Blefuscu: six points on the work of José Bechara

Delfim Sardo

Lisboa, Portugal 2007
In Blefuscu,  published by Dardo – ds, Spain, 2008



1. model


On se protege, on se barricade. Les portes arretent et séparent.
La porte casse l’espace, le scinde, interdit l’osmose, impose lecloisonnement: d’un côté, il y a moi et mon chez moi, le prive, ledomestique, (…) de l’autre c^té il y a les autres, le monde, lepublique, le politique. On ne peut pas aller de l’un à l’autre en selaissant glisser, on ne passe de l’un à l’autre: il faut un mot depasse, il faut franchir le seuil, il faut montrer patte blanche, ilfaut communiquer, comme le prisionier communique avec l’extérieur.

Thus begins the chapter on “doors” from Espéces d’Espaces, a book byGeorges Perec from 1974 possibly one of the most extraordinarynarratives on space ever written. From bed to the world, its proposedtrajectory maps typologies of inhabitable space, as if the author madean inventory of the last remaining issue that challenges definition –and which allows us an existence as physical entities. In this sensedoors are as borders between different categories of living: to eachside of a door an instance partitioned from another dimension. The mostevident separation is the one that divorces public from private space,the dividing line between the space for intimacy and society frompolitical space. That is why we always see spaces to either side but donot see doors themselves as occupying space (doors are either open orclosed as the French proverb goes). Thus too it is that MarcelDuchamp’s 1927 piece Porte, numero 11, rue Larrey, is such a powerfulmetaphor of the transactional character of the door, of its nature asnon-space, a passageway that refuses any permanence.

José Bechara’s small sculptures do not have doors. They have aperturesthat, much like architectural models, mimic windows, but they do notlead inside these sculptures, exploding monoliths, overflowing, spewingobjects through hypothetical windows. Significantly, there are nodoors: there is no possibility whatsoever of interpreting the spaces inhis models as livable, inhabitable spaces, since they are in effect,and in every sense, impenetrable. In other words, they are models ofinteriority that condemn us to exclusion or to a public state. We are,when faced with Belcher’s small scale works, relegated to the ambit ofthe political, the street, the outside world, the public, foreverdenied access to their private condition. We become Gullivers on ourarrival at Lilliput: we cannot enter, we cannot cross the difference inscale nor comprehend the inside of these small constructions thatcompose the set of pieces by José Bechara, natural successors of the”House” project.

They are therefore, models of impenetrability, modular structures that,invariably, imply in an inner explosion, as if its content had spilledover to our space, and     in true Lilliputian character, since we caneasily identify the objects popping out the windows: tables, chairs,closets, stairs. Objects that refer to our experience of lived-inspace, we inhabit space as set by our corporal use of the objects thatpopulate our houses, sofas where we stretch out, tables at which weeat, chairs on which we sit. Things are thus indissolubly associated tothe very notion of inhabitable space, they are what, ultimately,establishes our relation with the house, in the form of impressionsleft by the bodies of inhabitants. Bechara’s use of furniture models isthus, imbued with the imaginary invasion of our world – of the publicworld that is this side of the impenetrable core of his small housestructures – by a different scale that, in any case, preserves thesurviving memory of another life, of an inner space. This other life,speculative and small, jumps out, however, permanently, into realspace, a small threat, plausible because of its scale.

2. structure

Bechara’ s models are structurally built by employing three mainelements: a parallelepiped standing for the shape of a house, with itswindows and missing doors; the furniture that spills over into our ownspace, in coherent scale with the first “house” element ; and a thirdtypological element, a parallelepiped in outline, or  similar structure(frequently that of a cube), always bigger than the “house” and onethat relates to it: either enveloping it, completely or partially, orfacing it, or at rest in controlled imbalance, at times anchored onsmall furniture models for support.

This structure, whether in the shape of a parallelepiped or cube, isintriguing. On the one hand, it is an abstract element since it isneither (to the contrary of other elements) a rigorous facsimile of anobject from the world around us (such as is the case of the smalltables, drawers or bookcases) nor is it an implied object (such as thecube that becomes an implied house because of its hinted windows). Atmost it is perceived as a cube or through its three dimensionalcomposition in space, but the perception is not processed by theonlooker as a maquette, but as a thing in itself: a cube is a cube, nota representation of a cube. It is an element however, that is clearlyfundamental in the constructive logic of Bechara’s pieces, since ittransforms the scale of the model into the scale of sculpture.

