henrique oliveira reflects on intervening in the fabric of reality


henrique oliveira was 18 years old when he first entered an art museum. 
‘my mother always fostered the natural aptitude that I had for drawing by sending me to painting classes,’ he shares in an interview with designboom. ‘however, in my childhood there was no reference to what art was and how being an artist could be a professional option. I only realised this later on — art could be a career rather than just a lifestyle.’ growing up in a small town within the state of são paulo, brazil, oliveira cultivated a strong connection with nature. oliveira’s early relationship with the natural world, coupled with an obsessive need to draw and later six years of artistic education at the university of são paulo, would go on to form the multilayered universe that his practice now spans.

 

from installations architectural in scale to ‘fantastic portals’ and paintings, oliveira’s work evokes a duality between the urban and the organic, nature and construction, and reality with the spectacular. ‘it interests me a lot — the idea of intervening in the fabric of the real,’ he says on his outdoor works, which have emerged from buildings in brazil and medieval walls in bruges. ‘this speaks to the relevance of sculpture in the contemporary world, to its ability to survive outside the protective aura of the museum and to establish a relationship with audiences beyond the usual visitors to spaces dedicated to art.’

henrique oliveira
banisteria caapi (desnatureza 4), 2021 | bruges triennale | plywood and metal | 5 x 6 x 1m
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designboom spoke with henrique oliveira about art as a ‘free zone’ of human knowledge, social media as a factory of anxieties, and the best moment of the day.

 

 

designboom (DB): what aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your creative principles and philosophies?

 

henrique oliveira (HO): I grew up in a small town within the state of são paulo, brazil. my parents were young during the 60’s and 70’s, so were directly influenced by the changing traditions and expanding freedom that characterised those years. so I grew up in an environment that was quite liberal.

 

my mother always fostered the natural aptitude that I had for drawing by sending me to painting classes. however, in my childhood there was no reference to what art was and how being an artist could be a professional option. I only realised this later on — art could be a career rather than just a lifestyle. at the age of 16, I moved to são paulo capital, but it was only at 18, when a friend from college took me to MASP (museum of art of são paulo) that I first entered an art museum. 


 

back in my hometown, I had a strong connection with nature. there was not much to do there, so our entertainment was to go swimming in a river, camping, kayaking, waterfalls, etc. I had some older friends who incited my interest in meditation, yoga and spiritualism. I changed my diet to vegetarianism at that time and still keep it today. my visual references were mostly from vinyl covers, tattoos and psychedelic art. art books were a rarity to come across.

henrique oliveira
sysiphus casamate, 2019 | jardins des plantes, le havre france | plywood, tree branches, other materials | 6x6x20m

 

 

HO (continued): at first I thought about being a cartoonist. I was quite good at caricatures. but when I was 18, I went through a kind of initiation rite (at least that was how I interpreted it later on, after reading jung’s ‘the man and his symbols’). together with two friends, we took magic mushrooms. it was a terrible experience, but it was also fascinating because I reached the limit of madness. the visions stayed in my memory the following days and I felt the need to give form to that experience. drawing started to serve as a kind of repository to represent the possibility of reconstructing things that could not be adequately expressed in words. I began to draw almost obsessively.

 

a few years later in são paulo, I took painting classes with two artists, which not only provided me with more sophisticated plastic means, but also helped me prepare to go to art school. it was then at the university of são paulo, where I spent six years, that my knowledge and training in art really began. it was also a more urban experience within my life, when I spent more time in the city as opposed to back in the country. my collage work with used plywood started during those years as a result of my random walkings around the city.

henrique oliveira
trancorredor, 2016 | centropecci, italy | mixed media | 3 x 10 x 48m

 

 

DB: where do you work on your projects? how is your studio activated on a day to day basis?

 

HO: my practice is basically divided between working in my studio and traveling to create exhibitions on different sites. in the studio, I follow a routine that varies between paintings, drawings and sculptures etc.

 

when I travel to produce an installation, the work is more intensive because I have a deadline to fulfill, so there is less room for experimentation. on the other hand it forces me to act quickly to find solutions for many different situations — which at the end of the day has contributed a lot to the fast development of my production.

henrique oliveira
trancorredor, 2016 | centropecci, italy | mixed media | 3 x 10 x 48m

 

 

HO (continued): 
in the studio the atmosphere is normally a lot calmer. the ideas float in the air and I always work on different things at the same time. many unfinished works haunt the space. there is much less pressure, but more anxiety on the openness of multiple possibilities. usually I work on sculptures in the afternoon while my assistants are around, then when the evening comes, I switch to painting. ideas for projects often come up during my painting sessions, when I stop thinking about what to do and just follow the viscosity of the medium. when this happens, I stop for a few minutes and go to a sketch book.

 

I see the two practices — studio and site production — as complementary to each other. after a season traveling to produce a work, I return to the paintings with renewed breath. traveling to work, on the other hand, offers me a break from studio routine.

 

DB: what is the best moment of the day?

 

HO: having breakfast reading the newspapers (nowadays not the brazilian ones).

henrique oliveira: 'baitogogo' at palais de tokyo, paris
baitogogo | palais de tokyo, paris | photo © andré morin
read more on designboom here

 

 

DB: your work traces the narrative of materials from their origins in nature, to their use in construction and architecture, to their reconfiguration into natural forms — can you talk about the idea of transformation, and how your projects share the story of the materials from which they’re made?

 

HO: the idea of using wood to build the shape of a tree is not new. but I think in the way that I do it, subsists an ethos that mirrors the moment we as humans are going through. especially in works where this reconstruction reaches a higher degree of mimesis — here I refer to some of my recent sculptures that, at least in photos, can hardly be distinguished from a real tree. it is as if the heyday of the technique that I have developed over 15 years had overflowed the spectacular aspect of some of my earlier works, and has now moved towards a more banal state of a natural object. a turning point in my use of plywood so far. the sense of the practice seems to have shifted from the pure visuality of my early installations to another layer of meaning, hidden in the simplicity of the final work, which can be inferred by requiring a careful look from the observer. these works are certainly less generous than those I used to do ten years ago. for that very reason, they also may reveal a kind of ‘sisyphus effort’ that characterises the contemporary world, where the fruit of technological development seems to have turned from a solution into a challenge.



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