Hélio Oiticica

Precariousness rocks: Brazilian counterculture, from Hélio Oiticica to Daniela Thomas

Just published in Asymptote:

I. Introduction: culture and contagion

Hélio Oiticica was responsible for giving Brazilian counterculture a name: Tropicalism. The word gained traction around 1968 in an encounter between the innovative aesthetics of pop artists such as Caetano Veloso and an installation by Oiticica called Tropicália. Tropicália is an almost oneiric tropical landscape, and the spectator is invited to walk through it barefoot.

I remember what happened when I saw Tropicália for the first time in the exhibit “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in 2006. The Bronx at that point was already quite different than it was in the early 1970s when Oiticica wandered through.

I sat down to remove my shoes before stepping on the sand that would lead me through the installation’s strange and familiar spaces. Beside me, a man, woman, and two children sat down on the same bench and followed the instructions to remove their shoes prior to entering the installation. The woman was Brazilian, and the man, presumably, American. While she exuded a sense of curiosity, he was puzzled over the installation’s floor of sand and seemed uncertain as he removed the children’s shoes. Then, he asked a question that brutally cut the silence of the otherwise empty room: “What about the germs?”

In addition to the belief in the destructive power of germs speaking volumes about a model of civilization, the man’s unintentional humor revealed a dilemma: How can one enter Oiticica’s experiment and at the same time leave behind the fear of contact and contamination? What inspired a fear of that space? Wouldn’t the conventional configuration of the museum completely temper any lethal feature of those artificial paradises?

I wondered if the magic circle of Oiticica’s installation would contain a “truth” to be revealed. In terms of desire, doesn’t Tropicália provide a sudden view of paradise pressed against hell? I will not elaborate on these issues, but they may serve as an invitation to read one of the most powerful autobiographies in Brazilian literature, Tropical Truth, which is a blend of philosophical essay and personal memoir published in 2002 in the United States. In the autobiography, Brazilian composer and writer Caetano Veloso walks the reader through the country’s most important debates in music and literature from the 1950s to the 1990s.

II. Brazilian Modernism

The advent of the Republic (1889) in Brazil, following abolition, came with the promise of the most modern of civilizations. But the civilization yearned for was white and European—a tall order in a country with a huge presence of former slaves and their descendants.

To understand the dilemma of this civilization, which wanted to be something other than it was, one must consider what Modernism was in Brazil in the context of international artistic vanguards in as early as the 1920s. Born in 1937, Oiticica was a sort of intellectual heir to the first modernists.

In the 1920s and ’30s, what defined the literature of Oswald de Andrade, the painting of Tarsila do Amaral, or the music of Villa-Lobos, was the widespread desire for a blending between the archaic and the modern. Art evolved along crisscrossing and sometimes parallel lines as it followed the path of primitivism that inflected the global avant-garde; whereas jazz circulated the Paris-New York bridge in the north, the imaginary dilemma between civilization and barbarism took on its own tones further south. What imperial European awareness had rejected for so long—the “savage” body, the scream, the rituals of possession—became the subject of curiosity and excitement among artists. In his 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto,” Andrade tweaks the Hamletian doubt, turning it into “Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question.” In reclaiming the importance of the indigenous Tupi and adding it to the existential equation of power, the Brazilian avant-garde author suggested a new modern geography, one that was less logocentric and far less Eurocentric.

As a cultural mediator, Oiticica is a descendant of the Brazilian modernist writers, who in the 1920s were the first to climb the hills of Rio de Janeiro looking for the rhythmic richness and tonalities of the favelas. Not surprisingly, favelas make up the great cliché that frames Rio de Janeiro to this day: a city sandwiched between the beauty of Guanabara Bay and the poor little houses that climb the heights of the hills.

If New York required going up to Harlem to feel the pulse of what Belle Époque tastes had swept under the carpet, in Rio de Janeiro, all you had to do was go up the hill and discover, or invent, this new figurative space that would go on to express Brazil in literature, paintings, cinema, and music.

