Antônio José de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão, known as Tunga (Palmares, 1952 – Rio de Janeiro, 2016), was a Brazilian sculptor and performance artist internationally acknowledged for his large-scale, uncanny installations, intertwining reality with fiction. Originally trained as an architect, Tunga explored a diversity of languages, which surpassed the traditional realm of the visual arts, to embrace literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis as well as chemistry and alchemy. It is no coincidence that his father, Gerardo Melo Mourão, was a poet and journalist and his mother, Léa Barros, a social activist, undoubtedly contributed to the development of his eclectic approach to art.

Drawing always appeared as a crucial element in the artist’s practice, with his first solo show in 1974 at Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro entirely dedicated to this medium. Under the title Museu da Masturbação Infantil (Museum of Childhood Masturbation), the psychologically dense display presented motifs such as sexuality, perversion, desire, memory and enigma, which would become recurrent in his later production. In order to deal with these themes, the materials employed for the making of work include elements as diverse as skulls, bones, nets, hair, teeth and other organic matters.

In Lézart (1989), for instance, an installation made of copper, steel and magnet, the choice of materials is crucial to recreate a moment of tension between opposing forces, whereas challenging the notion of space and the canons of classical sculpture. The welding between the iron plates and the wire is, in fact, entirely made by the magnetic attraction of the components themselves and by the audience, who also becomes an activator of the work. In a tale written to accompany the piece, the artist described himself as lying in a hammock, in a moment of suspension amid readings and philosophical lucubration, in the presence and merge between two lizards. ‘I place myself in the poet’s role, because I think that poetry is not only something written, spoken, or sung. I refer to what is behind poetry, and that’s text in any shape, in any language,’ stated in a 2012 feature on Art Review; asserting the importance of narrative in his practice.


Lézart, (1989). Copper, steel and magnet. Image courtesy of Inhotim.


With the power of language in mind, the work Palíndromo Incesto (1990 – 1992) suggests a duality of perspectives. Whilst a palindrome is a word, phrase, or other sequence of characters that read the same backward and forward, hence keeping its meaning unaltered, the Portuguese term incesto (=incest) refers to a sexual act between relatives as well as to ‘in cesto’ (=in basket): a game revealing the intricate plot of interpretations and allegories set by the artist. The large constituents of the installation propose the images of a weaving needle, a thimble, a basket and a thread, whose circular interaction highlights the parental, somehow unsettling, relationship occurring among objects, meanings and contexts.

In a 2002 conversation with writer Simon Lane for BOMB, Tunga discussed the concept of duality, which he sees as ‘vitiated by pragmatism’. He explained: ‘It is an extremely practical idea to coexist in the world such as it is organized today. However, there are other modes of living in the world, there are other worlds. One ought to remember that a third of our life is spent in sleeping mode. And the mode for thinking while sleeping, or the mode for representing sleep, is the oneiric. And then there is the mode of cooking, creating flavors; or representing oneself poetically. Duality can be very practical in a certain mode, but it is not going to be useful. But let’s forget about the words useful and practical. Neither is going to reveal us intensely as human beings.’ The idea of intensity and the surrealist subject of the dream coexist and appear as a way to operate on a symbolic level; one, which enables us ‘to add something more human to the human.’ In other words, by exploring the oneiric and the magical, the artist researches further dimensions to add to reality, in order to benefit from it in a more profound manner.


Palíndromo Incesto, 1990 – 1992. Copper wire, magnet, copper sheets and iron filings. Image courtesy of Inhotim.

His understanding of art as an interdisciplinary field mirrored the belief that the thought and its physical manifestation are interconnected to the point of being impossible to disassociate them in a work of art. To translate this in practice, Tunga often recurred to performance to enact something similar to a ritual, which inaugurated the work, reflecting a mythology of its own. He therefore preferred the term ‘instauration’ to the more common ‘performance’ or ‘installation’, which would more accurately pinpoint to the performative action linking the idea to its expression. True Rouge (1997) is a perfect example in this regard. At the moment of installation, a series of nude actors interacted with the suspended elements containing a viscous liquid, which slowly spilled on the glass and the floor, ultimately symbolising the vital cycles. The title of the work derives from a poem by Simon Lane, which describes the occupation of space by red, in a lively mix between English and French. Likewise, recalling the aesthetic and structure of a giant puppet theatre, the pending ampoules of the installation never reach the ground, in a climax of suspense between gravity and fluctuation.

Tunga’s work is part of the collection of institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, to mention but a few. In 2006 he became the first contemporary artist to exhibit at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, with his monumental installation A la Lumiere des Deux Mondes installed underneath the glass pyramid of the museum. He took part in the 1995 and 2001 editions of the Venice Biennale, in the 1997 Documenta X, and in four São Paulo Biennials (1998, 1994, 1987, 1981). The three works discussed here are on display at Inhotim, the greatest open-air park of contemporary art in Brumadinho, Brazil. A great selection of his works can currently be seen at Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) within the exhibition Tunga: o corpo em obras, which will be open until the 3rd of March 2018.


Eu, você e a lua (Me, you and the moon), Art Unlimited 2016. Source: http://www.ccslifestyle.com/2016/06/art-unlimited-2016-tunga-eu-voce-e-lua.html.


Miriam La Rosa

Featured Image: True Rouge (1997). Source: http://lepitanga.blogspot.com.br/2012/02/inhotim-mudando-sua-vida.html

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