Cildo Meireles, Through (detail), 1983-1989/2008, © Courtesy the artist, Photo: Tate Photography.
Cildo Meireles, Meshes of Freedom, 1976, © Cildo Meireles, Cotton rope, 120 x 120.
Cildo Meireles, Physical Art: Cords / 30KM Extended Line, 1969, © Courtesy of the artist.
Cildo Meireles, Through (detail), 1983-1989/2008, © Courtesy the artist, Photo: Tate Photography.
Cildo Meireles, Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project 7 x exhibition copies (detail), 1970, © Courtesy of the artist.
Cildo Meireles, Eureka/Blindhotland, 1970-5, Rubber, lead, cork, textile, metal, paper and audio, display dimensions variable, installation,Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2007.
Cildo Meireles, Fontes (detail), 1992/2008, © Courtesy the artist, Photo: Tate Photography.
Cildo Meireles, Glove trotter, 1991, Daros-Latinamerica © Cildo Meireles, Steel mesh, balls of various sizes, materials and colours, 520 x 420.
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Cildo Meireles UNO + Infinity
October 14, 2008-January 11, 2009
The homonymous exhibition, organised by the Tate Modern of London in association with the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo of Mexico City, is not meant to be a retrospective but an overview of the artist's work, through the large installations, drawings and objects produced between 1967 and 2008.
This exciting exhibition includes a number of large-scale works that engage with their striking presence and then draw in the viewer with their complexity. A new version of Fontes, 1992/2008 includes 6,000 carpenters’ rulers hanging from the ceiling, a thousand clocks and thousands of vinyl numbers. Babel, 2001 is a vast and imposing structure of radios — Meireles’s contemporary take on the biblical tower, while Volatile, 1994 is an environment that plays with our response to danger. These pieces intrigue, amaze and challenge the viewer and contribute to a rich and fascinating experience in this, Meireles’s first major retrospective in the UK.
Cildo Meireles (Río de Janeiro, 1948), one of the most eminent Latin American artists on the international art scene has created an extraordinarily complex body of work rooted in the confluence of the politics, philosophy and symbology of our times. The fact that Meireles was recently granted the Velázquez Visual Arts Award (2008) confirms the fascination with and interest in this Brazilian artist's work beyond the borders of his country, work that characteristically seeks new meanings through confrontation with and exploration of the limits in the realms of aesthetics, perception, science and the economy.
Meireles is one of Brazil's most significant living artists. He embarked on his career in the 1960s and became part of an avant-garde that set a new agenda for Brazilian art. Meireles is known for dramatic, multi-sensory environments that intimately involve the viewer.
For nearly 40 years, the work of Cildo Meireles has challenged common perceptions about the world by dissecting and reformulating conceptual principles of art, politics, economics, and physics. Although he works in many media, Meireles is renowned for creating dramatic, multi-sensory installations that engage the viewer on all levels: physically, emotionally, and psychically. For these installations, he typically selects a few common materials and objects and combines them to create environments fraught with symbolism and emotional significance.
His art practice brings together works that, in their incessant search, reflect on their own place in art and aim to be a trace, a vestige, a remnant of an activity, that of the artist who is aware that memory is the only possibility for permanence taken from a work.
Meireles is a key figure for understanding Brazilian post-war avant-garde art because his works form a bridge between the neo-concretism of the late fifties and the Brazilian conceptual art of the late sixties. The main representatives of neo-concretism were Franz Weissmann, Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape and they are constant referents in Meireles' work. He rejected the extreme rationalism of geometric abstraction in order to create more sensorial and participative works that not only appeal to the mind but also to the body.
In 1959, the poet and theoretician Ferreira Gullar wrote Manifesto neoconcreto on the occasion of the first neoconcrete exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. Artists affiliated with neoconcretism, such as Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), Lygia Clark (1920-1988), and Lygia Pape (b.1929), reacted against the dry rationalism of concrete art, which was based on geometric abstraction. For the neoconcretists, the human body was central to artistic practice, and they pursued a sensual, organic relationship to their work, striving to break down barriers between art and everyday life. Oiticica and Clark in particular are famous for their multi-sensory, participatory works that involve the general public. They, along with other artists, argued against the preciousness of art as autonomous object, contending that it was the interaction between the viewer and the artwork that was most important. In the late 1960s, Meireles created spaces for the public to interact with, and he began to conceive of walk-through environments.
