Published  28/03/2009

Materiality and Memory. An interview with Cildo Meireles

Materiality and Memory

An interview with Cildo Meireles


Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1948, Cildo Meireles spent most of his adolescence in Brasilia, the modernist Brazilian capital designed by architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa. He was there when, in 1960, the 'new' Brasilia, a focus for national sentiment, was inaugurated. This was a pivotal time in the country's history. Meireles assuaged his incessant need to draw by taking art classes at the Fundação Cultural do Distrito Federal in Brasilia. His intense creativity led to a precocious debut at age 19. At that time, the Museum of Modern Art in Salvador, Bahia, gave him his first solo exhibition. Back in Rio, three years later, in 1970, Meireles was invited to the watershed exhibition Information held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.1 It was just the first of a long line of great international exhibitions in which he participated, including two Venice Biennials (1976 and 2003), three São Paulo Biennials (1981, 1989 and 1998) and the Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany (1992).

For much of his career, Meireles has ranked among his country's most acclaimed artists. His trajectory has earned his the respect of his peers, critics and collectors. The constant challenge to artists from the censorship imposed by the military regime in Brazil during the 1970s was a recurrent theme for the artist. From expressive and, later, brain-twisting architectural drawings; to installations exploring materiality; and on to culturally and artistically relevant conceptual projects, his oeuvre can be characterized as multi-sensory and cerebral. In his installations, sculpture and other objects, Meireles performs a delicately balanced dance between political and poetic approaches which has drawn the attention of the international art world: In 1999, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York held a Meireles retrospective. The show, which included a catalogue published by Phaidon Press, travelled to the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio and the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art.

In 2008, a major touring exhibition featuring his works debuted at Tate Modern in London (see accompanying article). His first major retrospective in Europe makes evident not only the power of the artist's works but also the source of their strength; Meireles's works remain indelibly impressed upon the memory. Despite the scale of his large installations, size alone cannot account for their impact. Even such tiny works as 'Southern Cross' (1969–70) are, in many ways, unforgettable. The difference is not in size, but in details, as when he inserts small interference into a monetary or an industrial system (for example, in 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Project Coca-Cola and Banknote' (1970–76).2

A few weeks after the show opened in London, Meireles returned to Rio, where he continues to live. In his studio surrounded by many of his works carefully kept in wooden boxes or hanging on the walls, the artist recounted for Studio International many of the stories behind his large-scale installations, sculpture and the other objects he has made for more than 40 years. The place of materiality, memory and experience in his overall aesthetic can be located in these stories and in Meireles's perception of his role as one part of a creative dialogue between maker and viewer.

Caroline Menezes: What is the starting point of a work? Does it vary, change over time? For example, do you have the concepts first, and then later find the materials to be applied.

Cildo Meireles: It is not a systematic method. Each project has a kind of biography. Many of them I cannot even remember. The origin of a work dwells in the most unimaginable things; it can be related to a very early memory or an ordinary experience. 'Babel' (2001), for example, was born from the widespread feeling kids have when experiencing the darkness of their bedroom. I remember when I was just two years old, at night I would see a red light from my bed and hear the sound of a radio, those voices. Sometimes, I can identify as the beginning of a work, the image of a spider’s web inside a hosepipe, on which the sunlight shines one day. That thought gets stuck in your head for a long time and you have no idea why.3

Menezes: So can we assume that, at some point, the memories and the questions fit together?

Meireles: I suppose so. The first part of 'Red Shift' (1967–84), for example; I was in the process of making 'Virtual Spaces: Corners', and I was very excited about the drawings. Then, suddenly, two ideas came to life, and they had nothing to do with my main concern at that time. The first idea was related to the 1966/1967 'Virtual Spaces' drawings in which the scene changes occurred through virtual lines that did not exist. 'Virtual Spaces: Corners' was a moment when I wanted to establish some kind of order in my artistic production. I sought to isolate the question that I was really interested in. It took me a long time to discover that, in essence, both projects were two sides of the same thing. Thus, I stopped with this expressionist drawing in which the head follows the hand for the single purpose of drawing blueprints. I imagined a plane that crosses a room, albeit a virtual plane, traceable by the relocations suffered by the objects in this plane’s trajectory. It would cut part of a table and of the other furniture, so that when one sees the room, it is the same room but crossed by this invisible but hyper-present thing. The second idea was a situation in which someone, for some unknown reason, had accumulated objects of red tonalities, from pink to burgundy, in a room.4

Menezes: Why red? Was there the political metaphor already?

