A Centaur in the City
Antonio Gonçalves Filho

Saint Clair Cemin has always had a passion for Modernism and has incorporated elements from this movement into his work. This is evident in his keen interest in the Franco-German sculptor Hans (Jean) Arp (1886-1966), particularly apparent in Saint Clair’s exhibition Being Hybrid, which also evokes the presence of ancient Greek sculpture in his work and its development among contemporary artists.

The sculptures in the exhibition share commonalities not only with the ancient Greek period, which represented liberation of the sculpture from the blocks that had imprisoned Egyptian figures, but also with the Dadaist spirit that Arp identified with, revealing inner life, movement, and tension, characteristics that marked the three-dimensional works in ancient Greece.

Although they are small, they could have been made in large scale, as states the artist. An example of this is Capoeira, in patinated bronze, which, as the title suggests, refers to a cultural expression of African origin, a fusion of dance and martial art. According to its creator, it was intended to be four meters tall, nearly double the height of Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, a masterpiece of the Hellenistic period.

Two other sculptures in the exhibition feature bilateral symmetry (Spinario and Panguri), while all the other works are circular. Infante, according to the sculptor’s description, should “revolve or perform somersaults as we walk around the sculpture”. Analogously, this work would have been on the borderline in ancient Greece, which embraced curvilinear motifs during the period of Orientalization, influenced by Phoenician aesthetics.

Living for some time in Greece has acquainted Saint Clair with these archaic forms. In the sculpture Panguri, for example, we witness a hybrid form combining a horse, an airplane, and a boy — a “chimaera”, according to the creator, inspired by his childhood, marked by the presence of horses and the light aircrafts of flying clubs. The centaur figure, embodying the struggle of man’s rational side to control animal instinct, addresses the delicate balance that children often lose as they grow up, as this mythological figure fades away through the sands of time.

The works showcased in this exhibition utilize classic sculpture materials such as bronze (Spinario, Nuvem Onça and Infante). Saint Clair does not seem inclined to consider creating something solely using a computer. For him, the physical execution remains a vital component in the construction of a work.

“From my perspective”, Saint Clair concludes, “art isn’t on a quest for itself, nor does it strive merely to be interesting”. According to the artist, what art truly seeks “is reality, the truth of being and of the world”. Fundamentally, it aims to surprise the viewer. And, interestingly, the works in this exhibition surprised the artist first: it dawned on him that they were all closely linked to his childhood years. In his own words, it was “a blazing epiphany”. And not just for him, one might say.


There are works in this exhibition that evoke the classical and ancient period of Greek sculpture, particularly mythical creatures like horses, which played a fundamental role in ancient Greece as a symbol of nobility and prestige. Naturally, the fact you have lived on a Greek island has contributed to strengthening this relationship. However, in addition to the horses sculpted in Greek monuments, there must be other reasons for bringing this tradition into the present. What, in your view, is the principal reason?

The world is replete with symbols. Their function is to connect the human soul with essences. Civilizations leave their marks, and the most valuable ones endure over centuries; sometimes they are forgotten, only to be reborn later. In New York City, for instance, the three orders of Greek architecture are frequently encountered, and our languages abound with Hellenisms.

Having lived part of the year in Greece, naturally acquainted me with these ancient forms. They impose themselves gently, and I find myself, almost unconsciously, creating works that approach those of the pre-classical period. In the work Panguri we see a chimaera comprising a horse, an airplane, and a boy. The works in this exhibition draw inspiration from my childhood — which was, as the Antiquity times, populated by horses —, and also the light aircrafts at the Aero Club in Cruz Alta. I used to go there to watch the little planes taking off.

The horse is a powerful symbol because the synthesis of horse and man, effectively transforms a human being into a centaur. The centaur is a tangible reality, and this has been poetically and realistically discussed in the book O gaúcho, by José de Alencar. If the centaur isn’t entirely realized, the rider is in danger. Unity with the animal is just as necessary as that of the musician and his instrument; the absence of which leads to the music to sound bad.

There is a trivialization of the symbol when it is considered solely in its epistemic dimension and not in its ontological dimension, which refers to the way something truly exists in the world and participates in it. The symbol, the synthesis, and even the symbiosis exist as a reality far beyond the concept, the sign. This idea is central to the understanding of art, in my opinion.

Similar to ancient Greek sculpture, which frequently depicts hybrid beings, the sculptures in your exhibition have something in common with Hans Arp’s endeavor to transcend boundaries and engage with a world in transformation. This is evident when we consider Arp’s series initiated in 1958 (informally referred to as Hermaphrodites) and which precisely explores the breaking down of formal or cultural barriers. Could you elaborate on the resonance of Arp’s organic forms in your sculpture?

