“My first house was a woman”, writes Carlos Bunga in NOMAD (Documenta, 2019), a volume of notes and drawings about his childhood homes. “In 1975, one of the many people who escaped from the armed conflict of Angola’s independence struggle with Portugal was my eighteen-year-old mother, pregnant with me and trying to leave the war behind to save my two-year-old sister.”

For a time, the three lived in a reception centre—now the Universidade Lusófona do Porto—which housed refugees from former Portuguese colonies. “Only later would I come to realize that our house, an unlocked cell, had once been a prison.” In 1983, a moderate amount of social housing was built for the poorest Portuguese families, and Bunga, his mother, and his sister moved to a prefabricated house in a village. Intended to last ten years, but used for nineteen, the house, according to the Parish Council of São Bartolomeu, had become 64 percent degraded material. Like many of Bunga’s museum installations it was, from the beginning, a structure-becoming-not.

Occupy (2020) is a collection of ordinary cardboard boxes without tops, each about twenty-five centimetres high and placed one next to the other, filling much of MOCA’s second floor. At the boundaries of this rectangular plain, the boxes are joined with tape and their sides are painted white with house paint. A scene of repetition, it brings to mind an oversized model of a subdivision in an architectural office or a setting for a vast, unadorned children’s game. When the harsh fluorescent museum light is off, natural light from east-facing windows lends the accumulated boxes an insistent line, as if they had been sketched. As philosopher Gaston Bachelard noted in The Poetics of Space (1958), “We cover the universe with drawings we have lived.”

“Only later would I come to realize that our house, an unlocked cell, had once been a prison.”

The exhibition was organized by new adjunct curator Rui Mateus Amaral and is, to my knowledge, the first to sensitively attend to the fascinating but awkward structure of the museum’s building, the hundred-year-old former Northern Aluminum Company factory. Normally, huge weight-bearing columns, thrusting upward like svelte mushroom clouds, dominate the upstairs space that Bunga chose to work in. The small, unassuming boxes embrace the monolithic structures as if they marked the edges of a garden. Bunga’s quickly assembled construction, its days numbered (even more so because the exhibition’s visitors are encouraged to walk among the boxes, accelerating the deterioration of the piece), speaks of the fundamentally transitory condition of the old building itself. This dialogue about the impermanence of Toronto’s built environment is amplified by the abandoned, overgrown urban landscape visible from the museum’s windows.

Placed around the margins of the room are several pieces of second-hand furniture found in Toronto, altered with cardboard and house paint. Almost all of Bunga’s paint was applied over a resinous glue that produced patterns mimicking decay or the cracked forms of a stream bed after the water has dried up. One of these pieces is a small round side table with a conspicuously ornate wooden base on small wheels, with something resembling four windowless favela houses that Bunga constructed with cardboard boxes on its top. The structure’s surface is bisected by heavily applied light-pink paint on one side and pale-green paint on the other, a line of unpainted cardboard visible between the two. Another piece is composed of two massive fragments of gilded picture frames suspended from the ceiling like carcasses in a butcher shop. The worn, once bare interior of their mouldings is covered with Bunga’s stressed green paint. Also hanging are two small, unglazed, coil-built clay sculptures that evoke, in equal measure, wasps’ nests and heavy cloth swathed and sagging around a limb.

Occupy (2020)
Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid
Courtesy of the artist, Galeria Elba Benitez (Madrid) and Alexander and Bonin (New York)

Inhabited space

Constructed in the long lobby of the museum, Procession (2020) was a sort of one-to-one model made with cardboard, packing tape, and house paint. A succession of tall, square white columns gives way to brightly coloured walls evoking a city street in Porto, or São Paulo, where architectural boundaries between exterior and interior are not clearly drawn. Inside Procession the colours seemed scored and deteriorating, and outside, the cardboard was left bare where the piece gave way to the museum’s usual public space: ticket desk, elevators, and makeshift shops currently abandoned to COVID-19 pandemic safety measures.

This grand procession, more image than auric site, proceeded nowhere in particular. Or, rather, it led us to a place of memory. A ruin with a bright new appearance. A manifestation of trauma—or was it, more simply, a demonstration of memory? Perhaps when the past appears to you as an image it confronts you with the primacy of interior life. Even though my grandparents are long dead and I haven’t lived in their house in many years, when I walk by it, I am there still at five years old, in the narrow walkway beside the house, while my uncle spray-paints a sheet of metal on ground still damp from rain.

Bachelard observes that “inhabited space” is the “real beginning of images,” of “the non-I that protects the I.” In Bunga’s installations at MOCA, the “non-I” is not quite sound enough to protect anything, but it is eloquent with the circumstances that make up the “I.”

Carlos Bunga, A Sudden Beginning 
Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto
Floor One : February 6–September 7, 2020
Floor Two : February 6–October 4, 2020