Hélio Oiticica, B22 Glass Bólide 10 Homage to Malevich Gemini 1, 1965.
The Death of Parangolé
Hélio Oiticica and the Problem of Preservation
by Christina Roiter
The art world is furious over the loss of the work of the great Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.
On October 16, 2009, a fire destroyed around 2,000 works of art by this famous artist – approximately 90% of his estate (an amount whose estimated value is US $200 million) that was kept in his brother’s residence, in the neighborhood of Botanical Garden, in Rio de Janeiro. Besides paintings and the famous Parangolés, books and documentaries about the artist were also lost. When Brazilians learned from the news media that a fire had destroyed 90% of the work of one of the most famous and important conceptual artists of Brazil, a terrible sense of loss and despair was felt across the country, a sense of disrespect to Brazilian art. Some said the pain caused by the destruction of Oiticica’s art was the same as that caused by his physical death; they called it his second death.
Not even the victory of Rio over Chicago and Madrid to host the 2016 Olympic Games could console us.
Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) was a Brazilian painter, sculptor, visual and performance artist with anarchist aspirations. He was the grandson of José Oiticica, anarchist, professor and Brazilian philologist, author of the book Anarchism Made Comprehensible for All (1945).
He was considered by many to be one of the most revolutionary artists of his time, and his experimental and innovative work is internationally recognized. In 1959, he founded the Grupo Neoconcreto along with artists like Amilcar de Castro, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Franz Weissman. Neo-Concretism spoke of art as pure, non-concrete, form and space, no expression of emotions (no catharsis), non-emotional, related to Constructivism.
In the 60s, he created the Parangolé, which he called “anti-art par excellence.” It is a kind of cape (or flag, banner, tent) that only completely reveals its intricate play of colors, forms, textures, and text--and the materials with which it is executed (fabric, rubber, paint, paper, glass, glue, plastic, rope, straw)--through the movement of a person who dresses in it. For this reason, the Parangolé is considered a kind of moving sculpture. Like the more contemporary famous Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes, Oiticica was inspired by Brazilian Carnival. The Parangolés grew of out of Oiticica’s interest in the Brazilian samba dance/rhythm, which represented, in his own words ”a vital need to ‘unintellectualize,’ to be free from intellectual inhibition, the need of freedom of expression.” Samba dancers are involved in the rhythm, in a trance of complete integration, shunning the intellect and constantly improvising along with the dance. He called this experience during the dance the “expressive lucidity of immanence” and it led him to create the Parangolés.
Oiticica also created a series of works he called “penetráveis” (penetrables). Like the Parangolés, these were works designed for interaction with the viewer, though the penetrávels offered the viewer the opportunity to enter into the work rather than wear it. The 1967 installation Tropicália, a series of panels, many decorated with intense solid hues or colorful patterns, arranged to form a line of room- or shack-like spaces, inspired the name and helped to consolidate the aesthetics of Tropicalismo, the “Tropicalist” movement in Brazilian music of the 60s and 70s.
Hélio Oiticica, P03 Parangolé Tent 01, 1964. Courtesy: César and Claudio Oiticica Collection
Following the October fire, there have been commentaries from the local and international media, protests against Oiticica’s heirs, discussions of who should keep the remainder of the collection, the State or the heirs, claims that since art belongs to humanity, it should be safeguarded in a museum, etc.
It may be that less was lost than was reported originally. Neville d’Almeida, a filmmaker who collaborated with Oiticica on some of his paramount works, including the Cosmococa series that juxtaposes pop cultural images (Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix) with rows of cocaine, stated, “I helped to take the burnt material of the house and can affirm that the great majority of the drawings and metaschemes were saved, so the information that 90% of the estate was gone isn’t accurate.”
Oiticica’s work is also preserved internationally, in museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as other American museums and institutions in England and Spain. Within Brazil, there is also the charming and widely discussed museum at Inhotim, in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, that has penetrables and one Cosmococa (the Jimi Hendrix one). Another Cosmococa will be exhibited at an American museum in San Francisco next November. And d’Almeida reminds us that Oiticica’s entire estate is digitalized and accessible in the Itaú Cultural website. [Editor’s Note: This online project is a truly remarkable and astoundingly comprehensive archive of the artist’s life and work. It is well worth a visit—click here.]
However, none of this takes into account the significance of the demise of the physical works of art of a conceptual artist whose work was not so much about particular objects as the physical deployment of objects in space through spectatorial interaction. According to Brazilian poet and writer Ferreira Gullar, “They treated Hélio as if he was a Renaissance artist, when he was actually a creator of concepts, propositions, interventions, an artist of the future, not of a neo-concrete past that stayed behind, reducing the dimension of one of the inventors of contemporary art.”
As Oiticica himself put it, “The act of the spectator carrying the work of art reveals its expressive totality in its structure: the structure reaches the maximum in its own action in the explanation of the expressive act. The action is the pure expressive manifestation of the work of art.” If, according to Oiticica, the action is the manifestation of the work of art, then are the Parangolés, penetrables, etc. actually gone? The flags, banners, and tents were not works of art per se: they needed spectators and action to achieve their aesthetic realization. Physical manifestations of Oiticica’s ideas were indeed destroyed by the fire. But they are replicable. His ideas remain intact and can serve as the basis for future actions. Oiticica’s worked has been restaged at the Hélio Oiticica Art Center in Rio, founded by the artist’s brother after his death. The São Paulo gallerist Nara Roesler, who sold an installation of Oiticica’s to the Walker Museum in Minneapolis, proved that the instructions left by Oiticica for the assembling of his projects can do more for the preservation of his work than the physical objects. In 2006, she adapted her gallery for Cosmococa CC4 Nocagions (1973), a collaboration between Oiticica and d’Almeida that incorporates projected images and a swimming pool spectators are invited to use.
Can the work of an experimental artist who made installations, performances, and videos really be said to be lost when the work was always intended to be based in action significant at the time of the event, and whose value reisides in what it represented at that moment in the 70s? The estimated value for the collection is US $200 million, but what does this mean when one is speaking of the work of one of the pioneers in performance art whose real work consisted in ephemeral moments of action rather than the objects used to create the actions?
Arguably, the value of an installation or a performance is in its presentation and exists only for its duration. Is the art of a performative, conceptual artist so concrete that it should be kept somewhere, or is it, as Oiticica wanted, an art of the immanent, “anti-art par excellence”?
Brazil is mourning the destruction of the memory of the artist….
But did that memory really die when his objects went up in flames?
Christina Roiter is an artist and writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.