CILDO MEIRELES & VARIOUS ARTISTS
The geography of art has recently invited us to Italy, to an event that seemed to be written in the stars: the gathering of an unknown number of artists, among whom, until now, we only know the name of Cildo Meireles. The exhibition was announced with the title “Cildo Meireles & Various Artists” at Galleria Continua, housed in a theatre hidden in the urban fabric of the Tuscan monument-city of San Gimignano. The substantial exhibition gathers works by the above mentioned Meireles and by Various Artists. Signing their works collectively as Various…does not make them anonymous. All of them have names and dates of birth, their works are consistent and display different internal logics: they make sense. Meireles and the members of Various…are from different generations, and the artistic vocabularies, the materials and the techniques they use do not seem to link them. Style has ceased to be something that makes an artist identifiable. Maybe we will learn here what binds them together.
When crossing the doorway we immediately encounter the first group of sculptures by Various Artists, in a succession that leads us to what used to be the theatre’s auditorium and stage, where most of the works are displayed. The exhibition continues through spaces that used to follow the logic of entertainment, illusion and emotions. We walk through these spaces, in which we now find artefacts of a different nature, yet which have their own stories to tell. The first group of sculptures at the entrance of the gallery combines the anonymity of items used to transport tools for audiovisual production, musical or dramatic shows, the so-called “flight cases”, with the display of pearls having suffered processes of successive loss and enrichment. Loss because they have been ingested by the artist, undergoing a digestive process until their evacuation, thereby enriching the artist’s organism, whose body has acquired the substances released during the intestinal journey. Visually, nothing informs us of this: we see the cold exhibition of precious objects placed on banal objects, with references to food transformation processes that we will reencounter in another part of the exhibition. nn.Pearls (2015) is a series of works that use pearls as their main material, but place the supposed beauty of the exiguous in tension with the disposable. The exhibition continues on the balcony of the theatre, where another group of works also make reference to emblems of beauty (busts without head that are normally used in jewellery stores to display pearl collars), the bases of which have been gradually invaded by chewed chewing gums. Chewing gums are frustrated digestion, the negation of food. It is impossible to buy chewing gum at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The caramel sellers tell us that “cleaning them is very expensive and nobody is addicted to them”. The distinguishing beauty (the jewels) and the repellent and uncomfortable are momentarily married. From the balcony we lean towards the auditorium and the stage, where we discover two installations by Cildo Meireles.
Meireles’ work is extraordinary: it affects the senses and produces a strong physical impression, which, in turn, questions the exercises of reason. In his KU KKA KA KKA installation (1990-1999), two large identical glass cubes contain shelves with rows alternating small flowerpots with yellow and red flowers. Among them, we also see small chamber pots containing faeces. Nothing makes one pavilion visibly different from the other, be it inside or outside. We are looking at a great disjunctive, that reminds me of the paradox of Buridan's ass, which, unable to chose between two identical stacks of hay, starved to death. The paradox reduced a 14th-century philosophical argument on rationality and faith to absurdity. In the 21st century, in an art gallery, we do not stop for any rational paradoxes and enter one of the pavilions. If we are lucky, we perceive a soft floral scent. If, on the contrary, we entered the other pavilion, we will immediately be surrounded by a heavy odour of faeces that will prompt us to immediately leave the pavilion. On numerous occasions, Meireles has insisted on the idea that the history of art as it has been written is history thought from and for the eye; it is a narration of the visual conditions and qualities celebrated until the birth of the second generation of vanguardists during the second half of the 20th century. In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp denounced most of the paintings produced in his lifetime as “purely retinian”. The second generation of vanguardists would attack the dominant role of the eye as privileged receptor of art, and other senses would be included in the experience. Meireles’ work frequently calls on the tactile sense to perceive not only the “epidermic” qualities of the works (rough, smooth, cold, hot,…), but also to perceive different weights corresponding to the different densities of the materials or objects, both conditions we are unable to appreciate visually. Smell and taste are two other qualities that cannot be seized through the “king of senses”. One of the contributions of (mostly peripheral) vanguards to global art is to have endowed the spectator with a body, beyond the eye, giving them skin, ears, scent, sex and weight.
In Chove Chuva (1995-1997), Meireles recreates the feeling of being immersed in a heavy rainfall, between four walls of water. By means of video installations delimitating the concrete space, and the sound of falling raindrops, we stand in the midst of the flood. Again, the sense of touch will be paramount, but this time not through the privileged fingertips, where we have very sensitive nervous terminations, but through our feet. The floor is made of cushions of water on which it is difficult to keep balance. Not only are we surrounded by falling rain, but we also stand on an unstable water basis, as if we were floating. The sense of touch entails instability, forcing us to tense the muscles of our legs and to search for a different balance. A similar feeling is experienced in A través (1983-1989), where we walk on broken glass, additionally fearing a possible fall.
