Chelpa Ferro: Visual Sound June 26, 2011, to January 8, 2012 The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Chelpa Ferro: Visual Sound
Chelpa Ferro is a Brazilian collective comprised of artists Barrão, Luiz Zerbini, and Sergio Mekler that was formed in 1995. These three artists, already independently renowned, got together under the umbrella “Chelpa Ferro”— Portuguese slang for money and steel—with the objective of doing some leisurely experimentation outside the constraints of their primary individual art careers. Their fresh, somewhat chaotic, and savvy interdisciplinary approach to objects that they transform into animate sculptures and sound-creating devices has garnered them an important place in the Brazilian art world, including representing their country in the twenty-fifth São Paulo Biennial.
Totó Treme Terra, 2006 Courtesy of the artists Photo by Julio Callado
The troupe became a legend with their performance at the Biennial in 2002, where they created electronic music by using hammers whose heads were bronze busts of musicians such as Beethoven to beat on a recently restored 1974 Ford Maverick wired with microphones. The vibrant performance blended technology, sound, music, violence, and humor in one single gesture. What was initially chaotic noise, resembling the sounds of a car crash, was transformed into a cathartic experience for the artists and the participating audience through instinctual repetition and rhythm. Brazilian critic and curator Moacir dos Anjos explains that the objective was to obtain the sounds that lay hidden beneath the vehicle’s mute, immobile appearance.1 His colleague, Agnaldo Farias, remembers the performance:
Autobang, 2002 Courtesy of the artists Photo by Eduardo Ortega
“Chelpa’s Autobang was unmatchable. The opening of the Biennial came to a standstill when they began. The public thronged around them, leaning over the railings of the ramps and the upper floors, gradually drawing to and taken over by the beating noises amplified by the wall of sound equipment. The ritual—as this is what it was—gathered intensity as Chelpa moved on from stroking and gently tapping the vehicle to doing violence to it, proving that the difference between a beating heart and an act of violence is only a matter of intensity. The climax that was reached when the audience suddenly joined in the merry dance went on for a surprisingly long time, coming to a close when everyone, tired and excited, dribbled slowly out of the building.” 2 Chelpa Ferro’s artworks and performances acknowledge their audience either by creating an inescapable environment that envelops the viewer, as is the case with Autobang and the installations Acusma and Jungle Jam—both on view at The Aldrich—or by being participatory in nature, such as the work Totó Treme Terra (2006). This football table game is set with sensors that are activated through the ball’s movement, setting off pre-recorded sounds of a space-age nature, conferring the simple act of playing table football with an other-worldly quality.
Sound is the vehicle that exalts, exaggerates, or contradicts the visual experience in a Chelpa Ferro sensorial environment. It spills from the gallery space to reach the viewer before the work is visually experienced, expanding the physical space of the exhibition beyond the visual and creating expectations that in most cases will be met with a surprise. In the case of the Acusma installation, the sound that spills out resembles a group of people coming together to sing some notes. However, the sound does not visually match the source, which turns out to be a series of thirty Brazilian ceramic vases spread out on the gallery floor. Inside each vase are loudspeakers playing up to five different recorded voices. The voices sing numbers that parallel musical notes, “one” for “do,” “two” for “re,” and so on. The pre-recorded and sampled voices pile up until it is impossible to distinguish one from the other, and eventually sound like a chorus of professional singers warming up for a performance. The musical narrative is the result of a computer program that selects the notes randomly, echoing the reality of the sensorial environment in which we are immersed in our everyday lives.
