PRINT February 2010


Hélio Oiticica

“THE FIRE LASTS and suddenly one day it goes out, but while it lasts it is eternal.” This was the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, writing in July 1966 about appropriation as anti-art. The appropriation in question was a fire can, one of the innumerable makeshift road signals fashioned from empty oil tins that lit the Rio de Janeiro night, as Oiticica wrote, like so many “cosmic, symbolic signs”: anonymous, ubiquitous, yet unquestionably “a work” as soon as singled out by the perceptive act.

Oiticica died unexpectedly at the age of forty-two in 1980, thereby extinguishing a fire that, by all accounts, burned fiercely and passionately, leaving not cinders but blazing light in its wake. B 38 Bólide Lata 01—Apropriação 02 “Consumitivo” (B 38 Can Bolide 01—Appropriation 02 “Consumptive”), 1966, the appropriation described above, was one of these lights: an intellectual proposition both capable of infinite realization and infinitely realized without anyone noticing. Oiticica himself left only a single photograph as notation of the work; as it happens, it is a strangely bleached image, in which a chemical stain appears to dramatically extend the oil tin’s licking flames. Here, proposition and document create a curious materiality that encodes the virtuality of concept as a precarious physical trace.

I have been thinking a lot about this photograph since October 16 of last year, when a voracious fire sparked by a short circuit in an air conditioner consumed hundreds of Oiticica’s works in a storage facility in the family home in Rio de Janeiro. Oiticica was not much interested in museums or collectors and sold little during his lifetime. Thus, immaculately stored within this repository were works and documents spanning the entirety of his career: abstract geometric paintings and suspended reliefs from his late-1950s and early-’60s Neo-concrete phase; hinged, painted boxes and glass jars filled with brilliantly colored, pigment-designated Bólides, or fireballs, begun in the mid-’60s; wearable capes, banners, and tents called Parangolés and made from 1964 on, which envelop and extend the body through complex architectures of twisted and folded painted fabric; maquettes for unrealized labyrinths and cabins; slides and films from the artist’s experiments with expanded cinema in the 1970s; paint chips, drawings, notebooks, letters, costumes, newspaper clippings, and photographs, not to mention the entire artistic oeuvre of Oiticica’s father, the experimental photographer and entomologist José Oiticica Filho, a loss hugely significant in itself.

Initial estimates indicated that 90 percent of Oiticica’s work, valued at more than two hundred million dollars, had been destroyed. The announcement sent shock waves through the Brazilian art world, where artists arrived in tears at the family home, as well as internationally, where Oiticica is increasingly recognized as a central figure within ’60s and ’70s experimental practices and antecedent to contemporary art’s social and relational concerns. In the following weeks, accusations flew. Government officials criticized the artist’s family for hoarding the work rather than entrusting it to the municipality-funded Centro de Arte Hélio Oiticica in downtown Rio. The family countered that this facility had neither climate control nor secure storage (indeed, the family facility’s storage conditions and research capabilities were far better than those of most of Rio’s museums). For many Latin-American artists, the incident was profoundly political. With the anemic collecting policies of national museums and the gradual siphoning off of major works to wealthier institutions abroad, radical Latin-American art practices of the ’60s and ’70s have become less accessible within the continent itself. That Tate Modern in London now finds itself, with only eight pieces, as the most significant institutional repository of Oiticica’s art is a case in point. For many, it seemed as if Oiticica had suffered a second death.

Meanwhile, conservators and the artist’s family amended their original estimate, projecting that as much as 70 percent of the damaged works could be saved. This number, however, disproportionately reflects a large number of early gouache works on cardboard, which constitute the majority of the artist’s oeuvre. Gone, for instance, are almost all of the Parangolés, Oiticica’s most radical inventions, which, due to their fabric- and paint-based construction, must have been quick to go up in flames. Thus, although Oiticica’s second death suddenly appears less definitive, pressing questions about the recuperation and potential reconstruction of the works persist. What, for example, can be ethically reconstructed from the material remains of the fire? When there are no remains, can works be remade on the basis of the estate’s digital archive of notations and plans? If works are reconstructed, will they be in editions, how will they be dated, and for how much and to whom will they be sold? Would such reconstructions be understood as works of art, documents, exhibition copies, memory aids, or just plain commodities? (Significantly, an early gouache from the 1957–58 “Metaesquema” series fetched twice its projected price at auction this past November.)

At the heart of such questions are vying interpretations of the conceptual character of Oiticica’s practice. Like many contemporaneous artists, Oiticica rejected the museum’s culture of autonomous objects. He made works to be touched, manipulated, inhabited, consumed. Works such as the Parangolés require bodily participation in order to be activated. They are “work-actions,” as Oiticica wrote in 1965, and all but incomprehensible without actual use. As many of the originals have deteriorated in the years since the artist’s death, they are exhibited mostly as carefully constructed exhibition copies that can be worn and physically explored as he intended, rather than hung forlornly on a wall. Indeed, it is the existence of these posthumous replicas that now preserves the material memory of their originals. Having acquired a new degree of authenticity, they will be replicated in turn, initiating a chain of copies pointing back to an absent source.

