1.5 / Review

When Lives Become Form

By Patricia Maloney December 16, 2009

“When Lives Become Form: Contemporary Brazilian Art, 1960s to the Present” offers a sampling of work created over the past forty years by a disparate group of artists and designers. Two concepts frame the exhibition: the ongoing legacy of Tropicália—a highly influential movement that emerged in the late 1960s and embraced an expanded sense of artistic production—and the shared aesthetic considerations of Brazilian and Japanese cultures. Unfortunately, neither framework does the subject justice.

The Brazilian-Japanese emphasis arises from the exhibition’s origins at the Museum of Contemporary Tokyo and coincides with the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil. The exhibition includes contributions by Brazilian-Japanese architects, designers, and artists to contemporary Brazilian visual culture, highlighting aspects of their work that suggest a Japanese influence. The accompanying wall text makes note of practices that incorporate minimalist forms, geometric abstraction, short poems, and improvisation, all supposedly evidence of the artists’ cultural hybridity. But rather than establish the work as a true reflection of a postcolonial, global age, this lens seems to subjugate the work on view. We are not looking at Brazilian artistic practices as they are, but as they appear when formulated and packaged for a Japanese audience. This palpably shifts the exhibition’s focus.

The legacy of Tropicália becomes an equally troubling framework for the work on display, as its connective threads are tenuously, almost superficially, demonstrated. This avant-garde movement manifested across multiple disciplines, most influentially in music, but also theater, poetry, and the visual arts. [1] The name derived from a 1967 penetrável of the same title by the artist Hélio Oiticica. Penetrávels—or penetrables—were highly interactive, often maze-like, multimedia installations; viewers would experience the space fully, using all their senses. The audience’s participation became a notable aspect of Tropicália.

Its defining tenet was anthropophagy, a concept created by the poet Oswald de Andrade in 1928 as a metaphor for cannibalism. [2] The term described the ingestion and fusion of visual forms and musical influences from multiple cultures across genres or divisions of high and low art. This fusion not only informed aesthetic practices, it carried political weight as a form of resistance to the oppressive military dictatorship that began with a 1964 coup. Rather than engaging directly in political discourse, artists and musicians opposed authoritarianism by embracing international sensibilities and the influence of mass culture. As the exhibition materials note, Oiticica described anthropophagy as “the defense that we possess against such external dominance, and this constructive will, our main creative weapon.” [3]

The exhibition focuses on the aesthetic, sensory, and participatory legacies of Tropicália, completely overlooking the gulf between Brazil’s political and economic climates in the late 1960s and today. The exhibition doesn’t clearly delineate between a historical context and a contemporary one. It doesn’t acknowledge the place that Brazil has taken on the global stage as a developing economic force or the technological innovations that have rendered strategies of cultural appropriation commonplace. Instead, we see an overlapping sample of works from three broadly defined timeframes: “Tropicália,” “Post Tropicália,” and “Revival of Tropicália.”

Hélio Oiticica. Singer and composer Caetano Veloso wearing P 04 Parangolé cape 1 (1964), 1968. Photograph. Courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.

Hélio Oiticica (in collaboration with Neville d'Almeida). Cosmococa CC1 Trashiscapes, 1973; installation view, Galerie Lelong, New York, 2006. Courtesy Projecto Hélio Oiticica. 

The last section includes the collaborative assume vivid astro focus (avaf), which contributes absurd vanilla anus flavor (2008), a constructed room with bean bag chairs and walls papered in digitally produced psychedelic images. At one end is a shifting playlist of projected videos. The installation evokes Oiticica’s penetrávels, while one video of three figures cavorting with sheets of plastic in the ocean pays homage to his parangolés, which were costumes constructed from layers of fabric and plastic intended to be experienced as mobile sculptures. Oiticica’s photograph Singer and composer Caetano Veloso wearing P 04 Parangolé cape 1 [1964] (1968) suggests far more readily than the video does the effort to meld figure, form, and performance. What’s missing from avaf’s installation, as from much of the exhibition, is the urgency underlying Tropicália’s multisensory experiences. For Oiticica, the heightened sensations created a bodily awareness that in turn enabled one’s recognition as an individual in a society. The installations were catalysts to take action.

Ana Maria Tavares. Airshaft (para Piranesi), 2008 (still); video installation. Courtesy of the Artist.

A physical alteration is palpable in the re-creation of Oiticica’s 1973 installation, Cosmococa CC1 Trashiscapes, which combines street sounds, music, mattresses, pillows, and slides of parangoles, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia to lure one into an expansive state of mind. Similarly, one of the most impactful works is also one of the most hypnotic. Ana Maria Tavares’ video installation, Airshaft (para Piranesi) (2008) evokes the fantastic and labyrinthine spaces conceived by the eighteenth century Italian artist to give form to the traceless and anonymous ways we circulate in urban spaces. Computer-generated architectural elements—catwalks, open grid plates, spiral staircases, handrails, steel, and glass—float horizontally and vertically on room-sized projections at opposite ends of the room. Structures dissolve and solidify, reflect and obscure. Depth is indiscernible, as if one can be sited but not grounded in this space; it is both weightless and impenetrable. Taken together, these two installations suggest another layer to the concept of anthropophagy: the idea that a work of art can be physically invasive. Bodily rhythms slow and realign with the shifting sounds and images.

Outside of these moments, the exhibition feels static, despite the invitation to interact with some of the work. The political, economic, and social catalysts from which Tropicália erupted are conflated with the current moment, based upon continued aesthetic trends. We see a broad swatch of practices created by Brazilian artists but lose out on the history and opportunity to experience Tropicália’s incredible outpouring of energy, music, and visual forms, as well as any firsthand and in-depth perspective on contemporary Brazilian visual culture.

“When Lives Become Form: Contemporary Brazilian Art, 1960s to the Present” is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco through January 31, 2010.

[1] Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis was a collaborative album produced in 1968 that defined the musical aspirations of the movement.
[2] From Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto).
[3] From YBCA exhibition brochure.


Patricia Maloney is the Managing Editor of Art Practical.

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