A autópsia da cigarra gigante, 2008, Multiplicidade, Teatro Oi Casa Grande, Rio de Janeiro Courtesy of the artists and Multiplicidade
Acusma reflects a common thread in Chelpa Ferro’s intentions: any object can simultaneously be transformed into an instrument and an artwork, thus any object has both a visual and an acoustic dimension. Another Chelpa trait is to play with, highlight, or contradict these paired dimensions. The humorous exchanges between the visual, sculptural, and acoustic qualities of objects leave viewers in awe of the unexpected new contraptions and necessitate the revisitation of their established notions for each object and situation. After
Acusma (detail), 2008 Courtesy of the artists and Galeria Vermelho, São Paulo Photo by Tiago Torres
experiencing the prefatory sound that may have created a visual expectation— which is challenged once inside the gallery space with the vases—the visitors’ perception turns towards the visual elements of the installation, which are just as intriguing. The ceramics are beautiful, full of texture and rustic elements, and stand in clear contrast to the electronic cables that not only tie them all together, but also provide a clue as to where and how the sound is being produced. The blend of high-tech equipment (speakers, cables, computers, and sophisticated computer programming) is integrated with traditional Brazilian crafts and domestic objects, providing a new and surprising visual representation of sound and conferring an aura of mystery upon these mundane objects. Chelpa Ferro are known for squeezing a rhythmical sound from seemingly nonmusical devices such as electric toothbrushes, drills, sewing machines, or juice makers, and using them in their installations and performances. The Chelpas explore these sounds because they are the sound of our contemporary world; by doing so they bring them to our attention as relevant, as part of our cognitive and aesthetic lives. Electro-domestic produced sound is thus introduced as prime material for reconsideration through the arts. An eloquent example is found in the thirty motors of kitchen blenders used in the Jungle Jam installation. The motors are displayed in a horizontal line around all the walls of the gallery space, with plastic bags from local vendors attached to each one. When the
motors are running, the plastic bags hit the gallery wall, creating different sounds. The motors are coordinated through a computer system that functions as an orchestra conductor, directing the whole ensemble. The orchestra, in this case, is configured of only one instrument: the plastic bag. When all the motors are moving, different rhythms, intervals, and tones produce a wide range of sound textures created by the particularities of each bag. These textures could be associated with the identifiable music, sounds, and rhythms of the traditional Brazilian carnival. At intervals, the Jungle Jam computer randomly activates the motors that surround the viewer on all four quadrants. This is one of those noisy installations where the visitors are totally immersed in the environment. The sound is loud and this random activation is quite unpredictable, which triggers an intense physiological experience or bodily interaction. By shifting their attention from one part of the room to another, viewers become very aware of their location and spatial surroundings through the mobile trajectory of the sounds. As the sound and movement slide around the whole gallery, the viewers are forced to try to assemble and comprehend the entire installation as it reveals elements of instability, mutability, fluidity, and transience in the space. Jungle Jam gives physicality to the dynamics of sound. Chelpa Ferro’s installations provoke an alteration in the process of perception. First, they play with the notion that objects trigger a sound memory; however, they make sure that the recognition of sound and the object producing it comes into question—that is, they do not exactly match. In this relationship, discrepancies are welcome. Secondly, the artists confer more importance on the 3 acoustic image than on the visual one, breaking down the hierarchy; thirdly, they insert noise as the main material for their artworks, thus blurring the traditional boundaries between the sculptural and the acoustic. With their spatial sound experiments, the artists also blur the boundary between high art (painting and sculpture) and low or non-art, such as everyday sounds. By allowing the tech equipment (microphones, subwoofers, computers) to have a strong visual presence in the gallery space, they encourage the viewer to pay attention to their aesthetic values. The self-evidence of the functioning high-tech equipment indicates that their aesthetic is characterized by the transparency of the process; also apparent is the DIY spontaneity of their work. Uniting everything is Chelpa Ferro’s engaging humor, evident in the surprising combinations they bring together as they question the nature of art and music in our modern, technology-driven, but not yet uber-modern consumer society. Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, curator 1 Moacir dos Anjos, Chelpa Ferro, “The Noise of the World” (São Paulo, Brazil: Imprensa Oficial Do Estado Do São Paulo, 2008), p. 241. 2 Chelpa Ferro, p. 51. 3 Chelpa Ferro, p. 240.
Jungle Jam (detail), 2010 Courtesy of the artists and Sprovieri Gallery, London Photo by Ding Musa
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Larry Aldrich (1906–2001), Founder
Chelpa Ferro is represented by Galeria Vermelho in São Paulo, Galeria Progetti in Rio de Janeiro, and Sprovieri Gallery in London.
Funding for Chelpa Ferro: Visual Sound has been provided, in part, by the NEA. Art Works.
Jungle Jam (detail), 2010 Courtesy of the artists and Sprovieri Gallery, London Photo by DIng Musa
Mark L. Goldstein, Chairman; John Tremaine, Treasurer/Secretary; Annadurai Amirthalingam; Richard Anderson; William Burback; Eric G. Diefenbach; Chris Doyle; Linda M. Dugan; Georganne Aldrich Heller, Honorary Trustee; Meagan Julian; Neil Marcus; Kathleen O’Grady; Donald Opatrny; Gregory Peterson; Peter Robbins; Martin Sosnoff, Trustee Emeritus
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum Chelpa Ferro: Visual Sound exhibition brochure