The backstage area is formed by two contiguous galleries. The walls of the first display a selection of drawings by VA. In the second we find one of VA’s most complex and fascinating works. Googolplex is an attempt to represent the unrepresentable. The Googol number (not to be mistaken for the internet search engine) is not infinite but would require more than one humanity to be written down. It is like the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise formulated by Zeno of Elea, but the other way around. In most of Zeno’s paradoxes, the infinitely small is capable of “stopping” the world. The result of uncountable divisions paralyses movement. Googolplex accelerates the world and makes it colourless. The work is a complex installation turned into a monument to measure, to the capacity to measure. It is a celebration of the numerical data and its translations, its gender changes, its disguises, the carnival of what might be called “big data” in the numeric age, and which is nothing else than a huge conglomerate of numbers. The installation does not include a single figure. We see bunches of pencils, cables, showcases and drawings. We know VA’s taste for corporative communication aesthetics and the visual language of business conglomerates that shape our world much more than government or public instances do. Googolplex’s colour is an elegant graphite with metallic shades that stand against the white cube of art. Googolplex is a wordless play, a secular chapel celebrating the abstraction of figures, which are turned into protagonists by being absent.
We normally expect introductory texts to artists’ work to shed light upon the complex web of motivations, influences or influxes that “explain” the decisions that were taken. I will make an attempt at explaining to myself what I imagine might be interesting for others, and I will do it “openly”, for everyone to see, even though I am at risk of becoming an accomplice rather than an impartial spectator. So many years of being in touch with artists have taught me that, wherever the critical eye is unable to reach, the power of imagination must be capable of clarifying the sometimes enigmatic appearances often adopted by art. I went to San Gimignano and saw everything with my own eyes. I discreetly touched some of the objects. I left fingerprints on the showcases…I heard the comments and the conversations. For a time, it was real. Today, at the other side of the world, I think loudly about the nature of the collaboration, about the conditions of anonymity, about the consequences of dispersion (what at some point VA called “fragmentation”) or about the future of the art of our time. I do this by using my memory, set against the messages sent by VA. More than giving explanations, these texts wave meanings that surround each group of works and constitute examples of a new literary genre in art: the fiction of the artist. I once heard American artist Ed Ruscha say: “art exists also in your head”. Meireles’ work seems to want to contradict this affirmation. The Brazilian artist seems to be saying: “art exists on your skin”. VA tells us “art exists where you want it to”. In order to achieve this, they diversify formats and combinations of meanings, in order to disperse the location where art resides, where it takes place, or where we experience it. In the end, VA also tells us something that French philosopher Jean-Louis Schaeffer wrote in the late 20th century: ”aesthetic is not a quality of objects but a dimension of our behaviour”. Indeed, art exists wherever we want it to.
I have the feeling that VA is an expansive response to the question of “how to make art today?” “Today” is the transition from the 20th to the 21st century, many years in which we are bound to witness profound changes, inventions, and human and natural catastrophes which are nothing but another level of technological evolution and bureaucracy. The concept of evolution is very modern. In its biological sense, Darwin inscribed it in our culture as God’s best invention. This best invention cannot be man, who is harmful to himself and the planet. A notion that is closer to us than the concept of evolution is that of progress. Many excesses have been committed in the name of progress. Science fiction is still helping us to imagine human bestiality, which always goes with genius surplus and the best of intentions. Água Com Gás (2012-2015) is a work by VA that precisely shows the fragility of progress and how its identity changes with time. Or how the idea of progress changes when produced by different groups in different geographies. Chernobyl did not foresee Fukushima. Agua Con Gaz presents a series of aquariums in which we find submerged olive bonsais. We see corpses in formaldehyde. We see dead nature. Drowned. During the 1960s, many hydroelectric dams were constructed in Southern Spain and Portugal, in order to use the new waterfalls to produce more electricity, which was the modern source of energy. The oil crisis of 1973 submerged the Western world in an important economic recession, and I still remember the institutional slogans: “Save energy. Even if you can afford it, the country can’t”. Agua Com Gas is a monument to the evolution…of ethical ideas, of what is right and what is wrong. If religion imposes the idea that those values are unchanging, art tells us they are positive, they evolve and they change. Globalisation has taught us they are not only time-specific but also place-specific…
