Maria Esther Maciel

"Every order is nothing but a situation teetering on the edge of the abyss." - Walter Benjamin

To bring together two artists from radically distinct cultural contexts and with diverse life stories is nothing if not an exercise of the imagination, especially when there are no points of intersection in their creative paths nor evidence of any explicit dialogue between them that might justify any affinities. This is the case for the comparison I shall attempt to establish between the Brazilian artist Arthur Bispo do Rosário and the British filmmaker and artist Peter Greenaway, in the light of some writings of Jorge Luis Borges.

Coming from entirely different backgrounds and doing their creative work from contrasting social conditions and aesthetic motivations, Bispo and Greenaway nevertheless experience the same fascination for taxonomies and impossible enumerations, sharing a certain complicity with regard to what Borges called ‘the task of sketching the world.’ It was not by chance that Greenaway – in his first contact with Bispo´s work, in August, 1998, when he visited Rio de Janeiro to show his opera ‘100 Objects to Represent the World’ – was impressed by the Brazilian artist — a black, psychotic, ex-boxer, ex-sailor, ex-domestic servant, born in 1909. ‘He is more obsessed than I; his obsession is infinite,’ admitted Greenaway, as he looked through the vast collection of Bispo’s works, composed of nearly a thousand pieces created during the artist’s fifty years of confinement in a psychiatric institution. 

These pieces, which range from separate objects, like wooden ships or a bicycle wheel, to assemblages, dress uniforms, banners, collections of miniatures, chess-boards and pieces, and a magnificent embroidered cloak, among many other artefacts, compose what the artist himself called ‘registers of my passage on earth,’ a catalogue of everything in the world, which, according to him, would be presented to God on Judgement Day. From the mid 1950s until his death in 1989, Bispo dedicated himself to his mission with great tenacity and an extraordinary sense of rigour, convinced that he had been chosen by God to reconstruct the world after its end, by repopulating the earth with his ‘mummified objects’ and numerous lists of names and images embroidered on ordinary cloth. He found his raw material in what was close at hand, in the marginalized nooks of poverty, in the present moment of his own experience: shoes, mugs, combs, bottles, cans, tools, silverware, packages of throwaway products, cardboard, threadbare blankets, wood torn from market crates, broom-handles, thread removed from the uniforms of inmates, buttons, statues of saints, toys—in short, everything that society discarded, lost, forgot, or scorned. Out of this pile of detritus, he composed a visual narrative of his passage on earth, a narrative ordered according to the most rigorous laws of taxonomy and, at the same time, traversed by the spontaneous movement of the imagination. In his work, Bispo inscribed his desire both to comprehend the cosmic order and to reorder life itself. 

It is difficult not to compare this kind of cataloguing work with that which, according to the Bible, Noah did when menaced by the Flood. Considered by taxonomists as the first collector in the history of humanity, the first, according to John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, ‘to suffer the pathology of completeness at all costs,’ Noah converted the act of making an inventory of all the categories of living creatures into an antidote for the destructiveness of time and death. His passion was placed at the service of the salvation of the world, as was Bispo’s, with the difference that for Bispo the world did not appear in a natural form but was artificially shaped by what culture had deposited in it. He was particularly interested in gathering together the multiplicity of manufactured items and their respective nomenclatures, or, as he himself said, ‘the material that exists in the land of men,’ in order to later re-order and make everything coexist as a finite whole, based on a disconcerting logic in which lucidity and delirium are paradoxically coupled.

It can be said that Bispo's collections recall in a certain way some of Borges’ classifications, particularly that one which characterises the famous description of the Chinese encyclopaedia in the essay on John Wilkins, since they both present in their organization an ordering that points not only to the taxonomic models systematised by the official codes of classification, but also to a peculiar manner of capturing, as Foucault would say, ‘beneath the named and expected differences, the underlying relationships between things, their dispersed similarities’ . Or, on an inversely symmetrical plane, they attempt to capture beneath the explicit similarities the invisible differences between repeated objects in a series. The result of this process, whose allegorical function is to represent the complex syntax of the world, could not occur without the fragmentation of this very syntax, and the revelation of the chaotic vertigo of the surrounding reality. 