This movement's utopian optimism fell apart after the 1964 coup d'état which paved the way for a dictatorial military regime and influenced a new generation of artists to which Cildo Meireles belonged. His work is therefore more political, a reflection of the historical context.
Meireles’ response to Brazil’s repressive government from 1964 to 1985 took many forms. A number of his works sought to challenge conventional ideas by manipulating fundamental concepts like Cartesian logic and Euclidean space. Espaços virtuais: cantos (Virtual Spaces: Corners), 1967-68, looks like the corner of a room where two walls meet, but in fact the juncture is illusionary — the result of strategic positioning and painting — and one can actually slip between the walls. Other works, such as his series Inserções em Circuitos Ideologicos (Insertions into Ideological Circuits), involved the modification of widely circulated objects. For example, Meireles printed messages on recycled Coca-Cola bottles and Brazilian currency, so that his subversive ideas went out to a mass audience using the very means of distribution of the institutions he was critiquing.
Meireles’ work has consistently explored the coexistence of freedom and control. He made three versions of •Malhas da Liberdade (Meshes of Freedom)• in 1976 and 1977, based on a modular structural principle that allows the artist to reconfigure the work in infinite ways. These forms share the paradox of looking like traps or barriers that are, in fact, thoroughly permeable. For the first version, Meireles commissioned a fisherman — whose specialty was net making — to create the work out of cotton rope. Another version consists of a plane of glass enmeshed in a grid of thin metal rods. A later work, an installation titled La Bruja (The Witch), 1979-81, is as fantastic as any broom-riding witch. There is, indeed, a broomstick, but the straw “sweeper” consists of more than a thousand miles of string laid out in a chaotic web and various spools on the floor of the gallery. The work recalls the exhibition, “First Papers of Surrealism,” organized by André Breton in New York in 1942, where Marcel Duchamp crisscrossed rooms full of paintings with several miles of string. In Meireles’Através (Through), 1983-89, gallery visitors walk through a labyrinth made of venetian blinds, garden fencing, prison bars, tennis nets, barbed wire, and other barriers, across a floor covered in broken sheets of glass. It is both airy and minutely confining — one has to watch every step — in the same way that Strictu is at once wide open and claustrophobic.
Strictu, a walk-through installation first exhibited in Bonn, Germany, in 1999, consists of rows of stainless steel poles around which a length of chain winds toward a wooden table and chairs. At the end of the chain, close to the table, there are handcuffs and iron prison balls. The room is shadowy, although an interrogation lamp shines brightly on the table, revealing a piece of paper with a typed statement. In its unyielding spareness, the open space of the installation becomes a setting for the exercise of complete control, a vivid manifestation of the authoritarianism that has often been the subject of Meireles’ work.
The typed statement on the table begins with a quote the artist came across by chance. He was in New York City in the fall of 1999 for a retrospective exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Late one night he was in his hotel room, paying scant attention to a television program that featured the Ku Klux Klan. Suddenly, a Klan leader appeared on the screen, and Meireles turned up the volume. He was struck by how frankly the “grand wizard” spoke about the Klan’s enemies: “We want to steal their time. We want to steal their space. We want to steal their mind.” It seemed like a perfect statement about the imposition of will, an expression of authoritarianism in undiluted form.
This quote is followed by Meireles’ own words in Portuguese and English. His statement alludes to authoritarianism in the usual social sense, but Meireles also speaks of cultural, curatorial, and artistic authoritarianism. His last sentence reads, “Strictu takes a position against such a perverse and absurd illusion.”
Authoritarianism can take many forms, from the violent practices of dictatorships to the public expressions of multimedia conglomerates, from a society that expects conformity to a parent who favors strictness. Even an individual’s own moments of rigid thinking can be seen as “authoritarian.” The social dialogue of the early 21st century in the United States is very caught up in the balances that tilt towards and away from authoritarianism: whether to limit personal freedoms for the safety of the larger society, whether standing against government action is being responsive to democracy or treasonous.