III. No “Whites Only” signs

The difference between the United States and Brazil is that each country has handled the symbolic inclusion of the populations of African descent differently. In both cases, there is a real and undeniable social exclusion. The main difference, though, is that in the Northern Hemisphere the cultural encounter between Whites and Blacks took place along the patterns of segregation. In Brazil, on the other hand, the obsession with “the other side” of civilization took place perhaps in a more complex fashion because segregation never took on the forms it had in other parts of the world. As strange as it may seem, in Brazil, racism coexists with the most exuberant myths of racial inter-coexistence.

We might ask how the Brazilian racial dilemma sheds any light on Oiticica. Let’s say that in Brazil the “Whites Only” sign was never made as explicit as it was in the United States. It exists, but it operates on other levels of awareness without having to make an appearance. Within this framework, we can start to understand the political meaning of Oiticica’s bet on the sensory when he created his parangolés and penetráveis in the 1960s as he frequented one of Rio’s best-known favelas, Morro da Mangueira.

Parangolés and penetráveis are spaces that verge on what is not explicit as they smudge the lines that delimit social spaces. In other words, they are non-figurative works that, by demanding the presence of the most varied bodies and shuffling their places of origin, surreptitiously make the unspoken separation clear.

But blending is not the result of sublimating difference. Instead, it is an imperious need of the art form, which cannot exist without the undulating presence of the body. Hence there is an erotics of politics, revealed in the power of the fusion and confusion of bodies. It is as if it were possible to discover the momentary joy of the absence of boundaries by wearing a parangolé—folding the frame, to recall the title of Irene Small’s book on Oiticica.

The story of a country with a colonial past and history of slaves such as Brazil explains Oiticica’s desire to artistically achieve the “mixture” and shuffling of bodies. However, we cannot boil his search for form in art down to the solution of a social problem alone. In his experimentation with the corporeal there is also a response to the artistic challenges of his time.

IV. Getting out of the museum

Well before the winds of counterculture blew in the 1960s, and before the radical experimentation in New York in the 1970s, Oiticica experimented with drawing. For Oiticica, the freedom of form was equated with the freedom of imagination expressed in a child’s drawings or in the compositions of patients suffering from mental illness.

In Rio de Janeiro, the 1950s was a time for healing through art in the revolutionary psychiatric work of Nise da Silveira, and, for the young Oiticica, it was also the time for radical manipulation of forms. It was a time when politically engaged paintings were in jeopardy of carrying too clear a message. At the same time, in a dialogue with Ezra Pound and e e cummings, young poets such as Augusto and Haroldo de Campos started experimenting with forms, distancing themselves from the mimetic principles of Regionalist literature. It was as if art could establish a new space instead of portraying it. The sensory became more relevant and expressed in the materials used, texture, and actual presence, which were to be felt and not just seen. Art had never depended so much on matter, and now it pointed toward the materiality and concreteness of the world.

But let’s leave Oiticica’s technical training behind and reflect upon the artist’s forays into Morro da Mangueira, where, among other research, he went to learn how to dance samba. There is something deep about Oiticica’s commitment to dance beyond exotic, tropical clichés. It was the 1960s, a decade in which readers, thirsting for Nietzsche, blew up metaphysics and evoked the demonic powers of the body through experimentation with every possible sensation.

It was also 1964, the point at which Brazil went from its years as a democracy to a dictatorship in the context of the Cold War. At a time of repression, art could be upheld in the scope of experimentation. The unfinished reclaimed its power, the spectator’s passive position was questioned, and the museum space became tedious and obsolete. A well-known episode in Oiticica’s career is when the artist brought dancers from Mangueira—all dressed up with his parangolés—to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio, and the security guards stopped them from entering.

Thrown out of the museum, art is handed over to the world, free of the frame that aims to arrest it.

V. The telescope and the joint

Still considering this wave of popular counterculture, I recall Brazilian poet Paulo Leminski (1944–1989), whose work can be considered in parallel with Oiticica’s. In Catatau (1975), Leminski argues that Descartes may have come to the Americas with the Dutch Armada, which occupied the northeast of Brazil in the seventeenth century. He then imagines the French philosopher with a telescope in one hand and a joint in the other sitting in the shade of a palm tree in Pernambuco, observing the tropical world that vigorously and pointlessly unfolds before him.

