Ferris Wheel – Essay on Collapse

Photo by Carmela Gross

By Luiz Renato Martins*

Excerpt from the book by artist Carmela Gross, about a large-scale installation mounted in 2019 in Porto Alegre

Ferris wheel, photo by Carmela Gross, 2019

On the opposite way

Faced with a unique situation of chaos and devastation, taken to an unprecedented degree by the ultra-right government, Ferris wheel – vast installation by Carmela Gross (1946), assembled in 2019, in Porto Alegre –,[I] constituted a surprising and radical critical synthesis of the collapse of the process of dependent modernization.

Something of this order has not been seen in Brazilian visual arts for a long time. In fact, in addition to the atomized perspective of the fragment prevailing in Brazilian arts for some time, on another plane, this time that of macroeconomics, the state of dependency, which was accentuated with the civil-military coup of 1964, always weighed as a preponderant force in Brazil, even during the acclaimed Workers' Party government (2003-15).[ii]

Against this preponderance, Ferris wheel he set up an elaborate structure that enacted the dialectic between order and disorder, characteristic of dependency. In it, hundreds of discarded objects and materials – signs of various cycles of accelerated modernization – were laid out on the ground, from where they were tied by about two hundred and fifty ropes of different colors and thicknesses to the capitals of the neoclassical columns of an emblematic cultural institute, the whose appearance and origin I will return to.


A scheme and a tradition

Having thus summarized the basic features of the installation, the purpose here – in order not to divert the debate from the novelty of a possible turnaround in the discourse of the arts in Brazil – is to present a brief outline of such construction and its operation. And also indicate in terms of aesthetic experience how Ferris wheel it reopened the synthetic and combative tendency of some of the visual works of the 1960s; trend that constituted the most radical vein of the Brazilian artistic tradition and led to the formation of a new realistic synthesis in response to the civil-military coup of 1964.[iii]

Four aspects were strategically decisive in Ferris wheel, each composed of a large number of elements. In short, they consisted of (1) the scale of the facility; (2) in its architectural implantation; (3) in the nature of the objects distributed on the ground; and, mainly, (4) in the complex network of ropes created by the rigging that connected the ground pieces to the top of the neoclassical columns in the building's lobby.

I want to show that the relationship between these four sets of elements was almost always discontinuous and dissonant, if not in frontal contrast.


Jonah devoured

The first impact of Ferris wheel it came from his size. Upon entering the installation space, the visitor was as if devoured, becoming one item among others. It could be suggested that the physical situation was reminiscent of the legend of the biblical episode between Jonah and the whale, as a narrative of the disproportionate clash between the smaller and the larger.

However, in Ferris wheel, the visitor, when confronting the magnitude of the environment and, in the face of this, his own disparity, was in fact induced to leave aside any digression and introspective intuition, to adopt a reflective mode in which he invested himself with a general and objective condition.

In this sense, in order to leave no doubt about the implications, the visitor was faced, right at the entrance, with some objects on the surrounding ground, as if beckoning him in yellow, while others erupted in green, not to mention those in blue...


Décor in character

The second decisive aspect corresponded to the architectural implantation. site-specific, Ferris wheel it was installed in an eclectic and sumptuous mansion, precisely characteristic of oligarchic architecture. The building (begun in 1927 and completed in 1931), belonging to the period of the so-called Old Republic, today constitutes an exemplary enclosure to remember what still remains of the Portuguese mercantile-colonial order in the South Atlantic, configured as a congenitally atrophied social and political formation, without other end than the production of commodities.[iv] In these terms, historical genre and epic objective acted as premises of Ferris wheel, which, in itself, was enough to highlight an inflection in the Brazilian visual language, long unaccustomed to synthesizing the real and treating the country as a historical formation and totality.

The main hall, measuring approximately three hundred and seventy meters square by ten meters high, features two rows of columns, supposedly Corinthian patterns. It also includes sumptuous coatings and large French stained glass windows on the ceiling, which feature allegories of entities such as Finance, Industry, Exchange, etc. to house the headquarters of a bank – today converted into a cultural center by a multinational financial group with Iberian roots.[v] Particularity, by the way, which added a touch of colonial memory to the cocktail of first impressions.


out of order

In such a bizarre scene, conducive to daydreaming for money, two hundred and fifty pieces collected from junkyards were laid out on the ground. There were various tools, machine parts and all sorts of objects – some potentially useful, but in disuse –, all easily found in run-down urban areas. But why promote such dissonance? What meaning could be found in the comparison between a sumptuous and ultra-protected neoclassical lobby and the disorder of junk and out-of-use things?


the fourth element

The dialectical link between the two opposed antithetical ensembles was provided by a complex of strings that consisted of the fourth decisive element of Ferris wheel and, mainly, in the installation's unifying system. It was given by bundles of ropes that cut the space differently, as an apparently improvised resource and in contrast with the grandiose and solemn rhetoric of the colonnade.

