binary opposition, demanding instead a “system” allowing polyphony,
mixed response (difference in sameness, repulsion in attraction), and
resistance to integration […] the monster’s very existence is a rebuke to
Ever since its invention, or since its etymological formation, the word monster has been inscribed with a social function: to communicate the will of the gods to the people, usually a punitive one (monstrat futurum, monet voluntatem deorum: shows the future and warns of the will of the gods). Although the monster’s figure was democratized according to conventionalisms, it continued to be the messenger of misfortune or tragedy, an effect of behaviors that acted against the harmony of established norms. The monster broadened its institutional origins to the imaginary realm of Ethics: it became the other. From Oedipus’s Sphinx to the Chupacabra, the monster’s apparition is a metaphor that reflects the complexities of each era: the Cold War’s aliens, the revival of vampires after HIV and now zombies (J. J. Cohen, author of Monster Culture, proposes using monsters to understand cultural diversity: through examining the monsters created by each culture’s idiosyncrasy we can understand their history, their geopolitics, their race, beliefs, needs: circumstances.) In accordance with the complexities of each period, the monster has been the opposite of that which is comfortable or pleasant, it cannot be domesticated, and if it could, it wouldn’t be a monster (despite attempts to claim it as a double agent in favor of the human project). In this sense, the “rules” of monstrosity seem intransigent.
In his work, Unheimlich, Imaginário Popular Brasileiro, Brazilian artist Walmor Corrêa offers us a different point of view, an unusual perspective with which to recognize the monster, or to recognize ourselves within it. The title of his work, Unheimlich refers to the psychological term for “uncanny,” elucidated by Sigmund Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche, Freud defines unheimlich, or uncanny, as a cognitive dissonance produced by everything which is familiarly strange to us because it has been unconsciously repressed by different circumstances. Consequently, this cognitive dissonance generates intellectual uncertainty or a bewildered logic (in the field of linguistics, paraphrasing Julia Kristeva, an unheimlich happens when a symbol ceases to function as a symbol and all its efficiency and the significations of what was symbolized is transformed; the sign is not an arbitrary experience, but rather assumes real relevance because its arbitrariness crumbles to the benefit of the imagination). Even though Walmor Corrêa works under the Freudian premise, in Unheimlich Imáginario Popular Brasileiro he inserts other reflections about the topic through the asking of new questions. He has broadened the possibilities of his monsters, referring to them as beings or entities. This is not a simple politically correct way to refer to them, because there is no redemptive discourse or apology in his work, but rather a search for the widening of circumstances, new alveoli, vacant alveoli, other angles in which the possible response is a question to our bewildered logic.
His beings, or entities, appertain to the collective imaginary from Brazil, that is to say, they are endemic to this specific region of the planet, they are endemic to the inhabitants’ collective imaginary, to their idiosyncrasy and (according to the “different ways of understanding” suggested by Cohen) they allow us to understand that many of them are not possible in the place we inhabit (myths are plausible because of their baroque verisimilitude). However, perceptual exoticism is not what inaugurates other possible reflections, rather it is the way these beings are addressed by Corrêa. Building upon the certain legitimacy given through scientific discourse, the artist presents a cabinet of dissected entities to us, entities rendered vulnerable through their biological deconstruction; their exposed organs are differentiated from the rest of the body through the use of color. These organs belong to concrete beings, ones which lie in the image’s background, muted by grays and sepias. They yield their role as protagonists to their anatomical compositions and to the complex systems that once allowed them to perform life. Through this contrast, the gaze is focused on the internal (equality) and eventually on the external (differences), thus opening what will become a bewildered environment. The figures are framed, or surrounded by, anatomical parts which have been decontextualized from their systems. They float independently, each accompanied by a brief text explaining that organ’s specific function. These aseptic narratives complement and legitimize what is presented to us, they reactivate a particular organ ekphrastically, bringing it back to life through language:
Heart and cardiac electrophysiology
Located in the center of the thorax, it has the function of pumping blood to the body, supplying the cells with oxygen and nutrients. Once the heart muscles contract, they force the flow of blood from the atrium to the ventricles and then out. The blood then returns to the heart through a complex vein system. It has three cavities: one atrium and two ventricles. The three cavities have practically the same volume with different thickness of the walls. There is a big pause between the second and the third heart beat. The first one is the beat of the atrium, the second one is the beat of the right ventricle and the third sound is the left ventricle. The cardiac activation results from an impulse that starts either in one cell or in the whole group of cells and from the propagation of this impulse to all the cells of the atrium and the ventricles.
