Cildo Meireles

Fondacao de Serralves

A black leather case divided in half, containing two symmetrical pockets; at the bottom of each pocket, earth. This carrying case holds the memory of a performance by Cildo Meireles that took place in November of 1969, in a border zone between the provinces of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Meireles’ performance consisted of digging a hole on either side of this virtual dividing line and exchanging the earth that had been dug from each. Mutações geográficas: fronteira Rio-São Paulo (Geographical mutations: Rio-São Paulo border, 1969) was perhaps one of the most subtle pieces in this retrospective exhibition of Meireles’ work—organized by IVAM in Valencia, and curated by Vicente Todoli (director of Serralves) and Nuria Enguita—which traveled to the Fundação de Serralves in Porto, as part of the biannual cultural festival “Third Journey in Contemporary Art.”

This piece puts into play, with great economy, some of the most provocative and significant characteristics of Meireles’ work, while underlining its continuing relevance. At a moment when wars are being fought over the question of borders, it makes a strong argument for the possibilities of hybrid cultures, serving as an eloquent response to the theoretical and political problems of multiculturalism. This creative nomadism is a result not only of artistic exchange but also of a cultural and ethical imperative. Meireles is one of the contemporary artists best able to establish an equation between the conditions of a certain society, in this case Brazil, and global aesthetic and ideological debates. Along with artists like Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, he was in the frontline of the Brazilian avant-garde of the ’60s, articulating a specifically Brazilian approach within the wider field of modern plastic arts.

Missão/missões (How to build cathedrals) [Mission, missions (how to build cathedrals), 1987] is an example of a systematic but open-ended work that forges a link between a universalist perspective and a particular economic and religious context. In this piece 600,000 coins, bordered by 86 stone slabs, form a square on the floor, out of which rises a thin column formed of 800 communion wafers. Hanging from this column are 2,000 bull tibias, also in the shape of a square. Missão/missões . . . is meant to be presented in a room that has been darkened save for lights placed between the bones. The piece’s impact comes from the progressive shocks that are triggered by physical and symbolic contrasts as the materials let loose a chain of possible associations: coins/communion wafers/bones; money/church/nature; power/faith/death. This installation highlights sociopolitical nexuses, while, without proselytizing, it obliges the viewer to confront them.

Nomadism returned in the most recent installation presented in this show, symptomatically titled Glove Trotter, 1991. A sheet of metallic knit covers a group of balls of various sizes, materials, and colors, which, thanks to the flexibility of the knit, remain partly visible and liable to move as one walks through the piece. An essential characteristic of Meireles’ approach is his claim to a multisensorial art that rejects the privileging of vision and its authority. Almost all of the most important installations involve the role of touch, hearing, smell, or even, in a work that was not included in this show, taste (Entrevendo [Looking between, 1970–94]). Examples include the experience of walking on ashes or on sticks of chalk, in Cinza (Ashes, 1984–86); or of walking on a thick layer of talcum powder, in an atmosphere heavy with the disquieting smell of gas, in the installation Volátil (Volatile, 1980–94), constructed in the garden of Serralves.

Meireles’ constructions are designed to seduce an observer who functions as a participant, each work provoking a physical experience that lingers like a memory of something lived both bodily and in the imagination. He likes to recount a story from his childhood: having spotted a vagrant lighting a fire by which to spend the night, he anxiously awaited the morning, expecting to find the wanderer in the same place; instead, in the middle of the ashes, he found a small house made of sticks. Through this story Meireles helps us to reconsider the role of the artist, the public, the artwork, and its presentation within the nomadism of contemporary artistic discourse.

Alexandre Melo

Translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Glaser.