First of all, I want to point out the objective traits and the socio-historical origin of the complex of ropes, so dissonant in the face of the sumptuous architecture of the lobby. What's more, the rigging soon caught the eye with its variety and inventiveness. It had cables of different colors, textures and thicknesses, extended from a point at the top of the columns to an object on the floor, which served as ballast to keep each rope taut and extended.

In terms of effects, the mosaic structure, placed as an inevitable tactile and visual obstacle in the visitor's path, alternating strings and empty spaces given by lines intersecting in different directions, sliced ​​incessantly and in many ways every act of vision.


severe life

Where did the surprising and intricate aesthetic construction presented by the rigging come from? No one needed to go far in search of motifs, as was required in the case of the colonnade's Corinthian capitals. It was only necessary to leave the bank building to find, in front of the cultural center, the Praça da Alfândega, with the crowded gathering of stalls, tents and street trading carts. The ropes are material for current and daily use in this mambembe trade, to fix the plastic tarps that cover their shelves and improvised showcases during the day, and to keep everything wrapped up during the night.

Street commerce is basically carried out by internal migrants, mainly former peasants who fled hunger and misery in search of jobs, housing, health equipment, schools and social benefits in urban areas. Recently, the legion of internal immigrants was added by another, of immigrants from other Latin American countries – all expelled for similar reasons from their native regions. The vulnerable population of urban migrants and survivors, who face precarious working conditions in the streets and permanent harassment from social predators and bourgeois State troops, remain threatened night and day. For each of them, wherever they come from, there remains a “severe life”, “a life that is less lived than defended”, as said by a poet who, in order to deal with precise and concrete facts, borrowed exact constructions from current speech. [vi]


severe architecture

That's how he was born too Ferris wheel. From the model of resistance and daily struggle came the constructive molecule of the installation. Expanded and projected on a larger scale, processed through a multiplicity of criss-crossing ropes, the same genetic formula used in the streets was applied to strip the luxury setting and visual fraud of the palace's interior, confronting it with the social and historical truth.

In this way, the daily constructive operations of street commerce, in addition to being diversified and multiplied, were transplanted inside the mansion where they flourished and proliferated – aesthetically condensed – as “objective forms”. I borrow this concept from the literary criticism of Roberto Schwarz, for whom “objective forms” comprise “practical-historical substance”, and thus aesthetically condense the “general rhythm of society”.[vii]


Objective vestiges of “interrupted construction”

In these terms, string architecture acquired in Ferris wheel value visual scheme or diagram of adversity. In addition, he evoked both synthetically and dialectically the sign and character of popular resistance within the framework of the common and collective struggle of the majority.

the dual nature [viii] of the social formation in question thus came to light, as if by itself, unveiled by the stark contrast between the farce colonnade and the improvised and stripped-down architecture, conceived to function as a survival tool – such as the exposed beams and slabs, in architecture alike” severina”, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha.

What about the ground scene? Let us dwell on some examples of the items gathered: typewriter, sewing machine, pulleys, valve, beam, chain, wheel, cylinder, bucket, shovel, bricks, cement bags and sanitary ware items. And, in addition to productive instruments, personal accessories and utensils related to circulation and services: stacks of books and newspapers, suitcase, backpack, boxes, crates, gym weights, crate, package without addressee, figurines of Snow White and dwarfs, as well as a variety of animals, a guard dog, a tortoise, and, not by chance, a cup commemorating a football achievement, etc.

In short, hundreds of scrap and disused objects, arranged side by side, evoked – in addition to economic purposes that no longer had any hope of value – various waves of modernization whose efforts dated back to different cycles of production and circulation, according to the variety of origins and implied temporalities.

All, in short, showed traces of “interrupted construction” – to borrow the term from an economist of the era.[ix] They also brought traces of plans and reasons articulated elsewhere, given the intrinsic and blatant disparity of the set. Thus, the effort taken up many times throughout the history of the said national State, even if through dissociated cycles, reappeared on stage in the installation, this time, represented, synthesized and with a critical sense, to be submitted to a historical biopsy of the reproduction process of value.



For the eye, however, nothing happened and happened without passing through the system of strings, whose decisive function, presiding over every sensation of the visitor, was to unify all the issues at stake simultaneously in a single and inseparable web.

