Installation view at Kunsthaus Bregenz, with (foreground) Miracéus, 2004–23, various bird feathers and fabric. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Temporalities and Memories: A Conversation with Solange Pessoa

Solange Pessoa’s work deals in substances and relations between things that, for her, relate to the history of the earth and of humanity. She draws attention to states of matter and processes of change, giving meaning to material energies. Over four decades, she has worked with a wide range of materials related not only to the natural and cultural landscape of her native Brazil (born in Minas Gerais, she lives and works in Belo Horizonte, north of Rio de Janeiro), but also to other cultures, histories, and sensibilities. Drawing on a plethora of sources—archaeology, prehistoric cave paintings, traditional craft, the Brazilian Baroque, Modernism, and poetry—her work embodies attentiveness, sensitivity, and, above all, patience. Many of her installations require years to reach a state of completion, and even then, they are not fixed, remaining subject to change and evolution, just like the transformations of matter, connections, and thoughts that inspire them.

4 Hammocks, 1999–2003. Fabric, earth, and sponges, dimensions variable. Photo: Chim Lam

Robert Preece: Over the years, you’ve worked with a huge range of organic and found matter, in addition to more traditional sculptural materials, which you often treat in unconventional ways. What is the impetus for your experimentation?
Solange Pessoa:
Materials find me by intuitive and rather obscure means. Relations and affinities between them are also carried in this manner. Paper, pigments, hay, feathers, hair, leather, wool, bones, fabric, earth, leaves, blood, fruit, plants, animals, bronze, ceramic, stone, and film are all part of my vocabulary. Over the years, I came to realize that, however different, materials demonstrate incredible coherence across a vast communication network.

My perception of this communication became more evident and, in some way, more developed over time, as my research reached a higher level of maturity and consciousness. In the ’90s, when I first began to work with non-traditional materials, there was a lot of prejudice surrounding their use in art-making—not only prejudice against the ephemerality that such materials presented, but also objections fueled by moral, ethical, religious, and existential concerns. Across various cultures, primitive or otherwise, a number of these materials bear sacred connotations, embedded with symbolism and faith. Hair, for example, was widely used in figures of Catholic saints from the Baroque period as a means to vivify them, creating the impression that they were alive and among us. It has always been used in the creation of ex-votos and across religious traditions with African and Indigenous roots.

RP: In Untitled (2019), a low-lying floor work, you contrast slabs of bronze that give the appearance of weathered stone with a bed of grapes. There are differences in physical and visual texture, as well as degrees of permanence. What is this juxtaposition about?
The installation first began to develop in my mind through studies, maquettes, observations, and documentation focused on the process of duration and decomposition of grapes, the essence of which, with time, becomes a transubstantiation of matter. Untitled was only really completed in 2020 for the exhibition “In the Sun and the Shade” at Mendes Wood DM in Brussels and absolutely finalized—with five sculptures in bronze and grapes—for Art Basel Parcours in 2021. Many of my installations
are the consequence of other works, and for this development with grapes, I wanted to present these materials together—body and matter. There is a connection with my work from the ’90s, in which the transformation of matter was very present. As the temporality in space and time increases, the more these processes can be felt. Body, time and space, matter and spirit, life and death are the themes that this installation brings forward in its physical, temporal, and symbolic intensity.

Untitled, 2019. Bronze and grapes, overall installation area: 60 x meters. View of installation at Mendes Wood DM Brussels. Photo: Kristien Daem

RP: Feathers cover the billowing, suspended form of Untitled (2004–12), which appeared in a new iteration as Miracéus (2004–23) in your recent exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz. From the center, a funnel-like form reaches down, allowing glimpses into what is above. How did you begin to use feathers?
SP: Feathers are one of the first organic materials with which I came into contact. They allowed me to enjoy sensorial, material, and constructive experiences, and they helped me to materialize conceptual and spatial thoughts. In 1990, I developed a small hanging wall sculpture using feathers, which I nicknamed “wing.” From that, larger and more complex sculptures developed, with a certain liturgical and soulful charge—cult sculptures. Sometimes I think there is an element of devotional sculpture in them, though I am not quite sure. They are my own hauntings.

The feathers—from chickens and other birds consumed by humans—were collected from farms and various other places. Feathers are a by-product, often discarded. I re-signify this material, selecting feathers, organizing them, and attaching them to large fabrics, creating flexible and moldable volumes. Drawings of animals and plants circle the installation, giving rhythm and dynamism to the space. It is a kind of magical object, open, receptive, and ritualistic.

