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A tense yet delicate and careful walk

Texto de Clarissa Diniz

Symbebekos, a walking-based performance, is in itself an equivalent to the journey of Juliana Notari’s work. Performed for the first time in 2002, the action is now in its fifth and final version, this time taking place at the Cais do Sertão, in the Brazilian Northeast city and State of Pernambuco’s capital, Recife, celebrating twenty years of this work (2002–2022)1 and highlighting the artist’s more than two decades of creation.

Juliana imagined Symbebekos in the context of urban violence, an obvious result of Brazil’s social inequality. It was after yet another robbery with shards of glass (commonly used as a weapon in the city at the beginning of the century) that she conceived the performance, which was born from her need to face the fear that was overwhelming her at the time: “I was going through a very tense moment in my relationship with the city. I was on the verge of panic syndrome. The fear of being mugged made me live in a state of constant stress, and the fear of being afraid was even worse”2

Recent iterations of the performance have involved 2,500 broken glass bottles transformed into small pointed volumes that, when put together, form a cutting path—a hyperbolic aspect that is still present in Notari’s work today but which in those years was particularly present in works like Assinalações (2001), Janta (2001), and Verstehen (2002), which were forged by the intensity of the artist’s personal experiences with domestic violence. 

Once the shards of glass were converted into a crowd in Symbebekos, they have not remained as devices of violence. On the contrary, they act precisely to reverse the subjects involved in those memories of coercion. Whereas, as the victim of the assault, Notari was the “object” of the glass intervention in her body, but redirecting the quantities and shapes of the shards in the performance, it is the artist who becomes the subject of the action. As a result, she creates the possibility of switching back and forth between aggression and defense, oppression and freedom, converting her previous experience of violence into an experiment of self-care.

On this same path, we realize that, although at a glance, walking through shards of glass looks like an exercise of self-flagellation, when we witness it up close, the performance reveals itself to be far removed from any masochistic aspect. Blazing a trail through the pile of glass with her feet, the artist’s body is not throwing itself into the danger of the cut but avoiding it. Symbebekos responds to the paralysis of the assault with movement. A tense yet delicate and careful walk.

In its four previous iterations, the performance was rectilinear, with the audience flanking the artist in black as she moved from one piece to the next. Arranged this way, Symbebekos referred to liturgies and performance traditions as distinct as a procession, a mass, a march, or a parade, inspiring a restless solemnity. 

Now, after two decades of performing it, Symbebekospiral generates a transfiguration that is as topological as it is symbolic in its initial proposition, no longer arranged in the form of a line but as a circle. This time dressed in white, Notari enters the scene, crossing a thick ring of glass shards wearing boots, and, after reaching the central void of the wheel, already barefoot, she sets out to make room for walking through the stabbing circle. 

No longer flanked but surrounded by the public as in a courtyard, the artist makes a spiral movement through the shards, entering the glass path at one point and leaving at another, which, despite being next to the entrance, does not coincide with it. In doing so, when she reaches the end of her journey, she leaves a spiral trail. In this way, the spiral that inhabits the title of the work does not come from a sculptural form but is realized as a formative action. 

Despite the historiographical temptation to link Symbebekospiral to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), a spiral earthwork built on the edge of a salt lake in Utah, USA, which soon became a landmark of so-called land art, Notari’s work does not follow the tradition of stable or autonomous forms but of what she calls formativity, an aspect inherent to performativity itself. If the origin of this term goes back to the linguistic concept of the performative (expressions arising from the coincidence between word and act), then, from the point of view of forms, formativity is the very intensity of giving form. The formation is continuous. 

Distancing itself from the formal paradigms of Spiral Jetty by generating a spiral from within a circle as you walk through it, Symbebekospiral is less similar to Smithson’s work as it is to Lygia Clark’s proposition, Caminhando (1963). In this, the artist suggests that the “participants” experience the sensual unfolding of that spiral topology that does not adhere to delimitations such as inside and outside, obverse and reverse, by using paper and glue to build a Moebius strip that can accept the passage of scissors. 

As in Juliana Notari’s work, where the mismatch of entry and exit points is what makes the circle of glass shards spiral, Clark’s proposition has its Moebian formativity disarticulated when it is no longer possible for the scissors to deviate from the initial cutting point: “In the end, the path is so narrow that it can no longer be opened. It’s the end of the shortcut,” Lygia warned in a 1964 text, indicating the ephemeral and contingent dimension of the “experience of a limitless time and a continuous space”3 forged by Caminhando, exhausted precisely because it is an action and not an autonomous form, supposedly transcendent of time-space. 

Entitled in gerund, Caminhando is a gesture whose immanence was therefore manifested in the idea of the act. “There is only one kind of duration: the act. It is the act that produces Caminhando. Nothing exists before and nothing exists afterward”4, Clark stated forcefully, underscoring the radical formativity of her work, which, as we know, would end up leading her to a relational process with therapeutic approaches. 

An earlier work can be identified by the imminence of the act, exemplified by a vertebral interest in performative practice that predates Symbebekospiral. Redentorno (2008) is a video installation that captures perpetual motion; it features a toy dog that spins around an axis (to which it is attached via a collar) until its battery dies, a nebulous conclusion that simultaneously frees the dog from its habit of incessant motion. While Redentorno explored the intensity of action without tangents, experienced in a tragically immanent way, Symbebekospiral reacts to that death drive by transforming the turning of a circle into a spiral path. 

In the last version of the performance, Symbebekospiral returns to the gesture that originated the work without, however, repeating it. There is no “sameness of lived experience”5, but a movement of transformation that, while intending to conclude a work, at the same time refuses it, producing vectors and curves from it that indicate paths to come in the trajectory of this instigating artist.


1 Prior to its realisation at Cais do Sertão (Recife, 2022), the performance was held at Galeria Baobá (Fundaj, Recife, 2002), Galeria Fayga Ostrower (Funarte, Brasília, 2004), Galeria Vermelho (Mostra Verbo, São Paulo, 2006) and Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (Festival de Performance Arte Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, 2011).
2 Excerpt from Symbebekos, a text by Juliana Notari included in the book Dez Dedos – Juliana Notari (Recife: J. Nascimento Notari, 2012).
3 Walking (1964), text by Lygia Clark. Available at:
4 Idem.
5 Leda Maria Martins in Performances do tempo espiralar (Rio de Janeiro: Cobogó, 2021), p. 206.