Hélio Oiticica: Propositions

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
Hélio Oiticica: Propositions. Installation shot, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Works featured, Hélio Oiticica: Tropicalia: Penétravel PN2 & PN3 (1966/67). Photo: Chris Lindhorst.
Hélio Oiticica: Propositions. Installation shot, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Works featured, Hélio Oiticica: Tropicalia: Penétravel PN2 & PN3 (1966/67). Photo: Chris Lindhorst.

An event is something that brings to light a possibility that was invisible or even unthinkable. An event is not by itself the creation of a reality, it is the creation of a possibility; it opens up a possibility. It indicates to us that a possibility exists within, that has been ignored. The event is in a certain way, merely a proposition. It proposes something to us. Everything will depend on the way in which the proposition proposed by the event is grasped, elaborated, incorporated and set out in the world. (Alain Badiou, Philosophy and the Event, 2013)

The recent exhibition of Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) at the Irish Museum of Modern Art emphasised the Brazilian artist’s crucial influence upon the recent development of participatory art. With many contemporary artists finding new resonances in Oiticica’s expanded practice it is an important time to reassess his legacy. Indeed, such priorities have been a key feature of Oiticica’s reception ever since Catherine David’s seminal inclusion of his work in Documenta X (1997), which led to more large-scale surveys, such as Tate Modern’s 2007 retrospective, Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour. If Tate’s show prioritized the aesthetic intensity of Oiticica’s work, and David’s presentation foregrounded the political charge of his project, the title of the IMMA show, Propositions, asserted a third way of interpreting Oititica’s achievement: one which stressed the relational event and the idea of artist as ‘proposer’, rather than as ‘maker’ of objects or direct political statements.

For Oiticica’s mentor, Lygia Clark, the ‘proposer-artist’ mediates the art object and the spectator’s engagement with it:

We are the proposers: We are the mould; it is up to you to breathe the meaning of our existence into it. We are the proposers: Our proposition is that of a dialogue. Alone we do not exist. We are at your mercy. We are the proposers: We have buried the work of art as such and we call upon you so that thought may survive through your action. We are the proposers: We do not propose you with either the past, or the future, but the now (Lygia Clark, ‘We Are The Proposers’, 1968).

Hélio Oiticica: Propositions. Installation shot, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Works featured, Hélio Oiticica: Bilaterals (1958); Relevo Espacials (1960). Photo: Chris Lindhorst.
Hélio Oiticica: Propositions. Installation shot, Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2014. Works featured, Hélio Oiticica: Bilaterals (1958); Relevo Espacials (1960). Photo: Chris Lindhorst.

In this sense, the idea of ‘proposition’ as ‘form’ could be perceived as a conceptual progenitor of contemporary theories of participation, such as relational aesthetics and socially engaged art. However, by focusing on the more open-ended nature of Oiticica’s practice, Propositions also drew us back to a consideration of the historic avant-garde, which sought to negate the traditional borders and limitations of artistic practice by extending ‘art’ into ‘life’. Through differing techniques and devices, such as the appropriation of everyday objects, urban intervention, political engagements and acts of conviviality, the historic avant-garde privileged the rupture of the everyday and the norms which frame it. Brian Holmes has usefully described such impulses:

Shedding its external forms, its inherited techniques, its specialized materials, art becomes a living gesture, rippling out across the sensible surface of humanity. It creates an ethos, a mythos, an intensely vibrant presence; it migrates from the pencil, the chisel or the brush into ways of doing and modes of being. From the German Romantics to the Beatnik poets, from the Dadaists to the Living Theatre, this story has been told again and again, each time with a startling twist on the same underlying phrase. At stake is more than the search for stylistic renewal; it’s about transforming your everyday existence. (Brian Holmes, Eventwork, 2011)

There are two theoretical events which are of crucial importance to understanding the history of the Brazilian avant-garde. The first and most recent is the arrival of poet and critic Ferreira Gullar’s re-interpretation of Brazilian Concretism in ‘Theory of the non-object’ (1959); the second, more distant but no less significant, is the publication of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Anthropophagite Manifesto’ (1928). Gullar’s influential text re-thought the logic of early abstract art as a ‘proposition’ that challenges the ‘object’ through the removal of the pictorial frame. By breaking with the separation between pictorial space and real space, artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Vladimir Tatlin pushed the art object towards an engagement with its social and institutional contexts. For Gullar, these interventions functioned to open up new sites of experimentation that challenged dominant emphases on representation and contemplation, in favour of the co-production of abstract and participatory forms. He writes,

It’s a rediscovery of the world: colours, space, do not belong to this or that artistic language, but to the living and indeterminate experience of man. To deal directly with these elements, outside the institutional frame of art, is to reformulate them as if for the first time. The spectator is solicited to use the ‘non-object.’ Mere contemplation is not enough to reveal the sense of the work—the spectator goes from contemplation to action. But what his action produces is the work itself, because that use, foreseen in the structure of the work, is absorbed by it, revealed and incorporated into its signification. (Ferreira Gullar, ‘Theory of the non-object’, 1959)

‘Theory of the non-object’ concludes that these new sites of experimentation had fostered a particularly Brazilian avant-garde, one which imagines a different future for abstract art than that being developed within American and European narratives.

