Lygia Clark

Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris

I know of no other artist whose oeuvre a curator could find more difficult to present than that of Lygia Clark (1920–88). Though the Brazilian artist was acclaimed in her own country, she remained marginal in the art world all her life. Her works after 1965 (which she labeled “propositions”) were never meant to be offered for sale; nor were they made to be “shown.” They consist of nothing else but the use by others, according to certain rules determined by the artist, of various easily replicated props—such as a pebble and a plastic bag filled with one’s own warm breath and tied with a rubber band. (This becomes a “proposition” only when one places the pebble on the corner of the inflated bag, letting it sink in a bit, and maintains the precarious equilibrium by gently holding the bag with both hands: The slightest pressure makes the pebble pop up and down, like a fisherman’s bob.) Because a proposition is conceived by Clark as something not to be beheld but experienced (she always resisted the theater, insisting that if her work was performative, it denied performance), any material record, except for the verbal account given by a participant, is disappointingly matter-of-fact. Photographs function at best as a documentary supplement to the “user’s guide” accompanying the props one is invited to manipulate, and to show the latter as art objects would be misleading, transforming them into mere fetishes.

It is thus no surprise that the conditions for experiencing Clark’s “propositions” in artistic institutions have rarely been met. The recent Palais des Beaux-Arts exhibition (organized and produced by the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1997, the show also toured Marseilles and Porto in 1998) was a remarkable exception. Accompanied by an excellent catalogue that offers, together with several critical essays, the most complete anthology of Clark’s own riveting writings (much of it previously unpublished), the show provided an excellent sample of her early work (paintings, reliefs, and sculptures) and, as far as the later propositions are concerned, it followed the solution Clark herself devised for her first major retrospective (1986) in Rio de Janeiro: The “original” props were exhibited as prototypes on pedestals or hooked on the walls, but next to them were duplicates ready for use (as well as explanatory materials), to be replaced as soon as wear and tear rendered them obsolete.

Even access to the least musealable part of Clark’s work—the kind of polysensorial therapy for treating borderline mental patients that she invented and practiced from 1976 to 1984—was provided. Assistants trained by psychoanalysts who had worked with Clark would lead the visitor, on request, through the ritual of one of the sessions. Unfortunately, in such a public place, this elicited an exhibitionist/voyeurist divide that Clark had long managed to abolish in her propositions. In the exhibition this spectacularization of Clark’s late practice engendered its own antidote, the creation of a sanctimonious atmosphere that was wholly contrary to her intent (it has prompted several critics to allude to Beuys, whose cult she loathed). Perhaps documentation is all one can present concerning this last phase of her work, and even then the dilemma is not entirely resolved.

Such difficulties are not of course unique to Clark’s work, but the manner in which her propositions tested and gradually overturned the subject/object opposition pertaining to aesthetic consumption remains particular. The progressive disappearance of the art object in Clark’s production can be traced back to the traumatic and liberating experience of the Caminhando (Trailing, Walking along) in 1964 and from there to her early reinterpretation of geometric abstraction. The basic material in the former is a paper Möbius strip (nothing could be easier to obtain and to make). Here are Clark’s do-it-yourself instructions:

Take a pair of scissors, stick one point into the surface and cut continuously along the length of the strip. Take care not to converge with the preexisting cut—which will cause the band to separate into two pieces. When you have gone the circuit of the strip, it’s up to you whether to cut to the left or to the right of the cut you’ve already made. The idea of choice is capital. The unique meaning of this experience is in the act of doing it. The work is your act alone. To the extent that you cut the strip, it refines and redoubles itself into interlacings. At the end the path is so narrow that you can’t open it further. It’s the end of the trail.

What’s left, a pile of paper spaghetti on the floor, is ready for the wastebasket: “There is only one type of duration: the act. The act is that which produces the Caminhando. Nothing exists before and nothing afterwards,” writes Clark, adding that it is essential “not to try to know—while you are cutting—what you are going to cut and what you have already cut.” And then: “Even if this proposition is not considered as a work of art, and even if one remains sceptical in relation to what it implies, it is necessary to do it.”

Three aspects of the Caminhando recur in Clark’s subsequent work. First, there is the insistence on the irreducibility of the now (she would sometimes call this “the immanence of the instant”). The Caminhando is a modest device whose foremost function is to awaken the cutter to this precious temporal content of which our gestures have been deprived by mechanization. Second, the personal, intimate nature of the experience itself implies both a deflation of the artist’s authority and a new mode of communication (in 1969, at the very moment when her propositions began to involve several participants, she wrote: “My communication cannot be made through a priori spectacles, group manifestations like in the others, but it is such a biological, cellular experience that it is only communicable also through an organic and cellular manner. From one to two, to three or more but something always comes out of the other, and it is an extremely intimate communication from pore to pore, from hair to hair, from sweat to sweat”). Finally, there is the marked contrast between the simplicity of the gestures and their phantasmic charge (for Clark, the concept of the act realized in the Caminhando, for example, unleashed a cosmological dream of generalized fusion: “I perceive the totality of the world as a unique, global rhythm, which extends from Mozart to the gestures of beach football”). Clark, however, never proffered the free associations that spun out from her personal experience of one of her propositions as its “meaning” (she was fundamentally opposed to allegory): On the rare occasions that she published these verbal images, it was solely as examples of the type of effect (liberating fantasies) the proposition could have, once set in motion—it was to indicate that if a proposition had no exchange value, it did have a use value.

