The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) presents the largest exhibition in Spain of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles
From 11 February to 26 April 2009
On the floor, a sea of broken glass, which crackles and crunches underfoot time and time again. Before your eyes, a maze in which there are no walls, only prison bars, fences, curtains, aquariums with translucent fish swimming around, their bones easily visible to the naked eye, mosquito nets, metal stakes and chicken wire… In the middle, a giant ball of crumpled cellophane paper. It is uncommon for the spectator to be able to penetrate Através (Through, 1983-1989), a work that is also a puzzle and which, due to its enormous size, is almost never exhibited. But the public can now stroll through it in the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), as a result of the largest international exhibition ever dedicated to the work of the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles (Río de Janeiro, 1948), awarded last year with the Velazquez Prize for Visual Arts. This is possible not only because the display presents the biggest collection of “large-scale” works by this pioneer of the installation ever assembled in one setting, but also because it enables the public to review his entire artistic career, from 1967 to the present day, by means of some eighty pieces both large and small: from a “ring bomb” which houses a capsule of compressed gunpowder in its interior, is fitted with a lens and explodes when exposed to sunlight, to the immense 175m2 room that is Através (Through). The exhibition, which was inaugurated last October at the Tate Modern (London) and may be seen in the United States and Canada following its stay in Barcelona, occupies the Museum’s entire second floor as well as the interior of the MACBA Capella.
In the works of Cildo Meireles, space acquires “physical, geometrical, historical, psychological, topological and anthropological” connotations. There is no hierarchy of sizes or scales; or of materials. A minute object can become monumental, while an immense work can turn out to be oppressively limited. Like Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross, 1969-1970), a diminutive wooden cube that encompasses an entire cosmogony, and Através (Through, 1969-1970) which, despite the enormity of its dimensions and the disparity of objects employed in its production, recreates an oppressive enclosure.
“I like to think of art in terms that are not limited to the visual” says the artist, whose works require more than a simple glance. You have to bring touch, hearing and smell into play. As in the 201 balls that form Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975), all seemingly identical but with a difference of 5 grams between every one of them, or the 700 radios that make up the sculpture Babel (2001), each tuned in to a different station, or the fake smell of gas in Volatile (1980-1994). The huge amount of one particular element in many of his works is also noteworthy, as in the 2,000 bones, the 800,000 coins and the 800 communion wafers in Missão/Missões – Cómo construir catedrales (Mission/Missions – (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987). Another of his relevant features is the way in which many of his works are dated, often over several years.
Meireles once stated: “For me, the artistic object must above all be instantaneously seductive”, and his work is an essential piece in understanding post-war Brazilian artistic avant-garde. Worthy of note among the artists he takes as references are the Neo-concretists Lygia Clark, Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Pape who, in the late 1950s rejected the extreme rationalism of abstraction to create more sensorial, participatory work which appealed not only to the mind but also to the body. But the utopian optimism of these artists was shattered following the 1964 coup d’état in Brazil, which paved the way for an iron-fisted military dictatorship. Meireles’ generation came to light towards the end of the 1960s through more politically engaged works, the extremity of their actions mirroring the extreme political situation. “In a certain way you become political when you don’t have the chance to be poetic. I think human beings would much prefer to be poetic”, he says.
Meireles is frequently characterised as being a conceptual artist; a label which completely fails to convince him. “I don’t like to call myself a conceptual artist, though I have a lot of works which border tangentially on conceptual issues and I have formed part of exhibitions of that movement. One of the reasons why this art proves difficult for many is its excessive verbal rhetoric. People don’t like to go to galleries and read explanations”, explains the artist for whom fun plays an important part in his works. As in Volatile (1980-1994) which, though reeking of a danger that hits spectators on entering this darkened, U-shaped room smelling of fake gas, still fails to stop them from enjoying the experience and attempting to move around in that huge mass of talcum powder, with feet sheathed in high rubber boots and mouths protected by masks.
Drawing as the basis for Meireles’ work
Drawing is the seed of all Meireles’ subsequent work. In the late 1960s the artist initiated a collection of works based on the Euclidian principles of space, represented in the exhibition through the series Espaços virtuais: Cantos (Virtual Spaces: Corners, 1968), Volumes virtuais (Virtual Volumes, 1968-1969) and Ocupações (Occupations, 1968-1969). These drawings became “sculptural environments in three dimensions which resembled the corners of rooms”, as may be seen in a series of four sculptures entitled Cantos (Corners, 1967-1968) and which Meireles defines as “places of total refuge”. Although from that moment on he would only use the pencil for notes or models as a basis for his installations, drawing plays a significant role in all his work. He once emphasised that, “Materialisation of the work is not the only important part; formalisation of the very concept also has its importance”.
