Tropicalia

I haven’t seen the exhibition of Hélio Oiticica’s estate in person, so writing this might be a mistake. I briefly studied the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937- 1980) in my final year of university. Here are a few of my thoughts based on the video exhibition provided by Lisson Gallery in New York.

To give background: the course in which I studied Hélio Oiticica was on the Cold War, and at the end of the semester, each of us wrote a final essay on any topic about the War. I wanted to find a way to write a paper related to art, but wasn’t sure how to do so. I began to investigate countries not directly related to the Cold War, but still influenced by late twentieth century American and Russian politics. After some research, I learned that the United States withdrew funding from Brazil in the early 1960s due to a deteriorating relationship between the two countries after almost 150 years of the United States providing financial support. The United States’ lack of funding generated some domestic turbulence in Brazil, thus contributing to the emergence of avant-garde Brazilian art in the 1960s and 1970s. Hélio Oiticica was one of these artists.

Hélio Oiticica was born in 1937 in Rio de Janeiro. By 1967, Oiticica was known as a visual artist, sculptor, painter, and performance artist. He is best known for his Tropicalia Movement, a Brazilian ‘cultural revolution,’ which lasted between 1967 and 1972. Lisson Gallery’s exhibition of the Hélio Oiticica Estate shows his Tropicália (1966-67), but also his Hunting Dogs Project (Projeto cães de caça) (1961), and some of his early works on paper.

I watched the video exhibition multiple times. First without sound, then with sound. The exhibit transitions through a white-walled room, with a ‘rug’ that looks like a grey pathway carved out of white sand. There are small ‘rooms’ – they look a bit like closets – sprinkled throughout the exhibition, with cloth walls in multiple colors and prints: red and blue and orange and floral. The gallery is filled with nature: bushy potted plants in bright green and sometimes streaked with yellow. There is even a cage of parrots; the parrots have white beaks, with bright yellow, green, blue, and red feathers. As one moves through the exhibition, the pathway clears to a room with a series of geometric sculptures and works on paper: the papers are yellowish, with outlines of squares and rectangles in red and pastel blue. As the exhibition continues, both the sculptures and the works on paper become more complex. The drawn squares and rectangles become pentagons and other more abstract shapes; the next sculpture is more lateral than the first, more architectural, and painted in yellow, white and red. The corresponding sound is a voice over by Oiticica himself, in which the artist describes his own work as ‘organic:’ of living organisms, but also of harmony. It’s a word I hadn’t thought of, but should have, as it perfectly encapsulates the nature of the exhibition.

I wish I could walk through Hélio Oiticica’s sandy pathway in New York. I want to feel the sand underneath the soles of my shoes. I want to saunter through the serene gallery space. In a way, though, it doesn’t really matter. The video exhibition Lisson Gallery posted still manages to create a crucial dialogue between the late Oiticica and the viewer. It is a dialogue of nature, geometry and space. It is different, and new, and it forces the viewer to reconsider where art in a gallery begins and ends. It encourages the viewer to think about how the exhibit really feels, literally from the ground up, without discounting any of the disparate elements that Hélio Oiticica created. And how does it make a viewer feel? Alive, and essential.

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BY: EMMA

February 2021

Photos: Lisson Gallery

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