In other words, the modular and model character of Bechara’s sculpturerests on an impossibility, a paradox: they are models of works thatcould have an existence in another scale, (as far as we establish arelation with them by means of a recognition of the typologies of theobjects employed): a table, for example, is an object that has aparticular relation of scale with our own bodies; whenever we look at a6 inch tall table, we know we are faced with a substitute, a model. Acube, however, in endowed with no human scale whatsoever. It has,evidently, size but not one that corresponds to any scale – unless itis set in voluntary relation to other scales, of architecture or of thebody, or to the size of things, in other words, either it is capable ofbeing manipulated, or it is another for our bodies, or still, it has anarchitectural relation with buildings. In the case of José Bechara’ssculptures, a relation is established with a model. This is to say thatan abstract object (such as, for example, a cube whose vertices areprojected in space) has its use-function detached from its bodilyrelation with the spectator in order to establish a new one, one thatpertains to the model’s of economy of composition and which is thusconverted into sculpture. We can therefore state that the model’sstructure converts itself into a modular structure, one based on thearticulations of modules at two levels – the level of recognition, andin the form of space as pure speculative process.

On the other hand, a model’s condition will nevertheless lead furtherto two different and paradoxical temporal instances. A model is eithera prospective project of a building at a 1:1 scale, or it is thememory-based reproduction of  an area that exists in natural scale andis subsequently re-converted into an object that points to somethingthat is, naturally, outside itself. In the case of Bechara’ssculptures, there is no “outside itself,” nor are there any precursors,with the sole exception of the “House” project which, in any case,takes the role of matrix from which the combinatorics of its models aredeveloped.

Thus they are structures that develop an interdependency betweenrecognition and a self-reference, functioning as paradoxical models,and doubly so. Thus their doubled nature, one that is furtherstrengthened by the fact that they are themselves the subject offurther artistic rendering, in this case through photography, employedas an art form in its own right.

3. the uncanny

Bechara’s doorless sculptures evoke what Anthony Vidler called “thearchitectural uncanny.” Vidler mapped various forms of the uncannybased on the E. T. A. Hoffman’s short stories (and its consequences inSigmund Freud who created the concept along with its lasting impact onthe arts) and his attention fixed itself on the description of Usher’shouse, taken from the short story of the same title by Edgar Allan Poe.The house is described through its inadequacies, and because of theinexistence of any contact with the outside, it becomes practically anarchitectural embodiment of isolation and of that which is sinister.Clearly Vidler’s concept is born of a gothic literature and itsresulting embodiment in the design of the house, of which the Usherhouse is the perfect example. In this context, of the embodiment of theuncanny in architecture, autistic doorlessness windows that openblindly like empty eye sockets to an impenetrable interior are signs ofa box that is closed in on itself. This typology of the uncannyassociated to impenetrability, and to a blind gaze that has notransparency to the soul is also linked to the notion of “unhomely”.The term is linked to German word unheimlich, reinforcing the notion ofun-belonging, – not limited to the psychological notion of the uncanny.In a very literal sense, the house’s inadequacy as far as belonging andhabitation are concerned is one of the important aspects ofcontemporary art situated as it is at the antipodes of the heideggeriannostalgia of a life rooted in the world – even if Heidegger’s thoughtin 1947 could be construed as imbued with a degree of cynicism. Thefact is that modern thought centers on the lack of belonging, perhapsthe most significant mark of the avant-gardes, especially in the waythat it reflects the body/space relation, and more specifically, therelation between body and the space of habitation.

This gap between body and bodily space has been filled in by a sense ofexistence as ceaselessly nomadic, of having no home, no place ofbelonging. It is in this context that we can frame our interpretationof the relation between inaccessibility and explosion in José Bechara’spieces. If, in his models, the inaccessible interior is compensated forbecause it provides a way out of our own world, the intrusion (despitebeing rendering down to Lilliputian scale) de-structures its envelopingspace, and the process converts inadequacy into conflicting proposals,sculpture as a home and conversely, the model or maquette generating anotion of corporal project.