Miracéus, 2004–23. Various bird feathers and fabric, detail of installation. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

RP: You began your monumental sack installation in 1994, and it has undergone various incarnations, including Untitled, version Minas Texas (1994–2019), at Ballroom Marfa, and Bags—Bregenz version (1994–2023), at Kunsthaus Bregenz. The sacks are filled with an encyclopedic range of materials—soil, plants, bone fragments, dried blossoms, charcoal, roots, and poems—and visitors are allowed to explore them, shifting the contents and altering the installation. What developed over the long gestation of this work?
SP: This installation was first made in a warehouse and atelier in 1994, and many of the materials filling the bags related to that space, including leftover supplies from other works and documents from the installation. It is an infinite project, an open-ended archive that can always be extended in increments. Right from the beginning, I understood this underlying vocation of the piece—its ability to be expanded, giving a universal meaning to its content.

It is as if the installation were one big warehouse that tries to store and collect diverse elements from the mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms. Interactive and multi-sensorial, it invades the entire environment around it, activating feelings, memories, and reflections. My friends and I used to refer to the 1994 version as “tropicália,” because of its constructive precariousness, sensorial experiences, and Dionysian relationships. This was also a tribute to Hélio Oiticica’s Tropicália, an installation first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro in 1967 and made of rudimentary and sensorial elements, including hay, sand, earth, and plants, to name a few. This work inspired the song by Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso and identified the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which fought against the repression of the dictatorship period in Brazil (1964 to 1986). It was a determining factor for the development of contemporary art and cultural production in the country.

Bags – Bregenz version, 1994–2023. Linen bags, earth, minerals, charcoal, bones, plants, poems, roots, pigments, seeds, feathers, and stones, installation view at Kunsthaus Bregenz. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM
Bags – Bregenz version, 1994–2023. Linen bags, earth, minerals, charcoal, bones, plants, poems, roots, pigments, seeds, feathers, and stones, detail of installation at Kunsthaus Bregenz. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

RP: Carved soapstone holds very specific connections to Brazil. You’ve created a number of
works in this material. What are these sculptures, often installed outdoors, about?

SP: The soapstone sculptures, like my other works, were produced after a long period of research
and following numerous studies and maquettes. Soapstone, an intimate yet foreign medium, was widely used in the Baroque architecture and sculpture of 18th-century Minas Gerais. I say it is intimate because it belongs to the artistic and cultural substrate of where I live, but it is foreign because it is associated exclusively with colonial times.

There are certain residues of this tradition that the soapstone elucidates, but there are other temporal connections. I believe that with soapstone, I activate distant connections that update and sensitize emotions, feelings, and reflections to temporalities and memories.

RP: The soapstone forms in Fountains and Tanks (2014–17), a multipart outdoor work, recall fossils, enlarged bone fragments, vessels, and body parts. Did this project influence your subsequent works?
SP: I was able to produce this project thanks to a public grant, which allowed it to emerge from the maquette stage. It was my first experience with soapstone. I had researched and catalogued colonial fountains and tanks for a very long time, observing how these objects, removed from their daily functions, collected not only water and moss, but also histories.

Fountains and Tanks was the starting point for the development of new thoughts with stones. The series “Caveiras” (2016), “Mimesmas” (2017), and “Dionísias” (2017), as well as Nihil Novi Sub Sole (2019–21), all unfolded from Fountains and Tanks, within their own diverse spatial contexts and across variable dimensions. Nihil Novi Sub Sole, presented at the last edition of the Venice Biennale, is an open-ended installation, and other sculptures can still be added to it.

Fountains and Tanks, 2014–17. Sculpted soapstone, dimensions variable. View of installation at Skulpturenpark Koln. Photo: Alwin Lay

RP: Cathedral (1990–2003), a sinuous, large-scale installation made of hair, leather, and fabric, is in
the collection of the Rubell Museum, where it was included in “No Man’s Land,” a group exhibition
of female artists held during Art Basel Miami in 2015. Did this work require a lot of revision as it evolved over all those years?

SP: When I produced my first sculptures using hair, leather, and fabric in the 1990s, I could not imagine that they would be so longevous in their conception, construction, and understanding. Due to the nature of the installation, its physical and temporal accumulations, it indeed required many years before its completion. For a long time, these sculptures with hair and leather remained incredibly uninteresting to me, completed but kept away. However, there was an overwhelming sensation of incompletion, of something that could gain other outlines and intensities. Following an accident at the end of the 1990s in which I lost several works, this installation came back to my mind, subject to new insights and processes. Its scale increased, and so did its entire conceptual and material framework, requiring a bigger structure.

RP: You’ve identified Cathedral as a key work in the development of your practice. Why is that?
Like the idea of no man’s land, Cathedral is a depository of phantasmagoric memories, memories from the ground and from the sky, of god and the devil, of transcendence and of centuries and centuries of imagination. In 1990, I started collecting my own hair and that of my siblings and friends; then, I started collecting hair from hairdressers and beauty parlors in the neighborhood. The leather pieces that accompany the hair are inspired by sections of mounts, harnesses, and images of medieval cavalry. It is incredibly significant within my production for its ability to highlight elements related to my creative vocabulary, to anticipate the production of later projects, and to expand on figures of the imagination. Cathedral seems like a big ex-voto to me, one that stands and drags itself.

