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Espaço Aberto/Espaço Fechado: Sites for Sculpture in Modern Brazil At the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 16 April

Brazil has been in fashion for a few years now. There was contemporary Brazilian art at Oxford's MOMA in 2001, Oscar Niemeyer's Serpentine Pavilion of 2003, and now this show in Leeds, which runs concurrently with the Barbican's 'Tropicália'.

Much of this European interest in Brazil is essentially nostalgic, a mourning of Modernism at the moment of its disappearance. As these events have shown, Brazil has long been a self-consciously Modern nation, and in many ways remains so - and this show is no exception.

There is a lot of architecture here, beginning with a reassessment of the idea of Modernity exhibited at the 1951 São Paolo Bienal. There are important sculptures by Victor Brecheret, Franz Weissmann, and Max Bill, all of whom exhibited there that year. These are framed, literally, by photographs of Niemeyer's amazing Bienal pavilion building, which have been taken by contemporary artists including Rubens Mano and Luisa Lambri.

You normally only see this pavilion full, at the noisy and sensationalist bienals themselves.

In the large-scale prints shown here, the place is empty, still, implicitly silent. The absence of any major focus of attention in Mano's image (see picture) makes you look more closely at the building itself and its material condition - at precisely how rough and uneven it is, its look of supermodernity achieved with crude materials and abundant unskilled labour.

This is no High-Tech building, but a handcrafted one-off.

Bar the metal window frames, it's barely Modern at all.

This contradiction is the subject of Paolo Climachauska's wall drawing of the pavilion's interior. From a distance, its line has a strangely stuttering quality, as if it was stitched.

But get up closer, and you see that the line is, in fact, an unbroken sequence of numbers.

It is in any case a very labourintensive and crude way of realizing an image of Modernity; a perfect analogue for the building itself.

The architecture in the rest of the show is less explicit, the foil for conceptual works or performances. Here is Antonio Dias taking his clothes off in Rio's Museu de Arte Moderno in 1970, or Grupo 3Nós3 trying to stop São Paolo traffic in 1979. At this point, the show's theme becomes a bit forced:

'space' helps you understand the first room, but it has little purchase on these works, Cildo Meireles' inscribed Coke bottles, or Jac Leirner's banknote sculptures. These are conceptual art pieces first and foremost.

But this is a great show, beautifully curated by Stephen Feeke. Many of these works are ephemeral, yet for the most part they attain real dignity and presence here. And they leave the viewer in no doubt that, whatever the questioning approach of certain artists, there are still parts of the world, unlike our own, in which Modernity is a value to be cultivated.

Richard Williams is an art historian at the University of Edinburgh

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