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As recounted by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in Le Cru et le Cuit, the indigenous people of?Brazil have a myth about a man named Baitogogo who, having committed a rape, flees to the jungle, where, in divine retribution, a tree sprouts from his shoulders. This surreal story was a jumping-off point for sculptor Henrique Oliveira when he received one of the six-month residencies granted by SAM Art Projects to artists living in France but not natives of Europe or North America. He sees Baitogogo’s plight as a metaphor for the organic, tumorlike growth of favelas in Brazilian cities.
Taking over a 2,200-square-foot gallery at the Palais de Tokyo, a 1937 exhibition hall, Henrique Oliveira Baitogogo made it seem as if a knot of ancient tree branches and roots was growing out of a framework of columns and beams. “It connected architecture to a natural-looking structure,” Oliveira says. “There’s strong symbolism, representing how human thinking tries to understand the way life develops, yet existence always turns out to be impossible to comprehend by rational thought.”
Easier to comprehend, his primary material was basic plywood. He collects it from abandoned fences at construction sites in his hometown of São Paulo, leaves the sheets outside to further degrade for several months, then peels off strips of laminate that can be broken by hand into smaller, barklike pieces. These are then ready for him to staple to one another to create faux tree forms. Meanwhile, he used plywood in its original state to construct the armature’s hollow columns and beams before plastering and painting them to resemble the gallery’s two existing structural columns.
The lower two thirds of the installation were prefabricated in a studio outside Paris, cut into parts, loaded onto a truck, and reassembled on-site. The upper portion was built from scratch there, as the studio’s ceiling wasn’t high enough. Two months and 20 assistants were required to complete the process.
Close to 20 percent of the knot is real tree branches, attached with staples and screws. “I went to a forest on the way to Normandy and picked up branches randomly,” Oliveira explains. The difference is nearly impossible for the naked eye to untangle.