New York

Cildo Meireles

New Museum

Conceptual art is often associated with a dematerialization of the art object, but, contrary to myth, few of its practitioners sought to eschew materiality altogether. In fact, most engaged in what might be more accurately described as a rematerialization of aesthetics, wherein images composed of paint and canvas were displaced by the different materialities of photographic and textual information. In lieu of discrete artworks conceived and produced according to the model of the commodity, attempts were made to reveal social form by visualizing networks of power or ideology a difficult project indeed, since power and ideology, which function best when hidden from view, manifest an inherent tendency to veil their operations.

Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles, whose retrospective exhibition (organized by New Museum curators Dan Cameron and Gerardo Mosquera) is on view in New York, has contributed significantly to this project. In Inserções em Circuitos Ideologicos: Coca-Cola Projeto (Insertions into ideological circuits: Coca-Cola project), 1970, the artist transferred oppositional messages (e.g., “yankees, go home!”) onto redeemable glass Coke bottles before they were refilled and recirculated. In a later version of this work (subtitled Projeto Cédula), resistant slogans were stamped on paper money of various denominations. In Insertions, Meireles sought to identify two operations so vast that they defy intelligibility—the global circulation of commodities and of currency. As he has put it, “The important thing in the project was the introduction of the concept of ‘circuit,’ isolating it and fixing it.” Through his parasitical appropriation of the Coke bottle or the dollar bill as the medium for an oppositional form of political speech, Meireles brought into focus the fundamental paradox of money and commodities: that despite their astounding mobility, both are founded in a kind of centralization and repetition produced by the concentration of economic (and artistic) power in imperial centers such as the United States.

If Meireles has sought to “isolate and fix” such circuits whose ubiquity renders them paradoxically essential and invisible, his art has simultaneously engaged a complementary set of spatial problems. In his sculptural installations, the commodity-critique procedure is turned on its head: Rather than make invisible circuits visible, here the manifest, quotidian reality of things, spaces, and sensations is shown to be unstable, mobile, and even illusory. In other words, a dialectical relation is established in Meireles’s oeuvre between the global circuit and the local space, each of which colonizes and frames the other. In Espacos Virtuais: Cantos IV (Virtual spaces: corners IV), 1967–68, one of a series of room fragments consisting of two walls and a floor that meet at a corner, kinesthetic experience is confronted by its optical contradiction. In this work a narrow vertical spur of “excess” space extends from the corner, but this distortion is invisible from many angles because of the optical continuation of baseboard and molding below. While Corners does not pertain directly to circuits of money and things, the rift it opens up between perception and “reality” is profoundly linked to the exploration of ideological codes that had motivated the Insertions.

With Desvio para o Vermelho (Red shift), 1967–84, the link to the Insertions is more explicit. The installation includes three spaces aligned in a “u” configuration. The first impersonates an ordinary domestic room in which all the furnishings, from the couch and the television to the artworks hanging on the white walls, are uniformly colored in a saturated blood red. The second space, whose walls modulate from the white of the red furnished chamber to black, includes a tiny bottle fallen onto the floor, out of which spills an immense puddle of red. The final area is dark but for a diminutive spotlighted sink, installed at an angle, whose faucet expels a continuous stream of red fluid. Red Shift carries the viewer on a breathtaking circuit from the first room, whose lurid monochrome seems to deaden rather than enliven the ostensibly ordinary space, to the perpetually flowing “dye” that colors this world red. The transposition of object into flow and ordinary furnishings into blood suggests the critique of global circuits of capital that Meireles later accomplished through a different articulation of object and fluid: the Coke bottle and its ever-replenished effervescent contents. Red Shift implies that everyday worlds are accomplished only at the price of violence and exploitation.

My intention here is not to suggest an identity between Insertions and Red Shift. Indeed, it is their difference within a shared field of concerns that I find significant. One of Meireles’s most impressive accomplishments is the dialectical relation he establishes between circuits of capital and architectural space—a fundamental dynamic that the New Museum completely fails to grasp. The two main floors of the exhibition are taken up with a jumble of installations, configured in no particular chronological order, while the commodity- and currency-oriented projects and other significant pieces are isolated in a basement gallery behind the bookstore. As a result, the dialectic at the heart of the artist’s practice falls apart. This strategy does a serious disservice to Meireles, who comes across as little more than a good installation artist rather than the historically significant contributor to global discourses of Conceptual art that he is. It is a shame, given the lack of familiarity US audiences have with Brazilian art history, that there was virtually no effort to organize his oeuvre either chronologically or conceptually (these art-historical tasks were left entirely to the exhibition catalogue, a monograph copublished with Phaidon Press). This sort of haphazard organization is not uncommon in solo exhibitions and it is worth noting. Despite years of proclaiming the “death of the author” in the art world, the name of the artist is still considered, in practice, sufficient to unify an exhibition as under-theorized as this one. Perhaps it’s time for museums to take seriously the notion of the author-function and spend more time demonstrating the logic of a particular artist’s practices instead of indiscriminately hoarding the products issued forth under his or her name.

“Cildo Meireles” travels to the Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, July 13–August 1; and to the Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, October 5–December 3.

David Joselit