Tripping Through Hélio Oiticica’s Mythical World

To Organize Delirium at the Carnegie Museum of Art is Hélio Oiticica’s second retrospective in the US and is the first to delve into the Brazilian artist’s critical New York years.

Installation view of Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at the Carnegie Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

PITTSBURGH — I’ve heard Caetano Veloso’s 1968 song “Tropicália” hundreds of times. My parents, who are Brazilian, played it when I was growing up, and it embodies most everything I love in music: an eclectic mix of samba, bossa nova, and rock. Some might say it’s the song that launched the career of Veloso, who that same year would be jailed, together with fellow musician Gilberto Gil, by Brazil’s military dictatorship. Tropicália became the chosen name for the Brazilian artistic movement of the time that was anarchist in spirit and disillusioned by the modernist projects of the preceding decade that soured under the oppressive regime.

Installation view of Hélio Oiticica, “Tropicália” (1967/2016)

Less common knowledge is that the term “Tropicália” was actually taken from the title of a 1967 artwork by Hélio Oiticica, which was recreated for his current retrospective at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The work consists of a small island of sand and pebbles inhabited by two Amazonian parrots in a cage and two box-like installations. Oiticica called these constructions “penetrables” because you enter, or penetrate, them by moving past  layers of curtains. The penetrables were partly inspired by the makeshift architecture of favelas and share with them the same materials (cloth, burlap, wood); when placed in a tropical context, they allude to the landscape of Rio de Janeiro, where the artist lived and favelas overlook the ocean. Perched in the sand, signs with poems on them invoke Brazil’s dire circumstances at the time: “the blue of the sky / was unable to illuminate the day.”

At the Carnegie, Veloso’s song aptly plays in the background. He speaks of “the monument / in the central highlands of the country” — Brasília, the newly founded modernist capital — as a glistening landscape of “eternal spring,” where children beg on their knees. The Tropicália aesthetic — bright, lively, impassioned — was shaded with dark undertones, partially masked for censorship reasons. But artists were also optimistic — ready, as Oiticica put it, to “plunge into the shit,” “dissecting the guts of this diarrhea,” Brazil.

Entrance to Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium at the Carnegie Museum of Art

The retrospective To Organize Delirium is the second dedicated to Oiticica in the US since 1993; the first took place at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A crucial difference this time around is that many of the artist’s works were destroyed in a 2009 fire at his brother’s home in Rio. As a result, a number of the pieces on view are reconstructions. Donna De Salvo, one of the exhibition’s organizers, writes in the catalogue that, when putting together the individual installations, “there are degrees of variability,” likely making the two future iterations of the show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art different.

At the Carnegie, the show is divided into four phases: Oiticica’s beginnings in Rio de Janeiro, sojourn in London, eight years in New York, and final two in Rio de Janeiro, before abruptly dying at the age of 42 from a stroke. In the past, his time in New York has often been skipped over because, the curators here argue, it is erroneously perceived as being an unproductive period for the artist. But as the tightly curated show makes clear, New York was a significant turning point for Oiticica.

Hélio Oiticica, “PN1 Penetrable (PN1 Penetrável)” (1960), oil on wood

Another concerted effort the organizers make is to encourage viewer participation, which was essential to the artist’s work. “My art was developed towards an increasing participation, and the mistrust in the gallery and museum business,” Oiticica wrote in 1969 to an art critic at the Village Voice. The only museum exhibition he had during his life was at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1969; he was dissatisfied with it, saying soon after, “From now on, for me any experiment in a formal gallery would be a turn back.”

The question of whether it’s possible to freely, unselfconsciously inhabit his pieces came up for me. It’s a question that has haunted the curators, as well: “Is the work that remains more accurately considered artifact than art, carrying little of its original power?” they ask in their preface to the catalogue. While Oiticica participated in numerous gallery shows throughout his lifetime, the last thing he wanted was for his work to be approached with the polite distance one maintains in a museum. And while To Organize Delirium attempts to relax those codes by playing music and allowing you to interact with some of the installations, museumgoers during my visit were typically restrained, treating the work as “art” — a term the artist preferred to avoid.

