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When attitudes (trans)form/ Quando atitudes (trans)formam - Galeria de Arte do Centro Cultural Minas Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil - 2014 - Curator: Cauê Alves - Exhibition Pictures
Resíduo do Tempo, 11'08''- Audio cut and digital editing of "Experiences Nº2" de Jan Steele & John Cage (Voices and Instruments, 1978). - Marcelo Gerab

“When attitudes (trans) form”



A little remained of the dust

that covered your white shoes.

Of your clothes little remained

A few velvet rags, vey very few

From everything a little remained


Residue by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

(translation on



The name of Shirley Paes Leme’s current exhibition is a paraphrase of the famous conceptual art exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form”, curated by Harald Szeemann, in Berne, Switzerland, 1969. This exhibition emphasized processes and situations, rather than ready, finished works.   It became a landmark for the dematerialization of the work of art and for the understanding of the artist’s action and activity as art.  


A little of Szeemann has remained in Shirley Paes Leme. She makes the exhibition space dematerialize by covering the gallery floor with reflective aluminum plates, which multiply the room’s space. It is as if the ceiling has sunk, creating an abyss that opens up under visitors’ feet. The sensation that the public has is that of walking on a liquid surface,   


We could understand that it is also a symbol of the process of the social liquidization that we have been through recently, or in other words, previously frozen and excluding structures have opened up and allowed more social mobility.   Solid elements have lost their consistency. Nothing is made to last any more. If today we live in an increasingly fast and transitory world, Shirley Paes Leme’s mirrored room is also a place for contemplation, for deceleration, and suspense from the frenetic rhythm of big cities. More than dissipating and giving a liquid appearance to space, it is about a desire to integrate the public into the interior of the work and provide an experience that transforms them.     


Looking at the world in another way, using inverted images, can make individuals review their values and the position they occupy. The work emphasizes the temporal aspect of space, the process of constant modification that time undergoes, but always leaving traces of that which it once was. The artist inserted the poem Resíduo, by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, written in her own cursive handwriting on the ceiling.  The lines of the architectural project have become a ruled sheet of paper, a place where the poet’s thoughts first appeared. Since the words are inverted, we can read, there on the gelatinous floor, dematerialized verses that seem themselves to be traces and origins of literature. At times distanced and out of focus, at times nearer and legible, it is the walking and the movement of the visitor’s body that gives rhythm to the reading.


In fact, the exhibition space is mobile, the windows have become open books, printed with covers of works by such great Brazilian writers as Clarice Lispector, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Adélia Prado, Haroldo de Campos and Mário de Andrade. The work makes use of the building’s architectural characteristics, resignifying its elements, functions and memories. On the inner part of the windows/books, plotted fragments of poems cluster together in a constellation of meanings.


The poem by Haroldo de Campos chosen for one of the books/windows, like the artist’s designs, explores not only the graphic space as a structural agent, but also the serial aspect of the letters.  The põem gives us some clues about the dialogues struck up between design and poetry. “vem navio/ vai navio/ vir navio/ ver navio/ ver não ver/ vir não vir/ vir não ver/ ver não vir/ ver navios” [Haroldo de Campos, 1958][1].  In these verses, with the movement of a ship, the rhythm that follows the ocean waves, wordplay between visible and invisible, appearance and disappearance occurs. The artist does the same thing in her designs. The distance between what comes to us and what is seen spreads out until it dissipates and frustrates the expectations of those who stayed waiting for arrivals or departures, dreams, stories or encounters that never happened. These movements of dismantling of the syntax and the words themselves are radicalized by Shirley Paes Leme.


Directly opposite the ‘books’, the artist has fixed drawings on canvas, identical in size to the windows. In each of them, phrases and words lose their structures. Covered in smoke, all the relations of agreement and subordination of the fragments are disordered. There is no longer any linguistic structure organizing the letters. They are transformed into unfilled graphic signs. Using stencils, the letters, instead of being drawn, are formed from their negatives. On being unveiled, they reveal a hollow interior, they are gaps rather than elements resulting from some incisive gesture. Isolated, greyish letters show themselves and hide, are revealed and camouflaged.


Just like Mira Schendel’s graphic objects, Shirley Paes Leme’s designs re-encounter a universal fund of languages and thus are close to the nascent state of poetry and thought. An excess of meaning arises from them, multiple possibilities that that do not oppose the lack of meaning that the abandonment of grammatical rules provides. It is as if the artist has entered the deepest layers of the alphabet, a fluid, adrift place that poets visit in their imagination. The room, windows/books, designs and mirrored floor give access to this unstable, indeterminate and fleeting place from which all inventive power is born. The combined whole approaches a kind of silent, primordial world, from which language sprouts. However, outside verbal language, Shirley Paes Leme’s designs and installation succeed in saying things that literature would not manage to do. There could never be an equivalent to them in the verbal field. The artist distorts the meaning of the letters, she abandons writing and at the same time explores its visuality and its temporal dimension. Her designs bring an instance of the rarified atmosphere of smoke, with a huge variety of shade and textures. The liquid and gaseous elements behave in a similar way, always occupying an undefined form. But the dense, nebulous air of big cities clouds our vision, the words, their meanings, and tends to obscure everything.


