Facts of Life: HELIO OITICICA
BRAZILIAN AVANTGARDE ARTIST 1937-1980
Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) was an essential protagonist in the development of 'installation art' and his career charts a lifetime of artistic experimentation. Although his early career was rooted in the geometric abstraction of the Brazilian Neo-Concretists, his work quickly exploded from the two-dimensional picture plane into real life. From the late 1950s, he produced art to feel and art to wear and, from the 1960s, art to inhabit. This was the culmination of his efforts to infuse art with real life, drawing inspiration from everyday materials and real experiences.
This exhibition will present three major installations in the Whitechapel's Upper Gallery that place Oiticica within the context of filmmaking. Quasi-Cinema is a term that Oiticica and Brazilian filmmaker, Neville d'Almeida, coined for their experiments in film and slide projections, carried out in New York in the 1970s. These room sized installations - CC1 Trashiscapes, CC3 Maileryn and CC5 Hendrix-War - incorporate mattresses, emery boards, sand dunes, balloons and hammocks to create alternative auditoriums or viewing environments.
Each installation has its own soundtrack: discordant music after Stockhausen, 'archetypal' Brazilian music and songs by Jimi Hendrix, multiple images of cultural icons such as Luis Buñuel, Marilyn Monroe and Hendrix are simultaneously projected onto the walls and ceilings. Some of the images are retraced in cocaine which Oiticica used as a reference to Inca spirituality and medicinal practice - a symbol of resistance against American imperialism and a comment on both the cosmetics industry and notions of plagiarism in art.
These works seek to challenge the traditionally passive relationship between the cinematic image and the spectator and present a chaotic and fractured world where pop culture, social issues, film and music are merged into a complex installation experience.
Hélio Oiticica: Quasi-Cinema was curated by Carlos Basualdo and co-organised and presented by the Wexner Center for the Arts, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and the Kunstverein, Cologne with research and consultation by Projeto Hélio Oiticica (Cesar Oiticica Filho).
The exhibition was presented at the Wexner Center for the Arts with major support from BrasilConnects. Additional support was provided by the Wexner Center Foundation. Hélio Oiticia: Quasi-Cinema is part of the programme of the Brasil 500 Festival, co-ordinated by the Brazilian Embassy and FAAP, celebrates
Alison Jacques Gallery is delighted to present Cosmococa Programa in Progress - Quasi-Cinema CC1 Trashiscapes, a participatory installation of slides, sound and objects by the key Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980), in collaboration with the filmmaker Neville D’Almeida (1941–). A series of photographs from CC1 Trashiscapes will also be exhibited alongside the installation in the second space of the gallery. This exhibition is timed to coincide with a retrospective of Oiticica’s earlier work (until 1970), Hélio Oiticica: The Body of Colour, opening at Tate Modern on June 6.
Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1937, Hélio Oiticica became known in the late 50s and 60s for his colour and spatial works, as well as installation and performance works such as the penetrables and parangolés. After moving to New York in 1971, he began incorporating elements from film and theatre to create the environments that he would dub “quasi-cinemas.” Neville D’Almeida was born in Belo Horizonte in 1941 and is one of Brazil’s most influential filmmakers. He has written, directed and produced over 50 feature, short and experimental films.
CC1 Trashiscapes was created in March of 1973 and first exhibited at Babylonests, Oiticica’s East Village apartment and studio in New York. The installation consists of two slide projections, viewed against a soundtrack of music from the northeast region of Brazil, Jimi Hendrix and fragments of Stockhausen. The audience is “invited” to lie down on mattresses and pillows and file their nails while surrounded by imagery incorporating Luis Buñuel, Frank Zappa, cocaine, and the parangolés.
