Critics’ Picks

Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1966–67, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Hélio Oiticica, Tropicália, 1966–67, mixed media, dimensions variable.

New York

Hélio Oiticica

Lisson Gallery | 504 West 24th Street | New York
504 West 24th Street

Lisson Gallery | 508 West 24th Street | New York
508 West 24th Street
October 30, 2020–January 23, 2021

A well-manicured terrain of white sand and pebbled paths stretches across the cement floor of Lisson Gallery’s 504 West Twenty-Fourth Street location. A land mass made of gentle geographic curves, Hélio Oiticica’s islet is home to a trio of shed-like structures and clusters of large tropical plants in terra-cotta pots as well as hand-painted signs on wood and clay with delicate script. Two of the makeshift constructions possess walls crafted from variously colored fabrics, tarps, and boards. The one in the back of the space, however, is a cage housing two live macaws.

Conceived in 1966 and completed in 1967, Oiticica’s architectural installation Tropicália was designed to manifest and critique his native Brazil. Stenciled letters inside the smallest of the three dwellings read, “a pureza é um mito” (purity is a myth). Aviary toys—ad hoc assemblages of wood and rope, not officially a part of the show—hang inside the pen. Nonetheless, looking within the coop, one might find formal relationships between the birds’ cubic, rough-hewn playthings and Oiticica’s shanties. Such resonances poke fun at our preconceived notions of picture-perfect, subequatorial paradises.

How does Tropicália register in 2020, amid a global pandemic and the irreparable planetary havoc humans continue to wreak? Wandering into this part of the Oiticica exhibition, which occupies both of Lisson’s Chelsea locations, I felt like I’d come upon some end-time encampment, some premonitory locus for a new age exclusively populated by, per ecotheorist Donna Haraway, “critters”—e.g., microbes, plants, animals, viruses, or any other type of nonhuman life-form. I wondered about our man-made cardinal directions and how, despite such illusory systems of order, the earth might literally be shifting “south.” “The South is a political fiction constructed by colonial prejudice,” writes philosopher Paul B. Preciado. Oiticica’s art always possesses an edge with a Panglossian twist, an invitation to reimagine the ailing worlds we inhabit, to wander through the ruined labyrinth, and remake it with active play.