On several levels, Strictu continues a discussion about ideas that were circulating among artists in the 1960s, when Meireles began his career. Many artists in Rio de Janeiro, and all over the world, were reacting against anything that represented cultural, political, ethical, and social conformity. Artists especially objected to “official” culture and how organizations like museums and cultural centers defined the relationship between art and society. Artists critiqued the status of artworks as commodities, the adherence to styles and movements of the moment, and the institutions that controlled the presentation and interpretation of their work. These issues continue to be relevant to many artists to this day, especially those who have remained activists throughout their careers, like Meireles. Two important factors helped to shape Meireles’ work. The first had to do with the artistic milieu of the artist’s youth, where a new movement called neoconcretism was changing the role of the spectator from a passive observer to an active participant. The second was the oppression and violence visited on Brazil by the military regime that took power in a coup in 1964 when Meireles was 16 years old.
Meireles made Strictu with the idea that each viewer would decide the extent to which he or she will interact with the work, and this aspect of the installation in turn gives rise to further questions: Should you sit down at the table? Will someone sit across from you? Should you wear the handcuffs? Is Strictu more powerful if you physically interact with the work, or less so? Even the written statement on the table presents a tension between liberty and control. How does the reader resolve the artist’s avowed love of ambiguity and the unambiguous — one might say resolute — words that conclude his writing?
His work can be defined as a poetic approach to social studies, for it seeks to answer questions related to all realms of society; it examines the processes of communication, the figure of the spectator and the value of art or historical legacies. The themes of his work range from the expansion of capitalism on the international level to the culture of Brazilian Indians of the Amazon, and it does not prioritise materials or dimensions. His works usually start from a specific element that is developed so that the real, the symbolic and the imaginary are combined until a balance is found.
In all of Meireles’ work, surprise and perplexity combine in equal measures with curiosity and wonder. Ultimately the viewer navigates a system that stands for thought, feeling, and actuality as ordinary and dangerous as everyday life.
During the 1960s and 70s Meireles responded to Brazil's repressive military regime and to the brutal authoritarianism of the time by challenging established ideas about art. Like the work of his predecessors, two of Brazil's most famous artists — Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark — Meireles often makes his work participatory, addressing socio-political and cultural concerns. The suggestion of danger and denial of freedom are recurring motifs in Meireles' projects.
In one of Meireles' installations, shown in the late 80s, visitors had to cross a floor covered with broken glass in order to navigate a labyrinth of barriers. In 1994, he created an installation consisting of a dark, L-shaped room with a foot of talcum powder on the floor and a single lit candle around its turn, the smell of gas permeating the space. Meireles uses surprise and contradiction to perplex the viewer by playing with expectations and common understandings.
Meireles' early works were rendered in the form of drawings. Thus, in his series Espaços virtuais: Cantos (Virtual Spaces: Corners), 1968, Volumes virtuais (Virtual Volumes), 1968-1969 and Ocupações (Occupations), 1968-1969, Meireles explored the possibilities of Euclidean geometric space, using three planes to define a figure in space. This is an abstract concept he was to try to capture in the sculpture series Rincone (Corners), 1967-1968), which functioned according to the same principle and in which, with full-scale models, he reconstructed typical household nooks.
Mutações geográficas (Geographic Mutations), 1969, is a series of works that analyse the immense territory of Brazil and the nature of geographic borders. At the same time it refers to Cildo Meireles' childhood and the constant moves of his family around the vast Brazilian territory due to his father's work at the Indian Protection Service. The series Arte Física (Physical Art), 1969 is based on collages that propose possible actions related to the geographical and topological space and that, in many cases, were never carried out.
In the late 1960s Meireles began to work on the concept of Condensados (Condensed), small objects that demonstrate how the symbolic power of a work of art has nothing to do with its dimensions. A paradigmatic example of these is Cruzeiro do Sul (Southern Cross), 1969-1970, in which a tiny cube made of oak and pine, woods that are sacred to the Indians, becomes an emblem of the modern condition. It is a work that, despite its small size, laid the foundations for many of the themes Meireles was to develop throughout his career, since it was a first approach to spatial dimensions from the point of view of scale; at the same time it is a criticism of the Eurocentric conception of history and a reflection on the need for myths, posing a both critical and unresolved dialogue between the West and the traditions of native peoples.