Despite the scientific tone of the texts that supplement and describe each organ didactically, an “unheimlich” occurs and the arbitrary language signs crumble to the benefit of the imagination: an exquisite Brazilian paradoxography. Cultivated by the Ancient Greeks, Paradoxography was a literary genre in which incredible events from the human condition were narrated. It was a protoscience that tried to legitimize extraordinary events, searching for ecological-biological possibilities through language (in his book History of Animals, Aristotle defined “being impregnated by the wind” as what we now know as False Pregnancy, Phantom Pregnancy or the Rapunzel Syndrome). Paradoxographic literature also allowed voyagers to describe otherness and the rites, habits, animals and geography associated with other cultures as something extraordinary, yet possible. Paradoxographic language allowed Albrecht Dürer to sketch out, to draw his Rhinoceros; he had never seen a rhinoceros in person, he never witnessed the existence of the animal, and nevertheless he made it anatomically possible.
Even though Walmor Corrêa’s beings are local entities, with their origins in the Brazilian collective imaginary, their anatomical plausibility is the result of the artist’s imagination and a thorough investigation that allowed him to visualize the inner structure of these beings. Corrêa visited physicians and specialists during the first part of his project, he then traveled to the habitats where these beings are found. In these places, the inhabitants gave him more information about their entities: eating habits, routines, features and other particularities that helped him to understand these beings not only physically, but also philosophically, psychologically and semantically. Unlike Greek paradoxographers, Corrêa bases his work on an extraordinariness that already exists in Brazilian myths, but is nonetheless presented as unknown. In Unheimlich, he gives these local foreigners new reading possibilities through more concrete or objective rapprochements, like the body and its functions; the perishable becomes a deformed mirror that occurs within the prejudice and/or the aversion with which we ontologically approach the idea of these possible beings. Everything which was destined to remain in secret, hidden, has come to light, Julia Kristeva dixit in her definition of unheimlich. In his own unheimlich, Walmor Corrêa shares the sensitivity of the concept, not because he brings them out to light, but because he illuminates them within their own darkness.
If we approach the complete works of Walmor Corrêa, those before and after Unheimlich, we would notice a need to deconstruct established sensitivities, to create different dialogues around foundational uncertainties or intransigent certainties, in his artistic discourse. The artist constructs bridges that bind, but which also question. He enables third landscapes, in which scientific or mythical, bewildered or rational, are fusing and confusing; here it is possible to understand life through death and vice versa, finiteness through the present and vice versa, the known through the unknown and vice versa. These forms of knowledge, of questioning, can be explicit or subtle, an almost gesture, the artist does not limit his work to a single discipline. His formats are created by his pieces, which range from mobile sculptures in music boxes or cuckoo clocks to photographs of cryptozoological findings (pigeon-rat hybrids at a waste habitat), from archaeological interventions or the in situ of imaginary species, to naturalistic sketches or drawings, entomologies of fantastic insects, and painting, as is the case with Unheimlich.
I highlight Memento Mori from his complete works, an exhibit in which the artist complements the pieces that make up Unheimlich with musical domes, a cuckoo clock and a bonsai skeleton. By adding these new pieces, Corrêa enables other possibilities of dialogue between his works. The title, Memento Mori, refers to a Latin phrase that means, remember you will die or remember you are mortal. Memento Mori was a warning used in moments of glory; servants or lower level companions, used to whisper this phrase in their leader’s or ruler’s ear while they were acclaimed by their people; Memento Mori in order to let them know that even glory was ephemeral. But Memento Mori is also a reference to a particular style of painting, a variant of the still life.
Within the glass-domed music boxes of Walmor Corrêa’s Memento Mori, there are small skeletons that, at first sight, seem like the skeletons of common birds. Once we observe them in detail, we notice that these birds were, they are, literally and metaphorically rara avis, cryptoornithology. (Once I knew of their existence, they reminded me of Homo Rodans by Remedios Varo. Homo Rodans is a little sculpture made of fish and chicken bones, and it was originally accompanied by an epistle in which the artist, under heteronym Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, narrates the fabulous finding of the Homo Rodans, who is Homo sapiens’ predecessor.) Despite their static postures, those inside the glass domes move in circles when someone winds the crank; as with traditional jewelry or musical boxes (usually with a spinning ballerina), the little bird skeleton spins simultaneously to a sound. In some of these domes, the sound corresponds to a melody made by a comb and a pin drum (as with traditional music boxes), in others it is the trilling that we speculate was produced by the bird while alive. In the latter, the birds are survived by the possibility of their recorded trilling; while the organic vestiges of their concrete existence are changing, decomposing, their sound may be played ad infinitum. In his novel, The Invention of Morel, Bioy Casares refers to this possibility of inorganic perpetuation, to these methods of achievement, as “machines for counteracting absence”*: before we have the photograph or the phonograph record, it must be taken, recorded.