Meireles: Not at all. In the beginning it was not specifically red. The idea was of someone who had surrounded himself/herself by objects of the same colour. Later, in 1978, I wrote the idea of two other projects: one was a slanted sink running water. The other was a small blue bottle which produces a pool of the same colour. The accumulation of objects and the bottle articulate well in a false logic manner. The bottle anecdotally explains all the red objects in the first room, in which the sound of water can be heard. As you embrace the darkness, you bump into a tap running red water. At this point, I decided that everything should be red, for numerous reasons but mainly because it is a colour that unfolds considerably, is full of symbolism and has, of course, a strong physical presence. During the re-assembly of this work for the 1998 São Paulo Biennial, 'Red Shift' received a highly political interpretation from Paulo Herkenhoff.5

Menezes: It is perfectly understandable. It is easy to associate this work with a political approach taking into account the title and your trajectory as an artist.

Meireles: When I first read Herkenhoff’s text, I rang him and said that I did not agree with his interpretation but that I understood. After I had finished putting 'Red Shift' together, I called Paulo and said the piece is ready. And then I joked, 'Paulo, I will justify your interpretation'. Next I opened a cupboard and placed there the only non-red thing in the whole installation: a black and white Che Guevara button (laughs). Many people see the work through this political and ideological lens. For me, it could have been all blue or yellow.

Menezes: But Herkenhoff’s reading marked your work to a large extent, didn’t it? Do you think that the curator needs to give a context to the artworks on display? At the Tate, for example, from the gallery texts much could be read into the political aspects of your work.

Meireles: After a while, the artist himself changes the concept of the piece. Suddenly, you can discover something in the work that until then has been unthinkable, a way of approaching, seeing one's self, seeing with the soul. Some works such as 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits' are undeniably political.

Menezes: 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits' is a good example. It is not only about the Coca cola bottles with the transfer text messages like we normally see on display. The work gains considerable meaning when you become aware of the bottle’s insertion in the market. How can the conceptual intent of an artwork be presented when it is not apparent in the object? How can the work be contextualized despite the risk of it gaining new meanings, as was the case with 'Red Shift'?

Meireles: You have to be aware of the anxiety of co-authoring but the work has to be democratic. 'Insertions' is deeply established in orality. Normally, what I show are instructions that can be in any language. I always thought that these basic instructions could work. But perhaps this is not always the case. The best way to demonstrate this specific project would be to make an insertion in each language. This project started out in a restaurant when a friend pointed out that if we put an olive stone inside a Coca-cola bottle no one would notice. As soon as I arrived home, I wrote the text of the project. By the text alone, no one would link one thing to the other.

Menezes: Can you tell more about the origins of 'Virtual Spaces: Corners'? How did it end up as 'Corners'? Can you explain how they led to your participation in the 1970 Information exhibit at MoMA?6

Meireles: I was making 'Virtual Spaces', dealing with spatial situations, but I was still a little confused. I had the idea to build the 'Corners' one day when I was looking at some shadows in the toilet of a bar. The trend of having walls covered with paint running down them was at its height. In that period, from 1969 until December 1970, I was lecturing at the Museum of Modern Art (MAM) in Rio. The 'Corners' were in my classroom. I entered the work on the last day at the Salão da Bússola in order to be allowed to leave the work there for a while.7 I ended up winning the main prize, and one of the corners remained in the museum. Throughout 1970, they would ask: 'Cildo, when are you taking this away?' I was not living at a permanent address. There was Mr Italo, MAM’s security guard who was from the Mangueira shantytown and used to call me 'Professor'. I was in my twenties. He would say, 'Professor, do you still need the material that is in the warehouse?' He wanted to use the material to improve his home. Hence, I gave 'Corners' to him. Later on, I re-made the works. The first three disappeared (The third was burned in a fire at the MAM). Kynaston McShine, the curator of Information, saw the works at MAM when he visited Rio. Then I received a letter of invitation from him in which Hélio Oiticica’s telephone number was also written as he too had been invited.