Jean Baudrillard, in an essay on the act of collecting, says that objects, upon being possessed by the collector, stop being defined by their functions and enter the order of subjectivity, constituting themselves ‘as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together his world, his personal microcosm’. Abstracted from its context, each object loses its presentness, displaces its temporality to the spatiality of a fixed repertoire, in which classification substitutes history. In this sense, as Susan Stewart also points out, collecting becomes an act of enclosing the object in such a way that its context is abolished in favour of the synchronic logic of the collection. 

In the case of Bispo, however, this occurs in a more complex way. Even when his objects are divested of their functional, discarded character, and possessed by the creative subjectivity of the artist, they in fact begin to say much more about their previous context than when they simply occupied the utilitarian space of their immediate functions. They acquire a language and are converted into metonyms for the very context from which they were taken. Bispo’s collections rip the object out of its initial inertia, give it a name, a place, and a history. At the same time that they become registers of a time, a life, and a reality marked by poverty, madness, and exclusion, they are also transformed into ever renewed metaphors for the world, confirming the words of another Brazilian artist, Hélio Oiticica, according to whom ‘the object is the discovery of the world at each instant.’
This can be seen most clearly when we consider Bispo’s unconnected, ready-made objects, which are visibly similar to certain artefacts of Marcel Duchamp, such as, for example, his bicycle wheel. However, the Brazilian artist does not owe anything to the French artist, for quite a simple reason: he did not even know of Duchamp’s existence. Bispo´s life history did not allow him to take part in the intellectualised world of aesthetic movements, art galleries, and the privileged spaces of written knowledge. He barely knew how to write, in spite of the striking texts he embroidered, the endless lists of names he wrote, and the detailed maps he drew on his cloth banners.

Completely unaware of the aesthetic movements, which in the 1950s and 1960s were fermenting in the Brazilian and international cultural milieu, Bispo carried on a dialogue, without knowing it, both with the international experiments of Pop Art, and with certain currents of the new Brazilian avant-garde that was, at that time, making its mark, especially on the cultural scene of Rio de Janeiro. Even in the claustrophobia of his psychiatric confinement, Bispo was inexplicably tuned in to his own time, even anticipating some aspects of modern art. In the words of the art critic Frederico Morais, one of the major promulgator’s of the artist’s work: 

‘Without having once left his cell to visit exhibitions or look through art magazines in some sophisticated library, Bispo in the 1960s made assemblages like those of Arman, Cesar, Martial Raysse, and Daniel Spoerri, adepts of the New Realism...The formal logic with which Bispo developed his work anticipates certain aspects of the new English sculpture, of Tony Cragg, for example...The texts sewn by Bispo recall the manuscripts of Joaquim Torres-García, in which he fuses word and image...and the cloak and other clothing of Bispo recall the parangolés of Hélio Oiticica.’ 

Utilizing Morais’ list, one might return here to the dissonant likenesses between Bispo – in his obsession with catalogues, enumeration, maps, and nomenclature – and Greenaway, who in his films, artworks, operas, and fictional writing, has also dedicated himself to the task of converting the world into a great encyclopaedia, exploring classification systems and showing, at the same time, the points where such systems break down. It is worthwhile, in this context, to recall that what caught Greenaway’s attention in Bispo’s work during his visit to the Nise da Silveira Museum in Rio was precisely the creative use that Bispo made of his taxonomies, the form in which he seemed ‘to mock the mania of intellectuals to catalogue everything, to transform the world into encyclopaedia entries.’ 

With this comment, Greenaway, eternally seduced by the ‘excitements of research, collection and collation,’ not only displays his oblique complicity with the work of the Brazilian artist, but also defines his own cataloguing work, which is not necessarily defined by the illusory aim of completeness, but by the critical necessity of showing how the legitimate principles of organization, whether alphabetic, numerical, statistical, or cartographic tend to become ends in themselves.

