GOETHE INSTITUT STUDIO VISITS
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OF SNAKES, MYTHOLOGY AND ABY WARBURG: STUDIO VISITS WITH FLORA ASSUMPÇÃO

By STEFANIE HESSLER

It is a hot São Paulo spring day when I visit Flora Assumpção in her studio. I had seen her work in August 2010 at Galeria Emma Thomas and Baró in São Paulo, where I went for an event titled “The Creators Project“. In the midst of the flurry of open bar, concerts and new media projects, during a calm moment outside in the patio, I saw her giant silver snake on the wall surrounding the outside of the gallery space. From inside the gallery, visitors could already see it through the large glass facade opening up to the patio of the industrial building. During my research, I found out that Flora was the artist behind this piece and I wanted to meet her to know more about her work. So here I am at her studio, which smells of the delicious cake Flora is baking.

 

She explains how she came to working with the snakes as one of her major visual forms and distinctive mark and how this reptile‘s symbolic and mythological attributions are connected with that decision. Flora used to draw the hand rails of São Paulo busses and how they wind like snakes through the public transport systems of this city and any other city in the world. The serpent is perceived as the sinful creature who offered Eve the forbidden fruit and led to mankind‘s expulsion from paradise, but also as mythological being. It was held sacred in the ancient world and believed to be immortal due to its moulting and the capacity to regrow its skin, making it the sign of pharmacies and healing today, and perceived as a clever, ambiguous, deceitful creature. Flora explains that her use of this imagery is as rich and pointing to several subjects and topics that are as multifaceted as the meanings and significations this reptile stands for. 

 

She uses this metaphor to conceive intriguing photographs that leave the viewer in the uncertain of whether they have been digitally altered and how the pictures come into being. I am puzzled and amazed when Flora pulls out some old necklaces she has inherited from her grandmother or bought on flea markets and explains that these are the originals for the photographs she takes. I marvel at these common and quite plain objects, that obviously open up for a much greater visual potential than it may seem. Between a shiny consumer object and containing a supernatural and phantasmatic twist, they are intriguing visual expressions between the abstract and the very concrete. 

 

In her outdoor pieces, the snakes are installed on walls without any backdrop other than the subsurface they are placed on. This deprives them of their pictorial character, becoming almost three dimensional invaders of the real world, claiming and demanding the visual attention of anyone near them. In some cases they even resemble sculptures rather than photographs, leaving the viewer in surprise when coming closer and realising that it was due to the glass wall in front of them that the photographs appeared to be sculptural entities. In a beautiful contrast to them stand Flora‘s simple line charcoal drawings, and her artist books that fluctuate between art objects and sketch-book, and which string together series of colour-manipulated photographs. 

 

The mythos of the snake has manifold references in art history and mythology: Hercules, the Greek hero who stands for strength and courage, is said to have strangled the snakes that his mother Hera sent to the children‘s room. German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg (1866-1929) was fascinated by the Native American Hopi who made images and pictures of snakes, allowing them to create a mental distance to the creatures and thereby overcome their deadly fears, so they could even take the poisonous reptiles into their mouth. Warburg was fascinated with the power of symbols and the field of tension between the human fear of demons and how they - by making images and symbols of them - managed to get over them. It is an interesting turn to think of how Flora blows up the photographs of something as trivial as a silver chain necklace to the size of a menacing snake, changing its materiality, meaning and thereby also its potency.