4. Body

Ultimately, the corporal repercussions of José Bechara’s sculpturesexert an influence over a specific aspect of corporal dismemberment. Itis clear too, that his works generate an architectural metaphor thatpoints to a model of the body that is very different from the oneVitruvio alluded to when positing the organic relation betweenarchitecture and body, the humanist model that guided the metaphoricrelations between art and architecture. It is a different body, onethat is torn apart and fragmentary, a body that is in transit, nomadic.If, in some architectural contexts, deconstruction uses the metaphor ofthe disruptive and inhuman, bionic body to question the corporal model– and José Bechara belongs to this genealogy in the field of the visualarts-; the trend to reinterpret corporality is present in theproposition of experiences that are disruptive to subjectivity andupsetting to mechanisms of belonging and recognition. In the case ofJosé Bechara, his sculptural works imply in a vision that is bothvernacularly and culturally implicated. This is to say that hisprocesses of recognition are brought about by a strong connection withflexible building structures, much akin to Brazil’s Second Modernismand its use and immersion in the reticular and organic systems of thearchitecture of poverty, systems that were significant to an entiregeneration of artists and which first originated in the pioneering workof Hélio Oiticica. Nevertheless, the specific nature of this approachresides in the free interchange present in neo-concretism, itsjuxtaposition of figurative and corporal logic, and the adoption of anidiom that is rigorous, geometric, and flesh-less.

Bechara’s constructive procedure is born of this confluence betweenentropic building and compositional order, raising the issue ofrepresentation and its compulsion of presence, which his models do notrefuse.

5. building x dismemberment

The paradox between building and what Gordon Matta-Clark called”unbuilding” has a long tradition in the avant-garde of the arts thatgoes back to the Great Russian Experiment, between 1915 and 1927.

It was during the period that stretches from the 1915 exhibition inPetrograd – (that helped define in the two main lines of the Russianavant-garde, Malévitch’s Suprematism and Vladimir Tatlin’s embryonicconstructivism), to the emergence of art destined exclusively forexhibition such as the work of Lazar El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, that afield of intervention emerged in which architecture, design andsculpture met and expanded the range of artistic practice under theaegis of “real space”.

A group of artists championed the fusion of architecture and sculptureunder the aegis of function and use. The first group led by Rodshenkoand Alexei Gan, defined their point of view as Konstruktivisty. Theterm is derived from the word Konstruktor for specialist in Russian, inthe very same sense that today we speak of a specialist in electricalengineering, to use the comparison by Catherine Cooke. Constructivismas an activity, therefore, is more closely linked to the labor ofconception and planning than that of physical exertion of building.Although it does not in any way diminish the notion of physical labor,it certainly stresses art as an activity related to conceivingprojects, closer in spirit to engineering and architecture than to thetraditions of manual labor.

Thus, if the artists mentioned are influenced by Bogdanov, a rival ofLenin and author of the Proletkult, his sculptural pieces are,doubtlessly, architectural, associated to and interrelated to thedevelopment of a project-based culture that is particularly distinct inthe words of one of the most renowned architects of the period, MoiseiGinzburg:

“It is not at issue whether the artist loses creativity once he isaware of what he wants, of his intent or in of the meaning of his work.However, the unconscious, intuition, the creative impulse, ought to besubstituted by a clear and organized method that saves the architect’senergy…”

This vision, despite having been mitigated by artistic practice, isclearly present at the origins of the project-culture that hasdefinitely contaminated sculpture and makes it use architecture as adevice. We can go as far as to say that architecture becomes, for thisgroup of artists, sculpture transcendental, that is, sculpture can comeinto existence exclusively via architecture.

The sculpture through architecture paradigm originated in VladimirTatlin’s 1919 project Monument to the Third International. The Monumentwas conceived while Tatlin worked for the Fine Arts Section of theLunacharsky Lights Commisariat and set up at the 8th Congress of theSoviets of 1920. During the conference a flier explaining the monumententitled “The work before us” was given out to the public. The documentdismissed bourgeois art that pretended to illustrate the revolution andconferred the Monument the task of proving the holistic possibilitiesof the arts, bringing together architecture, sculpture and painting.The following year, the concept, adopted by a constructivist group,influenced the entire Inkhuk (Arts Institute). The debates and thatfollowed are interesting, especially once they defined their centralconcepts, namely Tektonika, Konstruksia e Factura. Tectonika relates tothe organic link between political values and industrial techniques.Factura concerns the specific values of the materials being used.Konstruksia is the concept taken to an extreme: the project’sperformatic character. In a very short period of time a group ofartists gathered together working systematically in three dimensions,and who would create a synthesis between the  genesis of structuralistlinguistics (as influenced by Roman Jacobson) a procedure based onprojects and the primacy of materials. Sculpture, thus, had beentransformed, becoming social construction.

