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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.