artist’s works – reveals in the work. For her, one cannot reduce it to a phallic symbol, since she sees it appearing above all as a primary object of the technical world, of culture:
"If we are our body, Iole de Freitas' search presupposes a kind of physical schizophrenia between the body and its reflected image. [...] The knife is first observed with curiosity and distance, an almost unexpected object, coming from an unknown world, materialized before a need that is not yet enough to define it. It is the first intrusion into this closed dialogue with one's self, the first time that, faced with a precise demand, it becomes necessary to build an instrument and project a cultural world around oneself. As she becomes intimate with the new instrument, she learns to use it with circumspection, almost with fear, her hand does not wield it, she holds it with the tips of her fingers (at first the hand does not even appear, and the blade emerges through a lacerated white cloth). [...]. In the last works the knife, guided by the hand, becomes its extension."
The artist grows close to Luciano Fabro, with whom she will maintain a productive dialogue (she will exhibit with Fabro in Rome in 1977). She often meets the couple Tommaso and Ciaccia Trini (he, art critic, editor, and founder of the magazine Data; Ciaccia, co-editor, vital presence at the publication). Lea Vergine discusses her work in her 1974 book Il corpo come linguaggio [The Body as Language], and in 1975 Sauzeau-Boetti interviews Iole in a piece for Data, which also features the artists Carla Accardi and Marisa Merz.
In 1975, the artist takes part in the Paris Biennale, at the invitation of Tommaso Trini and Jean-Christophe Amman (director of the Lucerne Art Museum), the event's curators. She appears with the installation Glass Pieces, Life Slices, which she presents together with a short text, in which she comments on the discovery of a malleable, multiple body, unconditioned by the premise of verticality:
“...The image is delineated, blocked/ the body enclosed/ trapped/ by a circle of seven mirrors/ below/ the image/ crosses/ the ground line./ a foot rises/ breaks/ the rigidity/ of the body-trunk/ flies over each mirror/ completing the/circle...”
The installation at the Biennale catches the attention of feminist critic Lucy Lippard, who writes about the work and analyzes it in her 1976 book From The Center/Feminist Essays on Women's Art. Between 1974 and 1976, Iole’s work appears in magazines known for their engagement in the contemporary art debate: Heute Kunst; Data; Fotografia Italiana; Art Press; Flash Art; Art International; Studio International and Art in America, among many others. In 1976, the artist exhibits a new installation at Galleria Gian Carlo Bocchi, with works from the series Glass Pieces, Life Slices, in which she revisits themes from the work shown at the Paris Biennale. That same year, she takes part in the event Körpersprache [Language of the Body], at the Frankfurt Kunstverein and at the Haus am Waldsee, in Berlin, among other exhibitions, many of which focus on interventions by women artists.
During this period, Iole continues to participate in various individual and collective events, whose focus is almost always to highlight the critical power that can be extracted from interventions with unconventional means – photos, performances, and short films. Invited by Sauzeau-Boetti and Gian Battista Salerno, the artist takes part in Pas de deux at Galleria La Sallita in Rome, in 1977. Parodying classical ballet choreography, the title dialectically focuses on the male/female pair; the curators proposed that the gallery space be occupied by pairs of artists, and Iole performs alongside Luciano Fabro.
In Milan in 1978, the artist shows Exit, installation and performance, at Studio Marconi, whose gallerist, Giorgio Marconi, is one of the most notorious promoters of contemporary art in Italy and on the international scene. In the installation, Iole brings into play some elements, besides the mirrors and the knife, which suggest, like them, a narrative function; the narrative promise is cast into silence, as in some of the artist's other installations. Perhaps a comment on the suspenseful film narrative, Exit, in the way it beckons the audience by offering them the drama of a female body, ultimately frustrates the presumed narrative function; there are shadows, projections, and unfathomable recesses – the body’s drama is precisely what is missing in this scenario.
Also in 1978, the artist is invited to participate in Arte e Cinema [Art and Cinema], organized by Vittorio Fagone at the 38th Venice Biennale; at the invitation of Sauzeau-Boetti, she illustrates the book Donne, Povere, Matte [Women, Crazy, Poor] (Edizione delle Donne, Roma). She returns to Brazil, bringing along a collection of her works to the Arte Global Gallery in São Paulo, at the invitation of Raquel Arnaud. In 1980, she takes part in the group exhibition Camere Incantate – Espansione dell'Imagine [Enchanted Chambers – Image Expansion] at Pallazzo Reale in Milan. In 1981, she presents a new installation with works from the series Glass Pieces, Life Slices at the 16th São Paulo International Biennale. Slide projectors show the images of the decoupaged series, emphasizing the body’s fragmentation process and introducing a time-lapse in the sequence’s projection.
At the start of the new decade, the artist reveals a novel interest in materials: fabrics, rubber strips, flexible plastic tubes, copper, brass, and aluminum wires – all of them soft, ductile materials, responsive to touch and presence. Despite the apparent shift in relation to her previous work, the body and the complex and contradictory universe of its affections remain a crucial theme in Iole’s work.