In dialectical opposition to the prevailing forms on the ground, which denoted decrepitude, the delicate, subtle and instigating web of ropes rose high like a curtain, despite the empty spaces, cutting off the visitor's path. In this way, he provoked him, whether he wanted to or not, to the trouble of seeing. Or, to be exact, it pushed him to oscillate between seeing and not seeing. Forcefully confronted by the web of ropes that sliced ​​his gaze, the visitor was compelled at all times to perceive new visual fields that emerged as he or she walked through the labyrinth-museum of the installation, given by the cables and disused goods.

In the situation, the observer was confronted with the ever-nascent and singular spontaneity of his own experience of seeing. Visual activity and reflexivity, both as living work and in reciprocal determination, appeared in contrast to the fossil situation and insufficiency, crystallized in the discarded materials that surrounded the visitor's steps.


Analytics and critical leap: the dialectic of the camera in hand

Not by chance, a similar experience, although practically automatic due to habit, occurs daily in the photographer's work, framing and focusing. Historically, the dialectic between seeing and failing to see was brought to the collection of techniques and practices of modern painting through Cézanne's method: constructing modules of brushstrokes in the manner of serial bricks, according to visual analytical procedures currently incorporated into modern art as a key resource since Cubism.

There was just nothing Ferris wheel, barring a lapse, closely and properly equivalent neither to Cézanne's handling of the brush nor his strategic use of a limited set of colors. Instead, the axial principles and procedures of Ferris wheel – namely, the project to materialize in a visual cut the social contradictions, as well as the combined and close harmony between looking and walking – belong more to cinema than to painting. Especially, the dependence of the gaze on the floor is quite similar to the handheld camera visual experience.

Such aspects, and in particular the decisive narrative function performed by the camera in the hand, invited comparison with the film. earth in trance (1967), by Glauber Rocha (1939-1981), who played a crucial role in the Brazilian debate – very thought-provoking and politically engaged – in the 1960s.[X]


Between not being and being another

When it comes to themes and plots, two issues were crucial in earth in trance: one given by the revelation of the plots, political blockages and systemic blind spots inherent in dependent economies; while the other resided in the protagonist's oscillation between “not being and being another”. Not by chance, the latter constituted the terms used by film critic Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes (1916-1977), a few years later, in 1973, to summarize in a formula the complex situation of peripheral cultures.

Deprived of the possibility of building an autonomous cultural system based on independent foundations, peripheral cultures struggle, as Paulo Emílio stated, to constitute their own perspectives – situated as they are in a “rarefied dialectic” in which the brief sensation of certainty and autonomy resides , as noted, in the negative act.[xi]


From the Choir's point of view to that of the camera

By observing the distribution of disused objects in the lower scene of the installation, as well as the didactic and demonstrative exuberance of the rope architecture, one could intuit that the installation also shared similar concerns, therefore inviting a parallel with the analysis of the pathologies of the dependency carried out in earth in trance. Therefore, to develop the parallel with the film, it is essential to distinguish, from the visitor's point of view, the key function performed by the strings, of awakening the visual experience of perceptual discontinuity – certainly, a decisive resource in the narrative of both works.

So in earth in trance the camera was attributed, in the first place, the function of demarcating the narrative distance in the face of blind spots and impasses inherent to political and social ills. Similarly, the camera induced distancing from the characters and also made explicit the spin in the void of their actions – without popular support and, moreover, clearly unacceptable from a collective point of view.

In short, the role of dialogically promoting the distancing effect belonged to the camera and not to the dialogues and speeches – which were often limited to soliloquies. In addition, it was also up to the camera to weave the reflexive unification of the narrative and ensure dialogue with the spectator – proposing to the spectator an analytical look that, combined with reflection, totaled the set of resources and narrative procedures in the form of an epic and tragic mural. So the camera exercised in earth in trance function equivalent to that of the Chorus in Greek tragedy.

Em Ferris wheel, the impact of the ropes on the visitor was of a similar kind. It was up to the rigging to combine two crucial narrative functions: cutting the flow of perception and highlighting the necessary distancing – at every moment – ​​between the observer and the image, which acquired objectification in its specific frame, as a circumstantial result of the visitor's walk.

Simultaneously, it was the role of the string curtain that provoked the visitor, interrupting him repeatedly, always triggering the connection and urging the reflexive unification of the images, that is, inducing their montage – as with shots or cinematographic shots, combined slice by slice. slice, as a requirement for the perceptive experience of the surroundings as an environment.


Epic vision: totalization and distancing

Analogously to what happened to the viewer of earth in trance, the analytical visual exercise induced the visitor to Ferris wheel to totalize the traces of the historical and social scene, placed directly and explicitly as an open fracture. In addition, the related reflection could glimpse, from the mezzanine or intermediate floor with balustrade, also a synthetic image of the dissonances and intermittencies of the historical process as a tragic totality.

