Portrait of Tunga by Daniela Paoliello. Photo courtesy of Instituto Inhotim.
The boundary-pushing Brazilian artist known simply and sonorously as Tunga died yesterday at the age of 64, after a battle with cancer. His legacy is defined by an opus of strange and alluring sculptures, videos, performances, and poetry, bolstered by his belief in the mystical, symbolic power of objects. “He described himself as poet and alchemist and sought to reveal the mythical undercurrents of modern life through an interconnected body of work,” Tunga’s gallery Luhring Augustine wrote in a statement issued today. Tunga mounted projects at the 40th and 46th editions of the Venice Biennale, Documenta X, and four editions of the São Paulo Biennial; he was also the first artist to install a work in the Louvre’s glass pyramid.
Born Antônio José de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão in 1952, Tunga looked to the radical ideas of his Brazilian predecessors Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, who redefined the tenets of modern art through abstraction and psychological inquiry. Tunga extended their efforts by embedding science, spirituality, and anthropology into his works, which range from sculptures that resemble body parts in the throes of transmutation to performances in which young twins are intertwined by behemoth, cascading braids (the project’s original 1984 incarnation, Xifópagas Capilares, was revived at Frieze London last year). Other pieces intertwine Biblical allusions with an aura of magical realism—in Viperine Avant-Garde (1985), for example, the artist refrigerated snakes to induce semi-hibernation, braided them together, then released them into the grass where they thawed and meandered away. It’s a work that embodies one of the artist’s signature poetic meditations: “Imagine a human body rebuilt in the alchemy of something which is not from the body, but is from the landscape, from the world.”
Indeed, Tunga’s diverse practice comes together as a potent cosmology, one that will surely survive long after the artist’s premature passing. Next week, at Art Basel’s Unlimited sector, Luhring Augustine, Galleria Franco Noero, and Galeria Millan will present Tunga’s monumental installation Eu, você e a Lua (Me, you and the moon) (2014), a towering constellation of petrified wood, smooth terracotta vessels, and large, dangling shards of quartz—a manifestation not only of the artist’s ideology, but now his legacy, too.