Hélio Oiticica, Eden, 1966–69/2005, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Hélio Oiticica, Eden, 1966–69/2005, mixed media, dimensions variable.


“I CHOOSE TROPICÁLIA not because it is liberal but because it is libertine.” With this pithy turn of phrase, poet Torquato Neto put forth two of the Brazilian movement’s most provocative claims: first, that it provided an ideological alternative to defensive nationalisms, both Left and Right, in late-’60s Brazil; and second, that this alternative was constructed on an aesthetics of punning and resignification, a revaluing of words and positions, a flipping of public platforms into playgrounds that would invert the so-called predicament of Brazil’s tropical malaise into a vibrant cultural legacy called Tropicália.

Curated by Carlos Basualdo, “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture” is the first major exhibition to address this phenomenon that peaked in the years between 1967, when a convergence of experiments in art, music, cinema, and theater came to define an emergent counterculture, and 1969, when the country’s military regime wiped away civil liberties and forced key figures into exile. The works on view are diverse, ranging from documentation of Brechtian theater and televised music festivals to eye-popping dresses, psychedelic album covers, and interactive art. Much like the movement itself, the show is characterized by moments of lucidity and deliberate elision. Visitors seeking hard-and-fast explanations of the links between artistic experimentation and revolutionary politics are likely to be frustrated. But those willing to suspend that desire will find something infinitely more interesting: Tropicália as an unwieldy mechanics of response, a network of exchange, and a series of elaborations and creative misreadings within a burgeoning culture industry.

The term itself originates in an eponymous work by Hélio Oiticica, originally exhibited as part of the seminal 1967 “Nova Objetividade Brasileira” (New Brazilian Objectivity) at the Museu de Arte Moderna in Rio de Janeiro. (The word was popularized later that year in an eponymous song-manifesto by Caetano Veloso.) That exhibition, organized largely by Oiticica himself, serves as Basualdo’s touchstone. Many works in “Tropicália,” were crucial to the artistic discussions leading to “Nova Objetividade,” such as Antônio Dias’s Nota sobre a Morte Imprevista (Note on the Unforeseen Death) of 1965 and Lygia Pape’s Neo-concrete work Livro da criação (Book of Creation), 1959. Others, like Rubens Gerchman’s giant word sculpture Lute (Fight), 1967/2005, were inspired by notions of spectator participation and social engagement put forward by Oiticica in an essay for the show.

In this text the artist outlined a “general constructive will,” a kind of Kunstwollen superimposing Brazilian avant-garde practice onto the country’s concrete social conditions of underdevelopment—evoking both as processes of dynamic formation. This idea of construction is literalized here in metal-and-plywood scaffolding that stretches across two central galleries, providing a flexible system of vitrines, platforms, and vertical displays. In one gallery this scaffolding delineates several semiautonomous spaces for printed ephemera and video footage, as well as set designs and costume sketches from José Celso Martinez Corrêa’s 1967 production of O Rei da Vela (The Candle King)—a play pivotal to the introduction of Oswald de Andrade’s concept of anthropophagy, or cultural cannibalism, into intellectual discussions of the time. In the other gallery, the scaffolding supports interactive works by Lygia Clark and rarely seen architectural drawings and models by Lina Bo Bardi (who designed major museums in São Paulo and Salvador). The structure culminates with a two-story elevated platform that affords the visitor a bird’s-eye view of Oiticica’s Eden, 1966–69/2005: From this perspective, the rich sensorial experience of the installation’s brightly colored wading pools, plastic tents, cabins, and straw nests appears to resolve into an orchestrated plan of abstract geometric forms. In 1959 critic Mário Pedrosa characterized his epoch as one in which “utopia transforms itself into plans.” Descending into Eden’s inviting interiors, we see how Oiticica’s revision of Brazil’s great modernist project was one achieved in formal terms—a recovery of modernism’s utopia in a plan one could not realize so much as enter.

In a certain sense the literalization of the metaphor of construction in the exhibition design is a forced conflation, as it tends to eschew the conservative work of canonization through a more elusive—and potentially more attractive—rhetoric of openness, process, and productive indeterminacy. Yet Tropicália’s canonization is precisely what is at stake in this show, as the catalogue’s carefully researched critical essays and period anthology make abundantly clear. Basualdo’s central argument is that Tropicália is not simply a historically or geographically specific cultural phenomenon but an intellectual strategy of establishing dialogue—a strategy sufficiently powerful and elastic, moreover, to warrant application to the challenges of multiculturalism and ideological difference we face today.

If Tropicália’s decentering power rests on a permanently shifting periphery, however, what does it mean that history ended up on its side? With Gilberto Gil as Brazil’s current minister of culture, Caetano Veloso an international star, and the phenomenon itself a favored topic in Brazilian cultural studies, Tropicália is certainly no longer the odd man out. In part, the exhibition addresses this historical condensation through commissioned responses by contemporary artists including Ernesto Neto, Rivane Neuenschwander, and Arto Lindsay. Some are little more than playful meditations on Tropicalist themes. The most successful are deliberately oblique, if not actively critical, in relation to Tropicália’s legacy. And here I would single out Rodrigo Araújo’s Compro e Vendo Imagens (Buy and Sell Images), 2001/2005—a makeshift stall, similar to those found on Brazilian street corners, that offers images rather than bus tickets and cigarettes for sale. Araújo’s pun reveals the most glaring divide between Tropicália’s historical moment and our own: The nascent culture industry that permitted Tropicália to act, however briefly, as a disruptive intervention has since become a full-fledged society of spectacle. In 1969 Roberto Schwarz wrote that Tropicália submitted Brazil’s anachronisms to the “white light of ultramodernity”; Araújo’s crude stall and sophisticated commodities invert this equation—just as global capital, in the years since Tropicália’s heyday, has adopted tactics once the exclusive province of the margins. Looking back on Tropicália we see that it marks both the refusal and the possibility of this about-face.

Irene Small is a New York–based art historian and critic

“Tropicália” travels to the Barbican Art Gallery, London, Feb 15–May 21; and other venues.