Tunga (1952-2016)
Tunga (1952-2016)

Peine (Capillary Xiphopagus Between Us)

Tunga (1952-2016)
Peine (Capillary Xiphopagus Between Us)
inscribed 'TUNGA ARTE' (on a metal tag affixed to the comb on the underside)
bronze and brass wire
25 x 9 x 1 ¼ in. (63.5 x 22.9 x 3.2 cm.)
Private collection, Munich; Christie's, New York, 2 June 2000, lot 118 (illustrated in color).
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.

Lot Essay

“If one thing is opposed to another, the two are not necessarily contradictory,” Tunga once explained. “If there is a lesson to be learned in Brazil, it is that in Brazil there are no opposites. What we find is the coexistence of what are conventionally called opposites. . . . Perhaps at the juncture between the two we can find the avant-garde of Brazilian culture.”[1] Across four decades, Tunga’s sculptures and installations explored the poetics of duality: male and female, hard and soft, nature and industry. Trained as an architect, he emerged as part of a celebrated generation of Brazilian conceptualists—among them, Cildo Meireles, José Resende, and Waltercio Caldas—who produced increasingly experimental, socially and materially transgressive work beginning in the 1970s. Drawing in different measures from Brazilian Constructivism and Surrealist psychoanalysis, Tunga evolved an elaborate iconography of ritual, seduction, and metamorphosis.

A key, recursive element within his repertory is hair, a surrealist fetish object par excellence and a symbol overripe with female eroticism. Tunga’s capillary narrative has a suggestively alchemical point of origin in a Nordic myth about Siamese twins, joined by hair, who were sacrificed upon reaching puberty. He cites the mythical text, credited to the Danish naturalist Pieter Wilhelm Lund, in his essay, “Capillary Xiphopagus Between Us:”

If by crop of hair
Coms’t upon ancephalics
Their talk separate
For being by birth the other
Either spare ye the seeds
Or simply steal must needs
Bastards the taints with
Bounteous for the kith
Bound beauty anomalous
From borders acephalous
Their talk cropped off as to reap
Behold gold or silence keep.[2]

In Tunga’s recounting of Lund’s story, a scavenger inscribed the mythical text onto the desiccated scalp of the capillary twins and presented it as a trophy to his wife, who plucked two hairs from it; as she began to embroider them into an image recalled from a dream, the hairs turned into metal and became gold.[3]

The scalp as palimpsest entered Tunga’s personal mythology in 1980 and remained a pregnant leitmotif throughout his career, notably in his performance Capillary xiphopagus between us (1984), reenacted at Frieze London in 2015, in which identical 13-year-old twin girls joined by tangled tresses of hair—an animate Möbius strip—circulated through the gallery space, indifferent to a curious and scandalized crowd. A distillation of the folk tale and the performance, the present work meditates on the nature of attachment and transformation: threads of gleaming, golden hair pass through a comb, uncanny relics of alchemical transfiguration. The contour of the comb stands in for the scalp line of the ill-fated twins, forever parting their hair in a sublimated remembrance of their extraordinary lives. “I’d describe his legacy as a unique mix of Brazilian constructivism and pure imagination,” the artist Nuno Ramos reflected. “To my mind, he used two main forces as organizing principals in his work: a kind of recycled entropic energy—the sense of Möbius movement that he learned from Lygia Clark—and a centrifugal force that his imagination allowed him to access. This was something absolutely original.”[4]

Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park

1 Tunga, quoted in Simon Lane, “Tunga,” BOMB 78 (Winter 2001-02): 44.
2 Pieter Wilhelm Lund, quoted in Tunga, “Capillary Xiphopagus Between Us,” Barroco de lírios (São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 1997), 2.
3 See Tunga, “Capillary Xiphopagus Between Us,” 1-4.
4 Nuno Ramos, quoted in David Ebony, “A Tribute to Tunga (1952-2016),” Art in America (June 27, 2016).

More from Latin American Art

View All
View All