I share a profound affinity for Arp’s sculpture due to its spontaneity. I believe that sculpture, still as an impulse lingering in the back room of the artist’s mind, yearns to dance. Even before coming into being, it feels this desire and entices the artist to allow it. As you say, this is no longer a case of borders or conventional limits. It originates from reality itself, which is not subject to the same limits as perception is, let alone language (which imposes its glossy armors and scaffolds on reality). Being is soft, spongy and sticky. When the artist embraces and merges with reality, the artwork mirrors this reality. This imitation may take on chimeric, hermaphroditic, xiphopagic, forms, echoing ancient songs that surface like from a dream. Everything intertwines like a dance of octopuses, like an emulsion where elements coalesce and separate in the rhythm of the moment.

Those sharp divisions between ourselves and others, between us and things, only exist within the confines of language, with its verbs and predicates. In reality, there is no absolute separation between things; they don’t fit together like the parts of a machine, but rather like the organs of a single body. Consequently, art can be appreciated by the body itself, and something of the artist effectively be transferred to the public.

The works in your exhibitions make use of classic sculpture materials, such as bronze. Does this use of materials follow a principle of establishing a counterpoint between more “organic” sculptures and forms that resemble reliefs?

I have always utilized all available techniques, primarily to enlarge sculptures. However, I make the original models by hand, in the most traditional way, that is, by sculpting in wood, stone, or modeling. The idea of using a computer to create something, for example, is impossible for me. I tried in the past, but the result was bad and the “vibe” even worse. When I see the outcome of art conceived and created on a computer, the problems are evident: the choices are as abundant as they are inconsequential.

A certain distinction between sculpture and installation prevails today, primarily fueled by the incorporation of new materials other than traditional ones (marble, bronze). The vast array of such materials (PVC, steel, concrete) and the ever-expanding scale of these works, coupled with the integration of new technologies, have played a role in broadening the realm where multidisciplinary artists like British-Indian Anish Kapoor or Nigerian Otobong Nkanga operate. Considering these examples, how do you envision the future of sculpture?

In São Paulo, around 1971 or 1972, I was introduced to conceptual art by a Spanish artist friend who explained it to me, providing some examples. Later I saw the work of Lydia Okumura and other conceptual artists of that time. This form of art seemed to me akin to theater, where the actors served as components of the installation.

Joseph Beuys’s installations in his 1979 retrospective at the New York Guggenheim had a profound, transformative impact on me. Each of the works shown felt like a gateway to a new world of meaning that was at once mysterious, intimate and urgent. To this day, I have yet to encounter anything comparable, except for the great architecture. Gaudí’s spaces, Gothic cathedrals, the interiors of Egyptian temples, or the Greek ruins at Paestum. Evocative, strange and enchanting spaces exist, I live them in some of my dreams. One day, perhaps, I might create something that comes close to it. Anything that can be said about sculpture in general, or installation in general, could be refuted right now, or in the future, by a particular artist. Art, as I see it, reaches the universal through a unique, personal path. Why shouldn’t a 40-centimeter painting be viewed as an installation? Some paintings by Dalí or De Chirico certainly could be. I like Anish Kapoor, and I am unfamiliar with Otobong Nkanga’s work. But, as I’ve said, so far, in terms of installation I haven’t seen anything that rivals Beuys. It’s a matter of intensity, emotion, magic.

Criticisms regarding the use of parody in contemporary sculpture are widespread, voiced not only by analysts but also by artists themselves. Take British sculptor Jonathan Monk, for instance. Some of his stainless-steel works contain critical allusions to Jeff Koons, specifically his inflatable dogs and rabbits. In a sense, don’t parody and iconoclasm diminish the force of sculpture?

The issue lies in the idea itself. Indeed, there are moments when I wonder if the expression “a coarse idea” might be a pleonasm. When the artist detaches from reality, from Being, which is both external and internal, as present like one’s own soul, and instead fixates on the mechanics of representation, anything can float, principally that which lacks weight. In such cases, humor turns into slapstick, seasoning is excessive, and colors become uncontrollable. Art that can be “told” is one which no longer holds mystery for the artist and, most likely, not for the critics either.

I’ve said that the symbol is that which unites the soul with an essence. However, if we replace this with a sign that connects the mind with a concept, we end up with an operation striving to exist solely in the realm of information, of representation, rather than ontology. Despite everything having a real existence and, therefore, depth, if the artist’s intention remains superficial, we arrive at a “common place”, the agora. This is what we call “pop”, and its greatest virtue lies in its role as common currency and as a lingua-franca, offering everyone a quaint sense of belonging to a community.

Comfort is the enemy of strength, as the latter only emerges when there is a demand for it, when it is put to the test. Historical movements like Impressionism, and even earlier, Naturalism, for example, constituted true cultural revolutions against the comforts of academy.

