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View of “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988,” 2014. Works from the series “Bichos” (Beasts), 1960–66. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

Lygia Clark

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

View of “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988,” 2014. Works from the series “Bichos” (Beasts), 1960–66. Photo: Thomas Griesel.

WHEN ONE OF YOUR HANDS touches the other, something peculiar happens: You become aware of the strange ambivalence that makes your body different from all other things. Your hand is an object in the world, but it is also something you experience from within. And the hand you touch is also both an object and a feeling, sensing part of your embodied self. The touched thing is also touching. This ambiguity of corporeal life—of the active/passive, inside/outside, subject/object—is what phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty spent his life trying to elucidate, and in the late 1950s, Brazilian art critic Mario Pedrosa introduced the Neo-concretist artists in Rio de Janeiro to the French philosopher’s thinking. Lygia Clark, still a painter exploring the possibilities of geometric abstraction in series as exquisite as anything by Kazimir Malevich, would have been among this circle in Rio, and it is clear that her art participates in a conversation that involves philosophy, psychoanalysis, and other speculative fields developed during the period. These ideas pushed her work beyond the painterly surface into sculpture and the visceral realm, and finally into an interrogation of the energies produced by a multiplicity of bodies sharing a space. They also pushed her beyond art.

Take, for example, Clark’s 1966 “proposition” Diálogo de mãos (Dialogue of Hands), a band connecting two hands and forming a Möbius strip—that simple yet philosophically puzzling ribbon that has only one side, turning inside into outside and vice versa. In the most famous image of this work, the connected wrists belong to Clark and her ally Hélio Oiticica. He is so close, and yet infinitely remote. This is the paradox of proximity and distance explored by phenomenology: Touching your own hand, you realize that you will forever remain other to yourself. Touching someone else’s hand and realizing that it is part of another person, someone like you but not you, is an intricate act of intentionality that philosopher Edmund Husserl called pairing. This incarnated and continually divided intersubjectivity is what Clark would most fully explore in the ’70s in her corpo coletivo (collective body) experiments—events that, perhaps, were no longer meant as artworks. How did she get to this point?

The Museum of Modern Art’s stylish and impressive “Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art, 1948–1988,” curated by Connie Butler and Luis Pérez-Oramas, provided a lavish account of the artist’s early developments. These ranged from the rather conventional figurative Escadas (Staircases) of ca. 1950 to the striking abstractions in black and orange from the last years of that decade, such as her studies for “Espaço modulado” (Modulated Space), 1958, made of pasted colored paper, and her studies for “Planos em superfície modulada” (Planes in Modulated Surface), 1956–58, which already anticipated explorations of the third dimension. One could clearly detect a drive to make her paintings break out of the frame and force their protoarchitectonic interrogations beyond—or, more precisely, out of—the flatness of the canvas or the paper surface.

Clark painted on metal and on wood, and soon an entirely new type of creature emerged from these geometries: the “Bichos” (Beasts), 1960–66, organisms that, in the words of critic Ferreira Gullar—author of the 1959 Neo-concretist Manifesto—seem to have “fallen” from the wall and landed on the floor, where they could become an entirely new form of participatory art. These small variable sculptures, which are to be actively, physically manipulated rather than passively viewed, marked the formal high point of the show. A large number of them, placed on wooden podiums, displayed the diversity of configurations offered by the hinged, shiny plates. Sometimes reminiscent of flowers or butterflies, sometimes of crystalline or mechanical structures, the triangular and circular surfaces can be continuously folded and repositioned, as in origami. Through this interactivity, the artist believed that the petite pieces gained a kind of agency, as if they were mysteriously animated from within, yielding but also resistant. As Yve-Alain Bois has written, “Clark transposed her topological investigations into the modes of relations between subject (‘beholder’) and object: Neither is passive nor entirely free.” The MoMA retrospective made these works accessible for interaction, offering reproductions for audiences to actually handle and experience. In this, the show echoed the last large survey of Clark’s work, organized by the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona in 1997, which adopted the same approach—deftly enacting the corporeal and participatory dimension of the Bichos, their very raison d’être.

In the early ’60s, Clark began to focus more wholly on experience and space than on permanent objects. The turning point was the proposition Caminhando (Walking), 1963, in which the participant—viewer no longer being a relevant term—is invited to make a Möbius strip out of paper and to cut the strip along its length. In principle, this could go on forever, but the strip soon becomes so narrow that it is no longer possible to continue. At MoMA, the work provided another instance of interactivity: Scissors and paper were made available to the audience so that they could fully experience—and enact—the proposition. This was commendable and crucial, for the piece exists only when the instructions are realized, for that moment and only then. A few other transitional works with architectural allusions (such as the “Estruturas de caixas de fósforos” [Matchbox Structures], 1964) and a spectacular metallic object, O dentro é o fora (The Inside Is the Outside), 1963, which links the infinite Möbius strip with the Bichos, mark a farewell to the world of sculpture as such. Clark then embarked on a new chapter, often referred to as therapeutic, that is hard to describe, let alone make sense of, in an exhibition.

