Carlos Bunga started out as a painter—that is what he studied at the Escola Superior de Arte e Design in Caldas da Rainha, Portugal—but soon felt constricted by the limitation to the canvas’s two dimensions. The experience led him to branch out by incorporating strategies from conceptual, performance, and installation art into his practice, though without altogether jettisoning the painterly framework. In the mid-2000s, he won wide acclaim with site-specific installations and performances that laid the foundation for his international career. Since then, Bunga has shown his work at numerous institutions in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America; he has also realized several projects for outdoor settings.
His practice and preferred materials underscore the evanescence and fragility of our existence. Everything is caught up in a process of perpetual change; safety and stability are mere fictions or the products of social convention. As Carlos Bunga sees it, life and art play out in the unpredictable in-between. Such instability, the brittleness of reality, is especially manifest in architecture, the artist argues; although it ostensibly offers shelter, it at once also defines people’s social status. Broken pieces and ruins, the traces of devastation and destruction, are key sources of inspiration for Bunga’s architectonic interventions, which are either built in fragmentary form or transformed into ruins in a process of deconstruction he initiates. How architecture and the interplay between body and built environment influence our lives, what they tell us about our origins and possibilities: these are central concerns in Bunga’s work, as are themes like nomadism and both voluntary and forced migration:
“Nowadays, I feel like a nomad in the way I think, and also in my practice; each project belongs to the place in which it originated, was produced, and exhibited. For me nomadism is not only a physical issue, but also a mental one. It’s a different way of looking at the world.“*
Over the years, Bunga has developed a creative vocabulary and conceptual strategies that let him engage with the specific spatial situations he encounters. His sometimes monumental and spectacular cardboard constructions respond to the architecture of the exhibition venue. He picks up on characteristic elements such as columns and pillars, flooring grids, or other distinctive formal features and replicates or deconstructs them in order to engender a momentum of irritation. In some instances, the destruction of these creations in the course of a performance by the artist becomes part of the work, illustrating the unceasing process in which things come into being and disintegrate. Comparable works installed under the open sky are exposed to the weather and effectively undergo an accelerated process of decomposition. Walk-in installations, meanwhile, cast the visitors as protagonists, inviting them to experience their own bodies as constrained by the given form.
In his exhibition Mind awake, body asleep at the Secession, Bunga examines the mysteries of the relationship between body and mind, which become especially manifest when we sleep. The two sides’ recurrent separation and the separate nocturnal existences they lead are a source of fascination for the artist, who makes his works in a process informed by rational decisions as well as intuitive choices. In rooms that he has conceived as passages between different states of mind, he probes the tension between consciousness and the subconscious, the vulnerability of the body rendered helpless by sleep, and the function of architecture, furniture, and clothes as protective shells.
Playing with the idea of the exhibition as a setting of different mental and emotional spaces similar to the fluid and hard-to-grasp experiences in dreams, each of the four rooms is set apart by its own mood and the visitors are invited to let themselves drift through the spaces, experiencing their different sensual qualities and feeling the diverse characteristics of materials, surfaces, and smells. The artist also responds to the distinctive spatial situation in the Secession’s downstairs galleries, which present as a succession of very different rooms with unique architectural characteristics. The ground plan of the first room, located beneath the lobby, has the geometric shape of a Greek cross. In the two wall recesses on the left and right that define the room, he has realized two architectural cardboard constructions that on a physical level engage with the space and simultaneously represent different states of mind. The niches are glazed, like shopwindows, alluding to the separation between viewer and art that one encounters in a framed work.
The trope of separation echoes in two objects that address themselves to the visitors’ imagination: arranged on the floor are enigmatic fragments, and it is only by recourse to the corresponding drawings on the wall that one can reconstruct the complete form – of a chair and a stool – before the mind’s eye. An environment features a metal bed, employing an image from the collective memory that carries vivid dystopian associations with imprisonment or illness. This work inspired the exhibition’s title, an allusion to the pandemic-related restrictions, which have led to a general retreat into domestic life. The resulting bodily inertia, Bunga says, has created an asymmetry between mental and physical activity: while the body is imprisoned, the mind sets free while sleeping. For the artist himself, the time of the pandemic has meant a renewed focus on painting, into which he now integrates plant parts like grasses and flowers—a new ingredient that reflects his yearning for nature:
“Our ideas of home and work have changed, as have the ways in which we live and labor. Nature is one of the strongest elements in the studio during this time.”*
In contrast with the architectural interventions in the first room, which are protected by glass panes, the pictures in the third room hang from the ceiling. Painted felt and silk fabrics form a labyrinthine structure through which the visitors are encouraged to chart their own paths. The resulting minute air turbulences set the pictures in motion, producing a constantly shifting three-dimensional image. Bunga’s trademark technique for mixing sizing and pigment results in agitated surfaces with very pronounced craquelure effects. The aesthetic of fissured and peeling paint also gestures back to his beginnings as an artist, when he took his pictures to buildings slated for demolition to expose them to the elements, embracing the ensuing alteration processes as a component of the work. The sensual experience of painting grows yet stronger in the last room, where he has poured glue and colors to create a walkable floor painting—the visitors find themselves literally inside the picture.
*In the Studio. Carlos Bunga, in: Collectors Agenda, 2021