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Matters of Gravity

Brazilian artist Bernardo Stumpf began by wrapping his feet and ankles with athletic bandages and tape. Wearing loose shorts and a t-shirt, he performed this ritual with deliberate familiarity. Stumpf then pulled kneepads over his muscular calves and began a series of cat-like crouching moves, twisting his spine and slinking around the room. He removed his red shirt and tied it around his head, a kind of turban/mask. Sufficiently anonymous, he continued his gracefully brute maneuvers.

Bernardo Stumpf RP15 photo CV Peterson

Stumpf showed great command of his toned and agile body. At times, he appeared like a bucking bronco throwing himself to and fro, quickly exhausting as he bounced and gasped. At other points, his serpentine arms evoked a tender delicacy. The overall character of the performance was that of a demented gymnast’s mat routine. Accompanied only by the music of his heavy breathing and the thuds of flesh on floor, he kicked and flailed, never far off the ground in a hardscrabble dialogue with gravity.

Downward force became a subtext of the piece. When Stumpf would execute more balletic moves, he always came down hard. Eventually his breathing evolved into muffled laughter from inside his self-imposed veil. Stumpf manipulated the red-shirt headgear into successive expressive shapes, first exposing his face through what resembled a medieval wimple, then pulling the tail of the shirt forward forming a monstrous red mouth. He peered out at the audience before re-covering his face.

Stumpf ended his performance by unwrapping his feet and removing all his clothing, freeing himself from all constrictions, literal and figurative. He held the red shirt in his mouth and stood still, silent and nude facing the back wall of the gallery. The posture suggested both penance and punishment. Despite hints at muscular abandon, the protective gear (pads and bandages) ultimately foreshadowed that Stumpf would never really lose control and he did not. Real mad men are far scarier and the muffled chuckles heard here were more mischievous than maniacal. Perhaps therein lies the meaning of this action, where inner urges were continually thwarted by outside forces. The things that protect us often keep us from ever finding our limits. Gravity holds us safely grounded, but also keeps us from reaching the stars. Stumpf’s final pose was one of naked honesty.


RP15 performance photo by CV Peterson
Jeffery Byrd is a performance artist who has presented work all over the globe. His writing has appeared most recently in Performance Research. He is a Professor and Head of the Department of Art at the University of Northern Iowa.
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