Living in Paris throughout the ’70s, in exile from her own country and largely from the art world as well, Clark developed participatory bodily experiments inspired by her own psychoanalytic therapy. The tactile and oral dimensions of these activities are, perhaps, impossible to communicate in an authentic way to a mass audience. The MoMA retrospective chose to present an array of these propositions once a week, with “trained facilitators” either enacting the works or inviting visitors to participate as well. When I visited, no action was taking place; in my experience, the exhibition still remained a mostly optical affair. And unlike the 1997 survey, the show did not offer therapeutic sessions of the kind that Clark developed from 1976 to 1984. But such relative restraint as regards the therapy was perhaps the only way to address that multifarious and unrepresentable set of experiences. Personally, I am relieved:

Through the experiences realized with my students at the Sorbonne in 1974, we arrived at what I call “corpo-coletivo” [collective body], which, in the last analysis, is the exchange of psychological contents among the participants by the group’s vivência [lived experience] of common propositions. This exchange is not a pleasant thing: the idea is that one member of the group will vomit his or her vivência when taking part in a proposition, then this vomit is going to be swallowed by the others who will immediately vomit their inner contents too.

Brazilian writer Eleonora Fabião’s catalogue essay gives a firsthand account of her experience of Clark’s legendary 1973 work Baba antropofágica (Anthropophagic Drool), and she makes clear that on this occasion, the bodily fluids involved were not metaphoric or symbolic but very real indeed. One person would lie on the ground, while others would kneel around her with spools of thread of different colors in their mouths, whose contents they would unwind and pull out slowly. Fabião recalls the smell of saliva from all the threads that covered the body. Though the show did include photographs of this “phantasmatic exorcism” (as Fabião calls it) and of other collective experiments from the same period, all of which seem to have a rapport with psychoanalytically informed notions of oral fixation and primordial cannibalism, the curators’ decision not to focus heavily on reconstructions of these activities was ultimately a wise choice—and proof of an admirable respect for the artist’s original thinking. Clark was severely critical of every form of commodification, spectacle, and voyeurism, and that is what ambitious reenactments in the museum world typically amount to. And yet Clark’s trajectory from geometric abstraction to forms of experimentation that represent an “abandonment” of art remains partial and unintelligible if those late projects are not presented in a fully satisfactory way. They were not.

But the question is: Could they have been? And what exactly are they, anyway—forms of therapy or pedagogy? Curative rituals? The answer is, I think, all of these things—and this is why her activities evade any recapitulation via the aesthetic institution of the museum. Similarly, Clark’s therapeutic workshops at the Sorbonne were too expansive in their emancipatory ambitions to be defined as art. Instead, they belong to the tradition of healing. But from what, exactly, were her participant-patients suffering?

Clark’s psychoanalytically informed work is original in its departure from Freudian tropes centered on vision and blindness—the latter having been so famously explored by the Surrealists and their countless scopophilic disciples, a lineage one might trace back to Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny.” But there is another Freudian legacy, one that explores the oral register instead. The brief 1915 essay “Mourning and Melancholia” examines the oral fixation of the melancholic. In short, the melancholic incorporates loss—the loss of a loved object—on a corporeal and symbolic level, instead of working though the loss in a productive way. These themes were developed and torqued by Karl Abraham in Germany and later by Pierre Fédida in Paris, posing ingestion and internalization not as wholly regressive but as a strangely beneficial mode of coping. In the early ’70s, Clark became Fédida’s patient, and no doubt the oral investigations of her therapist became a key source of inspiration for her own new practice. As a member of the Brazilian avant-garde, she was of course well prepared for a discourse involving cannibalistic tropes of incorporation, given the key status of Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Manifesto antropófago” (Anthropophagous Manifesto), with its idea of cultural cannibalism as a mode of resistance against the cultural hegemony of Europe. Clark’s keen interest in the phenomenology of the body and the dialectic of inside and outside, subject and object, could develop new kinds of contestation and of healing with the help of the vocabulary of oral incorporation. Clark’s mode of ingestion could be seen as one last attempt to defeat the impoverishment, fragmentation, and routinization of the modern subject—an attempt at plenitude and totality when all that seemed to be left was loss.

Daniel Birnbaum is Director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Artforum.