Vanitas or Memento Mori paintings display bones, skulls, flowers and fruits, among other elements of daily life, objects that once satisfied needs and/or pleasures. Human frailty, the finite nature of organic existence, is outlived by these elements that symbolize that which continues despite absence. Within Walmor Corrêa’s glass-domed music boxes, the glass, the structure and the sound recorded are the elements which act as evidence of the concrete existence of his rara avis. As is the case with the cuckoo clock that keeps ticking away time, every hour displaying the automaton skeleton of a strange bird that testifies to the infinite succession of time. With the addition of these pieces to the Unheimlich series, the artist broadens the possibilities of dialogue, the familiarly strange becoming more familiar, or closer, with the common denominator of that whisper in our ear: memento mori.
Who has not asked oneself: Am I a monster or is this what it means to be human? asks the character from The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector. This question is sparked out of necessity by another question, Who am I? The possible response seeks to be pondered within the abstraction of identity. That is to say, such a question would not be satisfied by a laconic response like: well, you are principally an atomic composition of the elements Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H), Oxygen (O), Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P), the same as the rest of the living beings inhabiting this planet. The question seeks a response in which the asker will be differentiated from the others. Consequently such a response will be an amalgam of concepts in which one’s existence is justified or annulled. Moreover, when the question is Am I a monster or is this what it means to be human? The pondering seeks a potential identity within antinomy; that is to say, through the monster. Monster as other, or also as the adjective monstrous; a metaphor that judges the evilness, the anomalous, immorality, the noxious, the harmful or whatever threatens the wellbeing of our worldview according to the realm of ethics. In the sense of organic existence or perishable existence, a monster would be principally and concretely an atomic composition of Carbon (C), Hydrogen (H), Oxygen (O), Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) elements, as is the case with the rest of living beings; but in an abstract sense, the monster would be laden with the sum of given concepts from our generous history through each cultural imaginary. Walmor Corrêa understands the infinite potential of both definitions: the abstract and the concrete. He approaches these creatures from the myths’ baroque verisimilitude through the legitimacy generated by scientific discourse, thus exposing it upon an encounter with preconceived ideas, symbols and concepts.
He does not refer to them as monsters, rather beings or entities, since a monster is only monstrous for the other, and therefore the feeling of estrangement or danger it arouses is only to the other. (Here, what comes to my mind is Francis Bacon’s comment on the “evilness of nature”, like the thorn or briar, which prick and scratch, as a determinant of their existence.) An example of which is Curupira, a Tupi entity that inhabits the Amazon rainforest (and which many video gamers speculate served as inspiration for Blanka, from Street Fighter). Curupira was monstrous for explorers, hunters and conquerors, it is monstrous for those who dare to enter the Amazônia in order to deforest it. Endowed with backward feet, Curupira leaves footprints that confuse explorers and hunters because they lead them back out of the Amazônia. Curupira is monstrous for the other, but not for the Amazon’s inhabitants. As is the case with the Cachorra da Palmeira, who was transformed from a woman into a bitch because of her subversive and daring acts. Walmor Corrêa does not confine his work to the polarities of one discourse or another, he does not redeem or blame, but rather he offers possibilities in which it is not necessary to domesticate our fears in order to recognize them.
1. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster culture.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. United States: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 3-25.
2. Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology:21. MIT. 22 March 2014 http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/freud1.pdf.
3. Kristeva, Julia. Extranjeros para nosotros mismos. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1991.
4. Corrêa, Walmor. Unheimlich. Imáginario popular brasileiro. Brasil: Artist catalogue, 2006.
6. Kristeva, Julia. Extranjeros para nosotros mismos. Barcelona: Plaza & Janés, 1991.
7. Varo, Remedios. “De Homo Rodans.” Cartas, sueños y otros textos. México: Ediciones Era, 2009. 89-96.
8. Bioy Casares, Adolfo. La invención de Morel. Estados Unidos: Penguin Books, 1996.
9. Lispector, Clarice. La hora de la estrella. Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 2000.
*Note: Official translation of The Invention of Morel says “machines that supply certain sensory needs” instead of “machines for counteracting absence.” The latter is a license in order to reinterpret its poetic meaning in English from Spanish: aparatos para contrarrestar ausencias.