The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

All Issues
FEB 2017 Issue
Art Books

Art Systems and Hélio Oiticica

Elena Shtromberg
Art Systems: Brazil and the 1970s
(University of Texas Press, 2016)

Irene V. Small
Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame
(University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Last year, Brazil dominated international headlines for a series of troubling episodes: the beginning of the year witnessed the emergence of the Zika virus, precipitating panic at the prospect of a global pandemic; the spring brought increasing political turmoil that eventually led to the August 2016 impeachment of the country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, amid a corruption scandal—in what many have described as a right-wing coup—leading to the non-democratic installation of the corrupt Michel Temer. The Summer Olympics were decried for a woeful lack of preparation and a diversion of investment away from Rio’s poorer neighborhoods, and in October, just before our own catastrophic political swing to the extremist right in November, Rio de Janeiro elected as mayor Marcelo Crivella, a right-wing evangelical who has supported banning abortion and gay marriage, privatizing education, and investing in heightened policing. Meanwhile, Brazil is also undergoing one of the worst economic recessions in recent history.

Amid last year’s turmoil, two important English-language studies by U.S. art historians on Brazilian art were published, both analyzing Brazil’s socio-economic history during the postwar period and the politics of the art made during that time: Elena Shtromberg’s Art Systems: Brazil and the 1970s, and Irene V. Small’s Hélio Oiticica: Folding the Frame. Examining Brazilian conceptual and video art practices during the period of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964 – 85), Shtromberg’s slim but comprehensive study begins in 1968, the year that heralded in the harshest period of the dictatorship, characterized by state-sponsored censorship, and the imprisonment, torture, and “disappearances” of dissidents. Shtromberg, an associate professor of art history at the University of Utah, specializing in modern and contemporary Latin American visual culture, analyzes the art production of an array of Brazilian artists—including those well-known outside of Brazil, like Hélio Oiticica, Cildo Meireles, and Artur Barrio, as well as those who are lesser known, like Anna Bella Geiger, Antonio Manuel, and Sonia Andrade—as part of a complex network of social practices and political conditions that she describes as “a matrix of social exchange.”

In order to emphasize the political and ethical commitments of their artworks, the volume situates them historically by tracing the social systems of representation and communication within which they were inscribed, including: the contradictory economic “miracle” and the concomitant hyperinflation of the early 1970s (which she relates in a chapter titled “Currency”); the history of print and televisual media in Brazil and the nuances of government censorship enacted on them as well as the covert strategies journalists and artists used to evade them (in chapters titled “Newspapers” and “Television”); and the failed expansionist project of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, undertaken at the height of the dictatorship in 1972 to connect isolated regions of the country to the political and economic urban centers, which was responsible for indigenous displacement, extermination, and widespread deforestation (in “Maps”).

Throughout, Shtromberg analyzes the strategies artists used to critique the dictatorship’s repressive conditions. One example in the chapter on currency is Cildo Meireles’s Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Project Banknote: Who Killed Herzog? (1976), in which the artist stamped onto cruzeiro bills (the Brazilian currency of the time) the words “Who Killed Herzog?” (Vladimir Herzog was a left-wing journalist whose death while imprisoned was initially claimed by the authorities to have been suicide, but was later revealed to have been the result of torture), and then reinserted them into circulation—in order to anonymously challenge the state’s murder of dissidents. In the chapter on television, she examines Artur Barrio’s 1. From Inside Out. 2. Simple… (1970), a sculptural installation comprising a television set on a pedestal draped in a white sheet that partially obscures the news program it broadcasts, which she describes as a (literally) veiled reference to censorship. She importantly sheds light on the under-studied contributions of women artists to this history, including Sonia Andrade, Letícia Parente, and Anna Bella Geiger, whose Elementary Maps (1976 – 77)—a series of videos in which the artist draws maps of Brazil to critique both the racial and gendered implications of its colonial past as well as the censorship and violence of the present dictatorship—Shtromberg analyzes in the chapter on maps. The political efficacy of such works, Shtromberg ultimately argues, should not be judged in terms of quantifiable measures, but rather in terms of the ways in which they “[open] up a symbolic space of dissent.”

While Shtromberg analyzes artistic dissent during the dictatorship, Irene V. Small punctures and nuances some of the recurrent myths in accounts of the political commitments of Hélio Oiticica’s art practice in her monographic study of the artist. To accomplish this, Small, an assistant professor of contemporary art and criticism at Princeton University, focuses on Brazil’s developmentalism of the 1950s and ’60s, leading up to and including the dictatorship, to chart the participatory paradigm in Oiticica’s work from its inter-subjective origins in the Neo-Concrete movement of the 1950s and ’60s to the increasingly socially engaged character of his Parangolés of the 1960s. She counters the “brittle and well-worn” readings of Oiticica’s participatory works as emancipatory to argue instead that they engaged in “less familiar strains of agency and disruption.”

