Unexpected Materials

CHAPTER 3: Materials and meaning

In many cases, artists select their materials based on a specific significance they carry. Tea bags (like those in Tania Bruguera’s Poetic Justice) call to mind not only the drink itself, but also the very fraught history of its trade across the British Empire; water pipes (as in Frank Moore’s Bubble Bath) conjure thoughts of circulation, the transmission of disease, and even the concept of “spouting” ignorance. Some artists take a more personal tack, incorporating items from their own lives. Feliciano Centurión’s hand-embroidered pillow is an apt example, as it serves as a memento from time the artist spent in the hospital while suffering complications from HIV.

Corpus Delicti

Jac Leirner
São Paulo, Brazil, 1961 -

Corpus Delicti
Three boarding passes, two ashtrays, cutlery, and metal cord

Susman Collection, 2009

In the early 1990s, Jac Leirner collected objects from her many airplane trips, including napkins, cutlery, baggage tags, boarding passes, ear plugs, and ashtrays. She then ordered these objects into a series of works called "Corpus Delicti," a legal term in Latin meaning the concrete evidence of a crime. This string of connected objects functions as a travelogue of Leirner’s journeys. It also documents her struggle to quit smoking and her obsessive and sometimes illegal acquisition of materials, as in the case of the ashtrays and cutlery. For Leirner, the works “convey a history, with the idea of transgression imprinted on them.” They are removed from one circuit and are consecrated by another, changing from airplane accoutrements to works of art.

Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals)

Cildo Meireles
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1948 -

Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals)
600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones, and black cloth
249.94 cm x 345.95 cm x 345.95 cm (98 3/8 in. x 136 3/16 in. x 136 3/16 in.)
Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation, 1998

Cildo Meireles’s installation was first commissioned for an exhibition about the history of the Jesuits in southern Brazil. The artist created a contemplative space that functions as a critique of Jesuit missions established during colonial times to contain the indigenous Tupi-Guaraní people and convert them to Catholicism. The work’s symbolic elements reveal the complicit relationship between material power (coins), spiritual power (communion wafers), and tragedy (bones), while the black shroud and overhead lighting evoke ideas of life and death. Meireles’ use of cattle bones references the importance of ranching within the region’s colonial economy. Yet the bones’ physical resemblance to the human femur also alludes to the human losses associated with forced acculturation.

Vía láctea [Milky Way]

Miguel Angel Rojas
Bogotá, Colombia, 1946 -

Vía láctea [Milky Way]
Gelatin silver prints reduced from 35 mm negative encased in epoxy
0.8 cm x 664.9 cm (5/16 in. x 261 3/4 in.)
Purchase through the generosity of the 2007-2008 Blanton Contemporary Salon, 2008

Miguel Ángel Rojas began clandestinely photographing encounters between gay men at movie theaters in Bogotá in the late 1970s. Documenting gay culture at the intersection of private and public space, the images that comprise "Vía Láctea" were shot through bathroom peepholes. First shown in 1980, "Vía Láctea" was installed four meters high so that the tiny photographic dots would mimic the crown molding design at the theaters. In the puritanical atmosphere of Bogotá at the time, the inability for viewers to see the images kept the work from being received and dismissed as vulgar and instead highlighted the marginality of the members of gay community and the spaces in which they understood and expressed their sexuality.

Bubble Bath

Frank C. Moore
New York City, 1953 - 2002, New York City

Bubble Bath
Oil on feather board with metal attachments and copper pipe frame
212.1 cm x 252.7 cm (83 1/2 in. x 99 1/2 in.)
Gift of The Gesso Foundation, 2015

When Frank Moore died of AIDS in 2002, in his New York Times obituary, art critic Roberta Smith characterized him as “a painter and AIDS activist whose jewel-like allegories brought beauty and bite to themes of scientific progress, environmental pollution and the medical establishment.” "Bubble Bath" is one of Moore’s most ambitious allegorical tableaus. The title invokes a relaxing soak in the tub, but the painting is littered with allusions to AIDS and conjures the fear over the exchange of body fluids prevalent in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In an interview, Moore described the work as “a toilet turning into a brain with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions in it, AZT vials and specific references to sexual acts, safe and unsafe.” An artist and an activist, Moore was a founding member of the Visual AIDS group in New York, the collective of artists who first created the red AIDS awareness ribbon that became a symbol of compassion for those suffering from the disease.

Luz divina del alma [Divine Light of the Soul]

Feliciano Centurión
San Ignacio, Paraguay, 1962 - 1996, Buenos Aires

Luz divina del alma [Divine Light of the Soul]
Hand embroidered pillow
22.2 cm x 38 cm x 7.3 cm (8 3/4 in. x 14 15/16 in. x 2 7/8 in.)
Museum purchase with funds provided by Donald R. Mullins, Jr., 2004

Few objects are as common and as evocative as pillows. In their place at the “head” of the bed, they are associated with our bodies as we rest, love, convalesce, sleep, and die. Feliciano Centurión embroidered these pillowcases at the hospital where he received treatment for the HIV-related complications that led to his early death. The blue eyes with frilly lace lashes of “Luz divina del alma” are both comic and poignant when paired with the embroidered title. In “Soledad,” the delicate handwriting of the embroidery radiates vulnerability, making the decorative lace along the edge (an important tradition in the artist’s native Paraguay) all the more moving.

Image credit:
Antonio Berni
Retrato de Ramona [Portrait of Ramona], 1963 (detail)
Collage of collagraph prints
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of the Museum of Modern Art, 1982