The Interplay of Past and Present. Hélio Oiticica at Museo Jumex
Posted on 28 June, 2018
Andrés Reséndiz Rodea
Is it posible for a work of art, dating back 50 years, to offer a contemporary sensory experience with elements of the future? In 1967, perhaps without this being his main goal, Hélio Oiticica (Río de Janerio, 1937-1980) produced a work exploring the possibility of including variable and random stimuli from eras as removed from his as our own. This was made possible by a particular element he introduced in his creative work. We will reflect uopn this in this article.
In that year, he exhibited at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art, a piece called Tropicália, aiming at the stimulation of the whole sensory dimensión of the spectators. The artistic modality of ambient art was just beginning, and several artists were experimenting with it. At that time, a generation around the world felt a yearning for freedom, expressed in rock music, in their clothes, in their critique of traditional ways of life (free love, freedom of speech, drugs, family values, the ecology, etc.) In the arts, this desire was making headway with the Neo-Avant-Gardes. In the midst of such restlesness, Oiticica found in the concept of the tropics an apt element to move within the international scene, without dissolving as a mere follower of the innovative trends in Europe and the USA. The scorching and exuberant image of the tropics, as ironic stereotype and as a critique of the ideal of linear progress, was his formula for an alternative path for Brazilian art.
Tropicália operated then as a cultural movement, reclaiming Latin American art. The Word was associated with Oiticica, but it had a collective origin dating several years back. In his Manifiesto antropófago (1928), Oswald de Andrade called for the joining together of the local with the external elements that were coming in the wake of modernity. He put forward a model to transform these inserted parts, through assimilation and deglutition, to turn them into something original and our own, fostering an attitude of creative incorporation of differences. Among Helio’s contemporaries, this idea was shared, among others, by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, in music; Glauber Rocha in cinema; Torcuato Neto in poetry; and José Celso Martínez Correa, in theater.(1)
The ambient artwork Tropicália has been recreated several times in different parts of the world, both as a sample of non Western art and to stress the failure of Modernity’s linear concept of progress, generating instead truncated processes perceived as “underdevelopment”. This work has been exhibited alongside others, as a search for alternatives for Third World culture, a path between nationalism and internationalism, the coexistence of modernity and tradition. The work preserves this gamut of oppositions side by side.
It is being exhibited from March 22 to September 9, 2018, at Museo Jumex in Mexico City, as part of the exhibition Memorias del subdesarrollo. El giro descolonial en el arte de América Latina, 1960-1985. Tropicália is made up of a space whose floor is covered with sand, a pebbled path, several tropical plants in pots, a cage with two parrots, and two small buildings (like shacks) in the shape of rectangular prisms.
Hélio’s original idea was for spectators to take off their shoes and socks.(2)
His aim was to enhance sensory stimulation by walking barefooot on the dry, clear sand, bordered by the dark-green, mushy vegetation, to recover a sense of closeness with the surroundings, contrasting this experience with that of walking insensibly with shoes over the terse and monotonous pavement. The artist seems to suggest that urban conditions numb the senses, reducing their affective and social registers. Oddly, at Museo Jumex no invitation is made to walk barefoot along this work of ambient art.
When Oiticica created this project, Brasilia was emerging as a Latin American prototype of modernity, while the dictatorship consolidated its power and social disparity was on the rise. The por were being evicted to the margins of the cities, to dwell in precarious houses in crowded slums. For this artist, walking barefoot transported him to the universe of these slums, known as favelas;(4) it was a way of showing solidarity with these dwellers, to fase up to the dictatorship. Backwardness was taken for barbarism, while barbarism disguised itself as civilization.
Standing in front of Tropicália, one notices it is traced along a path between two “buildings”, like refuges or shacks, shaped like rectangular prisms. It represents the urban trace, as opposed, both visually and materially, to the irregular shapes of the vegetation that is placed on the margins. The visual stress is placed on the center, on these built frames, which the artist called “penetrables”; one can go inside these shacks, one feels invited to do so. One of them, called “PN3 Imagético”, is a small block with divisions made of wood, fabric and plastic, forming corridors with an increasing degree of darkness. It’s like a small labyrinth, a square spiral, leading to the unexpected brightness of a TV set showing an actual program in real time. This is where this Oiticica work from 1967 intersects with our present time.
As I penetrated this space, the TV screen was showing a current news program: Mexico’s President Peña Nieto was condemning the deployment of US troops at the border, as part of Trump’s plans to build a wall. The President looked very stately and firm, standing up, looking straight at the spectators, in a solemn attitude of solidarity and strength, in an attempt to identify with his outraged compatriots. But the darkness surrounding the TV set made evidente the unidirectionality of this acto f communication. The darkness, and the loudness of the parrots coming through from outside the room, act as a sort of anti-subject to the TV image (its counterpart and rival). The artificial brightness of the TV screen stresses the absence of everything, plunging the call for empathy into an ambiento f loneliness and abandonment. Everything happens inside a labyrinth, that interior labyrinth we mentioned before: the geometric line of misplacement, with a minimal spacial isolation.
The other set, “PN2”, is made up of panels in bright and opposing colors (black-white, red-blue). Not having a roof and being contained in one single area, the interior is full of light, thus becoming the counterpart to the previous piece. One penetrates this space expecting to discover something, but in contrast with the mistery of the other “penetrable” space, here everything seems natural and self-evident. Behind the door, there is a see-through bag with a bit of sand; on the opposing panel, the phrase “A pureza é um mito” (“Purity is a myth”) states that in spite of all appearances, everything gets mixed and confused.
Alongside Tropicália, in the same room at Museo Jumex, there are two sets of works by Helio. Parangoles (“Incorporo a revolta” P15, cape 11, and “Da adversidade vivemos” P16, cape 12, from 1967), which are capes one can puto n in order to become part of the work and cease to be a mere spectator. Helio takes hold of the straight lines of European constructivism, which he devours.(5) These capes offer the possibility of dressing up one’s body with ritual and popular elements from Brazil.
A cangaceira eletrónica (1970) is also on display: 19 sketches for the costumes and set designs for a film by Antonio Carlos Fontoura, which was never produced, dealing apologetically with the bandits Lampiáo and María Bonita, who roamed Brazil’s Northeast in the 1920’s and 30’s, as a form of dissent against the authoritarian power of the State.
These two sets of works weave together issues of resistance and assimilation, which are the main subject of this piece of ambient art. Therefore, Tropicália is, according to Helio’s project, a work open to several readings based on each spectator’s experiences and circumstances. Furthermore, there is an “actualization of reception”, as time is accumulated and interspersed through the randomness of the TV transmisión of the instant, which generates unexpected variations. The social context, visible in these random TV transmissions, from different eras, circumstances and subjects, splices together and unbalances -most notably in the labyrinth house- the spectator’s reception, spurred by the random transmission he or she happens to see.
Andrés Reséndiz Rodea (email@example.com) is a researcher at Centro Nacional de Investigación, Documentación e Información de Artes Plásticas. This is one of the texts he wrote for the seminar “Discurso Visual. Estudio y Análisis de la Experiencia Visual Contemporánea y su Relación con las Prácticas Artísticas”, led by Doctor Alberto Argüello Grunstein, between March 2017 and May 2018.