Menezes: What is your relationship to Oiticica?

Meireles: I first met him in 1968 at a vernissage [private viewing at the opening of an exhibit]. In 1970, after receiving the invitation to Information, I visited him a couple of times due to the project. Hélio had like a ‘royal entourage’ in Brazil. I had never been able to mingle with large groups. In New York, we became closer, but we did not talk a lot about work. We shared the same interest in 1950s radio soap operas and macrobiotic food. It was an intense work period in New York, 1970 to '73; it was great because we worked at the speed the work demanded.8

Menezes: When one reviews this particular period of Brazilian art, there is the impression that everyone was involved in challenging the dictatorship. It seems that the artists had a kind of political consciousness regarding what they were doing.

Meireles: Opposition to the regime was a commonly shared goal. But each one obviously had his or her own specifications. What we could see was a lack of defence in relationships. It was very common, indeed, for us to discuss and display our works to each other. There was a comradeship.

Menezes: Do you still discuss your work with other artists?

Meireles: This contact has diminished considerably. I have always been of a more introspective nature. I cannot work if there is someone else around. In order to create, I need to feel alone. Besides, most of the time work means lying on a hammock. We get a bit embarrassed about lying down in front of other people. Work can be a first note, a word, a scribble. There are some notes that you cannot even understand afterwards. There are projects that I made 35 years after the first scribble. 

Menezes: Perhaps because of this process of accumulation of memories and perceptions, we can feel in your works a slight sense of synchronicity. At the Tate, works themselves established a strong dialogue between each other and with viewers, even when the explicit subject of each one is diverse.

Meireles: Sometimes, when I get to the studio early in the morning I feel compelled to think about what the process that precedes the creation of all the works would be. What would the ‘highest common factor’ of all the works be? There must be one. I always think that someone will infer this one day. I know that there is a nexus among some of them. Nevertheless, it is obvious that my personal project is that each one be completely different from the others. That they should have a certain autonomy. This is the great attribute of visual arts: you are, potentially, allowed to start from nothing, in all aspects of the process, material and attitude. 

Menezes: Do you think that the place where the artist lives influences or transforms the creative process? In your case, did the time that you spent in New York or moving between regions in Brazil affect your artistic output?

Meireles: I guess it does, not least if you direct your production to develop a hypersensitivity to the area. Every time you live in a situation in which familiar ties are broken, your senses sharpen. It is like a game children play: playing with feeling fear. When I was a kid we would remove the lid of the water cistern and look down just to feel vertigo. The suspension of normality by physical means in visual art can be a material like any other. Also, if you are in a new situation, in a culture, a landscape, a place that you do not know, you will without a doubt alter the normal procedure of your sensory apparatus.

Menezes: At which moments do your senses sharpen?

Meireles: I intend to associate it with a bolt of lightning. In short: in the first moment, something crosses your brain. It does not have a colour, shape, function, anything. It is simply a fact, a germ, a strangeness. That is how 'Through' was conceived.9 I was opening a package of something. I took the cellophane paper, scrunched it up, put it in the bin and went back to what I had been doing. Suddenly, I started hearing a tiny noise, the paper was moving. I had seen it countless times in my life but for some reason at that specific moment, I imagined a succession of things, a chain of obstacles that was related to the idea of a soft glass, live glass, and at the same time it was something that crosses. So, after making the associations, you start to detail, to understand what you want to reach. This sensation of superposition of symbolic obstacles is somehow undoubtedly related to my mum’s house in Brasília when I was a kid, in which the doors would be kept open throughout the whole day until night fell. [It is all] so distant from the cities surrounded by metal bars and fences in which we live nowadays, such as Rio.

