New York

“Art from Brazil in New York”

Twenty-five years ago, on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark international exhibition “Information,” Cildo Meireles declared “I am here in this exhibition to defend neither a career nor any nationality,” a sentiment echoed by his fellow artist Hélio Oiticica, who proclaimed “I am not here representing Brazil, or representing anything else.” Today these statements evoke a bygone era of internationalism: the reduction of artistic substance to the trope of “information” implied a logic of universal equivalence in the esthetic realm that promised an easy traversal of political and cultural borders. To be seen as representing some particular collectivity was to be doomed to marginalization. Naturally this was exactly what happened. Neither Meireles’ nor Oiticica’s work would be exhibited again in New York until1988, and then only in exhibitions that straightforwardly declared their “representative” ambitions: “Brazil Projects” at P.S. 1 and “The Latin American Spirit” at the Bronx Museum. (Meireles was also included that year in another exhibition, “The Debt,” at Exit Art.) The most recent venture into this arena, “Art from Brazil in New York” (January/February 1995), was accompanied by a catalogue that cited Meireles’ and Oiticica’s proudly defiant assertions; twenty-five years later the evident untruth of these declarations fills them with pathos.

All this goes to underline the fact that if art from Brazil has begun to gain a toehold in New York in recent years, it has been very much in a context inflected by an identity politics that, in only a seeming paradox, is also a politics of difference. Like a number of similar ventures in the past few years (“Art Israel: The 1980s,” 1986; “Parallel Project” [Mexican art], 1991; “The Argentine Project,” 1991–92), “Art from Brazil in New York” was not a museum survey but an attempt on the part of the Brazilian government to promote a nation’s art through a series of coordinated exhibitions in private galleries and alternative spaces. Such efforts betray mixed intentions: the desire both to promote the image of the country and to insinuate selected artists as individual exhibitors in the gallery system—to play up local identity yet to assimilate. Above all, they reflect the belief that there is an art world whose center is stable and coherent enough to confer “recognition.”

Does it work? Past experience suggests that little of the art imported this way will make any lasting impact, no matter how significant some of the artists may be. This failure may have something to do with the way such projects benefit neither from the comprehensiveness of a museum survey nor from a gallery’s sustained investment in a single artist’s career. For instance, though Oiticica was accorded a retrospective at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center two years ago, his piece at the Marian Goodman Gallery, Cosmococa CCS Hendrix: War, 1973 (created in collaboration with the filmmaker Neville d’ Almeida), did little to suggest why. More revealing of the roots of contemporary Brazilian art was the other presentation of a past master at the Drawing Center: the remarkable selection of works on paper ( “Objetos gráficos” [Graphic objects]) by Mira Schendel, who worked with both subjective gesture and readymade form—drawn line and typography—in dazzling ways. The work with typography in particular suggests the connection of this Swiss-born artist to Constructivism, reminding us of the peculiar trajectory that begins with Max Bill, of all people, and the first São Paulo Bienal, and ends with the emergence in Brazil (as in Argentina) of a vital Concrete art movement. With Oiticica and Lygia Clark (the latter unaccountably excluded from the recent Brazilian exhibitions in New York), this would develop into the Neo-Concretism of the early ’60s, anticipating extensions of artistic practice into the social sphere that would later occur in European and North American movements such as arte povera.

Of course, “Art from Brazil in New York” in no way pretended to give such historical background, though Oiticica’s Cosmococa did begin to suggest a lineage in which to place the atmospheric installations of Meireles, Valeska Soares, and Tunga, which together gave the most coherent image of a group of family resemblances. When I say “atmospheric,” I am using the word literally. For both Meireles and Soares, smell is one of the ways in which their work occupies space. Meireles’ Volatile, 1994, was certainly the clearest and most effective of the installations. Doffing shoes and socks, the viewer entered a darkened room, divided in half by a wall, whose floor was completely covered in a thick layer of squishy talcum powder. The feeling was something like sinking one’s feet into a ground of fine, damp ash. The air was permeated with the smell of natural gas, or, rather, with the smell artificially added to the inherently odorless gas so that deadly leaks can be detected. (Despite the knowledge that I wasn’t really being poisoned, I had to suppress a desperate and involuntary urge to flee.) Around the corner of an interior wall stood a single candle, which would have been sufficient, in the actual presence of gas, to set the space aflame.

To be sure, there is something sentimental about Volatile—its willful immersion in an atmosphere of morbidity and mourning closed off from outside reference. But this sentimentality—a sense of indulgence sometimes bordering on the decadent—tinged not the worst but the best of the work in this group of shows, from Soares’ rose-strewn installation in the window of the New Museum to Adriana Varejão’s paintings with imagery taken from ex votos, at the Annina Nosei gallery. The pervasive sense of dreamy dissipation in these works was already present in Oiticica’s installation, which invited the public to lounge in hammocks while viewing a slide show about cocaine to the sound of Jimi Hendrix. “Art from Brazil” may have been intended to give Brazilian art its place in the international circuit of contemporary art—to prove itself, in the words of Brazil’s ambassador, “fully engaged in the debate over modernity—yearning to continually move forward and to interact in a dynamic way with other sources of creativity from around the world,” but the most interesting art on hand seemed at odds with this description. Disclaiming what perhaps amounts to a nostalgia for a fading notion of the dynamic and efficient North, these works suggest, instead, a will to inertia. Having taken the utopian promise of international Constructivism at its word, artists like Oiticica and Clark pushed through to what Paulo Herkenhoff describes as a politicized rediscovery of the subjective and corporeal in their vestiary and environmental works. Are the younger artists embracing the esthetics of Mallarmé in opposition to the neo-Concretists’ Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerke, reducing their “mythless rituals” (in Clark’s words) to the most formal indicators of absence? Whatever the intent, here the subject has become a mere citation, the self an evocation—a whiff of fear or desire.

Barry Schwabsky is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He contributes frequently to Artforum.