Two years ago, at a Cildo Meireles retrospective in Madrid, I sat on a wooden dock that overlooked a paper sea and a vast, blue plaster sky. There was something a little uncanny about it, like inhabiting an imagined vista — a sensation heightened by my mother’s drawing of the scene. It felt as though I were inside a painting, like Mary Poppins entering Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawings. I had a similar feeling at Meireles’s current exhibition at Galerie Lelong when I stepped into a forest of life-size, cut-out corners of imaginary rooms, all with pink walls and wooden floors. Typically these are the spaces that define a room’s boundaries, but in “Virtual Spaces” (1967–68/2014) we navigate a series of broken rooms and walls that make us stop and turn to no particular end.
Many of Meireles’s works seem to hover between the familiar and the strange, as we are often uncertain of where we stand or what we see. Since the 1960s, during the Brazilian dictatorship, he’s been making installations that welcome and arguably rely on audience participation, often as a political gesture. “Amerikkka” (1991/2013), the exhibition’s centerpiece, invites us to step over 20,050 white wooden eggs with our bare feet, while a ceiling made of 31,695 hollow golden bullets hovers over us at a forty-five degree angle. Walking is painful, and the bullets’ gleaming stems, set within a deep blue background, look like star clusters in the night. What is normally fragile becomes sturdy, and what is menacing, beautiful. The further I walked, the closer the ceiling lowered to my height, becoming suddenly oppressive. When I turned around, bright lights shown directly on me from the opposite wall, like an interrogation, and I was reminded that the triple “k” in the title of the work alluded to the Ku Klux Klan. The panel of bullets, now evoking the threat of white supremacy, seemed just as liable to descend or gradually inch away, like some alien aircraft.
“Artworks should be experienced [by] someone who has no eyes,” Meireles said in a 2008 interview. This interest in non-visual sensory stimuli stretches back to the ’60s, when his contemporaries, including Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, were making experiential art. But Meireles is also questioning how much trust we place in our eyes, not only in the viewing of art, but in daily life as well. In “Aquaurum” (2015), two glasses, one filled with solid gold and the other with water, comment on the false appearances at play in São Paulo’s water shortage: though Brazil produces 12 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, too much of the country’s water goes toward its mining industries. It is unclear whether or not there really is water in the glass; it could just as easily be filled with light, or solid gold, or nothing.
Meireles makes us aware of our imaginations and tests the ways we use them to inhabit works of art. In “Invisible Sphere” (2012), we are told that inside an aluminum cube is a hollow sphere — it is both shaped from nothing and invisible to our eyes. Engrained on the cube’s surface are the words “peso irrelevante” (“irrelevant weight”). We are not invited to pick the sculpture up, and therefore cannot know its weight. “I think there is something very interesting about things that we can imagine but which are hidden,” Meireles said in reference to this work.
Regardless of whether we’re allowed to physically explore his works or not, to Meireles, the power of art lies not in the visible. He plays tricks on our eyes, which are often framed as a mixing of fiction with reality. However, like an accomplished novel, the fictions of Meireles’s works are rooted in our perceptions. He creates tensions between how we look at the world and how it appears, what we see in an artwork and what it reveals. Whichever perspective we take, our view is at least partially concealed and left to be imagined.