Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, CC5 Hendrix-War, 1973, slides, music, hammocks. Installation view.

Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, CC5 Hendrix-War, 1973, slides, music, hammocks. Installation view.

Hélio Oiticica “Quasi-Cinemas”

Wexner Center for the Arts

As a child there are three main things you learn about art. First, it’s supposed to be beautiful. Second, it’s something you shouldn’t touch. And third, if you stand in front of it for long enough, your feet will start to hurt. Certainly, art’s radical transformation in the late ’60s and early ’70s from self-contained object to multimedia installation cannot be ascribed entirely to orthopedic concerns. But their significance should not be overlooked. An interviewer argued to Marcel Broodthaers that the public’s preference for his Jardin d’hiver among the works in a 1974 Brussels show proved its aesthetic merit. The artist offered a different explanation: “There are chairs,” he noted, “and one can sit on them.” Our unruly physical selves, Broodthaers reminds us, cannot be wished or willed away in some grand apotheosis in which earthly sight merges with supreme self-consciousness. Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica was equally if not more aware of this fact. Like the Jardin d’hiver, Oiticica’s “Quasi-cinemas” subvert traditional notions of aesthetic contemplation and artistic value through their attention to bodily comfort, giving viewers the opportunity not merely to sit but to lie down on hammocks and mattresses scattered throughout the gallery space.

Conceived during the seven years Oiticica spent in New York, where he arrived in 1971 as the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the “Quasi-cinemas” are a series of multimedia installations that both incorporate and interrogate the language of cinema. In these works, the acknowledgment of the viewer’s body finds a corollary in Oiticica’s careful attention to the material basis of his chosen medium. Oiticica’s materialism, however, avoids the literalism of Greenbergian modernism. Slide projections with accompanying musical “sound tracks,” the “Quasi-cinemas” are movies made by other means: They utilize film’s constituent parts—the sequential projection of still images, the combination of audio and visual tracks—while dismantling the illusion of their seamless integration. By simultaneously showing the same group of slides on different walls (and sometimes on the ceiling), Oiticica articulates another physical reality of film—that it is mechanically reproduced—while shattering the false sense of privacy generated by the medium’s proscenium display. His works further reorient the spectator’s relation to the image by substituting the aforementioned mattresses and hammocks for the rows of chairs found in a theater. By rendering the viewer supine, Oiticica undercuts the primacy of vision associated with an upright posture.

The fusion of structural and phenomenological concerns embodied in this act of “horizontalization” similarly informs Oiticica’s treatment of the photographic image. Neyrótika, 1973, for example, consists of a series of slides of Adonis-like boys lounging on bunk beds in the artist’s New York loft. Shot from overhead at an intimate proximity, the recumbent youths exude a languid sensuality that carries over to their vertical presentation, infusing what Walter Benjamin, in reference to the eruption of billboards in the modern metropolis, termed the “dictatorial perpendicular” with a subtly carnal charge. A similar axial reorientation is deployed more dramatically in the “Block-Experiments in Cosmococa,” 1973, five slide installations created in collaboration with Brazilian filmmaker Neville D’Almeida.

Here the photographic portrait (in this case, pictures of pop-culture icons like Jimi Hendrix and Marilyn Monroe) is pressed into service as a flat surface onto which D’Almeida draws tracks of cocaine, which, one presumes, the two will subsequently snort. Clinging to the projected image in defiance of gravity’s laws, the white powder traces Marilyn’s famous features and adorns Hendrix’s face with a network of spidery lines.

The prominent display of illicit drugs helps explain these works’ limited exhibition during Oiticica’s lifetime. Of the fifteen “Quasi-cinemas,” only Neyrótika was shown publicly before the artist’s death in 1980 from a stroke at age 42, and nearly all of the “Quasi-cinemas” were privately presented in the artist’s loft. Fortunately, Oiticica was a prolific writer, and his detailed notes and instructions have enabled the posthumous realization of the “Cosmococas.” Three are featured in the Wexner exhibit, along with Neyrótika and the Super-8 film Agripina é Roma-Manhattan, 1972. (A film previously thought unfinished, Brasil Jorge, ca. 1971, was discovered by the Oiticica Foundation after the Wexner show opened and will be included in the exhibition’s later venues.)

Oiticica coined the term quasi-cinema in a letter describing Travelogue of Atlantis, a slide-projection piece by underground filmmaker Jack Smith. If an encounter with American pop culture lies at the heart of Oiticica’s cinematic investigations, his perception of it was clearly mediated by the camp sensibility of artists like Smith and Warhol (his use of Marilyn’s visage being an obvious allusion to the latter). Oiticica eschewed Warhol’s studied neutrality, though, for a clearly deconstructive approach. Neither critical condemnation nor outright embrace, the “Quasi-cinemas” seek rather to transform pop culture from within by unleashing its latent liberatory potential. For example, Oiticica was fascinated by coca’s medicinal role in Incan society, and its transformation into a salable drug is a consummate symbol of capitalist commodification. But because it is illegal, cocaine also propels its users outside the law—into a space where new relationships to existing systems of oppression might be imagined and (at least momentarily) enacted. Oiticica’s iconography—rock stars, sexually ambiguous boy toys, copious amounts of coke—clearly reflects his early-’70s milieu. But in their extension of the autonomous artwork into the sphere of “everyday life” and their recoding of aesthetic experience from an act of private contemplation to an instance of collective emancipation, the “Quasi-cinemas” recall the utopian experiments of the Soviet avant-garde. Oiticica’s work similarly strives for a revolution in consciousness––one based on a rigorous analysis of art’s formal structures. In his case, though, the revolution’s designated subject is not the industrial proletariat but the citizen-consumer of our own global era.

Margaret Sundell is a critic based in New York.