Published  21/08/2007

Hélio Oiticica returns to London

Oiticica returns to London

The Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (Rio de Janeiro, 1937-1980) used to say that he was not a 'career artist', reflecting his wish not to be categorised under an established label. Oiticica's early works were influenced by the Brazilian neo-Concretists and fell within the framework of geometric abstractionism, but his particular political aesthetic regarding the liberation of the viewer, which spurred his interests in the experience of art, set him apart from them. Soon, he was creating works that went beyond the two-dimensional picture plane and addressed ubiquitous social and political realities in his native Brazil. The artist's works are, indeed, difficult to place within any one movement or style, from those he made during the fifties and sixties when he was associated with Constructivism in Brazil and participated in the Grupo Frente and, later, the neo-Concrete group, to the architectural environments he experimented with in the sixties and early seventies, and on to the 'Quasi Cinemas' he developed after having won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1971 and moved to New York.

The son of entomologist, photographer and painter José Oiticica Filho and the grandson of the intellectual anarchist José Oiticica, Hélio was acutely aware of his political environment and deeply engaged with concerns against naturalistic representation of the exterior world. His multifaceted production has challenged curators; most recently, the curators at Tate Modern, who have endeavoured to find a cohesive structure in which to show and discuss his works. The result is two exhibitions: the major retrospective 'Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour' on view at Tate Modern from 6 June to 23 September 2007 and 'Oiticica in London - Tate Collection', which is being shown on the fifth floor of the museum from 19 May to 21 October 2007. Taken together, the two exhibits present a complete portrait of the artist and his works, from the most formalist to the most conceptual.

In 'Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour', Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the show premiered,1 arranged a view of Oiticica's works distinct from the typical discourses circulating about him in Europe. Ramirez has gathered 150 works and focused on the visual aspects of his creations, particularly Oiticica's expansive handling of colour. In many ways, Ramirez's approach is successful but, however innovative it may be, it tends to eclipse the dimensional complexity of Oiticica's spatial project.

The majority of the works in 'The Body of Colour' are gouaches on paper and paintings. The display begins with two-dimensional works and moves into the spatial objects. The exhibition conceives colour in Oiticica's works as the means for him to attain space perception. The discussion does not project colour here as a kind of chromatic grammar or raise questions related to the characteristics of Oiticica's palette. In fact, the embodiment of colour as a dimensional property is the point. Oiticica became well known internationally during the sixties as one of the pioneers of 'intervention', 'installation' and 'spectator participation'.2 But the formalist facet of his early works must not be forgotten. In the first years of his artistic practice, when he was connected to the Brazilian Constructivists, Oiticica's works, like any other artist from the Constructivist movement, addressed the abstract geometric form and how it could represent universal ideas. Clearly, from the range of perspectives that could be pursued under the Constructivist umbrella, Oiticica determined that using colour to develop a space would be the foremost pictorial component of his investigations.3

The works in gouache on cardboard explore the relation between geometric forms and chromatic elements. One work from the 'Metaesquemas' series (1959), for instance, consists of a collection of red rectangles combined together. The painted structure is not closed and reveals an irregular, cardboard coloured grid created from the background of the paper and the 'hollows' between the rectangles. The expressive power of this example of 'Metaesquema' (1957-1958) is accomplished by the emptiness in the structure rather than by the physicality of the painted objects.

Following the Metaesquemas series are the 'Bilateral' group of works (1959). In this series, Oiticica's forms and colours can be seen in paintings and in objects suspended in the room in which they are displayed. The artist's gestures are repeated in different dimensions simultaneously: as flat images on the walls as well as in geometric plates of wood that hang from the ceiling and are placed orthogonally to each other, defining different planes and, as a consequence, creating different images. The slight gradation of white and beige conveys the impression of depth and spatial property through the effect of the shading.

The 'Bilateral' group leads into the 'Spatial Reliefs' series (1960). The works here are concerned with geometric forms and colour as well, but are no longer related to Oiticica's paintings. 'Spatial Reliefs' are red or yellow plywood cut in geometric shapes that are, like the works in the 'Bilateral' group, hung from the gallery ceiling. Visitors will be able to walk through the set and affect the space around the works by their personal displacement in the room. Once again, it is not the objects that impart the aesthetic experience, but rather the invisible dimensional structure that exists in relation to them.

