Surreal Street Artists Double Up At ICA

Brazilian twins Os Gêmeos display graffiti-inspired visual art and musical installation

Os Gêmeos—“The Twins,” in Portuguese—are Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfo, identical brothers from São Paulo, Brazil, who make bright, cartoonish modern art about everything from poverty and social justice to subway stations and houses. Their first solo museum show in the United States, which runs through November 25 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is whimsical and surreal—the featured works include paintings decorated with sequins and three-dimensional, collage-like pieces that depict ordinary life with a gleeful fascination.

“There are many references throughout their work that are an invitation inside their head,” said ICA adjunct curator Pedro Alonzo, who organized the exhibit and has worked with the Pandolfo brothers on previous shows. The origins of the twins’ aesthetic, Alonzo said, are in street art that came out of the Brazilian hip-hop movement. “That is mixed with their own surreal fantasy world that they want to share with us,” he said.

In addition to its focus on the everyday, the art on display at the ICA is replete with references to exposure and connection—a face opens up to reveal another, different face inside of it; a house’s roof is removed to show the contents inside; and in one corner sits a massive piece titled “Os Musicos” (“The Musicians”), a modified organ that uses sound samples to access the twins’ minds and memories.

“The brothers make a real effort to have an unmediated relationship to the general public,” Alonzo said. “It’s a hard thing to accomplish with abstraction, so they do it with characters.” These characters are the twins’ signature yellow people, half-imp, half-Simpsons beings who populate their paintings and murals, including one enormous mural outside Boston’s South Station.

The yellow people also make an appearance in “Os Musicos,” albeit in a different form. The entire piece consists of several dozen speakers mounted in the corner of the gallery, colored yellow or brown, with painted-on eyes and hair and speakers for mouths. The speakers are controlled by the organ, which sits in front of the sculpture. Each key on the organ corresponds to a speaker mounted on the wall, and instead of playing a note, each key corresponds to its own sound bite—a burst of laughter, a mechanical whir, or a hip-hop beat, for instance. Playing combinations of keys produces shifting textures of sound rather than melodies.

The sound samples are drawn from the Pandolfo brothers’ own lives, but as Alonzo said, they are meant to be abstract enough to be relatable for the general public. “These are sounds that mean something to them, that they picked out,” Alonzo said. By using sound’s power to provoke recollection, the twins are opening up their own heads, pouring out their memories, and allowing exhibit-goers to find a connection.

Though the “Os Musicos” installation is intended to be interactive, it is part of a private collection, and as such, the general public is not permitted to play the instrument. Instead, the ICA enlisted the assistance of several professional musicians to play it. Elaine Rombola, one of the musicians who will play the sculpture for 15 minutes on the third Saturday of every month, sat down at the organ for the first time this past Saturday.

Rombola described her approach to the performance: “I’m trying to at least get all the notes played, so that everybody gets a chance to hear every sample,” she said. “Then I want to play around with how they layer with each other.” Due to the organ’s unique format, she said, her thought process deals more with the pacing and density of the sound than with traditional considerations such as harmony and rhythm. “When you sit down at a keyboard, you make your hands into the shape of a chord and you expect to hear a chord,” she said. “But with this organ, that’s not the case.”

On Saturday, Rombola played the organ to a small but attentive audience. The device sounded like a memory, or more specifically, the process of remembering: sounds popped up, blended together, then vanished; some noises lasted for almost a minute as the other sounds around it bloomed and disappeared; sometimes it sounded like a street fair, riotous and chaotic, and sometimes it sounded like a quiet evening at home, hushed and subdued.

Semira E. Rose, an ICA patron who watched Rombola’s performance, admitted that she did not immediately connect to the performance. “But in the middle—it feels like they want people to connect to the sounds of the city,” she said. “And my teenage sons listen to hip-hop, so when some of those beats popped up, I started connecting more.”

That kind of association—clearly removed from Os Gêmeos’ own interactions with hip-hop, but nonetheless resonant with Rose’s experiences—is consistent with the twins’ artistic intentions in general. “It’s meant to stir memories,” Alonzo said.

—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at matthewwatson@college.harvard.edu.

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