Yet while the Parangolés were never static objects, neither were they scripts in the manner of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing or a Fluxus score, a distinction made clearer when one considers Oiticica’s explicitly instruction-based works such as Made on the Body Capes, published as an uneditioned multiple in 1970. Consisting of a set of instructions for improvising a cape from a three-meter-long piece of cloth, Made on the Body Capes condenses the essential import of the Parangolés—the mutual incorporation of participant and work—into a script whose result is a three-dimensional imprint of the process itself. While such propositions obviate the very notion of an original, most of the works lost in the fire are situated more complexly on a continuum between unique object and score, and it is precisely these coordinates that are currently up for debate. Several commentators writing in Brazilian newspapers and on blogs, for example, argued that Oiticica’s works had become fetishized, some going so far as to say that the fire had “liberated” the artist’s ideas from their material cage. Oiticica’s works, according to this reading, are primarily prompts for experience and better conveyed by propositions and writings than by physical remains. Of course, this idealist position also has its market version, as propositions and projects are easily editioned and sold when remade. Indeed, to utterly dematerialize Oiticica’s production would seem as radically shortsighted a misreading as the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 2004 display of one of Lygia Clark’s movable “Bichos” (Beasts), 1960–66, within a Plexiglas cube. For although Oiticica wrote that his objects were “a passage to experience,” his texts also demonstrate a sustained theorization of the work of art’s material substrate, whether through the critic Ferreira Gullar’s notion of the “non-object,” a term coined to designate the phenomenological intensity of Neo-concrete works; Oiticica’s own “trans-object,” which sought to express a motivated rather than arbitrary relationship between a work’s ready-made and constructed elements; or the designer Rogério Duarte’s “probject,” which Oiticica took to convey an object’s probabilities or potentialities in relation to a participant him- or herself. Experience as prompted by an Oiticica work, then, is not an abstractly immaterial quality so much as a behavioral extension of a work’s structural possibilities, much as an organism’s movement is contingent on its skeletal frame.

In this sense, perhaps it is one of Oiticica’s own sculptures that best indicates what “reconstruction” might mean today. This work, not incidentally, emerged in the wake of another fire: the one that burned nearly the entire collection of the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio in 1978. Just days after artists called for the museum’s reconstruction, Oiticica made a sketch for what he called a “maquette without scale.” The resulting work—Ready Constructible No. 1, 1978–79—consists of twenty-four bricks stacked in a concatenating pattern of solids and voids. As a maquette without scale, Ready Constructible is not a model of a form in miniature. Rather it models—which is to say, it demonstrates, diagrams, and performs. Its serial units both enact a constructive process and picture the behavior by which such a construction develops over time. Although conceived on the heels of the 1978 fire, Ready Constructible abstains from imagining what a reconstructed museum might look like in favor of analyzing how such an institution might behave: as at once “ready” and “unfinished,” as Oiticica wrote, its growth defined by making in the simplest operation of laying down one brick after the next. For Oiticica, Ready Constructible was both a “determined structure” and an “exercise of the indeterminate”; through it, he insisted on a materiality that was both virtual and concrete.

Luckily, several of Oiticica’s works will be recuperated from the recent fire. Others will be reconstructed from varying degrees of material remains. Yet when they are reconstructed, such objects will be three-dimensional diagrams: non-sites, to use Robert Smithson’s term, that necessarily refer us away from the objects themselves. Like Ready Constructible, such diagrams will be both literal and performative, thematizing their distance from the objects, spaces, and experiences they represent. To treat such objects as traditional museum pieces would be to obfuscate this distance in favor of an aura the works themselves sought to disrupt.

Ultimately, this infrathin distance between original and copy, or work and diagram, may allow us to conceive of another space more akin to the laboratories for living and areas for research that artists such as Oiticica imagined in their time. In Mel Bochner’s 1966 exhibition “Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art,” for instance, or, more recently, Martha Rosler’s borrowed library, non-art and non-sites become conditions of possibility for the investigation of what art, in its most fundamental sense, can do. In 2007, a space of this kind was temporarily created when a fictitious collector named Duda Miranda exhibited a series of “remakes” of works by artists including Oiticica, Joseph Beuys, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Robert Smithson in a modest rented apartment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Soon afterward, the collection was dispersed and its owner—a mysteriously absent reader of Borges, library administrator, and sometime theorist of art—disappeared from view. In an interview, Miranda had been candid about the reproduced status of the works, saying that although they may not have been authentic, they nevertheless had “the power to affect.” Here was a deterritorialization of art made possible, in part, by Oiticica’s appropriated fire can of 1966: a paradoxical reminder that the afterlives of works of art inhere not in singular possession, but in collective use.

Irene V. Small is an assistant professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.