It might appear that these works were the next logical step in Oiticica's exploration of spatial relationships through the use of colour, but for him the process was not a matter of merely increasing the number of dimensions. When Oiticica was making his art on paper or canvas, he was already experimenting with expanding spatial potential through colour. In fact, all of his spatial investigations came from a very specific objective: a desire to achieve a sensory experience for the viewer.

One of the most important ideas of the neo-Concretist group was the non-object theory, which defined a non-object as an object that intends to be a pure appearance.4 Under this premise, art manifestation is considered to be a synthesis of sensory and mental experiences. As a member of the Grupo Frente, the most innovative tendency within the Brazilian Constructivist movement, Oiticica embraced this concept. His study of colour furthered this aim. For the artist, any colour was a kind of universal language with which he could 'activate' a space, not only by visual impression, but mainly by highlighting the object's position in space. Oiticica wanted to stimulate other senses that could raise viewers' state of consciousness through their perception of themselves as relevant entities in the space.

In his two-dimensional works, Oiticica manipulated perception by giving space precedence over the singular entities, by conferring rhythm or movement to his forms and by distinguishing his purpose with colour. Later, with the interactive sculpture series 'Bólides' (1963-1965), he provoked bodily faculties, gathering a variety of materials that were to be revealed by the public. When the 'Bólides' were made, they were mostly small boxes constructed with drawers or divisions that could be touched, smelled and sometimes listened to. For example, 'Bólide number 16' is a coloured wooden box containing glass, charcoal and beach shells. At the Tate, the public cannot touch the 'Bólides', but the works are opened to allow viewers to see what each contains.

The last two rooms of the exhibit display Oiticica's 'Grand Nucleus'. This conglomerate of more than 30 pieces of fibreboard in different shades of yellow appears to be floating. Rectangles and squares hung from the ceiling and placed orthogonally to each other are 'drawn' in the air. Like 'Bilaterals' and the 'Space Reliefs', this work employs the position of the viewer as a key to realise Oiticica's purposes. A game of shifting between three-dimensional and two-dimensional images is generated by real physical depth as well as by changes in colour from a lighter to a darker yellow. In the same room, the single example of Oiticica's 'Penetrables' - square, man-sized cabins that one can enter - is not as convincing as it might be; the idea is that once inside the cabin, one can alter the position of the two doors that cross the box.

The display of Oiticica's famous 'Parangolés', colourful capes made for wearing and dancing that became his trademark, is also disappointing. They are in the show but cannot be worn. Consequently, they lose their strength. They are hung on hangers attached to the walls in a room that is also the site of a screening of the 1979 film 'HO', directed by the Brazilian filmmaker Ivan Cardoso, who was a close friend of Oiticica's.5 In 'HO', Oiticica appears dancing wearing the 'Parangolés' and discussing his interests and objectives.

Regarding Oiticica's works through a formalist lens, Ramirez has provided an organisation that is not in sync with the Brazilian artist's process. She offers an evolutionary line that makes a practical distinction between the works on paper and other works developing up to the 'Parangolés'. The artist's works can also be perceived as examples of his continuous investigation, not merely as a progression towards the sensorial. For example, 'Grand Nucleus' has elements that can be found in the early abstract paintings. The creation of space through colour in his works is effected through different procedures. Moreover, by creating an evolutionary line, Ramirez has 'disciplined' the transformation in Oiticica's works. On the one hand, Ramirez's frame does provide a way to discuss Oiticica's development as an artist and his role as a thinker. On the other hand, visitors may begin to notice that no mention is made of the political issues that were so important to him. It seems as if the artist who sought to liberate viewers for a total experience has been captured inside the museum, petrified behind the window glass. Considering Oiticica's stance against any type of standardisation, this is unfortunate. During his exhibition in Whitechapel in 1969, for example, he said, '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 can't easily be controlled.'6