Most of Clark’s subsequent work unfolds from the Caminhando, but the fact that its material is a topological figure—a plane that has no reverse side, no recto or verso—ties it to her previous production as well. From the start Clark was fascinated by topological riddles in which spatial dichotomies are abolished. Her first mature paintings (1954) were modular jigsaw puzzles in wood in which she endeavored to give a positive role to the black interstices (empty joints) between the color blocks and to transform the frame into a pictorial element. Discovering in 1957 the isometric positive/negative reversals of Albers’s Structural Constellations, she understood that she needed to suspend the identity of the ground if she wanted her lines to function in a manner other than graphically. Her next step was to execute a series of pictures (or rather wood reliefs) in which a square mechanically painted in a matte black is bordered on one or more sides (and sometimes divided) by a recessed white line that functions more like a hinge than a frame.

Clark had managed to illusionistically torque the plane, an accomplishment she verified in Ovo Linear (Linear egg), 1958, a black disk bordered by an interrupted white line. Because the line laterally dissolves into the surrounding white wall, we refrain from the gestaltish habit of closing the circle, and the black area tends to visually shift in depth with the line. The perceptual to and fro, conceived as a “suppression of the plane,” propelled Clark, together with Hélio Oiticica, to found the Neo-concrete group, whose 1959 manifesto was a declaration of war against the rationalism of geometric abstraction represented in the person of Max Bill (who had a strong following in Brazil in the early ’50s). This accompanied what remains for me the most moving (and underestimated) work of her early period: the series of reliefs called “Casulo” (Cocoon) and “Contra-relevo” (Counter-relief, in homage to Tatlin), both 1959, in which she translated the instability of Albers’s spaces into the real, phenomenal field of our senses. Each Casulo is made of a single rectangular sheet of metal cut and folded (but not cut out—nothing is added or deleted) so that its frontal proportion, whatever its projection in space, is always a square (for the beholder, the discovery that what had first been perceived as a flat plane contains, in fact, an interior space can be vertiginous, as if the ground had collapsed under one’s feet). The fold engenders the fantasy of unfolding, and of the plane as a compression of volume, an idea developed further in the Counter-reliefs.

That a plane has a volume, and that this volume can be opened up (as a cocoon), is at the core of Clark’s “Bichos” (Animals) of 1960–66, made of hinged plates of metals that one can manipulate to give the sculpture various shapes (a Bicho is perfectly flat when stored). The articulation and disposition of the plates determine a set of possibilities that are often unforeseeable in advance. [“When I’m asked how many movements the Bicho can make,” Clark wrote, “I answer: ‘I don’t know, you don’t know, but it knows.’”) In these first participatory works, Clark transposed her topological investigations into the modes of relations between subject (“beholder”) and object: Neither is passive nor entirely free. The Bicho is conceived as an organism that reacts, with its own laws and limitations, to the movements of whoever manipulates it to modify its configuration. Sometimes it requires certain gestures or unexpectedly turns itself inside out: The dialogue between Bicho and “beholder” is at times exhilarating, at times frustrating, but it always undermines the notion that one could ever be in control of the other.

It is at this juncture that the Caminhando intervenes. At first, Clark proposed a formal interpretation of this experience, concentrating as it were on the paper spaghetti that resulted. Immediately afterward, in 1964 and ’65, she realized a series of soft sculptures made of sheets of black rubber. These “Trepantes” (Grubs) can be disposed at leisure on any support (hung on the wall they resemble Robert Morris’s “Felt Tangles” of a few years later). But this was Clark’s last attempt to create an art object: The Trepantes did not proliferate, and the reading of the Caminhando as performative act governed all that was to follow. From then on, the adequate description of any proposition would require a meticulous account of its procedures (and a report of its effect, at least of its effect on me)—not a feasible task in the space allotted here.

From the works of 1966 (grouped under the title “Nostalgia of the Body” and to which Stone and Air, the pebble and plastic bag proposition alluded to above belongs) all the way through to the therapeutic work at the end of her life, two aspects of Clark’s production become exceedingly important: the temporal dimension (her propositions required progressively more time to open up like cocoons and affect the participants) and the literal embodiment of the material props as what Melanie Klein called “part objects,” the imagery of one’s own body parts fleetingly summoned during the enactment of the proposition. (One might even suggest that the final turn of Clark’s activity—that its form was based on the model of the psychoanalytic cure and its weekly multi-sessions—is a direct consequence of her drive to make time, particularly biological, bodily time, her main medium.)

Rather than attempt to describe this vast and diverse body of work from the late ’60s and ’70s, which is now better known than that of her early career, I would like to give Clark the final word, in the inimitable prose found at the beginning of “Breviary of the Body,” a long text from the mid-’60s (thus contemporary with the “Nostalgia of the Body” works) published for the first time in the catalogue to the exhibition:

I am of the family of the Batrachians. All my perception of the world came to me through my belly, entrails and hands. I have no memory, my remembrances are always connected to past perceptions learned through the senses. In the lapse of a second I feel taken by the warmth of the feeding bottle in the palm of the hand, accompanied by the taste of warm milk which slowly goes down, leaving a trail of bubbles behind it. This experience, perhaps the most remote in my life, inscribed on my past, still makes itself present today. There was such an incorporation and cohesion at that moment that today it is only comparable to this sensation I have when, feeling whole, cohesive, united; I feel as if I were holding hands with myself.

Yve-Alain Bois is the Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.