Letter from Berlin


Lygia Clark, "Bicho" (1960-1963). Aluminum. 25 × 30 cm.Collection Macia and Luis Chrysostomo, Rio de Janeiro.Photo: Jaime Acioli.© Associacao Cultural "O Mundo de Lygia Clark," Rio de Janeiro.

In late 1950s Brazil, amid cultural, social, and economic upheaval, changes were registered by new forms of literature, music, and visual art. In music, bossa nova shifted the energy of samba to a still rhythmic but gentler purveyor of lyrics that were often political as well as sexual in tone. In visual art, Neoconcretismo combined geometry with sensuality and expressiveness, absorbing examples of the Bauhaus and European modernism. Leading artists from this moment have been brought together by the Akademie der Kunst survey, including Hélio Oiticica, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Ivan Serpa, as well as architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lucio Costa.

The exhibition’s inclusion of contemporary Brazilian artists such as Iole de Freitas and Carla Guagliardi establishes a continuing interest in Neoconcretismo. It’s not hard to imagine Beatriz Milhazes or Ernesto Neto also being represented here. In the exhibition Navedenga, seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, early this year, Neto certainly expanded the notions of social space and sensual experience very much initiated by the Brazilian art scene of the 1960s: the conflation of private and public space is easily extrapolated to ideas of political responsibility.

“Antropofagia,” or cultural cannibalism, the term used to describe the phenomenon of absorbing influences and forms from any and all cultures toward making something new and unique, is taken from Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” of 1928. It’s the basis for an open blending of appearance, style, and ideas, with the purpose of breaking down the racial, gender, and class barriers rife in Brazilian society of the 1920s and later.

Lygia Clark’s (1920 – 1988) divergent work, well ahead of the much vaunted Relational Aesthetics, also has a connection with the Constructivist movement in Russia, particularly the efforts from 1919 to the mid-1930s to combine Bauhaus ideals with social goals. Clark’s work, re-coined with an even wider catchment, added elements of play and sensuality. Her “Bicho” (1960–63) is a small-scale sculpture consisting of hinged metal planes that can be manipulated into many different configurations. How many? Clark would answer that she didn’t know, but that the Bicho did. Though formally beautiful, the intention behind the sculpture is to emphasize the importance of the viewer’s experience through the possibility of participation. “Don’t Touch” signs in museums these days prohibit this from happening. Franz West’s participatory objects, much influenced by Clark, are subject to the same museum censor.

This is equally true of Hélio Oiticica (1937 – 1980). A film, Héliophonia (2002) by Marcos Bonisson, uses archival film of Oiticica during his time in New York, where he had traveled on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1970 and stayed until 1978. Installation and performance are used by Oiticica to place the artwork in a combined personal and public space. This approach to art-making is articulated by an admiring Vito Acconci, interviewed (during the run of the influential exhibition Information, 1970, at MoMA) acknowledging Oiticica’s realization of ideas and concerns that had become central to his own practice.

In Molecular Revolution in Brazil by Félix Guattari and Suely Rolnik (Semiotext(e), 2008) the authors state, “I consider poetry to be one of the most important components of human existence, not so much in terms of value, but rather as a functional element. We should prescribe poetry in the same way that vitamins are prescribed.” Poetry, or visual art or music, regarded as essential to health, not a diversion—a position all too clear during the extreme malaise following Brazil’s military coup of 1964. The subsequent implementation of the Institutional Act, which allowed the regime to imprison anyone considered a subversive without recourse to habeas corpus, not surprisingly led to many artists, musicians, and writers living in exile.

Photographs and models illustrate the contribution of architects. Oscar Niemeyer (b. 1907), one of the designers of Brasilia, known for his expansive, curvaceous buildings, left behind the strict geometry of Mies van der Rohe and early Le Corbusier to explore aesthetic constructions related to human form and experience. These buildings of reinforced concrete flow in bold, soft shapes and eloquent voids of negative space. Niemeyer has said, “What attracts me is the free and sensual curvethe curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of a beloved woman.” Again, as with Clark and Oiticica, the body is emphasized, drawing intellect into the arena of lived experience. Another Brazilian art form in a social space—football—articulates the same desire for freedom and poetry in how life is lived. A beautiful obsession: expressive, intelligent, and classless. As everyone knows in Brazil, the football also has a soul. When Dunga, the coach for Brazil during this year’s World Cup, tried to change tactics to a more static, defensive, less flowing form of play, he inspired considerable criticism.


David Rhodes