To commemorate the time that Oiticica spent in London, the Tate has prepared, 'Oiticica in London' as an adjunct to the main exhibition. Ramirez's art-historical approach is balanced here by a look at the revolutionary and singular nature of Oiticica's vision. Curated by Guy Brett (a personal friend of Oiticica and co-author of the book Oiticica in London published by the Tate) and Tanya Barson, the exhibit displays works in five rooms, including some in the Tate's collection by artists who participated in the Signals project. Founded in 1964, the Signals project was run by a group of avant-garde artists and intellectuals. In the sixties, the gallery was an underground meeting place for British and foreign artists, including: Brazilian artists Sergio Camargo, Lygia Clark and Mira Schendel; Venezuelan artist Jesus Soto; Chinese artist Li Yuan-Chia; and Philippine artist David Medalla. By including these artists with similar aims, Oiticica's aesthetics are connected to what was happening in the late sixties in the UK.

One of the five rooms dedicated to 'Oiticica in London' contains the artist's installation 'Tropicália' (1967), an oasis with sand, coloured parrots, tents and including 'Penetrables' with a television inside exhibiting any TV channel. The work is considered to be the turning point in Oiticica's oeuvre and has just been acquired by the Tate. The installation was made at the start of the Tropicália movement, in which Oiticica participated. A response to political dictatorship, the movement encompassed popular music and the arts in Brazil and was considered to be revolutionary in its scope and aspirations. Although the movement was squashed by the military regime, its influence on music and art has been acknowledged by artists around the world. To view the 'Tropicália' installation, the public must queue up to enter this multisensory experience. If visitors have not, by this point, gained a complete grasp of Oiticica's range as an artist, Tropicália may just open a window onto the artist's vision of total participation gained through liberation from established concepts, labels and perceptions and cultural clichés.

Oiticica died at the age of 43. His passion for art and obsession with colour was matched by his equally strong addictions. The immediate cause of his death, according to his family, was a brain stroke due to high blood pressure. The loss of an artist who dedicated himself to experimentation, the liberation of the viewer and to art as an open-ended conversation raises questions of what he might have done had he lived. Certainly, there is enough in these two exhibits to spark visitors' own imaginations, liberating them as Oiticica might have wished, to see beyond what they see before them.

Caroline Menezes

1. Born in Puerto Rico, Mari Carmen Ramirez is Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where 'Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour' was displayed from December 2006 to April 2007. Ramirez edited the exhibition catalogue, Oiticica: The Body of Colour.
2. At the end of the sixites, Oiticica spent a year in London and, in 1969, was the subject of an exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The largest show ever held for the artist, it was organized as a continuous participatory environment for visitors to interact with his paintings, sculptures and installations.
3. The Brazilian Constructivist Movement had two divergent tendencies. The first one, exemplified by the São Paulo-based Grupo Ruptura, was predominantly influenced by Geometric Abstractionism and the theory of pure visibility. The artists working in this mode had a single style and strict creative process rules. The second group, the neo-Concretists, in Rio de Janeiro, was against strong rationalism, and their techniques were more innovative. Both groups shared as their main aesthetic concern the pictorial elements in art, such as colour, shapes and lines, without figurative references.
4. The non-object theory was first published in 1960 in the Suplemento Dominical, the Sunday cultural supplement of Jornal do Brasil, one of the most important Brazilian newspapers at the time, as a contribution to the second neo-Concretist exhibition. Written by the poet and art critic Ferreira Gullar, the text compiled the main thoughts that were guiding the artistic group.
5. Oiticica worked as actor in minor roles in some of Ivan Cardoso's horror films. In fact, Cardoso shot a second documentary on Oiticica, Meia noite com Glauber, in 1997. Cardoso is developing a third documentary on the artist, focusing on Oiticica's biography.
6. For an in-depth look at Oiticica's exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, see Guy Brett and Luciano Figueiredo (eds) Oiticica in London (London: Tate Publishing, 2007). The book includes facsimiles of the Whitechapel catalogue, critical essays on the artist and the exhibit, interviews with Oiticica's contemporaries and translations of the artist's writings.

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