“I consider that Readymades and The War of the Worlds are two of the most important constructions of the 20th century.” Together with the Brazilian Neo-concrete artists, Marcel Duchamp and Orson Welles are two of the more significant references in Meireles oeuvre. Broadcast as a series of simulated news bulletins, Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio adaptation of H G Wells The War of the Worlds caused widespread panic among the population, many people believing the world was being invaded by extraterrestrials. The programme was described by Meireles as the “unconscious source” of the Inserções em circuitos ideológicos (Insertions into Ideological Circuits, 1970-1976), in which the artist invented formulae to get around the censorship of the military dictators and achieve the massive circulation of critical messages. Such was the case with series like Projeto Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola Project), in which Meireles printed messages like “Yankees Go Home” on hundreds of glass Coke bottles (which at that time were returnable in a deposit system) and then put them back into circulation, or the Projeto Cédula (Banknote Project), in which he stamped legal banknotes with inscriptions such as “Who killed Vlado Herzog?”, a clear reference to the Croatian-Brazilian journalist who was found dead in his cell in 1975 with evident signs of having been tortured, despite which the military assured the world that he had committed suicide.
“I like dealing with paradigmatic things, material things that are recognised by the public in their everyday lives. Things that are at the same time matter and symbol. Money, for example”. Thus in Árvore do dinheiro (Money Tree, 1969) Meireles placed a wad of a hundred, one-cruceiro notes on a pedestal and put it on sale at a price twenty times greater than that amount; and in Zero Cruzeiro and Zero Centavo (Zero Cruceiros, and Zero Centavos, 1974-1978) he ventured into the realm of counterfeiting, replacing the illustrious figures who normally adorned the notes of the time with photographs of a Krao Indian and an inmate from a psychiatric hospital.
The immensity of Brazil
Meireles’ father worked in the Indian Protection Service. As a child, the artist lived the family’s constant journeying through the immense territory of Brazil and even participated in exploratory expeditions to make contact with as yet unknown tribes. Many of these experiences are reflected in his works, as is the case with Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross) which, as Meireles explains, “Was conceived, in principle, as a way of calling attention, through the concept of size, to an extremely important problem: the oversimplification that the proselytising missions (basically Jesuits) applied to the cosmogony of the Tupi Indians”.
The Mutações geográficas (Geographical Mutations, 1969) series analyses the vast territory of Brazil and the nature of geographical borders. Meireles mixed the earth from both sides of the border that separates the rival states of Río and Sao Paulo in a leather box. Condensation I – Desert (1970), on the other hand, consists of a ring with a single grain of sand encrusted in a sapphire compartment set on a small pyramid made of gold. “The root of the desert is found in a grain of sand,” is how the artist summed it up. Arte física (Physical Art, 1969) transcends the Brazilian frontiers and proposes actions related to geographical and topological space in general, which in many cases have never been carried out. Some of them are in fact impossible, such as the Cravan Project, which proposes sailing around the North Pole in a canoe, paddling in the direction of the Earth’s rotation in order to become a little younger.
In contrast, Malhas da liberdade (Meshes of Freedom, 1976-1977) began as a doodle: the artist drew one line and then another that intersected it until he made a grid. If there are no formal limitations the grid can grow indefinitely, creating a system of bifurcation or divisions and duplications becoming increasingly disorderly, according to the principle discovered by the mathematician Mitchell Feigenbaum in his studies on the chaos theory. These works demonstrate to what extent Meireles explores the poetic dimension of mathematics, geometry and physics in his works.
The large-scale installations
The exhibition presented in Spain by the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) gathers together the greatest ever number of large-scale installations by the author. Together with the previously mentioned smaller works, it displays eight “huge sets”. Five can be seen on the Second Floor of the Museum, together with the smaller objects: Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-75), Através (Through, 1983-1989), Missão/Missões (Como construir catedrais) (Mission/Missions – (How to Build Cathedrals), 1987), Glovetrotter (1991) and Desvio para o vermelho (Red Shift, 1967-1984). The other three are shown in the MACBA Capella: Volatile (1980-1994), Babel (2001) and Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross, 1969-1970). “Most of these works intend to gain some independence in relation to space, they seek autonomy, they create a space of their own. The piece is an experiment that exists from its outermost surface inwards”, explains Meireles.
