Although the long overdue German retrospective of the work of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica at the MMK bears the title Das große Labyrinth (The Great Labyrinth), the show presents the artist’s broad-ranging work in a straightforward chronology. This structure makes the artistic development and thought of Oiticica, who died in 1980, comprehensible in incremental steps while avoiding any unecessarily stilted thematic positioning.
The exhibition begins with the Metaesquema series (1957–58), in which Oiticica both worked through and dynamized Suprematism and Constructivism (Piet Mondrian’s work, for example). Oiticica shakes up the severe right angles of these movements; a sort of shimmer arises as ironic commentary on the quiet coldness of Constructivism. Even by the first room of the exhibition it is clear how important the spatialization of his art was to Oiticica. On display here are the white-on-white and coloured reliefs that directly followed his early Neo-Concrete phase, which set the space into motion with plays on shadow, light and colour (Bilateral, c.1959, and Relevos espaciais, 1959–60). The exhibition also shows an early example of the cabin-like spatial sculptures that were later to become characteristic of Oiticica’s work. This walk-in work (Penetrável, 1960) functions as a sort of miniature labyrinth. Its sliding doors can be moved back and forth such that the viewer becomes encased in the sculpture’s intensive orange, red and yellow tones.
In texts by Oiticica which have been translated into German for the first time for the exhibition catalogue, he describes his drive for an all-encompassing ‘aesthetic experience’ as a vital impetus for the development of his work towards ever more participatory installations and later towards happenings. He was inspired by the life and design vocabulary of the Rio de Janeiro favelas and their samba-dominated street culture, a milieu in which he immersed himself despite his white, bourgeois background. Samba costumes, for example, influenced the multi-layered, brightly coloured draped materials of his Parangolé series (1965–79). Along with a large wall of images of Oiticica dressed in these works – itself a nearly excessive motif in posthumous exhibitions of his work – the MMK has displayed replicas that viewers can try on.
The central experiential space of this multi-faceted obstacle course is the installation Éden, realized by the artist’s nephew, César Oiticica Filho, in collaboration with Fernando Cocchiarale and Peter Gorschlüter of MMK. Éden was first shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1969, when Oiticica was living in London – working freely under Brazil’s military dictatorship at the time was not possible. Wood panelling encircles the large-scale installation. It comprises multiple situations that the viewer (or user) can pass through like the individual attractions of an amusement park. Viewers walk on a floor made of fine sand; they can retreat into elements that look like bed drawers and they are supposed to step barefoot (shoes have to be removed at the entrance) into basins filled with water or straw.
This synesthetic re-enactment of Oiticica’s oeuvre is not unproblematic. Firstly, the historical context in which the works were created is very distant. Secondly, the viewer often feels forced to engage in audience participation. When dressed in the replica Parangolé cloaks, for example, one cannot shake the feeling that one is now expected to dance.
The expansive works that depend lesson animation by the user succeed far more in working through the principle of sensory experience. In the installation Bloco-Experiências in Cosmococa – programa in progress, CC2 Onobject (a joint work with filmmaker Neville D’Almeida from 1973), for example, one finds oneself in a space lined with thick foam matting, surrounded by geometric objects that are likewise made of foam, as part of a slide and sound installation. Portraits of familiar pop culture icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Yoko Ono and Jimi Hendrix are projected onto the walls, with their outlines traced in lines of cocaine. This work came about as part of the Quasi-Cinema that Oiticica developed during his time in New York (1970–78) – more evidence of his drive to forever start things and develop them further.
Translated by Jane Yager