São Paulo

Cildo Meireles, Olvido (Oblivion) (detail), 1987–89, mixed media, 16' 8 3⁄4“ × 27' 6 3⁄4” × 27' 6 3⁄4".

Cildo Meireles, Olvido (Oblivion) (detail), 1987–89, mixed media, 16' 8 3⁄4“ × 27' 6 3⁄4” × 27' 6 3⁄4".

Cildo Meireles

Titled “Entrevendo” (Glimpsing), this career survey of the work of the Brazilian Conceptual artist Cildo Meireles includes pieces from the mid-1960s to the present. It focuses on installations that involve many senses at once. While a good number of the artist’s best-known works—for instance, the series “Inserções em circuitos ideológicos” (Insertions into Ideological Circuits), 1970–, in which antiestablishment slogans are inscribed on banknotes and returnable Coke bottles so as to circulate freely—aren’t synesthetic, certain iconic installations are. Olvido (Oblivion), 1987–89, is a tepee covered in roughly six thousand banknotes, encircled by some seventy thousand candles. Three tons of ox bones fill the circle’s pit. Painted black on the inside, the tent is partly filled with charcoal. The noise of an electric saw emerges from it, but to investigate the sound, one must come close and confront the strong odor of the putrefying bones. Emblematic of Meireles’s experiments in engaging senses beyond the visual, the work also remains politically pertinent. Historically, the Amazon basin has been exploited for wood, minerals, and rubber; in the 1970s, the inauguration of the Trans-Amazonian Highway again threatened the region’s ecosystem and indigenous inhabitants. The recent fires and human rights abuses are signs that both are still endangered.

Meireles is averse to what he calls “pamphleteering”—reducing art to overtly political messages—and prefers to focus on formal considerations. Yet some of his finest works combine formal rigor with sociopolitical and anthropological concerns. Sal sem carne (Salt Without Meat), 1975, is a vitrine containing a vinyl record, its cover, and two black-and-white contact sheets of photographs that Meireles shot in Trindade, in Brazil’s central state of Goiás. Some images show indigenous people; others, such as one of a man standing barefoot in a corner with his back turned to us, were taken at a psychiatric institution. The record’s audio tracks, which can be heard on headphones, include radio time signal transmissions, interviews with members of indigenous tribes, and recordings of Catholic festivities. A wooden stand with more than a hundred small plastic monocúlos (single-slide viewers, which can double as key chains) hanging on nylon strings is also part of the piece. Visitors may peer inside these viewers, each containing a color image, most of them portraits of Trindade’s inhabitants and members of the Krahô tribe, including a survivor of a massacre carried out by local landowners. Together, these diverse components create a loose conceptual web that combines photographic and aural research on diverse popular cultures while documenting the history of social exclusion, illegal land grabs, and the extermination of indigenous people. Part of the work’s poignancy also lies in the paradoxical nature of the network created by the monocúlos, which are suspended like an ethereal Calderian mobile that yields its treasure trove of documentation piecemeal. The piece’s structural fragility is counterbalanced by the sheer obstinacy of the indexical image.

Meireles’s interest in networks extends to economic and communication systems. The sculpture Malhas da liberdade III (Meshes of Freedom III), 1977, is made up of a metal mesh with a highly irregular form. Uneven square and rectangular units interlock in a porous grid, ruptured horizontally by a rectangular sheet of mint-green glass that extends beyond the frame on both sides. Conceived when Brazil was under military dictatorship, the work hints at the instability of ideological systems and suggests that they are subject to friction and change. Glass, normally a fragile element, shows itself here as more solid than the mesh, as solid as the metal frame. The glass breaks the mesh but is also contained by it; the two materials are interconnected yet antagonistic. Here, as in much of his work, we see Meireles’s dialectical approach, in which freedom and imprisonment, rapture and containment, create a momentary, plausible, and precarious equilibrium.