Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium , currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 17
For some time, museums in the United States have been making concerted efforts to look at art from outside Western Europe and this country. Unless we take other visual cultures seriously, they recognize, our perspective on recent art will be sadly blinkered. This exhibition of Hélio Oiticica (1937-80), a Brazilian-born artist who spent an important, productive period in New York, is a major contribution to that task. Currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, and coming to the Whitney this summer, it was seen by this critic at its first venue, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. With 151 pieces in all media, including a number of videos, it is a very full presentation of his art, and—thanks to photographs and videos of him by other artists—a good picture of his life. The massive catalogue offers a fully researched account of his career
As a child, Oiticica lived with his family in Washington, D.C. for two years. He was inspired by Paul Klee, whose figurative art he saw at the Phillips Gallery; and by the utopian abstractions of Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Later he dismissed the works he made prior to 1959, but judging by those shown in this exhibition he was skilled. Metaesquema 362 (1958), for example, is a highly accomplished abstract composition. But since he was politically engaged, it’s understandable that he wanted to make more radical art. Privileged by birth, he sought to engage the audience directly, causing them to reflect upon inequalities. And so he stopped making images just hanging on the wall, and turned to developing immersive art. Fascinated since childhood by solitary experiences within small or confined spaces, Oiticica wanted to engage the spectator in a direct way. Like the art museum, which he found magical, he wanted that his participatory art could take people out of their everyday lives. Doing that, he believed, might open the possibility of critical reflection. Experiencing altered states of consciousness was, for him, a process that had immense political potential. Although Oiticica achieved no gallery representation, early on he became well known outside of his native country. In 1969, he had an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Then, working in New York from 1970 until 1978, he participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s important 1970 show “Information,” the first such exhibition, which was devoted to conceptual art. He was much influenced by the writings of Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse and Marshall McLuhan; by the music of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones; and by his promiscuous sexual activity and use of drugs. And Oiticica spent time in the South Bronx, a desperately poor marginalized community. But then, harassed by the emigration authorities because of his homosexuality, he moved back to Brazil.
“To Organize Delirium” presents five large reconstructed installations, interspersed with films and other documentary materials. As you proceed, these displays get progressively more complex. And two of them require that you remove your shoes and socks to enter. Tropicália (1966-67) made in Brazil, presents critically the clichés of a tropical paradise. You walk on sands and pebbles to enter a booth. And you encounter two live caged Amazon parrots. In the next gallery Filter Project—For Vergera (1972), is a labyrinth. You part the curtains to make your way around small rooms with brightly colored transparent panels. Then CC5 Hendrix-War (1973), is a room with hammocks, where you can recline and listen to a video of Jimi Hendrix, while seeing video images of him on the ceiling and walls. And a fourth installation, Rijanviers (1979), replicates the experience of entering a Brazilian beach, with sand, rocks and bits of asphalt on your path. Finally, in 1979, having returned to Brazil, Oiticica organized a happening, Urban-Poetic Event no 1/Kleemanis, in celebration of Paul Klee’s centennial. He removed black dirt from elsewhere, and took it to this site; this year the Carnegie reenacted that performance. After you traverse this part of the show, you see downstairs, on the first floor in the Hall of Sculpture, his enormous Eden (1969). At the entrance to this installation is Appropriation—Snooker Room, after Van Gogh’s “Night Café,” (1966) a billiard table where you can play that game. Eden, Oiticica’s largest installation, was in his show at the Whitechapel Gallery. When entering it you can stop to relax, hold conversations and listen to music.
When artists respond to a time of crisis, after that moment passes, it’s difficult to recapture the intended effect of their art. That’s true of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings made during the French Revolution, and of the Russian art, which responded to the Bolshevik Revolution. And it’s true also of Oiticica’s installations. Although the Rolling Stones keep performing, and people still take drugs, his utopian ambitions about the 1960s and 70s now seem unrealistic, not because the underlying problems have been resolved but because our culture has changed so much. One writer in the catalogue speaks of the need to analyze his drug use “without passing moral judgment.” I am not convinced that this is either possible or desirable. But if these marvelous reconstructions of his installations have created spaces in which mere entertainment takes place that says nothing about his amazingly bold artistic vision, which remains enchanting. Many artists of his era wanted to make images or objects, which would inspire critical reflection on the art market. Oiticica had a much more interesting and more radical idea: he wanted to transform spectators of his art by creating new forms of visual experience. The Carnegie has generously devoted truly loving labor to the recreation and interpretation of his mostly ephemeral works of art—a fire destroyed a great deal of his archive. And so it’s not surprising this is the most challenging exhibition I have had the pleasure of reviewing in some years. It is a great achievement, which will inspire much further discussion.
As is the custom nowadays with large exhibitions, the catalogue contains essays by very many authors, twelve in all, which makes achieving an overview all but impossible. Relatively inexpensive documentation would be much more useful, and it would be a more appropriate memorial to an artist who had resolutely populist goals. As it is, these scholarly essays provide exhaustively detail up close descriptions of Oiticica’s career, presenting a great deal of information but offering strikingly little critical discussion of his ways of thinking. How exactly did he think his art could change the world? That’s never really explained. Maybe, however, the museum intended that that task be left to the reviewers.