The quasi-cinemas demonstrate a reversal in the traditional roles between the spectator and the work of art—rather than observe passively, the viewer is invited to participate in a multi-sensory and interactive experience, subverting the usual separation between art and life. With earlier installations, such as Tropicália (1967) and Eden (1969), Oticica’s investigation revolved around an exploration of the question of the viewer’s participation in the work. From the early seventies onwards, the question of the viewer’s participation in the work was reconfigured in the form of an invention of “a structure of leisure as pleasure opposed to the current one of leisure as the programmed desublimation that sustains hour-periods of alienated work-production”. Helio Oiticica, “Mundo-Abrigo,” text excerpted from NTBK 2/73 dated July 21, 1973.
Collaboration between producers, a fluid authorship and an open-ended process were some of the hallmarks of the experimental art of the ‘70s. Many contemporary practices that are now widespread have their seeds in the raw installations from this period. Oiticica’s influence as a progenitor of these practices is now being more fully acknowledged, with the Cosmococa collaboration between Oiticica and D’Almeida as one of the clearest examples of these prescient movements. In his extensive notes on the Cosmococa project, Oiticica described the union as “a structural innovation within Neville’s work and an unexpected field for my longing to invent in the light of my dissatisfaction with ‘cinema-language’”.
The Quasi-cinemas “constitute a laconic, yet marvellously explicit and synthetic, commentary on the tragic paradoxes that make up the political and social reality at the end of the century.” Carlos Basualdo, Hélio Oiticica, Quasi-Cinemas, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Wexner Centre for the Arts, 2001 (exhibition catalogue)
In recent years Oiticica has been a central figure in several major exhibitions examining the cross cultural movements in art and culture, including Open Systems at the Tate Modern, London (2005), Tropicália at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2005), and Beyond Geometry at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2004). The Cosmococa programa in progress series Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida has been presented internationally at the Jeu de Paume, Walker Art Center, Whitechapel Art Center, MOCA, Los Angeles, MACBA, Barcelona, and most recently at the Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica, Rio de Janeiro, and at the MALBA in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In December 2006, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston presented Hélio Oiticica: Body of Light, which will open at Tate Modern on 6 June, 2007.
By Caetano Veloso
Hélio Oiticica outside The Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1969
Courtesy Projeto Hélio Oiticica
I arrived in London in October 1969 and lived there until January 1972. It’s true that the display of a work of Hélio Oiticica’s at one of our concerts was a factor in our harassment by the military dictatorship, which eventually forced us to leave Brazil. That particular work consisted of a flag showing a picture of a notorious outlaw from Rio lying on the ground, shot dead by the police, and the words “Seja marginal, seja herói” (“Be an outlaw, be a hero”). Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes and I displayed it on stage. Left-wing artists, students and journalists would boo us for being too receptive to rock sounds, while right-wing supporters of the government wouldn’t accept popular musicians who presented their songs underlined by such provocative visual elements. One evening somebody in the audience – we heard it was an attorney or a judge – left the night club where we were playing, assuring whoever could hear him that we were going to be punished. A few days later the club was forbidden from opening its doors. Eventually, we were put in jail: the authorities had heard we had disrespected the Brazilian flag. The word flag reached our inquisitors’ ears in a distorted story, but the fact is that Hélio’s rebellious attitude echoed in everything we did.
The first thing I remember about London was getting on a red bus (on my first day in town) with Hélio and his friends Jill Drower and Josephine Rankin, two beautiful, stylish and very British girls. Of course, I wanted to sit on the upper deck – and found it wonderful to see the streets from that height and be able to smoke up there. A few days later I was amazed to find out that one could also smoke in movie houses and theatres. Hélio always seemed to be above those little anthropological discoveries I was making. He was very impatient. Still, he was the one who made everything feel lively.
I saw him almost every day while he was in London. I heard about Hélio’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery from other people: Jill, Paul Keeler, Edward Pope. But Hélio himself talked about things he was beginning to think about, and very little about those he had done. I knew his work was very bold, and considered it important that London art people and critics should get to know it.