Since his first pseudo-documentaries, like ‘Windows’ (in which, through nonsense, Greenaway makes a statistical study of some cases of defenestration), ‘H is for House’ (in which he explores ad infinitum the possibilities and impossibilities of nomenclature), or ‘Act of God’ (in which he presents a curious list of people struck by lightning), Greenaway has played ironically with taxonomies, conjugating the rules of classification with the parodic laws of fiction. Not to mention his feature films, all of which are rigorously structured in the form of narrative catalogues, whose symmetrical organization is imploded by an absurd logic. One might also mention his art-works and curatorship, such as ‘Some Organizing Principles,’ an exhibition in Wales (1993), in which with selected works he created a kind of synchronic history of taxonomy from the 17th century to the contemporary era. In all these works, Greenaway tries to establish the illusory character of every attempt at ordering the world, at every impulse to put, as Mallarmé wanted, the entire world into a Book.

It is in this sense that Greenaway (and, by extension, Bispo) may be associated with Borges, given the well-known fondness of Borges for thematic series, unusual combinations, lists, and categorizations. It is sufficient to mention the taxonomic models that Borges used, for example, in his fantastic description of Tlön, the planet ‘where incredible systems abound,’ in the enumeration of the infinite catalogues of the ‘Library of Babel,’ in the explanation of the analytical language of John Wilkins, as well as in the unusual entries of the bestiary Manual of Fantastic Zoology. In all these texts, as the Brazilian critic Flora Sussekind points out, ‘there is a reversal of the typical epic use of catalogues and lists,’ since Borges does not necessarily aim at rationally classifying reality or the universe, but rather at revealing the conjectural character of all systems of classification. 

Borges’ catalogues and lists are therefore ‘self-destructive,’ in that they are based on the famous principle of the author himself, according to which ‘there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.’ And if Greenaway repeats this critical gesture, it is because his conjectures regarding what Borges called ‘God’s secret dictionary’ do not aim at making the chaos of the world more legible either, but rather at making evident the impossibility of its organic, unified nature.

It would not be amiss to say, therefore, that Greenaway attempts to arrive, through the oblique ways of irony, at what Bispo achieved in a spontaneous way through the force of the imagination: to reveal through taxonomic ordering the disorder and multiplicity of the world. It is in this sense that Greenaway transforms into a project what for Bispo was a mission. This can be seen explicitly in the aforementioned work ‘100 Objects to Represent the World,’ written and co-directed by Greenaway, with music by Jean-Baptiste Barriére. Defined as an ‘ prop-opera’, this work is a parody of the true story of the two Voyager spacecraft containing images and sound archives that were launched into outer space by the Americans in 1977, for the purpose of showing to hypothetical extra-terrestrials ‘some possible understanding of the existence of the Earth’. As Greenaway himself argues, this representative material, ‘all packed neatly’ into a restricted space, was probably limited to the cultural references of the 1970s and the subjective vision of a group of ‘white, middle-class Americans, scientifically educated, with perhaps arrogant democratic ideals and paternalistic attitudes to the rest of the world’.

With the visible purpose of ironizing this undertaking, Greenaway created his own list, in the form of an inventory of a limited number of objects (concrete and abstract) that, in his opinion, might symbolize and describe the endless multiplicity of both the achievements of humankind and the natural things on earth. These objects, which range from the most prosaic umbrella or a collection of shoes to some representative figures of western culture, such as Adam and Eve, ‘The Venus of Willendorf,’ ‘The Hat, Coat, and Briefcase of Freud,’ are taken from diverse times and cultures and placed in the serial space of a multimedia catalogue, whose principal aim is no different from that of other taxonomic projects of the artist: to make evident that there is no classification of the world that is not arbitrary, subjective and provisional. In this sense, according Greenaway, such a list attempts to show not only our diversity but also our vulnerability, our irrelevance, and our megalomania, thus reflexively criticizing its supposed mastery.