Cildo Meireles’ work has considerably amplified the grammar and vocabulary of human communication. Beyond aesthetic and beauty, his work has evolved from problems of formal and visual perception towards an inquiry about the difficult confluences between the physical world and the world of ideas. Over forty years of practice have turned him into one of the voices that have best expressed the strangeness, the tensions and the necessities of the relationship between individual, community, symbols and surroundings. In the San Gimignano exhibition, besides the above mentioned works, Meireles offers a series of “Virtual Spaces”, reconstructed in a private house not far from the gallery. It is a series of works created in the early 1970s, not all of which were built at that time, because Meireles discovered the similitude of his proposals with the work of American artist Fred Sandback. “Virtual Spaces” are geometrical definitions of volumes in the three dimensions of the Euclidean space by means of stretched threads of cotton or wool. On the one hand, they could remind us of the geometrical variations made fashionable by the 1960s minimalist art. However, Meireles’ background includes witnessing the embodiment of the abstract form and the mundanization of geometry. The impact of concrete art and the elaborations of the modern space in the Brazilian culture of the second half of the 20th century are reflected by artists like Helio Oiticica, Lygia Clarck o Lygia Pape, or architects like Lina Bo Bardi….among others. This impact prompted artists and creators to draw upon the European vanguard’s tabula rasa to create forms of human interaction that included rites and the irrationality of hybrid traditions born out of deep cultural, linguistic and genetic clashes. Landscapes and jungles that are (or were) monuments to wildlife stood beside huge urban projects, perfectly expressed by the administrative city of Brasilia. The typically modern utopian motivation of this city contained the seed of its own failure. Brazil’s industrial development was consolidating a society that would be immersed in one of Latin America’s most repressive military dictatorships. Meireles’ work proposes apparently inconsistent registers. But Brazilian culture is a vivid example of how inconsistency is a Western, colonial invention to separate the other in a logical, Cartesian way. The categories of the possible or probable and their contraries are culturally constructed, and globalisation, the overexposure of all the events is nothing but the evidence. So, the abstract form can convey political content, language is poetry before functional communication, and the subject belongs to his group and place and is at the same time universal.
Is there a relationship between the works of Cildo Meireles and Various Artists? What does such an exhibition of diverse authors tell us? At first sight, there are no signs of generational continuity. But I have the feeling that several aspects of the former’s work might be useful to appreciate the latter’s.
As we learn from their biography, Various Artists is a group of 24 persons, or personalities, all of them close to Trudo Engels. The latter reportedly died in 2009. Each of them has a defined identity and has participated in the groups’ already imposing artistic biography. Each of them has an artistic speciality corresponding to contemporary artistic genres, from multi-media installations to archival works, conceptual proposals or sound art. Superficially, they appear like a vanguard movement of the early 20th century. A closer look, however, reveals that they are all contemporary artists looking for a space in the system. Or maybe not. Maybe Various Artists is an anti-system resistance exercise. I will try to explain my doubt: all the members of Various Artists have an easily detectable artists’ biography and profile, and a practical area in which they are experts or outstanding. They lack only one thing: their collective endeavour prevents individual exhibitions. We do not know their faces, we have not touched their bodies, we have not heard their voices. We have only their works. They will be known by their work… Their identity, their personality depends on the group. And as we are told, “Within Various Artists, several forms of collaboration coexist. Most of the activity is concentrated around practicing duets, where a primary actor is combined with a secondary player. A thematic, or a skill is provided by the former, and can be repeated until exhaustion”. Duets can easily turn into duels and what started as collaboration can end in a competition. But in Various Artists they are productive. What matters is how things end up; what matters is the work. The rest is biography and fiction.
And it is looking at the work that I have the feeling that, at the core, Various Artists is a huge enterprise set at flouting the conventions and determinisms of a system that used to be a world. What today is the system of art (what they call “art industry” in China) used to be called the world of art and to have reduced dimensions (I was about to say “human”), and was composed of craftspeople. Today, the system or “the industry” is global and full of specialists: it is a building chain where the products are made by many actors, interventions, intermediaries, producers, communicators,…all of whom act in one or more of the aspects of any successful piece of art. An important detail: Various Artists rejects style as an aspect that brings commercial, social or media identity. When looking at their work (and this is made clear by the exhibition that concerns us here), we cannot think of a directive mind or a shared programme. Everyone acts with a different and autonomous will.
“In the case of Various Artists, fragmentation means to allow practices, works, ideas to develop independently, and being confronted, or united in an appropriate setting over a long term period of time”.