Hélio Oiticica’s “Eden,” which he showed at his 1969 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition

Oiticica, together with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and others, made participatory art at a time when it was rare. The group banded to form the Neo-concrete movement, which broke with the formalist abstractions of the Concrete art that came before them. Indeed, Ferreira Gullar, the poet and art critic who recently died and who penned the Neo-concrete manifesto, said artists like Oiticica were “creating the prospect of a new language, one outside of the known genres.”
Hélio Oiticica’s “Metaesquemas” from 1956–58

Early on in his career, Oiticica began by painting Paul Klee–inspired geometric shapes on paper and cardboard. At the Carnegie, you can see how these designs eventually jump off the walls to become wooden planes of brilliant yellow, pink, and red that float and surround you in space. But Oiticica wanted his work to be within the viewer’s grasp, and as a result designed his famous parangolés: colorful, cape–like outfits made of fabric, plastic, and rope. They were to be worn while dancing samba, engendering what he called “lived experiences.” The name parangolé, slang for “chaos” in Portuguese, sprung from a chance encounter with the word written on a scrap of burlap covering a homeless person’s improvised shelter. Like the penetrables, the parangolés were inspired by the creativity of street life, which Oiticica became increasingly enamored with when he joined the Mangueira samba school. He took his parangolés into the favelas, where people danced in them, activating what he described as “color in motion.”

Installation view of Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés

What I do is MUSIC,” Oiticica once said. In a way, he was expanding the role of the visual artist to be more like that of the musical performer, mainly in how he developed his relationship with his audience. Rather than have the visitor quietly contemplate his vision, he immersed you in it. The result was often a sensory, collective experience, not unlike at a concert, with Oiticica almost always present, dancing with you in his penetrables and sinking into boxes full of sand. He wanted others to activate his art; if he was articulating a “new language,” as Gullar said, it had to develop out of a conversation. There was political motivation in this, too: the Neo-concretists wanted to snap people out of complacency by getting them involved. In the context of the dictatorship, Oiticica’s art opened up a means of communication when there weren’t many.

Caetano Veloso wearing one of Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés

Looking back on Oiticica and his contemporaries in the ’60s, I’m reminded of Greil Marcus’s seminal book Mystery Train, where he reflects on the great American rock ‘n’ roll musicians of that same time:

In the work of each performer there is an attempt to create [oneself]; each individual attempt implies an ideal community … where his work could communicate easily and deeply, where the members of that ideal community would speak as clearly to the artist as he does to them.

In the ’60s, rock ‘n’ rollers were not alone in wanting to articulate new worldviews. While Oiticica did not deliver performances in the same way a musician would, and his audience was arguably smaller, he did share this desire, as Marcus put it, “to see [his] myths and parables in action.” Reflecting on the parangolés and his involvement with the Mangueira samba school, Oiticica described dance as “the definitive step in the search of myth, a renewal of this myth and its new foundation within my art.”

Hélio Oiticica’s “seja marginal, seja herói” banner

At the core of this myth was the slogan he coined, “seja marginal, seja herói” — “be an outlaw, be a hero” — which appears in the exhibition printed on a red banner with the image of a dead man: Alcir Figueira da Silva, an outlaw whom Oiticica had befriended at Mangueira. (This is also the banner that was displayed at Caetano and Gil’s concert in 1968 and caused it to be shut down.) Oiticica befriended wanted criminals and robbers, undeniably romanticizing their position as social pariahs. He may have associated himself with outsiders and brought his work into the streets, however, he grew up in a middle-class family with an anarchist father, and the Neo-concrete movement was primarily made up of members of the elite.

A detail from one of Hélio Oiticica’s New York 1971 notebooks

A lot changed for Oiticica when he moved to New York in 1970. There, he lived out his myths, becoming, as the curators here point out, the marginal figure he had idolized in Brazil. As a foreigner, he didn’t have the same bond and familiarity with the city as he did with Rio. He largely retreated, transforming his apartment on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side into an informal art project known as the “Babylonests.” Inside, he created multiple levels of wooden “nests,” or “cells,” and equipped them with mats, netting dividers, baskets for storage, and colored lightbulbs. There was practically no furniture and a television that “zapped nonstop,” in the words of the Brazilian poet and friend Waly Salomão.