The sensory experience frees Descartes’s mind of its self-imposed mandate, which was to comprehend the world. In the momentary suspense of the rational contract, when Reason is distracted and its surveillance vanquished by the relaxing invitation of marijuana, the world stops being a philosophical problem and flows like a sluggish river. The question, of course, is whether to dive into this river and offer the body up to the possibility of its own rediscovery, which is also the reinvention of its shape.

Forms are discovered and invented by means of organic movement in the synesthetic waves that carry the subject, released from the weight of abstraction, through the world on an infinite cabotage without a predefined direction—an ontological drift, to play the philosopher. In drifting, new perceptions, new epistemologies, and alternate worlds are revealed and legitimized.

But words are insufficient to explain the sensory rediscovery of the world. The visual arts are more incisive: take, for example, a body dressed in a parangolé. Just looking at someone with a parangolé makes one realize that abruptness and gracefulness have never been so close. Gracefulness is in the form that is formed and then abruptly destroyed so that it can become a new form. The fabric, the plastic, the colors, the body itself fold and unfold according to an outline that only exists at the instance of its performance. Descartes’s telescope is forced to turn around and point towards the philosopher’s own body, which is rediscovered in the ecstatic wave of unexpected movements.

However, the parallel with Leminski stops right about here. Ironically, Oiticica’s drug of choice was not pot, but rather cocaine in the ebullient New York of the 1970s. Cocaine is less linked to relaxation but does create new sensory spaces, bringing about the remarkable “cosmococas,” those rooms that envelop you in frantic music and images.

VI. A particular view on matter

In terms of these energized spaces, we should remember that the energy brought into the work of art was never devoid of social content. In the artist’s work we find a commitment to all precarious matter produced in the margins of the world.

Unlike many leftist intellectuals, who with a savior mindset saw the “people” as the target of a necessary ideological conversion, Oiticica entered the favela with an open mind. Learning to dance samba with the residents of Mangueira was not a way of getting closer to a target to be converted. In fact, the idea was for all participants to be changed through a sort of trance brought about by surrendering to the swinging of bodies as they eventually went down the hill in their festive parangolés.

The scene of the artist who goes up the hill and transforms it into a work of art becomes parody in the 2016 novel by Ricardo Lísias, A Vista Particular. In Lísias’s fiction, the contemporary artist understands that visual art’s transformational role now depends on a massive mobilization of smartphones to catch the artist, naked, making his way down the slope of the hill. It is as though Oiticica’s parangolé had been cut from the scene and all that remained was the society of the spectacle.

The contemporary fabric of social networks would miss the organicity that, romanticized or not, Oiticica felt in Morro da Mangueira—in its alleys, corners, colors, and sounds. As stated by Guilherme Wisnik, Oiticica’s experiments “imbued his work with a greater sense of corporeal depth, [and] it also forced him to question the idealistic geometric formalism of his earlier work in favor of a more precarious and indeterminate materiality, which was mirrored in the organic architecture of the favelas and the improvisational labyrinthine structure of its haphazard slums and alleyways.”

It is not a simple resistance to straight outlines. Favelas are not full of alleys, curves, and hiding places because someone planned them that way. Apart from the possible romanticizing of slums, which are spaces full of real problems, favelas offered a spatial, sensory, and often playful logic to be observed and felt.

The compositional principle of Oiticica’s art also reveals something about Brazil’s more recent history and can perhaps say something about the history of populations, who, throughout the world, face precariousness and make it a way of life, an aesthetic. It reveals that a lack of strict control does not necessarily lead civilization to bankruptcy. Precariousness does not have to be a deficit; it may even be a plus.

In a 1979 film, Oiticica, who by then was back in Brazil, says the following: “I start to get to know myself through what I do because, in fact, I do not know what I am. If it is invention, then I cannot know in advance. If I already knew what these things would be, they would no longer be invention. If they are inventions, their existence is what enables the concretion of the invention.”