She focuses on what she describes as art’s epistemological character—“its ability to inaugurate conditions of knowledge [and] reconfigure one’s perception of the world”—to argue that Oiticica’s participatory works did not function merely as a form of political emancipation, but more importantly, as generative epistemological events designed to intervene into everyday life. For Small, the radical and oppositional promises of the participatory in Oiticica’s work should not be understood as arriving at the end of the 1960s with the Parangolés (multilayered fabric capes to be worn and manipulated by user-participants), but rather as structurally embedded within Oiticica’s sculpture from its very beginnings in the early 1960s, when it was first unfolded and opened beyond its own boundaries.

Throughout the book, Small underscores the experiential and contingent nature of Oiticica’s work to produce what she describes as “a deterritorialization of the archive from the inside out.” She reveals and reflects on her own process of researching Oititica’s rich archive, which was tragically largely destroyed in a fire in 2009. Each chapter begins with sensitive and close readings of rare archival images, usually photographs of people—in many cases children—interacting with or using Oiticica’s sculptures, which effectively function to both bring the objects to life and to provide a concrete image-experience against which to set up her discursive frameworks.

Small argues that the limiting modernist “frames” of art history—notions of authorship, art’s presumed autonomy, and the historical methods with which art is categorized—should be unfolded, or reconfigured. Hence, she methodologically employs “procedures embedded within the work” to enact a formal and conceptual operation rooted in the paradigms of “the folded” and “the framed.” These help her to understand how Oiticica’s works functioned structurally and socially. Like Shtromberg who is interested in how Brazilian postwar art was entrenched in systems, matrices, and circuits, Small considers art a “matrix of practice and reception” and contends that Oiticica’s artistic agency was embedded within “a circuit” of actors, events, histories, and conditions, including the legacy of European constructive art, and the developmentalism of Brazil at mid-century.

As with Shtromberg’s chapter on newspapers, which examines how the medium functioned as a site of artistic intervention and journalistic resistance, Small’s first chapter “The Folded and the Flat,” also draws on the newspaper’s structure and mode of disseminating information (through the physical flattening or folding of the page) as a point of departure for understanding the shift from the Concrete (1956 – 58) to the Neo-Concrete art movement (1959 – 61). To do this, she analyzes a range of artworks to argue that Neo-Concretism transformed Concretism’s “flat” approach of conveying information, into one of “folding,” which opened up art objects to their surroundings. Her second chapter, “The Cell and the Plan”—which examines the relationship between art and modernist building projects like the Museum of Modern Art of Rio de Janeiro (1955) and the new capital of Brasília (1960)—parallels Shtromberg’s interests in cartography and topographical organization as a mode of consolidating nationalist ideologies in her chapter on maps. Small argues that Oiticica attempted to recuperate and revise modernism’s formal structures, despite their utopian failures, by scaling his work in relation to the human body. Specifically, she argues, he transformed the institutional logic of the “plan” into a diagrammatic mode of organic growth that recast the developmental by way of the subterranean and the bodily.

Here she analyzes his most well-known work, Tropicalía (1967), an installation reminiscent of the organic architecture of Brazil’s favelas, comprising stereotypical Brazilian signifiers like sand, tropical plants, and live parrots, as well as “penetrables”— structures into which participants could walk—one of which was a labyrinth of panels that led to a TV set broadcasting a local channel. For Small, the work functioned as “an inversion of [Brasília’s] developmentalist aims,” and effectively obliterated the allegory of national identity Brasília represented. For Shtromberg, who also discusses the work in her chapter on television, Tropicalía pointed to TV’s capacity to promote the state’s ideological agenda to the masses, as well as the contradictions of technological modernism in a country where even in the most impoverished communities, every home had a TV.

While the first half of Small’s book considers how “the fold” functions to draw external environments into artworks (and vice versa) by means of the subject, the second half examines processes of “unfolding” in which the subject’s body is co-articulated with the work. Her fourth chapter, “What a Body Can Do,” for example, examines the dialogue between the participant-subject and the art object facilitated by the Parangolé, which she argues was conditioned by the taxonomic and morphological biological classification systems Oiticica had learned as an employee of a natural history museum. She argues that rather than signifying bodily emancipation and free expression, as commonly rehearsed in the literature, the Parangolés functioned instead to question the nature of the body itself, to underscore its incoherence and mutability, and to propose the radical relationality and instability of identity, which she describes as “the unfolding of the body itself.”

While Small’s in-depth study is dense, and the intricacies of her argumentation are sometimes demanding, her best contributions to the literature on Oiticica emerge in her close readings of archival documents and her bold challenges to canonical accounts of his works. Shtromberg’s volume is much more straightforward in its prose, though equally engaging in its careful examination of both canonical and lesser-known conceptual art of the 1970s. Both books are excellent resources that shed new light on the art and socio-economic conditions of postwar art in Brazil from mid-century to the late 1970s, providing nuanced details in their fresh readings that contribute substantively to literature on the topic, especially in the English language. Ultimately, with some noteworthy overlaps in themes and subject matter, these two studies offer divergent styles and approaches to the material which both reveal profound thinking around the social implications of Brazilian postwar art and its political exigencies, which could not be more urgent or pressing given the parallels in the political climates of both Brazil and the U.S. today, and ongoing questions around the political role and efficacy of art during periods of political repression.


Gillian Sneed

GILLIAN SNEED is an art historian and writer, whose work centers on gender studies, and modern and contemporary art of the Americas.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

All Issues