To present his prop-opera, Greenaway turns the stage into a kind of exhibition gallery, where the listed objects are placed according to his curatorial logic. Cinematic and theatrical elements contribute to the visual impact of the spectacle. As the hundred objects are being presented in a sequential narrative, a technological profusion of voices, lights, texts, and images saturates the space, to suggest the impossibility of dealing with the plurality of cultural references that surround each presented ‘object.’ This is certainly an encyclopaedic project, similar to certain literary projects of contemporary authors like Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Georges Perec, among others. Encyclopaedia, here, is understood not as a closed, definitive set, but as an incomplete, multiple totality, just as in Bispo’s work, which is composed out of a socially illegitimate knowledge outside the canonical order of erudite culture and, therefore, in a state of displacement, novelty, and radical alterity in relation to the known encyclopaedic models.

When Umberto Eco compares the dictionary to the encyclopaedia, he calls attention to the principle of ‘unlimited semiosis’ that defines the encyclopaedic model. According to him, the encyclopaedia, contrary to what the Enlightenment philosophers- intended, does not reflect in a rational and univocal way an ordered universe. Instead, it tends to supply us with ‘myopic’ rules, so that we, ‘according to some provisional criterion of order,’ can try to give meaning to a world that is disordered or whose criteria of order escape us. In this sense, as Eco argues, such a model would differ from the dictionary’s, since it definitely excludes ‘the possibility of hierarchizing in a unique and uncontroversial way the semantic markers, properties, semes. In Eco’s words:

Encyclopaedic knowledge would be uncoordinated by nature, with an uncontrollable format, and the encyclopaedic content of dog would have to include practically all that is and could be known about dogs, even details such as the fact that my sister has a bitch called Best. 

As we can see, the objects in Bispo’s collections are clearly encyclopaedic, as they cover every sphere of matter to which man has given form. They compose, together with his numerous texts, drawings and maps, a world disordered by its own rules of organization, through which the artist attempts to give meaning to his own reality. It is also worth noting that several of Bispo’s objects also appear in Greenaway’s opera, like shoes in a series, a collection of coins, the wheelchair, the umbrella, the boat, the doll, rubbish, domestic objects, as well as maps, texts and endless lists of words beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet. All this once again confirms their unforeseen affinities.

In the intersection between these two artists who had never met, there is a distinct form (subjective and cultural) resulting from the attempt to make an inventory of the world. If, on one hand, Greenaway’s subjectivity is that of an ironic consciousness, polished by the daily exercise of a lucidity that is so lucid it reveals its own vertigo, then on the other hand, Bispo’s subjectivity comes from a visceral complicity with experience, with the presentness of his body, his madness, and his reality. While Greenaway seeks his raw material in the canonical space of western culture, Bispo takes his from the concrete precariousness of his daily existence. One makes a delirium of rigour while the other extracts rigour from delirium. Both show in opposite ways that disorder is a part of any of our attempts at a totalising apprehension of the world, since the paradigm of construction and reconstruction of the mythical, mystical, aesthetic, and even scientific worlds is always, as Felix Guattari argues, that of a ‘delirious narrativity’. 

And this is what Borges also seems to tell us in his writings, as, for example, in this passage that closes his book The Maker (El Hacedor), and with which I shall conclude:

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face. 

(This essay was included in the book Poetics of Diversity, edited by Marli Scarpelli and Eduardo Duarte. (Belo Horizonte: FALE/UFMG, 2002)

Maria Esther Maciel is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Her publications include the books As vertigens da lucidez: poesia e crítica em Octavio Paz (1995), A palavra Inquieta: homenagem a Octavio Paz (1999), Vôo transverso: poesia, modernidade e fim do século XX, (1999) and Borges em dez textos (ed., 1998). As a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of London in 1999-2000, she carried out a Post-Doctoral research on Peter Greenaway´s films and artworks. She is currently working on the connections between literature and cinema.