In Árvore do dinheiro (Money Tree), 1969, Meireles analyses the paradox of the symbolic value as opposed to the real value of things: a bundle of one hundred one cruzeiro notes, which he presents as a work of art on a pedestal, was put on sale for a price twenty times that amount. He thus raises questions about the differences between real and symbolic values and exchange. To take this analysis of value a step further, from 1974 to 1978 he ventured into the realm of artistic falsification and produced, as a parody, Zero Cruzeiro and Zero Centavo, reducing the value of money to zero. He also replaced the illustrious personages that usually adorn the notes with two characters who were, in principle, marginal in Brazilian society: a patient of a psychiatric institution who he had visited in Trinidad and a Kraô Indian. In Zero Dollar (1978-1984) and Zero Cent (1978-1984) he probed the meaning of money, considering currency to be an iconic representation of a country. In these works money is the paradigm of the relationship between matter and symbol, since it can be both things at the same time.
The increasing severity of the military dictatorship during the early 1970s resulted in greater radicalisation of the political content of Meireles' work. This period was shaped by Inserções em circuitos ideológicos (Insertions in ideological circuits), 1970, which are related to the idea of exchange and based on the investigation of the social mechanisms that articulate the circulation of consumer goods and information. Thus, his most well-known work from this series is Projeto Coca-Cola (Coca-Cola Project), in which Meireles printed messages on some bottles of this beverage, such as "Yankees Go Home", and afterwards put the bottles back into circulation.
Malhas da liberdade (Freedom Meshes), 1976-1977 started as scribbling: Meireles drew one line and then another that crossed it to form a grid. If there are no formal limitations, the grid can grow indefinitely until it creates a system of increasingly disordered junctions, divisions and duplications, according to the principle defined by the mathematician Mitchell Feigenbaum in his studies on the theory of chaos. Through metal mesh, a material associated with restrictive mechanisms, Malhas da liberade transforms that disordered system into a possibility of freeing oneself from the coercion and repression of life under a military dictatorship.
Cildo Meireles has stated on several occasions that space has «physical, geometric, historical, psychological, topological and anthropological connotations» and that these constitute the basic core of his work. This is reflected in one of his most emblematic works, Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975), in which he analyses the relationship between knowledge and perception, mental construction and sensorial experience. In this sculpture various elements are combined (a sound track, press inserts and spheres of the same size yet different weights). The surprise is that weight and volume do not correspond; it is an invitation to the spectator to play and participate.
Excess and accumulation is present in Através (Through), 1983-1989/2007, a labyrinth of bars and grates in which the floor consists of broken glass and where viewers are invited to confront their fears, inherited and imposed beliefs. In Meireles' labyrinth, access is denied and allowed at the same time: the gaze may penetrate what the body cannot cross.
As an antithesis to excess we encounter extreme reduction, one of whose most intense forms is monochromy, which was used at the beginning of the 20th century as an element with which to seek «pure art», and that Meireles imbues with symbolism and non-artistic connotations. Therefore, accumulation and extreme reduction characterize Desvio para o vermelho (Divert to Red), 1967-1984, a three-part installation in which the colour red acts as a backbone, transforming our perception of the world, which loses its visual logic.
Sound is another of the elements Cildo Meireles uses to create spaces. In Babel, 2001, an enormous tower of radio apparatuses, related to the biblical history of the tower of Babel, is suggestive of the incapacity to communicate as a cause of all human conflict. Due to the essentially temporal nature of a medium like the radio, in this work there are never two experiences alike.
Cildo Meireles UNO + ∞ is organised by the Tate Modern of London in association with MuAC, and curated by Vicente Todoli, director of Tate Modern, Guy Brett, advisory curator, and Amy Dickson, assistant curator at the Tate Modern.
Cildo Meireles, Babel, 2001.