“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of
his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what
you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you
in foreign, unpossessed places.”1
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Always on the move, Frida Baranek’s trajectory in the past few decades has been marked by the journey itself rather than by any specific destination. Dislocating between Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Paris, Berlin, New York, and London, she is currently based in Miami, on her way to Lisbon. Her peripatetic path has been touched by the intensity of her encounters and unforeseen situations as she seeks out, welcomes, and embraces new possibilities and challenges.
Baranek entered the art scene in the 1980s as part of the Brazilian Geraçāo 80 (the 80s generation), a group of artists launched at the 1984 exhibition Como Vai Você Geraçāo 80? (How are you, 80s generation?) at Parque Lage School of Visual Arts in Rio de Janeiro. The 80s generation is credited with a revival of painting in Brazil.
Though Baranek partook in the establishment of the group, she chose a different path than her peers. Instead of brushes, paint, and easel, her tools are scrapers, hammers, chisels, and blades. She became well known for her large-scale sculptures made of wood, stone, aluminum, cooper, steel, and wire.
Her signature is the tangled and twisted forms that she gives to her primary materials as she curls, stretches, turns, and bends them. Her recurring motifs are coils, braids, rolls, knots, and entanglements, and although her sculptures’ trademarks are their weight and materiality, her pieces are often unstable and risky. Their titles are telling: No Guarantee, Indeterminacy, Uncertainty Relations, Liminality, and Armadilha (Trap).
Like their titles, the pieces themselves evoke instability and transience. Her surfaces can be delicate and fragile while at the same time rough and dangerous. They can be imposing and elegant, yet puzzling and tortuous. Works that take the shape of whimsical ribbons can also be perceived as barbed wires, with their sharp edges and warped forms provoking sensations of asphyxiation and imprisonment.
In 2016, Baranek adopted porcelain as one of her mediums. In the craft-oriented series “Nós,” which in Portuguese means both “us” and “knots,” strips of porcelain are knotted at their edges and then intertwined, creating an aggregation of interlocked chains. Another series, “Situations,” contains accumulated chips of porcelain, which are juxtaposed layer after layer, nestling within one another and then joined together by glaze.
Baranek’s new series, “Trouxas” (Bundles) (2020), consists of 14 pieces made in white, black, and red porcelain and in stoneware covered with green glaze. Each bundle comprises between 20 and 30 strips, and sizes vary between 35 and 40 cm. The porcelain is first stretched, then twisted, glazed, and finally fired. Before they are twisted, the wet porcelain pieces are wrapped with different types of cloth to remove the water. When imprinted on the porcelain surface, the fabrics produce different textures that vary from smooth to coarse. Baranek made Trouxas during a short stay in New York in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic. Devastated by the virus, the frantic speed of the city was suspended, and New York became a ghost town. In this now lifeless place, under confinement and quarantine, Baranek felt the prevailing sense of isolation marked by the weight-bearing of life’s fragility.
During this time, the artist devoted her utmost concentration and care to stretching and twisting the porcelain, finding a pleasurable physical experience and excitement in handling the malleable material as she touched, amassed, and shaped it. By modeling the forms with her hands, Baranek emphasized the repetition of the gesture with the recurrence of the movement, suggesting a cathartic reenactment of trauma. Trauma, as Sigmund Freud claims, is evinced as a form of “compulsion to repeat.”3 Baranek’s laborintensive, hand-made gestures are intensified through the multitude of twists that, by being shaped and reshaped, intimate the unfolding of time and memory.
While the white monochromatic bundles are attractive and sleek, the red ones evoke abjection. After firing, the red porcelain acquires a brownish tone reminiscent of dried blood and decay. Resembling viscera, these works recall the Brazilian artist Artur Barrio’s Trouxas Ensanguentadas (Bloody Bundles) (1970) made during the time of Brazil’s oppressive dictatorship between (1964–1985). Barrio’s pieces were some of the most graphically violent works of art, characterizing the forces of repression in Brazil at that time.4 Barrio’s 14 Trouxas Ensanguentadas, made out of animal’s meat, bones, fabric, and rope,5 represented horrific and graphic scenes of what appeared to be the remains of people tortured by the dictatorship. Coincidently, Baranek also did 14 porcelain Trouxas, and also like Barrio before her, Baranek bears witness to the pain and vulnerability of society at a specific point in time.
Both Baranek’s and Barrio’s bundles refer to difficult moments in which life becomes suspended and people are forced to pause under dire stress, whether under a repressive regime or during a pandemic. Both artists use the bundle as a symbol to reflect their questionings of life and death, of surrender and resistance. Baranek’s twisted and braided Trouxas also recall the improvised ropes made with tied sheets, called Tereza in Brazilian prisons slang, used by inmates in escape attempts.
Throughout her intimate and personal artistic practice, Baranek deflates the rhetoric of monumental sculpture and grand narratives, preferring a moving account of a fragmented, contemporary world. Her fragile sculptures stand against notions of purity and order. Their intricate language eschews unitary forms, instead emphasizing the singularity and difference of each shape, suggesting at the same time the one and the many lived experiences. Even the title, Trouxas (Bundles), evokes dislocation. Like sacks transported by migrants, the homeless, nomads, wanderers—people who are constantly at in-between, transitory states—each bundle carries the artist’s recollections.
While in New York, Baranek worked in a ceramic studio in Long Island City, alongside other artists. In this open loft, each artist developed their own project. Even as they maintained social distancing, being together in the same place every day provided a sense of community. The communal space was marked by closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement, connectivity and isolation.
Baranek wrote about her project: “Women used to congregate in rivers and liberate their feelings in the twisting fabrics. Trouxas celebrate a feminine memory, movement, place and a sense of community.”6 Despite being physically separated and not able to interact easily with each other, the presence of other artists’ bodies in the same space facilitated a shared a sense of camaraderie and social agency. The performance and dance theorist André Lepecki calls this concurrent state of closeness and separation a “collective stand-apart.” According to Lepecki, “Contact is not only what happens when skin touches skin. Contact, and particularly the ethical contact of a solidary collective sociality, derives from the mutual engagement in the formation of a more sensual and intense field. A force field of proximal common action activated in and through a prolonged standing in close affective distance.”
Describing her experience, Baranek said: “There is this special moment for an artist in the studio when you finish a group of works and you can see them all together before they part. This time often never happens again.”8 As she has so often in the past, Baranek somehow senses when is time for her to pack up and move on. She does not always need a specific destination, neither is she interested in arriving at any predetermined land or territory. What drives her is the knowledge that there is no time to be wasted along her intrepid journey.
1 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, 1974), 28–29.
2 The exhibition Como Vai Você Geraçāo 80? was curated by Marcus Lontra, Sandra
Maeger, and Paulo Roberto Leal. Among the artists from the Geraçāo 80 are Beatriz
Milhazes, Adriana Varejāo, Daniel Senise, Luiz Zerbini, and Leda Catunda.
3 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (Seattle: Pacific
Publishing Studio, 2010), 24.
4 For a discussion on Brazilian visual arts during the military regime, see Claudia
Calirman, Brazilian Art under Dictatorship: Antonio Manuel, Artur Barrio, and Cildo
Meireles (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2012).
5 Artur Barrio made the Bloody Bundles for the exhibition Do Corpo à Terra (From the
Body to the Earth), a five-day event curated by Frederico Morais at the Municipal Park in
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, April 17–21, 1970.
6 Frida Baranek’s statement on her website, fridabaranek.com.
7 Andre Lepecki, “Movement in the Pause,” published at the online magazine ConTactos,
edited by Diana Taylor and Marcial Godoy-Anativia.
8 Frida Baranek,