Cathedral, 1990–2003. Hair, leather, and fabric, 800 x 10,000 x 160 cm. Photo: Chim Lam

RP: Sleep (2005–08) is another work that you’ve identified as important in your career. Its organic bronze forms are permanently installed in the Garden of the Museu de Arte de Pampulha in Brazil. What is this work about, and what did you learn through the process of making it?
Pampulha, an internationally recognized symbol of the Modernist movement and UNESCO World Heritage Site, was established in the 1940s within the city of Belo Horizonte; it includes a museum complex designed by Oscar Niemeyer, with gardens conceived by Roberto Burle Marx and tile panels produced by Candido Portinari in collaboration with other artists. Sleep allowed me to engage in a more meaningful dialogue with the outdoor landscape, beyond the constraints of those “walls” drawn from previous experiences and expectations of wild terrain within heritage sites. The sculptures are inserted into the environment with a generous spatiality, dialoguing directly with the vegetation and animals in the living and dynamic space of the garden, set within the architectural and urban context of Pampulha.

Sleep, 2005–08. Bronze, set of 5 sculptures, installation view at Museu de Arte da Pampulha, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Photo: Pablo Lobato

RP: Could you explain a bit about Untitled (2008), which was also created for the Museu de Arte de Pampulha?
This installation, made of moss and bronze, was developed specifically for a beautiful curved wall designed by Oscar Niemeyer; it was commissioned for an exhibition that I presented at the museum in 2008. It has a lot to do with mountains, their concreteness and waviness. I wanted to bring the outside landscape into the interior environment of the building. Although bronze and moss relate to different natures, both have a connection with time. These temporal dimensions are always present in my reflections. As the moss dries up with the passage of time, it still retains a very beautiful color. It has never been replaced since the work’s original placement.

RP: In addition to Untitled, version Minas Texas, “Longilonge” (2019–20), your exhibition at Ballroom Marfa (and your first U.S. museum show), featured a suite of wall-hung works made from bronze integrated with feathers and hair. Could you explain the choice of materials and forms in these pieces? What sorts of emotions do you think are projecting from them?
The bronze forms in the installation Ão-Ão (2015–17) were cast from ceramic sculptures in order to obtain a malleability that would accommodate elements made from other materials, such as hair and feathers, in unison and in dialogue with each other. It is a synthesis of materials that I have worked with throughout my career, familiar to my imagination and capable of unveiling corporal, material, and visual situations. They are like entities, a quasi-body, with erotic and spiritual dimensions. I realize that I am always adding different materials, the soft to the hard, the ephemeral to the perennial, the mundane to the sublime.

Ão-Ão, 2015–17. Bronze, feathers, and hair, 101.6 x 66 x 61 cm.; 63.5 x 55.9 x 66 cm.; and 81.3 x 66.2 x 45.7 cm. Photo: Alex Marks

RP: Your work requires skill and expertise in the handling of these different materials. Do you make everything yourself? Have you worked with specialized assistants over the years?
SP: I have very recently taken on full-time assistants in the studio. Before, I used to rely on the help of friends whenever it was needed or on the occasional assistant for a specific project.

RP: Are there any materials that you’ve experimented with that didn’t work well or that produced unexpected surprises?
There are always unexpected surprises when working with different materials. To this day, working with the ink produced from the Jenipapo fruit, which I use in drawings, is still revealing, in both pleasant and unpleasant ways.

Untitled, from the series “Sonhíferas,” 2020–23. Oil on canvas, installation view. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

RP: Is there anyone in particular who helped facilitate your artistic practice? Who would you identify as your artistic influences?
I am not able to name specific people, apart from the artists with whom I shared a collective studio in my youth—we all helped each other in that period. Reading and following the art criticism produced in Brazil in the 1980s and ’90s, my formative years, provided me with insight and critical independence. I was a teacher for a very long time, and teaching allowed me to develop a better understanding of time. I did not make much money, but I had time for my work and time to study the constructive and existential processes of artists. Teaching also deepened my knowledge of art history and made me a better human being.

My artistic references have always been Oswald de Andrade, João Guimarães Rosa, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Glauber Rocha, Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Maria Martins, Tarsila do Amaral, Tunga, Aleijadinho, poetry, cinema, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, Surrealism, the Baroque, and the tropicália. Belo Horizonte, where I live and work, is surrounded by Niemeyer’s architecture, which activates its urban spaces with beauty and poetry. Burle Marx has always been a reference, with his beautiful gardens and his spatial, botanical thoughts. Together, their environments create powerful
visual and structural demands.

Installation view at Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2023–24. Photo: Markus Tretter, © Solange Pessoa, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

RP: What are your future plans? Your artistic dreams?
SP: To carry on with those projects that already exist as maquettes and to complete the many films that are scripted on paper and in my mind. Also, to build a studio where I can produce projects on an even larger scale, where I will be able to house my thoughts and ideas, where I can store materials, archives, dreams, and desires, and the madness of art.