In 1967 I had composed a song whose lyric sounded like a strange portrait of Brazil. It was already recorded, but had no title. The film photographer and producer Luiz Carlos Barreto – who was the cinematographer for Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Vidas Secas and Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe – heard me singing it at a mutual acquaintance’s house in São Paulo, with just my guitar, and immediately told me I should name it Tropicália. He said it felt exactly like the environmental work he had just seen in Rio by this young artist named Oiticica. I didn’t want to use someone else’s work’s title: the artist might not like my song. Besides, being “tropical” didn’t seem to me the most relevant of the aspects of Brazil I wanted to depict.
But the title stuck to the song. And when Hélio heard it, he liked the whole story – he already knewwhat I had been doing, and approved of it. Admiring Godard and The Beatles, I belonged to a group of Bahian musicians who wanted to refer to rock’n’roll, Hollywood, raw samba from the favelas (shanty towns), crude north-eastern rural flutes, Argentinian tangos, Mexican boleros and Brazilian low-level commercial music. Such a mixture took us near to what was beginning to be known as counter-culture. To us it also meant a more effective response to the violent situation of living under a military dictatorship. Hélio’s experimentation in art, although not romantic in its origins (he came from a Constructivist, Mondrianesque tradition of radical confrontation of visual forms), led him to sympathise with our movement.
Hélio Oiticica near The Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1969
Courtesy Projeto Hélio Oiticica
I originally met him through a mutual friend, the journalist Marisa Alvarez Lima. I found him wildly intelligent and very funny. I could see he was also very rigorous when it came to his work and his artistic ideas. We immediately became friends. In fact, more than friends: companions on a mission. I soon understood he was the most inventive follower of Lygia Clark. She and he were the two most important creators of the so-called Neo-Concrete group, a continuation of and opposition to the São Paulo Concrete movement. Their beyond-geometry experiments eventually led them to environmental art, clothes and therapy.When he made Tropicália, he had just touched the Pop area of art creation, without making Pop Art at all. The very presence of a television set at the end of a labyrinth punctuated with tropical stereotypes (but also made of very real tropical materials – organic and inorganic – that could be touched) encapsulated our ironic view of, criticism of, blind love for and freedom from the subject matter in Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings and Lichtenstein’s comic-book scenes. So it seemed perfectly natural that Oiticica liked our TV appearances, our interviews, statements and clothes. His Parangolés, transcendental robes and coats, were the most sublime anti-fashion clothes design: quasiimpossible to wear, they at first seemed to be nothing, then you would try them on and, in the process, you’d discover multiple meanings. You’d get over-excited with myriad suggestions: they produced thoughts, feelings, inspirations. Hélio liked to ask young guys from Mangueira – the Rio favela in which the greatest number of geniuses of samba dancing, singing and songwriting lived – to wear them. He also used to say that Mangueira people inspired him to invent the Parangolés – just as the narrow alleys between the houses in the favela inspired him to create the Tropicália labyrinth. Still, he was as opposed to the nationalistic defence of our popular culture as I was. And I loved Mangueira samba people as much as he did.
Now I miss his demanding, almost intolerant critical views, his enthusiasm, his crude sense of humour. He left us a treasure of colours and ideas. We are stronger because of his audacity. Before he died he seemed to be not only less interested in my musical work, but also a bit impatient with what might have appeared to him as a lazy attitude on my part. I understood none of us could feel love at first sight again and again. But I took his demanding view seriously and kept on trying to live up to it.
This text is taken from Oiticica in London, edited by Guy Brett and and Luciano Figueiredo published by Tate Publishing. During the 1960s Oiticica made several works in homage to both Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, including Parangolé Cape 19 ‘Caetelevelásia’ to Caetano Veloso (1968), Parangolé Cape 15 ‘Gileasa’ to Gilberto Gil (1968), Penetrable PN5 ‘Caetano/Gil Tent’ in Eden (1968) and Parangolé ‘Somethin Fa’ the Head’ 1, for Caetano Veloso, New York (1974). He also did a stage design for Gil in New York in 1972.
Caetano Veloso is a musician, composer, writer and producer. He wrote the original song that became Tropicália in 1967.