Menezes: Can you tell us a bit about your plans for the near future? What is your agenda for the next few years?

Meireles: Besides this touring exhibition, I am working on a new project called Plimg Plimg that will be presented at the next Venice Biennial. In 2011, I will open an exhibition at the Museu Serralves in Porto, Portugal, and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. This last one is due to the Prêmio Velázquez de Artes, awarded by the Spanish Cultural Ministry that I received at the beginning of 2008. For both of these shows I aim to exhibit new artworks.

1. The art historian Lucy Lippard called Information 'a state-of-art exhibition unlike anything else that cautious and usually unadventurous institution had attempted to date'. (Lippard, Lucy R., 2001, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, p. 19) The curator of Information, Kynaston McShine presented for the first time together the achievements of artists who were working on the Conceptualism project. Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and Joseph Kosuth joined a list of more than 100 artists (among them British artists Keith Arnatt, Richard Long and Gilbert & George).
2. 'Southern Cross' (1969-70) is a small cube measuring less than 1 centimetre. Made of oak and pinewood, sacred trees to the indigenous tribes, the piece was displayed at Tate Modern on the floor of an empty gallery room. The work deals with the problematic simplification which the indigenous people suffered at the hands of the colonizers. The first part of 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Project Coca-Cola and Banknote'(1970-76) consisted of sticking political messages (e.g., 'Yankees go home') as transfers on Coca-Cola bottles and returning them to the Coca-Cola warehouse. The messages would only be apparent when filled with liquid again. The same system was applied to the banknotes, but in this case, the notes went into circulation immediately as nobody would keep the money or destroy it.
3. 'Babel' (2001) is a 5 metre-high tower of nearly 700 radios, each one synchronized to a different radio station.
4. 'Red Shift' (1967-84) is an installation composed of three parts. The first, called 'Impregnation', is a white room. The objects inside the room (carpet, paintings on the wall, furniture, ornaments, plants, etc.) are red. There is a red typewriter on a red desk, a wardrobe with red clothes and a refrigerator with red food. While viewing the contents of the room, viewers will hear a soundtrack of water dripping. At the end of 'Impregnation', is a darkened room with a pool of red liquid that apparently comes from a dripping bottle. This part is called in Portuguese ‘Entorno’, a word that means both 'spill' and 'surrounding'. Walking in the darkness one finds, on the left, a white porcelain washbasin installed at a slant where a red watery liquid runs from a tap. This last part is called 'Shift'.
5. Paulo Herkenhoff is a Brazilian curator and art historian who was the head curator of the 24th São Paulo Biennial.
6. 'Virtual Spaces: Corners' (1968) is a series of inquisitive drawings in graphite on millimetre graph paper that later was the base for the 'Corners' series (1967-8 /2008). A set of wood structures (3 x 1 x 1 metres) make up an ordinary room corner with a woodblock floor and a baseboard. In the drawings and the architectural structures, Meireles plays with mathematical logic by introducing unexpected interruptions in the spatial dimensions. In 'Corner IV', for instance, a wedge breaks the perfect angle, producing an irrational exit from the intersection of walls.
7. Salão da Bússola (Salon of the Compass) was an art competition sponsored by an advertising company whose symbol was a compass. The competition led to an exhibition held during November and December 1969 at MAM.-Rio. Although the Salão da Bússola was not thought to be experimental, it proved to be remarkable for the experimental nature of the works selected by the jury. In addition to Meireles, Arthur Barrio and Antonio Manuel took part in the show.
8. Hélio Oiticica (b. Rio de Janeiro, 1937-1980) is one of the world pioneers of 'intervention', 'installation' and 'spectator participation' with innovative sensorial and architectural works. For more information see Studio International article 'Oiticica Returns to London'.
9. 'Through'  (1983-9/2008) is made from nets, prison bars, aquariums, chains, cellophane and other transparent materials. These form a labyrinth through which viewers walk.

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