Parody is antithetical to art. It acknowledges only the surface, while art seeks reality and depth. Art desires what cannot be seen, whereas parody remains unaware and uninterested in any invisible realm that might exist. Iconoclasm, similarly, mistakes the icon for the spirit.

There is a fundamental difference between irony and sarcasm, although they are often confused. Irony recognizes a point of view and delicately presents another, sometimes contrasting with the first. It can provide perspective, leading to a certain depth of insight. On the other hand, sarcasm, synonymous with parody, offers nothing more than adolescent exhibitionism. It merely signifies a need for inclusion in a group.

The function of art is a subject open to discussion; each artist possesses a unique vision of this and conveys it through their work. However, one belief I hold is that, regardless of its nature, this function is not meant to be mockery.

The symbiotic relationship between sculpture and architecture, especially during the post-minimalist period, has led to a certain public intolerance, evident in the rejection of significant sculptures, by respected artists like Richard Serra, in public spaces. Do you believe that the era of monumental works, as exemplified by Claes Oldenburg and Thomas Schütte, has come to an end?

I recall perfectly the work by Richard Serra that was removed from where it had been installed in the Federal Plaza in New York. I spoke with him at the time, and he was embittered by the rejection of his work. I refrained from saying it, so as not to offend him, but the people were right. Serra is a great sculptor, and his works, true installations, are marvelous, sensitive, and even feminine despite their absurd weight. However, the installation of a barrier that cut through the circle where workers went to sit and eat their sandwiches at lunchtime was really aggressive. There was a popular revolt against that work that had come, as one of the workers said, just to show them an alienating reality with which they were already familiar firsthand. While art can be provocative, sometimes that provocation leads to reactions of equal measure.

In my first public work, I did exactly the opposite of a public provocation. In 1990 the city of Reston in Virginia, near Washington, DC, needed a center. They desired a fountain for this center.

I conceived the Mercury Fountain as if I were someone who had extensively studied post-modern architecture, although I had never seen an example of it. The fountain, crafted in marble and bronze, is luxurious and appears old, as if it were from the 19th century. And people love it: weddings that should take place at the nearby hotel are often officiated in front of the fountain. After Minimalism, Concretism, Brutalism and other -isms, which people accepted with considerable reluctance, a return to the past can perhaps serve as a provocation to the critics, but not to the general population, because they appreciate beauty and luxury. In any case, this work didn’t even provoke the critics. The word "monument," which originally comes from Greek (mnimío), is something to be remembered, a reminder. In traditional monuments, nowadays, the only thing to remember is the bronze and the tidy figuration of the academy of the past and, sometimes, female beauty in some bare breasted allegory. In terms of contemporary work, abstractions seem to be entirely ignored by the public, who in general do not comprehend them. Such is the puzzle the artist is charged with resolving, a task far from easy…

I believe monuments are both natural and essential elements in the urban landscape, and the mentality of the general public should be regarded seriously. It’s up to the artist to do something that satisfies it without, however, reducing the artistic value. This is difficult and delicate, a true challenge.

Several sculptures in your exhibition embrace a small format, reintroducing the pedestal reminiscent of classical works, yet retaining a certain irony that can be seen in the style of conceptual artists. Could you elaborate on the role of humor in your sculpture?

For me, this exhibition is a poem about childhood, adolescence and innocence in a broader sense. Perhaps there are funny moments, but I have a certain aversion towards deliberate humor in art, and especially towards the “cute”. Artists like Noguchi, Calder, Miró, Max Ernst, Moore, and even Brancusi produced works that occasionally touch on the slightly grotesque, but none of them indulged in behaving like buffoons. Art, in my view, is a delicate dance on a knife’s edge. Among the Three Graces presiding over art — alongside the brilliant Aglaea and the abundant Thalia —, the most important is Sophrosyne, embodying measure, proportion, restraint.

I’ve always loved Modernism and have incorporated elements of this movement into my work. While this approach may have upset some modernists along the way, my intention has always been to pay homage rather than to criticize.

The sculptures in this exhibition are small, yet, among them, the smallest, Capoeira, was originally conceptualized on a grand scale. It was intended to be 4 meters tall. Two others display bilateral symmetry, Spinario and Panguri, while all the others are circular in structure. Infante should, in principle, rotate or do somersaults while we walk around it, as different different appendages become hands, feet or heads, depending on the point of view.

All of them are displayed on pristine white pedestals, positioned at an optimal height for visibility. The pieces featured in this exhibition were an enigma for me. They were important, but I didn’t know why, nor what united them to form a coherent group. Weeks or months went by until I finally realized, in a blazing epiphany, what they were. They were all intimately linked to my years as a child; as if the feelings, states of spirit of my childhood, had crystallized in these forms. A poem about our childhood.