In these terms, empathy and admiration for severe resistance and inventiveness, added to the pessimistic perspective and a tragic synthesis, as much as in earth in trance, nurtured the totalizing elaboration of Ferris wheel.

In this way, modernization – as a myth or a virus – constituted the clinical object dissected by the installation, which, with its procedures, of discontinuity and distancing, gave an air of a laboratory environment to the space originally of excessive luxury and ostentation. Ties of dependency, tying the lower section to the upper section, was all that remained – ultimately, a possible reading of the string weave.

* Luiz Renato Martins he is professor-advisor of PPG in Economic History (FFLCH-USP) and Visual Arts (ECA-USP); and author, among other books, of The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil (Haymarket/HMBS).



Carmela Gross & Luiz Renato Martins. Ferris wheel. São Paulo, Publisher WMF Martins Fontes/Editora Circuito, 2021, 98 pages.

Book release – Discussion panels

Table 1 – 27 November 2021 (18pm – 19:30pm)

34th Bienal de São Paulo, 1st floor

On-site session Deposition with mediation and presentation: Maria Hirszman; panelists: Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, Marta Bogéa, Paulo Miyada and Ricardo Resende.

Table 2 – December 07, 2021 (18pm – 19:30pm)

Virtual session through the channel You Tube by Editora WMF Martins Fontes with mediation and presentation: Maria Hirszman; panelists: Cauê Alves, Guilherme Wisnik, Luisa Duarte and Pedro Fiori Arantes.



[I] Carmela GROSS, Ferris wheel, curators: Paulo Miyada and André Severo (Porto Alegre, Farol Santander, 26.03 – 23.06).

[ii] See Francisco de Oliveira, The Platypus. In: Critique of Dualist Reason/ The Platypus, preface by Roberto Schwarz, São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2003, pp. 121-50.

[iii] On the movement to build a new realism, in response to the 1964 coup, see LR MARTINS, “Trees of Brazil”. in The Long Roots of Formalism in Brazil, ed. Juan Grigera, introd. Alex Potts, trans. by Renato Rezende, Chicago, Haymarket, 2019, pp. 73-113.

[iv] “If we go to the essence of our formation, we will see that in reality we were constituted to supply sugar, tobacco, some other genres; later gold and diamonds; then cotton, and then coffee, for the European trade. Nothing more than this”. Cf. Caio PRADO Jr., Formation of contemporary Brazil: colony, São Paulo, Brasiliense/ Publifolha, 2000, p. 20.

[v] The building served successively as headquarters for the banks of the Província, Nacional do Comércio, Southern and Southern Brazil, before acquiring its current destination in 2001, under the current name of Farol Santander.

[vi] João Cabral de MELO NETO, “Death and Life Severina/ Auto de Natal Pernambucano 1954-1955”. In: Complete work, single volume, ed. org. by Marly de Oliveira. Rio de Janeiro: Luso-Brasileira Library/ Nova Aguilar, 1999, p. 178. The quoted sentence is found in the act: “tired from the journey, the migrant thinks of interrupting it for a few moments and looking for work wherever he is – Since I’m leaving / I only see death active, / I only come across death / and sometimes even festive; only death has found / who thought he would find life,/ and the little that was not death / was of severe life / (that life that is less / lived than defended, / and is even more severe / for the man who withdraws)”.

[vii] Cf. Roberto Schwarz, “National adequacy and critical originality”. In: Brazilian sequences: essays, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999, pp. 30-31; see also, pp. 28-41. For the origin of the idea of ​​“objective form” and the process of aesthetic translation of the “general rhythm of society” in the Brazilian novel, see Antonio CANDIDO, “Dialética da Malandragem”. In: The Discourse and the City. Rio de Janeiro: Gold over Blue, 2004, pp. 28, 38.

[viii] See F. de Oliveira, Critique of Dualist Reason/ The Platypus. Op. cit., pp. 25-119.

[ix] See Celso FURTADO, Brazil: construction interrupted, São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1992.

[X] See R. SCHWARZ, “Culture and Politics: 1964-1969/Some Schemes”. In: The father of Family and other studies. São Paulo, Paz e Terra, 1992, pp. 61-92.

[xi] “We are not Europeans or North Americans, but devoid of original culture, nothing is foreign to us, because everything is. The painful construction of ourselves develops in the rarefied dialectic between non-being and being other”. Cf. Paulo Emílio Sales Gomes, “Cinema: Trajectory in Underdevelopment”. In: Argument / Monthly magazine of culture, no. 1. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1973, p. 55.

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