Ascânio MMM –
making the world
feel like a home
Luisa Duarte, 2021
We live at a time that draws us away from sensitive reality, as we inhabit, most of the time, the always smooth and clean digital zones that simulate a non-human temporality where time traces, imperfections never set in. That time is characterized by virtuality, by the dilution of the corporeal dimension related to the world, and also, the one in which the compliment of pragmatism and of efficacy prevails. We are summoned – at every attitude, every gesture, every word – to calculate the results expected. Gratuity and uselessness are devalued words in the current winning grammar. We expect to show, in this essay, how the work by Ascânio MMM, brought together in his exhibition Quacors e Prismas 2021, at Simões de Assis, run in the opposite direction of such imperatives imprinted in our time.
Before we get close to the pieces being exhibited today, it is timely to briefly refresh the context which permeated the early trajectory of our artist, since that principle seems to be echoing in his poetics until today. Born in Vila de Fão, in Portugal, in 1941, Ascânio arrived in Brazil in 1959, and settled in Rio de Janeiro. Early in that decade, the first edition of the São Paulo Biennial took place, in 1951. Located at the Trianon Pavillion (where the Assis Chateaubriand São Paulo Art Museum would be built later), the exhibition had Max Bill (1908-1994), as one of the protagonists. His sculpture Unidade tripartida (Tripartite Unity, 1948/1949) was seminal for the directions of certain local production. Brazil would see its artistic community welcome many of the lessons from geometric constructivism that were synthetized in the works of the Swiss artist. That is to say, the manifestation that mirrored the rationalistic ideal acting as the founder of European modernity was turned into a model in this country.
Late in the same decade, when Ascânio arrived in Brazil, the constructive project was seen to change directions due to the Neo-Concrete movement. Counting on the participation of names such as Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape, Neo-concretism would trigger friction between the ideal asepsis that characterized geometric abstraction and the pulsating register of what is alive, from the body, from nature, from everyday life. So, Ascânio reaches a Brazil that was breathing constructivism while concurrently starting to counter it through the incursion of local artists of his generation. This was also the time of the final construction of Brasília, with Oscar Niemeyer’s signature, which would be turned into a landmark for modern world architecture.
By mid 1960’s, while attending his undergraduate courses at the National School of Fine Arts, Ascânio started joining a circle of people around the Modern Art Museum in Rio de Janeiro. He graduated at the School of Architecture and Urbanism at Rio de Janeiro Federal University (FAU/UFRJ) in 1969. Concurrently to the beginning of his artistic research, Ascânio worked as an architect until 1976.
But readers may be asking: Why this introduction (actually well known to those who follow Ascânio’s trajectory) to address the exhibition we see today – Quacors e Prismas – 2021? That is because we believe one witnesses – all through his work – a sort of a unique, powerful mingling of the elements from that beginning. His production is definitely associated to a “constructive willingness” that originated in geometric abstraction. His outlook, forged by architecture, can be seen in every single piece of his work. Even though having not participated in the Neo-Concrete movement, his work always opened rifts to the indeterminations coming from the so-called world of life.
One of the series in the present exhibition is called Quacors – a neologism created by the artist to bring together the words square (Quadrado, in Portuguese) and colors (Cores in Portuguese). We are faced by hybrid pieces – sculptures and painting. As part of Ascânio’s extensive research on the possibilities of aluminum, Quacors were created as sorts of blocks where a succession of square blocks – at times hollow, other times filled in – is articulated by the use of somewhat loose screws so that the compositions are both stiff and fluid.
It should be said that we are faced by simultaneity in divergence. Ascânio operates on a rigid grid, but the inner part of it is infiltrated with unsuspected malleability, organicity. The loosened geometric rigor, the opening that summons viewers to be engaged not only through their retina, but their whole body, is evident, for instance in Quacors 24. The piece is not laid on the wall, but hangs from the ceiling. The option taken here generates a sort of an air cushion separating it from the backdrop, on light fluctuation in space. The screws holding the dozens of modules together are loose enough so the piece is given a kinetic sense, which allows movement at the slightest breath of air around it. Such movement, in its turn, may produce sound, thus adding one more sensorial layer to the experience.
We do have, therefore, the opportunity to experience different perceptions when faced by one piece. Depending on our viewing perspective, a new design can be seen. When faced in a straight line Quacors 24 is revealed as a large, square composition. The extensive area of hollow elements (turning both the wall and its shades part of the work) is added by an incomplete red line in its center, to the right. A blue line, in the lower part of the painting, moves it back. On the lower left, a series of white squares form a triangle. But this is only one of its possible appearances, probably the most rigid, associated to the frontal view. By moving their body to the side, with consequence squinting, viewers will simultaneously see the same and a new piece. Now the yellow, blue, and red colors inhabiting the inner part of the modules come out, and definitely change viewers’ experience. It should be noted that the introduction of color, which is punctual but sharp, plays a key role in the variety of perspectives. Such engagement, which allows us to see and to be seen, turning the work into an agent that mobilizes both vision and body, is the reflex of the poetics that has been weaving – along the last fifty-five years – a unique unity between the exact measure deriving from numbers and the one coming from bodies – therefore always variable, since part of the world of life.
