“My life has transformed itself into a montage of simultaneous things,” Hélio Oiticica wrote in a letter in 1971. It would be a simplification to call Oiticica a visual artist, though he is best known for his sculptural, immersive installations. Film, dance, and criticism were equally important to him. Still, Hélio Oiticica, a documentary by the artist’s nephew, César Oiticica Filho, is less the story of an artist’s career than an expression of a man’s desire to fully live and participate in the world around him. Like several other poets, artists, and musicians of his time — the period concurrent with the Brazilian dictatorship — Oiticica did not wish to be stuck in the world of ideas, but, as he put it, to create “situations to be lived in.”
Hélio Oiticica cobbles together footage, photos, and audio from the 1960s and ’70s with Oiticica’s recordings, his “Héliotapes.” His archives were some of the few salvaged items from the fire that destroyed 90% of the artist’s work stored in his family’s home. Throughout his adult life, Oiticica obsessively took photos of everything he made and copied everything he wrote. “I have all the copies so I can reconstruct all my past,” he says in one of the tapes. Hélio Oiticica does just that, using the artist’s smooth, sometimes sly voice to narrate the film.
Film, particularly the collaged, associative kind that Oiticica Filho has made, is an ideal format to understand Oiticica and his work. “Montage is a very old technique that interests me,” we hear him say. Cosmococas, a series that wouldn’t be publicly shown until after the artist prematurely died from a stroke at the age of 42, projected slides on multiple walls of a room which sometimes had hammocks, a swimming pool, or piles of sand on the ground. There were books, music, balloons, and — Oiticica’s drug of choice — cocaine. He called these environments “quasi-cinemas” and “instructions for performance,” so that people could recreate those experiences elsewhere.
In an interview, Oiticica Filho says something similar of Hélio Oiticica: “The film never ends. I don’t use the words ‘the end.’ The film continues — in the work, in the experience …. All of Hélio’s propositions are a continuation of the film.” In cities where Oiticica Filho has shown the movie, he’s made a point of taking people on what Oiticica called an “ambulatory delirium,” or aimless walks through the streets.
Walking, and how we move in the world, is an underlying narrative in the film. It opens with a scene of ants, first in orderly single file, then in a scattered frenzy. Next, we see scenes of the military marching and anarchists protesting en masse in Brazil, while Oiticica tells the history of his grandfather’s activism. The sounds of sirens and blurry city lights bring us to the streets of ’60s Rio de Janeiro, where the unpredictable, fluid movements of people dancing samba weave in and out. Oiticica was particularly taken with the favelas and samba schools of Rio. “I had this sense that I stepped off the asphalt to somewhere else,” he says. “It effected my behavior in a way that I’d even speak differently,” he said of stepping on the ground, a surface he incorporated into many of his works. There are certainly idealizations and absurdities that come with Oiticica’s infatuation (like casually referring to a friend as “the best wallet thief” of a favela), which in later audiotapes the artist recognizes as a “mystification” of the streets.
But this was also a time to “be marginal, be a hero,” as one slogan flashes on the screen. This embrace of the marginal was especially prevalent among musicians, like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who figure prominently in the film. When Oiticica is not narrating, the songs (mostly Tropicália and rock) are. In one scene, a woman enters one of Oiticica’s Penetrables — structures built out of colorful walls of soft and hard materials, inspired by the labyrinthine, improvisational architecture of favelas. She spins, lays, and rolls in the hay on the ground between four walls, as we hear Caetano sing, “The world is spinning round slowly / There’s nothing you can show me / From behind the wall / Show me from behind the wall / Show me from behind the wall / Show me from behind the wall.”
In 1970, Oiticica moved to New York and things took a darker turn; the camera here reverts indoors, into stuffy apartments where heavy drug use is apparent. “To live in New York is to live in your own personal hell,” he says. Though he would develop his ideas for Cosmococas in New York, inspired by Andy Warhol and Jack Smith’s films, Oiticica says his mind “didn’t blank out, but it almost did.” Perhaps, in part, it was homesickness. One year before moving to New York, he’d been in London for two months, where he had a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery largely thanks to the British art critic Guy Brett, and said he’d felt “empty.” (In this section of the documentary, we are guided by Gil’s words, “Over there in London, once in a while, I felt far away from here.”)
At the end of the film, Oiticica returns to Rio. “I feel much more relieved, he says. “I regained all my energies.” We’ve left behind the clutter of New York for Rio’s mountains, beaches, and, especially, its sidewalks. He sets out to “demystify” the city’s streets, collecting bits of loose asphalt on his walks. “All of Rio’s parts have a concrete, living meaning,” he says. We end the documentary racing down streets and through his Penetrables, which give equal weight to the concrete and living, all moving to the drumbeats of samba.
Hélio Oiticica opened in New York at the Cinema Village (22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) on September 11.