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On Saturday morning, I was jittery over the idea of walking down Madison Avenue under a giant white sheet. Together with some 225 people, I was going to reenact Lygia Pape‘s 1968 performance “Divisor” (“Divider,” 1968). Pape, a Brazilian artist who was born in 1927 in Rio de Janeiro, where she also died in 2004, performed this piece during the military dictatorship, first with children from favelas and later in the gardens surrounding Rio’s Museum of Modern Art. The 50-by-50 foot sheet is cut with slits for participants to fit their heads through, so that everyone moves through a single piece of fabric. The Met Breuer, which is currently holding a beautiful retrospective on the artist titled A Multitude of Forms, organized the performance from Madison and 75th Street to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 81st and Fifth Avenue. The idea seemed nothing less than surreal, to momentarily interrupt the flow of the city with a white square punctured and shuffled along by people.
But this is not, exactly, what happened. We were sadly given only one lane of traffic, which meant that the sheet was not entirely unfolded, accommodating only 60 people. The rectangle of fabric sagged between us, rather than appearing taut and expansive as I’d seen in archival footage. Police and Met staff were on either end of us, making sure we kept within our limits, watching out for the cars and curb. This, to me, defeated the point of the whole thing. We were supposed to take over the street, not be dictated by its laws.
When participants first slipped under the sheet, they laughed and talked with their neighbors, and took many selfies (we were told that once we got moving, we weren’t allowed to snap photos, but that rule went quickly out the window). We were given instructions about our route via a megaphone, and Met staff members led the performance with plaques written “Divisor” across them, as though we were a pack of tourists.
Given all these formalities, which I realize may have been legally necessary, we might as well have had some discussion on the actual performance. Because once we got going, participants went relatively quiet, walking at a steady pace, when “Divisor” is designed for people to move animatedly within it, and play with the fabric that connects them. The curator of the Lygia Pape exhibition, Iria Candela, tried to encourage participants to jump and cheer, but any wave of excitement quickly subsided.
Despite all this, it did feel like we were one organism, adapting to one another’s tugs and pulls, at once hyperaware of our individual impact and drawn by the collective current. Though it wasn’t until we stationed ourselves in the plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum that we gained a glimpse of what the performance was meant to be like. There, we had the space to unravel the sheet, and onlookers were invited to fill in the remaining slits. It was is if a weight had been lifted, the white of the sheet joyously reflecting the light that enveloped our floating heads. Someone from the Met gave us instructions (via his megaphone): “Jump!” “Turn clockwise!” The effects were gratifying, even if the process felt somewhat stilted.
Recent reenactments, in Hong Kong and Lisbon for instance (staged by the nonprofit space Para Site and Galeria Graça Brandão, respectively), have appeared to be more successful in that they were at least able to spread open the sheet. In Lisbon, it was taken to a public square, where passerby had to activate the fabric. In New York, it would’ve been more interesting to open up the demographic beyond art worlders and Met members (who tend to fill up the museum’s events quickly, since they are kept apprised and can register early), considering the piece offers a good deal of potential to create connections, and expose differences, between strangers.
Pape did, at first, envision the performance in a gallery setting, with the added element of hot air being blown from below the sheet. But she ultimately decided to take the project to the streets. Staged during the military dictatorship, “Divisor” gave people agency to move through public space en masse during a time when protests were suppressed and the streets surveilled.
Both in the US and in Brazil, people (myself included) have taken to occupying the streets with greater fervor and urgency. Both countries are being run by unpopular leaders: In Brazil, Michel Temer became president after Dilma Rousseff was impeached and his all-male cabinet readily implemented longstanding austerity measures; and in the US, we have, well, Donald Trump. The wealth of grievances against the Trump administration have brought people of various backgrounds to protest on major avenues in cities like New York. This context only exacerbated my disappointment with the “Divisor” reenactment. While it did not need to be an act of dissent — I would not expect that from the Metropolitan — to participate in a public art performance that essentially shoves you to the curb is needless to say frustrating during a time when many of us are eager to make our presence felt.
As the Met exhibition makes clear, Pape’s art is precisely about heightening our senses and engendering awareness of how we situate ourselves in space. In the 1970s, she taught architecture at the Universidade Santa Úrsula in Rio de Janeiro, where she made a point of having students study favelas and improvised architecture. Together with her friend, the artist Hélio Oiticica, she explored the margins of the city, developing a particular fascination for street vendors. In a similar vein, she took to studying Brazil’s neglected indigenous cultures, inspired by their devotion to crafts. This turn toward popular culture and indigenous roots in Brazilian art in part sprung from a sense of disillusionment: the dictatorship had crushed the modern, utopian promises of the previous decade. It was difficult to imagine that a dictatorship would follow four years after the new capital, Brasília, was constructed under Oscar Niemeyer‘s design.
Pape started out as a Concrete artist in the ’50s, making primarily wood reliefs and engravings of oscillating and dislodged geometric shapes. In a 1997 interview, she cited her artistic “passions,” among them Piet Mondrian, Alfredo Volpi, and Kazimir Malevich, whose visions echo in her patterns, which are enlarged in the giant canvas that is “Divisor.” One of her 1957 engravings (all of them titled “Tecelar”), on view here, uncannily prefigures the buildings of Niemeyer’s Brasília with their half-moon shapes.
In 1959, she joined the Neoconcrete movement with her friends Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, making work that was more sensual, enveloping, and musical. In her childhood home, Pape grew up surrounded by singing birds, among them 30 toucans and 50 macaws — an anecdote I love, as it feels apt in these galleries inhabited by colorful and dynamic objects that often lift in places like wings and are arranged in multiples, like small colonies. Her famous work “Book of Time” (1961–63), here installed on one large wall, seems to present a whole new species, with 365 wooden reliefs abstractly representing each day of the year.
Often, when looking at Pape’s work from this period, I think about how I would like to shrink and walk among her constructions, like “The Book of Architecture” (1959–60), one of many of her works that allude to reading and books. In it, a series of paper sculptures that look a bit like pop-ups illustrate the hallmarks of architecture, from the Egyptian pyramids to the Roman arch.
In a performance on a beach, “The Egg” (1967), Pape inhabits her own work, placing herself inside a fragile white box and tearing through it, reborn. The work was made shortly after she started experimenting with film, when she joined the Cinema Novo movement and began making more politically charged art. One of her strongest videos is “Carnival in Rio” (1974), which zooms in and out of dancers and dressed-up characters taking over the streets, until reaching Avenida Presidente Vargas, where the police arrive and the samba beats are silenced. In line with the art of her time, Pape’s works are at once joyous, optimistic, and humorous, even as they subtly allude to the heavy context of Brazil’s repression. In 1973, she was imprisoned for three months, held in solitary confinement, and tortured for having aided people who had been persecuted.
The last room of the exhibition is occupied by the magnificent “Ttéia” (1976–2004), where clusters of copper wires extend in diagonals from floor to ceiling like beams of sunlight. The room is pitch black, with only spotlights on the harp-like strings. They appear to move in very slow motion, shifting slightly as we progress around the strands that alternately glow and disappear in the dark. As with many of her works, this one is a reflection on time, how stories take shape, and how we help shape them. I think of the sheet blanketing our bodies in “Divisor,” and how it literally highlighted our movements — illuminating the connections, divisions, and stories we make every day by just walking on the streets. This mapping of our relationships to our surroundings could be transposed almost anywhere; in every space we inhabit, there is the potential to become more self-aware, to make our presence felt. This is what Pape’s work reminds us of and, when fully experienced, enables.
Lygia Pape: A Multitude of Forms continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 23.