Thus sculpture seemed to have become nothing but a metaphor of itself,or an insistence in the process of collective transformation, havingthus the public space as its sole field of expression. When it does nottake the form of an intervention in the public space, it becomes amaquette, a model, as was the case with Vantongerloo. Undergoing thisprocess of “architecturalization” if you will, sculpture is given anatural scale, which is the scale of the body itself, and not one thatis imposed by anthropomorphism, but instead by the metaphor of itsutility. It is, in fact, a particularly important aspect in the period,one that is present, as we discussed previously, in the use of the term”real space” by Lazar El Lissitzky with respect to Malévitch’s “BlackSquare” of 1913 that marked the end of the era of representation andinaugurated real space, a non-Euclidian space, but one that is definedthrough temporality. Not being a considered a strict constructivist,namely because Lissitzky saw the primacy of utility as inadequate,there is nevertheless, in Lissitzky’s trajectory a process in whichsculpture expands towards work over space in a context of theglobalization of experience with an emphasis on the role of theproject.
Well, the project is, progressively, the dismemberment of space, aproject in which sculpture is present as an anamorphic space thatbelongs to an ephemeral body, if for no other reason because it is theutopian body of the revolution, a body to be recreated as its process.

6. explosion

The closing scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabrinsky Point, hasbecome an engram for all of us who have an interest in the spatialprocesses of the projected image. During long minutes the spectatorwitnesses a series of explosions, first in real time and subsequentlyin slow motion. Exploding before us is a modernist house in the MohaveDesert, and inside it, all that makes it habitable: furniture, objects,books.

José Bechara’s work is, finally, a reified extension of this process ofexplosion. We can interpret the explosion in a number of ways: as aninternal commentary to the processes of sculpture itself, as anintervention in the much more ample terrain of cultural and socialcommentary.

The explosion is not purely a counter-cultural destruction of themodern space. It is also, in his case, the Brazilian baroquemanifestation of the excesses of inhabitation, taken from the radicalpoint of view of impossibility. His models posses a doubling of meaningat various levels: there is the issue we have already discussedpertaining to scale and its antinomy with respect to the ontologicalaspect of model and work of art; we proposed that it be understood as acombination, rooted in the Brazilian tradition of neo-concretism,between the vernacularism of space and formal/compositional typology;we have already situated deconstruction’s use of the metaphor ofdismemberment of the body.

Finally, we may try to understand the exercise in externalizationproposed by Bechara as an incursion in the terrain of excesses from abaroque matrix. In fact, the baroque movement is defined by excess,permanently overflowing and from among a number of spatialinterpretations. Brazilian baroque is endowed with this quality that isassociated to a more penetrating version of the carnal world, or if weprefer, to greater depth in the concretely physical nature of theunfolding corporality. A number of authors associate this very samecomplexity with multicultural and liminal experiences of corporalityconverted into space.

Thus the passage from an inside to its outside (that is insideourselves) pertaining to various modules of corporal metaphor,represent a reified de-multiplication of passing, transient, andtherefore de-territorialized meaning.

It is in the body and in its opposite, uninhabited space, that JoséBechara’s proposition lies, starting from the principle that a bodyexists solely, (as Sartre would say and Vidler remind us), because ithas a house. The de-territorialization and the uninhabitability of theexplosion are, also, the baroque explosion of the body – even if as amodel.

In other words, if the Lilliputian dimensions of Bechara’s models donot affect their hyper efficacy, it is because they always lead us toalterity: to another space, to another body, to another place. Lilliputcertainly not. Perhaps Blefescu, the other island where Gulliver neverwent.



Delfim Sardo studied at Universidade de Coimbra (Portugal), has dedicated himself to art theory and criticism, and is a curator of contemporary art exhibitions.