If the series Quacors summons corporeal relation, such connection is intensified in the sculptures named Prismas (Prisms), where variations between transparency and opacity are highlighted. The vocation for public scale – so present in Ascânio’s production – is also found here. The very use of aluminum responds to the needs of pieces in the open air – the material is much more resistant under rough weather as compared to wood. As Quacors, each one of the Prismas allow a more opaque or a more ethereal view, either hollow or filled in, depending on viewing angle. It should be noted that titles are always followed by a number, which associates them to concrete postulates by indicating seriality as a relevant component. However, that sense of seriality, of repetition, is broken by the multiplicity of perceptions the work offers, as well as by its manual creation which ends up introducing a trace of distinctiveness and uniqueness in each piece individually.
If the corporeal register of Ascânio’s production is to be highlighted, that can only be fully addressed if one recalls the process of its achievement. The confluence between the calculation and contingenciality that forges the whole of his “poetics of reason” is construed in the day-to-day, through actually corporeal labor, inside his ample, fertile atelier. The kind of work that eliminates the so-common frontiers between he who thinks and he who does. Ascânio’s background in architecture, which could have made him separate such stages, resulted the opposite. In his testimonial to curator Paulo Miyada, Ascânio makes that very clear: “There is one important aspect in my work. The whole of my work is created in my atelier; the passage PROJECT / OBJECT is created in my atelier. I project and construe the work, I define aluminum profile, since it gets to the atelier in six-meter-long bars. Aluminum is used in the industry, especially civil construction. Material manipulation, the new material potentialities that come to light – both wood and aluminum, in cutting, in perforating, etc. – have been very important for research and the discoveries of new pathways. My present research, Quasos, was only made possible in may day-to-day at the atelier. I would never have created it without this daily ordeal.”
The quote above seems to keep a definite hint for better understanding of the fine intercession between technical reason and poetic creation spanning Ascânio’s work as a whole. For even further understanding, I would like to resort to a digression. The quote by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), in his essay “The Eye and the Spirit” is well-known to all those who study phenomenology: “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. It makes its own limited models of things, operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. Science is and always will be that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our own use.”
Well, let us read again: “manipulates things”, “gives up living in them”, “it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals”, “to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general – as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our own use.” Those statements critically reveal the role played by science. According to Merleau-Ponty, in its confrontation with the world, science draws away, instrumentally, thus canceling, all sort of uniqueness that inhabits the tangible dimension of life. The dilution of the outer world in subjective states (Cartesian philosophy heritage) bequeathed to modernity a world where access given is restricted to results filtered by some sort of measurement. Whatever is at stake, in that sense, would never be palpable reality.
The quotation by Merleau-Ponty, written in 1960, synthetically outlines the ethos in which technique prevails, that is, a way of apprehending the world that can eclipse sensitive register and privilege whatever can be clearly useful. It does not seem exaggerated to say that after over half a century the experience around us has increasingly become that of a time privileging efficacy in all spheres of daily life. Running counter to the empire of pragmatism, of what can be measured in numbers, art would be the territory to preserve how to inhabit the world with some dose of uselessness, of unpredictability. As well as allowing the opportunity to value the sensitive dimension while in contact with reality. At its limit, art would bring together the divorced edges of eye and spirit.
Let us now go back to Ascânio’s testimonial. While saying his atelier is not only the space where he conceives the projects for his works, which could later be executed somewhere else, but the opposite: it is a territory where project and execution take place. Here, what is addressed is the opportunity for exchange between the ideal parameters of technique and the learning brought by the procedural experience aggregated by daily experience. It is along that journey, between what was projected and executed, added by learning and by chance, that the opportunity to bind the two ends between “the willingness of form, on one hand, and the opening to life’s distinct indeterminations on the other”.
Opposing science that “manipulates things and gives up living in them”, Ascânio manipulates materials aiming at living in them, at giving them a second, unsuspected skin. Therefore, the term “technique” is restored as understood by ancient Greeks: techné – the art of doing and the art of thinking. The gestures of cutting, perforating, twisting, weighing, measuring, screwing on, and painting are associated to the corporeal struggle that teaches, modifies, generates detours, discoveries, surprises. As it is inside the atelier, cold, aseptic aluminum, clearly useful in construction, gains a different destination and is devoid of its evident function and on its way to be part of a unique poetic occurrence. In that sense, we can say Ascânio’s work echoes a precious passage by Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Aesthetic objects are the only ones that seem to be destitute of purpose, on one hand, and men, on the other. One cannot ask of them What is your purpose? What are you good for? Well, they are good for nothing. But the absence of purpose for art holds the ‘purpose’ of making men feel at home in the world.”
Well, the pieces brought together in Quacors e Prismas 2021 synthetize the beautiful design that forges the trajectory of the architect who became the artist who never abandoned the precepts of architecture in his production. Thus, along the last fifty-five years, Ascânio MMM has succeeded in offering us works that, by bringing together “the logic of mathematic and the aesthetic emotion of form”, shelter the rare power of making us feel at home in the world.
 See Paulo Miyada, Ascânio MMM: As medidas dos corpos, 2016
 MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. O olho e o espírito. In: MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. Os pensadores. Translated by Marilena Chauí. São Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1980. p. 85.
 Guilherme Wisnik, Ascânio MMM – A universalidade construtiva e a contingência da percepção, 2019
 ARENDT, Hannah. A condição humana. Editora Forense Universitária. Décima edição. 2004.
 See Paulo Herkenhoff, Ascânio MMM: poética da razão. São Paulo: BEI, 2012, p. 11.