As a whole, however, the work is luminous and enlightening. Shirley Paes Leme has developed a solid career as a teacher since 1968, so there is nothing more natural than the fact that this attitude has been integrated into her artwork.  The continuous teaching and training activity is work of art in itself. Aware of the fundamental questions of her own time, including those found in shade, the artist’s work is linked to reflection on the role and importance of educational activity in art exhibitions. Rather than simply delegating to educators the work of doing the thinking in the process of training, the artist approaches this in the interior of her work. Treating educators as mere service providers to transmit the ideas of the exhibition or the curatorial thinking is not on the horizon for this exhibition. The educational process is far more complex than simply offering content to the public. It represents the possibility of dialogue and reflection on the place of the artist, the curator, and the way that art itself possesses a formative aspect. And it is from the contact with art, its interior, that educators can seek approximations between visitors and contemporary artistic processes, reinventing already consolidated practices. What Shirley Paes Leme’s work offers is a kind of break in the dividing line between educational and artistic proposals. And this also allows the educator to perform a more inventive and purposeful function. With the narrowing of links between art, education and curating, some of the public’s concerns can find an echo inside the works, in both the sense of satisfying and of frustrating expectations, but always understanding this process. This qualifies participation in more relational works.  


The banality of consumption and entertainment that has invaded art exhibitions can be overcome with reflection and the awareness that the educational process tends to stimulate. Proposing an exhibition that does not end with its exhibiting part, the artist has organized a series of conversations, lectures, and meetings with artists, an architect, poet, engineer, lawyer and public defender, which take place regularly in the exhibition space. All the talks are connected to attitudes that transform.      


Classe (Class) is a relational work that discusses the various acceptances of the concept of class: order, classification, classroom. It is a place of exchange, of discussion, of remembering, of direct contact with others.  This work includes a slate board, like those used in the past in the formal teaching of students. The work is a place of provisional annotations, sketches, designs and writings that can be erased and redone. In Classe, there are two bookcases. One houses reference books for consultation and use in programmed activities and in the other there are shelves in which the artist has intervened, transforming them into a more sculptural work.    This is an opaque black stand, with black painted book spines painted black, leaving just some words on show. In a random way, poems and word sets are formed, creating unusual meanings and unexpected associations between fragments of titles and distinct typographies. The bookcases with black painted books dialogue with the architecture of big cities and their luminous signs, as if each one were a nocturnal landscape.

Shirley Paes Leme invites visitors to participate in the project composed of teaching materials that she has kept since she began giving classes. End of course assignments, master’s dissertations, doctoral theses, which the artist supervised or whose boards she sat on, in addition to old computer floppy disks with a description of the contents are all the raw material for her works. Slides used in class have become translucent panels in which sunlight functions as a lightbulb that projects images on the wall. Light and shade are metaphors for reason and ignorance. Light has always been connected to knowledge, know-how, hence the term “enlightenment” and “understanding”. The autonomy of human reasoning developed in this period was central in the concepts of later training and education. But in Classe, the fundamental notion is not the encyclopedia but the archive.  


Among the ordinary functions of an archive is that of organizing information, bringing documents together in a unified group, and keeping them for future consultation. Thus, what is archived is something that in theory has gone through a selection process and possesses something that is worth storing. But the act of archiving implies not only the recording of events, but also the production of memory. In this sense, there is something of fiction in every archive, as well as in history itself.   Everything that is kept presupposes what is discarded. There is only archive and memory because there is forgetting.


Shirley Paes Leme’s archives that refer more to past occurrences or projects to be developed in the future are also inventions, poetic constructions for approximations, an integral part of research and exercises in self-understanding carried out by the artist. Thus, they cannot be a translation of an objective story; on the contrary, they distance themselves from any pretension of positive truth. The classifications and orderings of Classe are deliberately subjective and transitory.


The archive, in this sense, is never concluded. It is in its nature to be a process, to exist in fragments, like memory itself, and to extend in time. And the temporality of an archive is always multiple, since it is read, perceived and interpreted in accordance with the unstable conditions that each present permits. According to Jacques Derrida: “As much as and more than a thing of the past, the archive should call into question the coming of the future”[2]. The archive, in Shirley Paes Leme, surpasses historical limits. It is not only the source for consultation of past facts, a deposit for documents that assist the work of the historian, but also the possibility of future, of the construction of memories  yet to be produced. Control of the archive and information implies power and dominion, but the configuration of the archive presented in the exhibition is no more than a provisional, ephemeral order, an archive that does not possess stable hierarchizations.


It is not about conceiving the archive merely as a reference or consultation source for researchers, but as the work of art itself.  Producing archives is also an artistic practice. Classe offers works that are close to record storage, documents, in short, a library. However, the pieces are presented less as in a traditional exhibition and more as in a classroom. The untouchable archive becomes dead. Because of this, in order to exist, it needs to be consulted and thus it gains life and meaning. The exhibition includes a book with lists of texts that can be copied and consulted by the visitor.


Remains of teaching activity are reconfigured to furnish other experiences. Besides the teaching activity being a work of art itself, it is a generator of a series of other works exhibited here. As knowledge has no end, one piece of research generates another, a work of art always opens up possibilities for others and “from everything a little remained”. The exhibition is wholly in process, infinitely open to time and to the “attitudes that (trans) form”.



Cauê Alves






[1] Ship comes/ship goes/ship to come/ship to see/to see not to see/to come not to come/ to come not to see/to see not to come /to see ships).


[2]Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Diacritics Vol. 25. No. 2 (Summer 1995) John Hopkins University: Press, 1995, p. 26.

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