The Forever Project Art, Architecture and the Transforming Imagination
“I see things in the world that are so beautiful I would never be able to reproduce them as an artist,” says architect, artist and educator Eduardo Aquino. “So in the urban landscape making art becomes a curatorial act, detecting and celebrating those things people don’t usually notice.” What Aquino noticed for three years was the sidewalk hoarding around the construction site for Qaumajuq, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s centre for Inuit and Indigenous art. What attracted him about the hoarding was that it was produced by two different social groups, the construction workers who assembled it and the passers-by who added various kinds of graffiti to its wooden surface. “A gut feeling told me to reclaim this urban fragment because what I recognized in it was an existing artwork,” he said. He decided to call the piece he would make from this urban fragment Tapume, which means “hoarding” in Portuguese, his native language.
Tapume was not the first time that Aquino had used hoarding as a shaping material. At Concordia for his MFA graduating exhibition in 1993, he built a tapume wall with a peephole through which viewers could see the slide-projected images of students whose applications for the MFA program had been rejected. For an exhibition in 1998 at the São Paulo Cultural Centre, he used found street hoarding to construct a narrow passageway leading to a closed space that was a simulacrum of a recycling centre. His collaborators in this exhibition were the garbage collectors who illegally picked up newspapers, glass and metal in São Paulo. Their makeshift gathering carts had been confiscated, so Aquino included them in his recycling centre and when the exhibition closed, he invited his street collaborators back to reclaim their property. He considered it “a subversive transaction project.” What his tapume-inspired exhibitions in Montreal and São Paulo had in common was noticing who had been rejected and finding a way to restore them to a place of recognition.
Both earlier tapume projects were in his mind when he focused on what was to be the first installation of his Winnipeg project. His initial idea was to use the Qaumajuq hoarding to make a version of Houston’s Rothko Chapel in the School of Art Gallery at the University of Manitoba. His admiration for Rothko was aesthetic and political; he was attracted to the American artist’s involvement with the labour movement and his Marxist affinities; Aquino transferred that attitude to his imagined Tapume chapel.
In order to get permission to take the hoarding, he approached Stephen Borys, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s director, who not only agreed to let Aquino have the hoarding but wanted the project to be exhibited at the WAG. “From the beginning the possibility of transformation was already building in me,” Aquino remembers, and the offer to initiate the project at the WAG made that possibility an inevitability. The offer and its acceptance meant that Tapume would have to assume other iterations because the chapel concept wouldn’t work in Gallery 5 of the WAG, where it would be installed. It turned out that the 75-foot length of the outside hoarding corresponded to the length of the west wall in that gallery, so Aquino made fifty 18 x 24-inch paintings in the dull blue, grey, green and brown palette of the hoardings to sit on a ledge along that wall. He regarded the hoardings as “incidental found paintings” and he wanted to keep the look and the manufacture of his paintings consistent with the found material. He painted them with rollers to duplicate buffing, and because these works represented his return to painting after 35 years, he wanted them made “indeterminately, without any decisions.” They were painted quickly, in his backyard and in the alley, as a way of simulating the experience of being in the street. The other element of the WAG project was to rebuild the hoarding sidewalk and to bring inside the gallery what previously had been outside. This first iteration combined the architectural form of the walkway with repetitive, minimal painting, and it left the material as it was. Not altering things was important. For Aquino, the work was a celebration of the labour and effort involved in creating the new museum. His purpose was “to show the worker’s work, unchanged.”
Aquino was now able to build his “dirty realistic version of Rothko’s Chapel, consistent with Winnipeg’s cultural and urban landscape.” He shaped the hoarding to conform to the idea of a chapel, but he emphasized the differences from its source; his chapel had industrial lighting with the electrical cords and caged bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the unpainted plywood floor was reconstructed from the floor of the covered sidewalk that had been outside the WAG, and the seating was stacked concrete blocks. Aquino considers the Tapume chapel and its iterations as “spaces for friction.” In keeping with Jane Rendell’s Critical Spatial Practice, he recognized that by bringing the street inside, “you challenge notions or expectations you have about the institution.” The process is also personally revealing. “Every single step of Tapume came from exposing and making public something that’s quite intimate,” Aquino realizes. “What I’m making happen is my perception, my intentions.”
The project went through two more iterations. The third was in Arch2 Gallery, attached to the School of Architecture at the University of Manitoba. This iteration further deconstructed the repurposed hoardings, presenting the fragments as paintings in different arrangements and scales. There is a tidy reverse trajectory in the move from the WAG, where he brought architecture into an art gallery, and the Arch2 installation, where he brought painting into a gallery associated with the School of Architecture. The Arch2 variation included a free-standing sculpture and a large painting, as well as a wall of smaller paintings that were assembled without any organizational principle, other than being placed next to one another. The surface of the scabbed and punctured wall was raw and gorgeous. The single large painting stood on three legs, had the look of an Arte Povera stacked wall and winked in the direction of Jannis Kounellis.
The fourth and final variation of the project was an outdoor pavilion at the university constructed from remnants of the remnants. Called Ciansit [sitting in blue], it was made in collaboration with his first-year design students, and functions as a place to gather, eat lunch and smoke. He told his students, “The circle is not finished yet. It’s more like a continuum, something that can potentially continue. The idea of fragmentation at Tapume’s centre means that I could work on it forever. Transform, transform, transform.”
Beyond change, other ideas informed Aquino’s project, among them the application of Rendell’s Critical Spatial Practice and the intention to redistribute labour and power. Aesthetic practices and artists other than Rothko had also worked their way into his thinking: seriality and minimal painting, Duchamp’s readymades, Bruce Nauman’s corridors and Dan Graham’s pavilions. In Montreal, from 1989 to 1991, Aquino had worked for Dan Graham, building models, and what he recognized was the flexibility of the pavilion as a container of meaning: “The pavilion is a typology that is an open structure in-between art and architecture.” That liminal boundary coincided with the sense of permeability he had picked up from Jane Rendell. Aquino regards all the iterations in his Tapume project as “mini social infrastructures.”
“What Duchamp taught me was that you don’t need to do anything to what you bring into the gallery,” he says. “The radical thing about the found object is that when you change the concept of something, even something quite banal, and place it in an institutional space, it becomes something quite powerful.” Nauman’s influence was less about objects than about activity. “For me,” Aquino says, “the studio is the city and the spirit I have walking on the streets is the same attitude Nauman has in his studio. I’ve got to do something. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care what it is. I’ve just got to do something out of this.” When Nauman walks around his studio and Aquino walks through his city-as-studio, they are both experiential flâneurs.
Aquino’s early understanding was that more than creating a contemplative space in his chapel, Rothko was “narrating spatial perception.” That emphasis on phenomenology better suited the artist flâneur in him and he was able to take it forward into the project. He said, “This whole process was like breathing, meaning there was no planning, no strategy. It was a process that would unfold. The space between the street and the last painting is continuous, a more lucid understanding of space, always permeable, with no boundaries or divisions. I never saw those things as separate; what I saw was a transformative project.”
In our conversation, Eduardo said if circumstances had been different, he would not have chosen to be an architect, an artist, or an educator. Instead, he would be a professional flâneur. He has become what he wished for. Out of his wandering, coupled with what he knows as an architect, an artist and an educator, he has taken some unwanted hoarding, named it in the language he breathes and fundamentally shifted our understanding of the meaning of objects and space, art and architecture, and looking and making. ❚