This point draws us to the second theoretical event, Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Anthropophagite Manifesto’ (1928). Written as an act of war against the colonial influences on Brazil’s history, Andrade’s manifesto set out to re-signify the Tupi Indian act of cannibalism, which involved the eating of the other to appropriate its power. In Andrade’s hands this became a powerful metaphor for cultural appropriation: ‘Tupi or not Tupi,’ he writes, ‘that is the question’. By inverting the master/slave relation, the ‘Anthropofagic Manifesto’ popularised subversive strategies and inspired artists to reconsider their relation to the dominant narratives of art history. Between these theoretical events, a new generation of Brazilian artists were liberated from the provincial reproduction of second-hand modernist codes, and encouraged to explore an aesthetic language which merged the formal and the social. This complex theoretical dynamic formed the intellectual context from which Hélio Oiticica emerged in the late 1950s.

Born into a prominent anarchist family in Rio, Oiticica channelled the inheritance of his anarchist ideals into an artistic career that expanded the boundaries of abstract painting, interrogated national cultural perspectives, and pointed the way towards a ‘participatory environmentalism’ that has become a powerful presence in global art in recent years. The intensity and rigour of his intellect was also demonstrated in his many published statements, which challenged any easy separation between the visual and the textual. Similar to that great Brazilian thinker of critical literacy, Paulo Freire, Oiticica was uncompromising in his belief that the discipline(s) he was involved in were a part of a broader emancipatory project. In line with this tradition, Oiticica championed the emancipation of the art object from its institutional limitations; the freeing of the artist from the modes of production supporting these institutions; and the liberation of the viewer from the modes of exchange prescribed by such institutions. Indeed, the dynamics and constraints of the retrospective exhibition form were tested in IMMA’s show.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor was enveloped by orange coloured walls, which functioned as backdrops to wall texts providing biographical information and timelines, as well as to some early works entitled Metaesquema (1957-1958). The Metaesquema are a long series of abstract paintings which shimmer restlessly, as if the frame itself was plugged into a wall socket. They represent Oiticica’s early concerns with line and form over colour, and together with a similar series of abstract paintings titled Grupo Frente (1955-56), they dominated the entrance and first moments in the show. Consistent with this focus on the early abstractions, the first three rooms off the main corridor functioned to highlight Oiticica’s slow explosion of the pictorial frame, and his obsession with colour as sculptural form. This obsession pulls geometric shapes off the picture plane into real space in the Bilaterals (1959-60); suspended from the ceiling, these folded wooden constructions release the intensity of monochromatic yellows and oranges from the limitations of two-dimensional pictorial space. Alongside these works were the Relevo Espacial (1959-1960), which glow in the space as if lit from inside. In response to these dynamics of light, hue and weight, the next room features the Bólides (1963-1969), a series of glass bottles filled with coloured pigment. Reducing chromatic experimentation to the materiality of pure ground pigment, these works offer up containerised invitations to engage the tactile dimensions of colour.

Through the second half of the exhibition these explorations were framed with consistency and clarity, each work illustrating a logical progression towards the next, and all pushing at the possibility of a greater sensorial immersion. The work becomes progressively more sculptural and more fragmented, increasingly assimilating the viewer’s physical body into the artworks. Through this process the language of abstract forms begins to shed its art historical reference points, merging instead with the everyday dialect of informal architecture, such as that of the favelas and the costumes of the samba. From this phase emerge two of Oiticica’s most significant works, the Parangolés (1964-1979) and Tropicália/Suprasensorial (1966-1967).

Located in the middle room, off the main corridor, the Parangolés are a series of coloured cloths, blankets and bits of plastic sewn together in such a way that they may be used as makeshift costumes. Putting on one of these capes produces an uncomfortable and awkward experience of both containment and exposure: although you are sure you are supposed to be wearing the capes, you are never sure what to do once they are on, especially in the self-conscious environment of the art museum. It makes sense, then, that the English translation of the Portuguese word parangolé means a state of confusion or agitation. For Oiticica these confusions were born out of Brazilian traditions of flexible architecture, he wrote,

The ‘discovery’ of Parangolé elements in the landscape of the urban or rural world is also part of ‘establishing perceptive structural relations’ between what grows in the structural grid of the Parangolé (representing here the general character of colour structure in environmental space), and what is ‘found’ in the spatial environmental world. In the architecture of the ‘favela’, for example, there is implicitly a Parangolé character. (Hélio Oiticica, ‘Fundamental Bases for the Definition of the Parangolé’, 1964)

