BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 01 JAN 00
Featured in
Issue 50

The Experimental Exercise in Freedom

BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 01 JAN 00

Heading north out of Mexico City down the busy Periserico Freeway looms a strange and wondrous sight: five brightly coloured triangular towers on a concrete island in the middle of the road. Over 30 metres high, they are intended to be appreciated from a speeding car - a monument to the motorised flâneur. Designed by Mathias Goeritz in collaboration with the architect Luis Barragan in 1957 and built in 1958, these 'Towers of Satellite City' are examples of what Goeritz termed 'emotional architecture', a hybrid of Surrealist notions of the marvellous and Situationist psycho-geography. Goeritz's contemporaries included in 'The Experimental Exercise in Freedom' - Lygia Clark, Gego, Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel - also sought not only to locate the 'marvellous', but to directly manifest it in the socio-political realm.

Bringing together five artists from Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela whose work is virtually unknown outside Latin America, the exhibition organisers, Rina Carvajal and Alma Ruiz did an excellent job contextualising the artists' practice. (In this regard, the accompanying catalogue is also indispensable.) Spanning 30 years, from Goeritz's Experimental Museum El Eco (1952) through to Gego's 'Drawings without Paper' (1980s), and featuring sprawling recreations of seminal installations such as Oiticica's Eden, Whitechapel Experience (1969) and Goeritz's Temixco Towers (1958), the exhibition captured the carnivalesque atmosphere these artists cultivated. And while provocative parallels with many of the art movements which occurred contemporaneously in Europe and the US - Happenings, Body Art, Fluxus, Minimalism, Anti-Form, Environmental and Land Art - were evident, the show also effectively underscored deeply divergent sensibilities and motivations. As Guy Brett pointed out in his 1994 article on Lygia Clark, Latin America was late in being introduced to the work of early Modernists such as Malevich, Mondrian and Albers, a historical distance which gave birth to a uniquely politicised reading in which abstraction became less an attempt to heighten consciousness and more a means of returning the spectator to a primary experience of the body and the senses. To this end, the work of art was seen as co-existing with the viewer in a state of symbiosis. As the Neo-Concretist Movement in Brazil (which included a young Lygia Clark) stated in their 1959 manifesto: 'We neither consider the work of art a machine nor an object, but rather an almost-body'.

Thus, works from the 60s as varied as Clark's 'Bichos', (Beasts) (hinged aluminium plates which could be reconfigured), Gego's series of wire sculptures, 'Reticularea', (1968-69) and Mira Schendel's ghostly rice-paper hangings Untitled (Little Train) and Little Nothings (both mid-60s), have an uncanny, anthropomorphic quality. By the late-60s, Oiticica and Clark had abandoned discrete objects altogether, focusing instead on ideas which would involve the viewer as a direct participant in the work. Oiticica's trade-mark 'Parangoles'(late-60s), for example, often took the form of capes in which people wrapped themselves, or large, pillow-like forms that they carried. Constructed from sheets of coloured plastic or cloth, often painted with texts or images, people paraded them through the gallery or on the city streets .

While Oiticica's interventions moved progressively into the public realm, Clark's project followed an inverse trajectory, focusing increasingly on the psychological and attempting to reach the collective via the individual. Combining common materials such as plastic tubing, rubber balls, nets, seashells, stones, water and air, Clark's series 'Relational Objects' and 'Sensorial Masks' from the mid-60s foregrounded the importance of 'the act' in her work. For it was through the act of handling these objects and wearing her clothing that the spectator could as Clark said, 'achieve the singular condition of art, but without art.'

Having come of age in an era of hastening social change and Utopian potential (Brasilia was inaugurated in 1960), each of the artists in 'The Experimental Exercise in Freedom' were resolute in their conviction of art's ability to liberate. Even today, it is impossible not to view their rejection of the autonomous art-object as anything but radical. Their stubborn pursuit of new methods of communication and their determination to engage the public's participation in creating works that, in Clark and Oiticica's words, 'propose precariousness as a new idea of existence' seems as vital now as is was in 1968. Perhaps more so.