• Eureka/Blindhotland invites the viewer to experience the different weights of 201 seemingly identical rubber balls, but whose weight in fact ranges from 500 to 1,500 grams. This is the artist’s way of questioning the dominance of visual perception. The soundtrack, Expeso, is a recording of the noise made by a number of spheres falling onto the floor from various heights and at different distances from the microphone. One of the artist’s inspirations was Jorge Luis Borges’s story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which a tiny cone from a parallel world enters our own, but is so heavy that the narrator struggles to pick it up, experiencing fear and revulsion at its combination of smallness and heaviness.
• Volatile plays on the monochrome nature of the white colour and consists of a darkened, U-shaped room which is full of talcum powder that makes it extremely difficult to traverse and is impregnated with mercaptan, a gas odorant, with a lighted candle at the end of the space. “The work crosses the region of fear”, Meireles assures us.
• Através (Through) is a labyrinth of obstacles over a sea of broken glass in the middle of which is an enormous ball of cellophane. The idea for the work arose “one day in 1982” when Meireles opened a package, screwed up the cellophane paper and threw it into the waste-paper basket. The strange noise made by the ball as it unfolded suddenly attracted his attention and he began to think about this apparently rigid material that could become malleable. “I was conceptualising the soft crystal. That’s why cellophane is so strange: it simulates glass which can be screwed up.” The idea of the work is that the public steps onto it and walks over it. “You start breaking it; it’s as if by stepping on this floor of broken glass you become liberated”.
• Missão/Missões (Como construir catedrais) (Mission/Missions – [How to Build Cathedrals]), was created for an exhibition of Brazilian artists organised, in principle, to commemorate the seven settlements founded by the Jesuits in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina to evangelise the indigenous population. The result is a critique of the cost in human lives that the missionaries’ work caused and the exploitation of the wealth of the colonies: the ceiling is composed of 2,000 bones, the floor made of 600,000 coins and a column of 800 communion wafers symbolically connects the two planes.
• Glovetrotter is made up of a huge steel mesh, like that used in butchers’ gloves, which envelops a series of spheres of varying sizes, materials and weights: from a football to a pearl. The work commemorates “the great voyages in the modern age made by Portugal and Spain and the conquest of the New World”. “Then I thought of this stainless-steel mesh, which has an amazing modular capacity: it possesses a weight, it retains, it generates a field all by itself.”
• Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross) consists of a minute 9x9x9 millimetre cube, made of the wood of two trees — the oak and the pine — placed in an immense room in which there absolutely nothing else. These two trees were sacred for the Tupi because by rubbing them together the divinity would manifest its presence through fire, thus lending sense to an entire world of ancestral beliefs. The missionaries reduced this divinity to the god of thunder and completely ignored the indigenous cosmogony. That is why, despite its tiny dimensions, this is a monumental work, both symbolically as well as spatially.
• Desvio para o vermelho (Red Shift) is an enormous all-red installation made up of three continuous parts that end up in a cul-de-sac which obliges the viewer to go back over his steps. The entrance to the first room is a complete shock. Except for the white walls, everything is red: the sofas, the wardrobe, the refrigerator, the fish, the pictures, the books, the carpets… In the second space, white walls gradually turn black. A tiny bottle has fallen onto the floor and from it is spilling a puddle of liquid far too large to have come from that bottle. The final space is completely black. The viewer hears water running from the tap of a strangely angled sink but, given the darkness of the room, he cannot know for sure how far away it is. As he approaches he realises that the water pouring out is also red.
• Babel is a five-metre-high tower formed by some 700 radios from different times, ranging from large, valve radios to transistors, all tuned to different stations. The work is a reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
→ Reading Room 1: Brasil. Coinciding with the exhibition on Cildo Meireles, the MACBA Study Centre presents a wide selection of documents related to contemporary art in Brazil, that brings together documents coming mostly out of the Centre’s own holdings. For this presentation, documents have been grouped depending on their typology and contents. Thus, besides a selection devoted to Cildo Meireles, which includes not only bibliography on his work but also magazine Malasartes, founded by Meireles, of which only three numbers came out (between September 1975 and June 1976), the public will find significant books in relation to the movement of Brazilian concrete poetry, and also a wide selection of catalogues of individual and collective exhibitions, publications linked to the art biennials in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and also magazines, special books, posters and other ephemeral materials that illustrate the artistic scene in Brazil throughout the last decades.