Similarly, in Tropicália the dynamics of body/architecture/disorientation play out in a favela-esque installation. As with the Parangolé the spectator is expected to be mobilised, moved through a series of small labyrinthine spaces, over sand and water, against felt and wood, towards an end point at which a television plays static in a dark room. In both works the body is absorbed into the architecture, consumed by it, and subsequently offered an escape through its open-ended nature. Finally, towards the end of the show, we were confronted with Cosmococa CC2 ONO-object, 1973. Subtitled ‘program in progress,’ the Cosmococa series represented Oiticica’s final engagements with ‘suprasensorial environments’ that focused on cinematic spaces as sites of immersion. Given the title of the exhibition it is unfortunate that more of the Cosmococa proposals were not presented (this felt like a missed opportunity, especially given the suggestions made online that Cosmococa CC9 would be realised in the show).
It was in these final moments of the exhibition that the struggle between the multi-disciplinary nature of the work and IMMA’s institutional framework begin to emerge most powerfully. Although organised as a retrospective, it becomes clear that there was a tension between the open-ended nature of the exhibition title ‘Propositions’, and the austere atmosphere of retrospective commodification. Such tensions were further exacerbated by institutional spectacles, such as an Oiticica fashion shoot for the Irish Times; framing Oiticica’s work as a backdrop to the clean Sex and the City lines of ‘designer capitalism’ is one way to contain and domesticate the very messy reality of the themes which drove his work. These themes negotiate questions of colonial violence, symbolic cannibalism, sexual anarchism and narcotic excess.

Such problematic emphases could have been avoided by the provision of a deeper historical, cultural and theoretical context for understanding the work. This could have been established by a greater understanding of the specific developments which contributed to the emergence of the Brazilian avant-garde, including but not limited to Andrade’s and Gullar’s crucial texts, and how these developments influenced the alternative trajectory of Brazilian art. Gaining these theoretical tools would have enabled both a broader and a more specific understanding of the nexus of cultural forces manifested in Oiticica’s work. This in turn might have provided a more subtle link to our own colonial history, and a more interesting narrative. As it stood, the opening rooms of the show distracted the viewer from such specific concerns by highlighting more generic art historical references, such as the retinal abstract works of Josef Albers and Jesus Rafael Soto.

Admirably, the show did give proper weight to Oiticica’s writings, which were presented in the form of large printed quotations beside key works. These helped to contextualise certain concepts and highlight the relation between text/object, voice and work. Towards the end of the exhibition an entire room was given over to the presentation of photocopies made from Oiticica’s notebooks. The quality of the photocopies and their representation as serialised pictorial images seemed to undermine the intimacy and immediacy of the texts, however. This is not entirely the fault of the exhibition or its organization but rather a realisation of the limitations of re-presentation, which Oiticica struggled with his entire life, and which he ultimately realized was beyond his control. Indeed, of all the quotations supporting the work, there is one omission which could have better reflected this particular problem. On return from his first and only European show, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, he penned the following reflection to his friend and champion Guy Brett,

I am not a career artist – I am going to make an experience with this London show…not an ‘art exhibition’ as all artists do…but something that will have a new form of seeing, of behaviour, not an artificial prestige as an ‘artist of the world’, although this cannot be easily controlled…’ (Oiticica in Guy Brett, Oiticica in London, 2007).

Such statements remind us of the historical context from which Oiticica emerged. This was a sensibility which was fully grounded in the radical praxis of the avant-garde, a praxis which artist and critic Marc Léger defines as, ‘the willingness to sacrifice art, in the artistic gesture itself, rather than give up on the real’ (Léger, Brave New Avant-Garde, 2012). Today, the potency of such a position is frequently contested within the dominant critical frameworks associated with relational aesthetics and socially engaged practice. In this context, these discourses suggest that building relations with our neighbours is ‘a matter of much greater urgency than “making tomorrows sing”’ (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1998). However, for Léger, such humble aims may need to be re-assessed at a time when socially engaged practices are becoming increasingly institutionalised. Proposing a return the priorities of the historic avant-garde he asks, ‘Must the avant-garde hypothesis be abandoned? What does the idea of the avant-garde have to offer us in the present moment?’

It is within the context of this question that the IMMA exhibition could have been used to negotiate a different understanding of the link between contemporary participatory practices and their historical predecessors. Oiticica’s work could have been brought to bear more explicitly on understandings of the avant-garde, one that might have helped articulate and negotiate the present tension between autonomy and heteronomy, where ‘extra-institutional socially engaged art has become, for good and bad, the order of the day’ (Leger, Brave New Avant-Garde). Instead of looking for a way out of these dialectical tensions, the ‘formal-social’ dimension of Oiticica’s work points towards a ‘disjunctive synthesis’ which challenges any easy understanding of these terms today.

It is fair to say that this overdue retrospective of one of the major figures in the post-war avant-garde succeeded in ‘grasping’ the ‘evental’ significance of Oiticica’s work within the framework of participatory art. However, the real question is whether it incorporated the potential of that ‘event’, to use Badiou’s term, and set it out into the world to challenge the present.