The seemingly pleonastic nature of these comments deserves some unpacking. Knowledge only occurs in the act of being, of existing. There is no knowledge before the formal experiment. An entire Cartesian universe falls apart because there is no mind or cognitive structure that precedes sensation. The world exists because it is touched, not because it is thought.

VII. One and all

In “Esquema Geral da Nova Objetividade” (“General Scheme of the New Objectivity”), written for the 1967 exhibition that featured Tropicália, Oiticica traces the genealogy of his generation’s artistic efforts. When highlighting the collective, playful aspect of his project, he spells out his main motivation: the “return to myth.”

In a few brushstrokes, let’s recall that myth was central to political debate. Latin America was in the throes of resistance to and seduction by populist movements.

The desire for a sort of reverse contamination led many intellectuals to think about an almost mystical merger with the people: the will to be penetrated by the Other. It is a desire that idealizes the Other in many ways. However, the role of myth in fictionalizing the collective desires is critical to understanding this ever-delayed merger with the Other. Myth, when it captures collective urges in poetic form, leads us to assume that there is only one story for everyone.

However, Oiticica was not looking for a totalizing impulse. He instead recomposes what breaks in the day to day, which is precisely the unity of the collective. As suggested by fiction writer and essayist Silviano Santiago, who interacted with him in New York, the anarchic principle in Oiticica perhaps was a trait inherited from his grandfather, the anarchist leader José Oiticica. The problem is that the 1964 military coup in Brazil drew the line that set individual desire in opposition to the collective search. Oiticica’s art sought to suture this division. In Oiticica’s view, according to Santiago, “unity in the desire for order for the subject” was also the “assertion of freedom for all.”

The key was the creation of a “collective art,” so the place of the “people” would no longer be that of a passive figure in a larger savior narrative. Here, Oiticica foreshadows a dimension of Caetano Veloso’s musical production, which was guided by regenerative aspects of the market. In tandem with pop art, Caetano avoids the self-censorship that kept the intellectual from approaching what was consumed and desired by the masses. Television, show business, and the popular press became important reagents in the tropicalist laboratory.

The concept of “invention” in Oiticica depends on a kind of delirium of not knowing in advance. At its core is an old philosophical problem: if I know what I should do beforehand, there is no invention. Therefore, precariousness is a type of safeguard for invention. Occupying a space in the world depends on accepting the risk of precariousness, which leads to the unexpected handling of materials and the unusual arrangement of their results.

VIII. Conclusion: precariousness rocks

In 2016, when Brazil was in the throes of the political crisis unleashed by the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Daniela Thomas, one of the artistic directors for the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, surprised the press when she said that despite the budget cuts, the production team felt stronger because they would entrust what little resources they had to improvisation. She then made use of an interesting word: gambiarra.

Succinctly, gambiarra is a creative device for addressing a problem. It can also be, for example, the illegal tapping into a power supply with an electric extension cord. In short, it is the space established between order and disorder, between restraint and release, in the context of rules and the law. As Thomas said, “Gambiarra rocks, gambiarra is wonderful, it is pure creativity.”

Thomas’s statement was received with surprise and criticism. What few people realized was that she was revisiting the compositional principles guided by materiality and the concrete as a type of destiny, just as Oiticica suggested. More specifically, the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio broadcasted a large machine of tropicalist symbols to billions of viewers around the world.

As a matter of fact, all the elements of the civilizational narrative in the tropics were there: the fusion, the violence, and the paradox of a civilization built upon the legacy of slavery—all veiled in music that managed to whisper that what was being seen was nothing but a blend of paradise and hell.

translated from the Portuguese by John Ellis

This is a shortened version of the talk I gave at the Susan and John Hess Family Theater at the Whitney Museum in New York as part of the installation “Myth Astray: A Project by Arto Lindsay,” within the exhibit “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” September 7–10, 2017. I thank Arto Lindsay for the invitation, the dialogue, the sonorous and sensory provocations. I also thank John Ellis for the original translation and Lara Norgaard and the Asymptote editors for the last touches. A final, expanded version of this essay will be available soon, in Portuguese, in the Brazilian magazine Serrote.


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