Oiticica, who was gay, invited home men he picked up on the street and photographed them in the nests. At the Carnegie, a slide projector cycles through these images, much as they would’ve appeared on the walls of the artist’s apartment, revealing men in various states of undress staring seductively at the camera. Living in New York during the time of the Stonewall riots, his home became a haven for gay men, and his sexuality became intertwined with his art.

Hélio Oiticica, still from “Neyrótika” (1973)

In New York, writing, video, and photography were Oiticica’s new chosen mediums — along with cocaine. He conceived of his Cosmococas, shown in his lifetime only to close friends at his apartment, where participants consumed the illicit substance and lay on hammocks, while images flashed on the walls. “CC5 Hendrix-War,” the “Cosmococa” on view at the Carnegie, projects an image of one of Oiticica’s parangolés next to Jimi Hendrix’s album cover for War Heroes, which plays and envelops the room. Oiticica considered Hendrix one of his heroes, writing that the musician embodied a kind of “MUSIC-plastic totality synthesis” in his performances. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t on cocaine, but this installation felt the most stubbornly site-specific to me — it’s possible to re-create its visual elements, but it seems difficult to translate the deliriously intimate experience to a museum space.

Hélio Oiticica, “CC5 Hendrix-War” (1973)

While Oiticica initially claimed to find freedom in New York, especially when compared to the oppressive conditions at home, he wrote in a 1972 letter to Lygia Clark: “I feel as if i’m in a prison in this infernal island.” In 1978, he returned to Brazil, well after his visa had expired, and wrote in another letter that it was “much, much, much, much, much better than staying in fucking NEW YORK … I feel free free free and all the desire for those ‘other things’ vanished like a miracle and also my old chronic paranoia dissappeared [sic]; I couldn’t feel happier.”

In Rio, he went clean from drugs and turned his eye again to the city, but with renewed perspective. He wrote, “For me, Rio was first a myth, I had mystified it in such a manner that I had to leave it and spend all these years away to discover that after the process of mystification comes that of demystification.” Oiticica didn’t live long enough for us to know what this process would’ve really yielded, though in describing his time in New York to the art critic Aracy Amaral in 1977, he said, “I wrote all this material, notebooks and notebooks … this year had a change … I’m not interested in ideas … now I want to make physical stuff.”

Hélio Oiticica, “Filter Project (1972) (detail, inside)

Oiticica was no longer living up to the ideals of the ’60s. In New York, the hopeful visions of the previous decade had been crushed by bankruptcy, displacement, and high rates of crime. In the early ’70s in Brazil, the dictatorship had been at its most violent. There was a sense that the ideas — of Tropicália, American rock ‘n’ roll — hadn’t totally worked.

Do we look at Oiticica’s art as a kind of outdated dream? While it doesn’t feel like mine, I love being inside it, just as Caetano’s “Tropicália” has always moved to me to dance. Importantly, these artists were also aesthetes; their work was pleasurable to experience then, as it is now. At the Carnegie, I lay in the sand and got lost in the dark and colorful mazes. But I’m fairly sure I didn’t “live” them as Oiticica would’ve liked.

On the one hand, the experience feels tamed, controlled by the setting of an institution. Even if, as Donna De Salvo claims, the curators tried “to find ways to conjure works proposed so that people might see them not as if they were in an exhibition,” that’s nearly impossible. Oiticica’s works were places to socialize freely, drink, even have sex in. They came out of an urge to break free. They were real outlets.

On the other hand, we can’t quite pick up where he left off, because his is no longer our myth to live. Instead, he left me longing for a new one, thinking of what might come out of the noxious politics spreading in Brazil, the US, and so many other places. I don’t know what that will look like, but Oiticica’s work made clear to me that we still struggle to participate in art together; we prefer to approach it safely alone. At the same time, art has to open up a casual enough relationship for us to feel comfortable to really engage with it. This means we’ll probably encounter this art, our myth, before it hardens into artifact at a museum.

As I search for this imaginary artist, I hold a few things in my mind: I want it to be someone who cares about reaching me directly, who makes me interfere with her work and visually allures me, while appealing to me as sensually and immediately as a song. Just like Oiticica did in his still powerful art.

Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium continues at the Carnegie Museum of Art (4400 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh) through January 2. 

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